Greenhead Heaven

In Arkansas' flooded timber, America's best duck hunting is just a call away.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Don Cahill calls his favorite duck hole "The Hilton," but the mallards know there's no room at the inn this morning. Flock after flock of greenheads cruise above the endless treetops of Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area on Arkansas' Grand Prairie, looking for quiet, open water. When they spot the thick chunks of ice bobbing around the decoys in the hole and, perhaps, the half dozen hunters shivering in waist-deep water around the edge of the clearing, they decline Cahill's expertly quacked invitation to check in at the front desk.

We can hear gunfire booming through the timber. Somewhere else on the flooded riverbottom, Bayou Meto is living up to its reputation as the finest public duck-hunting ground in the nation.

The oldest and best known Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Arkansas, Bayou Meto covers 34,000 acres near the mallard-crazed town of Stuttgart. It's pronounced Biomeeta, though locals call it "The Scatters," short for Wabbaseka Scatters, one of the parcels on the property that the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) floods in the fall. When the water levels rise, flooding 12,000 acres of woods, the flat bottomland timber becomes a trackless maze of water, oaks, and buckbrush.

Beginning in November, mallards swarm the flooded woods. Hunters tell of ducks lighting so close they can almost snatch mallards out of the air. In the woods, your blind is nothing but the shadow of a tree trunk. Decoys matter less than skill with a duck call. Hunting Arkansas timber is one of waterfowling's storied experiences. Nonresidents from as far away as North Dakota and South Carolina dream of calling ducks down into the pin oaks. Last winter, for nothing more than the price of the mandatory free permit, I sampled Arkansas' public timber.

Land of Opportunity
Even as the cost of a Grand Prairie duck lease climbs higher than a southbound greenhead, flooded timber hunting remains accessible to the likes of you and me. Thanks to the foresight of the AGFC 50 years ago, the state owns many thousands of acres of prime duck woods.

Operating on Will Rogers' theory of "Buy land, 'cause they ain't making it anymore," the AGFC began snapping up all the bottomland timber it could in the late 1940s, prompted by a few visionaries who foresaw the day when private clubs and commercial hunting would leave the hunter of ordinary means with no place to go. Acquisition of the first area, Bayou Meto, began in 1948. In those days, logged-over riverbottom land sold for as little as $7 an acre.

Soybean farming came to the delta in the 1960s, pushing land values up. More than a million acres of bottomland timber fell to make way for the new miracle crop. Fortunately, by that time, the state already owned thousands of acres in large, contiguous parcels. In addition to the AGFC areas, several large National Wildlife Refuges (NWR), like the White River and Cache River NWRs, more than doubled the amount of public timber for hunting.

Today, demand for hunting leases drives the land market on the Grand Prairie higher than bean farming ever did. Recently, a so-so duck woods near Stuttgart sold to a private party for $5,000 an acre. At those prices, Bayou Meto -- a great duck woods -- is worth a cool $175 million.

** Hunting the Timber**
On the blackboard inside the Dixie Mallard Duck Club's trailer near one of Bayou Meto's many boat ramps, Don Cahill and the other members keep track of the mornings hunted, not the birds bagged. Last year, Cahill hunted Bayou Meto 50 days of the 60-day season. His approach is simple and befits his no-worries, retired status: "I hunt two holes, the Hilton and the Holiday Inn. I go back there; if it's good, I stay; if not, I come home."

Those who can't be in the woods every day try to pick their times a little more selectively. "Hunt the fields on cloudy days, the woods when it's clear" runs the mantra the Arkansas mallard shooter.

"We watch the Weather Channel the night before a hunt to see where we should go," says Tom Matthews, my host in Stuttgart. "If it's clear and cold with a light wind, that's a perfect day for the woods."

A couple dozen decoys is all you need in the woods. Some hunters rig a jerk cord; others slosh the water with a foot to make ripples that passing ducks can spot from hundreds of feet in the air. Traditionally, hunters in the timber didn't even use decoys, relying instead on calling and kicking the water to pull ducks into a hole.

While ducks will come to the same holes year after year, often it's more important just to get back in the woods, away from other hunters. The morning after our hunt with Cahill, Matthews took us below the water-control structure, where overflow keeps the current moving and the water free of ice. We didn't look for a hole so much as just a quiet spot where we could spread out in the woods, set a dozen decoys, and rely on our calls to make ducks swing our way for a look. A few did.

"I carried some people down to Bayou Meto at the end of the season," Matthews told me after our hunt. "I've never seen so many ducks there. We were getting frustrated because the gunshots in the other holes kept flaring our ducks. I said, ¿¿Who wants to shoot ducks bad enough to wade 1,000 yards?' "

Matthews and company took a compass and headed north until the gunfire didn't bother the ducks anymore, and they shot their limits. "Sometimes, you have to be willing to make the Death March to shoot ducks at Bayou Meto," he concluded.

No one should enter the flooded timber without a GPS unit or a compass. Everyone who hunts Bayou Meto can tell stories of hunters lost in the woods. "You'll be set up and you'll see ducks pitching into another hole close by," says Matthews. "You'll want to pick up and go over there. Once you leave your hole, when you turn around, every tree on Bayou Meto looks the same."

While even locals occasionally get turned around in the Scatters, out-of-state hunters successfully freelance on public timber every year. Many nonresidents use a guide the first time to get their feet wet, as it were, then hunt on their own after that. If you visit Arkansas to freelance in the woods, be ready to devote at least a day to scouting. Put in after daybreak and cruise around the area. You can take advantage of other people's bad habits, too. "A lot of hunters won't bother to pick up their empties," observes Matthews. "You can learn where the good holes are by looking for the floating hulls."

"Bayou Metro"
As more of the woods around Stuttgart disappear into private hands, closed behind locked gates painted in "posted purple," Bayou Meto WMA remains Everyman's duck woods. Some days, though, it seems like every Everyman hunts there at once. "The Scatters are too crowded," said Cahill after our hunt together, as we thawed our frozen toes back at the clubhouse, "and there's too much skybusting. But when it's right, it's still some of the best duck hunting in America."

Traffic jams at the boat ramp long ago earned the area the derisive nickname "Bayou Metro." In recent years, however, Bayou Meto has become crowded even by its own standards. Some hunters blame the commercial guides who have begun operations in the area. Others point to low rainfalls that have kept the Cache and White within their banks, concentrating ducks and hunters alike at Bayou Meto.

The AGFC is trying hard to make the crowds behave at the Scatters without instituting a drawing system that no one wants. Last year, in an effort to curb skybusting, they limited hunters to 25 shells apiece containing No. 2 shot or smaller. A free permit detailing the area's rules is available at the boat ramp, and all hunters must read it, sign it, and carry it into the woods.

"I think we've noticed an improvement in the ethics and the comradeship among our hunters. Last year we even had parties join up and hunt together to keep from interfering with one another," recalls John Day, an AGFC enforcement supervisor.

The pilgrims will keep coming to the Arkansas woods as long as the mallards do. "Last year I checked a walk-in hunter from Wisconsin down here after shooting hours," says Day. "He showed me his unloaded gun. He just wanted to sit on a log and watch mallards work the timber all afternoon."

WHERE THE DUCKS ARE
Duck season in Arkansas traditionally opens around Thanksgiving. The hunting gets better and better as the season wears on. By late December and early January, after duck season is a frozen memory up North, winter storms push huge numbers of mallards into the state.

Where the ducks go once they get to Arkansas depends in large part on rainfall and water levels. Some areas, like Bayou Meto, can be pumped. Many, notably the Cache and White River NWRs, depend on natural rainfall, as they have for thousands of years, to float a watery buffet of acorns for mallards. As water rises, flooding new areas, duck concentrations shift around the state. The AGFC maintains a duck hotline (501-223-6478) and posts weekly waterfowl reports on its Web site (www.agfc.state.ar.us) to help hunters keep track of the flocks. -- P.B. ced an improvement in the ethics and the comradeship among our hunters. Last year we even had parties join up and hunt together to keep from interfering with one another," recalls John Day, an AGFC enforcement supervisor.

The pilgrims will keep coming to the Arkansas woods as long as the mallards do. "Last year I checked a walk-in hunter from Wisconsin down here after shooting hours," says Day. "He showed me his unloaded gun. He just wanted to sit on a log and watch mallards work the timber all afternoon."

WHERE THE DUCKS ARE
Duck season in Arkansas traditionally opens around Thanksgiving. The hunting gets better and better as the season wears on. By late December and early January, after duck season is a frozen memory up North, winter storms push huge numbers of mallards into the state.

Where the ducks go once they get to Arkansas depends in large part on rainfall and water levels. Some areas, like Bayou Meto, can be pumped. Many, notably the Cache and White River NWRs, depend on natural rainfall, as they have for thousands of years, to float a watery buffet of acorns for mallards. As water rises, flooding new areas, duck concentrations shift around the state. The AGFC maintains a duck hotline (501-223-6478) and posts weekly waterfowl reports on its Web site (www.agfc.state.ar.us) to help hunters keep track of the flocks. -- P.B.