Wednesday, November 28, 2001

“Home of the friendliest people and the annual coon supper.”
Sign seen upon entering the town of Gillett

GILLETT, Ark. — “Be still,” whispered Bill Cooksey as we huddled in a well-concealed blind in the middle of a soggy, harvested rice field, occasionally brushing off an impertinent mosquito. “We’ve got some widgeons up there.”
While Cooksey pointed a finger into a pink dawn sky, maybe 150 mallards passed to our left, another 50 or so on the right. A dozen wood ducks zipped straight toward us in the middle, and heaven only knows how many thousands of other web-footed critters fluttered, careened and flapped about in the distance.
Who had time to look up?
Inexplicably, the ducks near us flared off and disappeared over a distant woodland edge. They couldn’t have been frightened by the “Mojo Mallard,” a duck decoy that is screwed onto a thin pole, outstretched wings rotating wildly, looking very much like a live bird to its feathered cousins up above. The Mojo Mallard wings are powered by a long-lasting battery, and for a brief moment the newcomers in the blind thought the thing had gone mad. Instead it and a couple dozen of helter-skelter scattered floater decoys seemed to draw the attention of every duck along the Mississippi Flyway.
Cooksey, 34, forgot about the widgeons and now said, “Get ready. More mallards and a bunch of gadwalls behind us.” Cooksey, the reigning Tennessee duck calling champion and a national sales manager for Avery, a hunting accessories company, cackled on an expensive call. The birds turned our way, shots rang out, and seconds later a black labrador retriever sloshed through the shallow water to gather the greenheads.
Welcome to Arkansas.
Welcome to an area in the U.S. that can rightfully pronounce itself the duck hunting capital of the world. No fluff. No ad agency language. Pure, simple fact. Kind of like a road sign seen in Arkansas County that said, “They won’t buy our rice; let’s not buy their cars.” The terse message to the Japanese couldn’t have been more explicit.
Actually, the town of Stuttgart near here is the duck capital of the universe and it is only a stone’s throw from where we are, but Stuttgart was first to capitalize on the incredible richness of the annual visiting swarms of migrating waterfowl. The truth be known, the entire county is dotted with massive rice fields, waterfilled agricultural ditches and woodland margins scattered over hundreds of thousands of acres. All of it combines to create one gigantic magnet for hungry ducks, which subsequently presents unequalled shooting opportunities for visitors who come here from every part of America.
Sam Counce, one of the owners of the lodge we stayed in, and Cooksey continued making sweet sounds on their calls. “Watch it,” Cooksey said suddenly. “Spoonbills overhead,” then quickly amended it with, “Teal off to the side, a bunch of ‘em.” Counce, a superb dog handler and caller, whispered, “And don’t forget the wood ducks that are coming at us from over there.” Counce pointed to a treed levy as the two men whistled softly to keep the “woodies” in the area. Sure enough, the colorful ducks turned toward us, flying no more than 30 feet above the water’s surface.
We rose, 12-gauge shotguns barked loudly, and the retriever was back on the job.
So it went almost without stop for the better part of an unusually warm, bright, sunny morning. Everybody had a limit of ducks without first having to prove that they were ready for precision shooting matches. It was that easy thanks to the “Mojo Mallard,” a handful of decoys, and two very good callers who knew their business. “You ought to come back a little later in the season,” said Counce. “Most of our mallards haven’t arrived yet.”
It was a statement that absolutely blew away the fellow who cut his waterfowling teeth in dozens of windblown blinds along the Chesapeake Bay. “You mean there’ll be even more ducks in the weeks to come?” I asked Counce. He nodded and smiled knowingly. “Where in the world do they all land? Won’t they bump into one another?” I said. Counce grinned from ear to ear.

Should you ever find yourself in the Gillett area an hour’s drive south of Little Rock and visions of locust-like flocks of ducks dance before your eyes, be sure you have reservations at the Buckshot Duck Lodge that is operated by Sam Counce, Greg Hackney and Jimmy Hackney. (The name Buckshot actually comes from a type of river bottom dirt found on the shores of the Arkansas and White rivers. It has nothing to do with ammunition.)
The beautiful lodge, constructed of cypress wood, provides 4-star accommodations, superb home cooking, hunting guides, dogs, even loaner shotguns and waders if you can’t bring your own. There’s also a huge TV screen to watch various sports broadcasts. For a $350 daily fee you’ll eat, sleep and hunt in splendor. Buckshot Duck Lodge even provides shuttle van service to and from Little Rock’s airport to Gillett.
“We have access to more than 10,000 acres of huntable land,” says Counce. “People from as far away as Idaho, New York, the Carolinas you name it come here to hunt. Counce reminds us that his lodge will book 1,100 guests during the 2001-2002 hunting season. “But we can always make room for more,” he says with a businessman’s smile.

In the parking lot of the 92,000-square-foot Mack’s Prairie Wings store in Stuttgart, the day before the Arkansas duck season begins, some 3,000 customers search for parking spaces.
These people weren’t lookers; they were buyers. The huge hunting supplies store (it also has a mail-order department that keeps 26 women busy on the phone lines) is Nirvana for shoppers who spend their children’s inheritance on camouflage clothing, shotguns, shotgun shells (including the latest tungsten steel/nickel blended pellet loads), superbly crafted shotgun cases that will float if the need arises, camouflage netting and imitation grass materials that can hide a duck boat in a swamp, as well as finely-crafted duck calls that cost more than the average American spends on two weeks worth of groceries. Only the best will do and the cash registers jingle like a nervous Christmas reindeer.
The store’s stadium-sized parking lot is jammed with cars, trucks, camping trailers and boats (most everything in tasteful camouflage, of course) and the tags read like an American road map: Louisiana, Alabama, Tennessee, Virginia, Texas, and heaven only knows how many from Willy Clinton’s former home state, Arkansas.

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