Duck Hunting Highways

By Brent Birch, contributing editor

Waterfowl have descended on the bottomland hardwood forests of eastern Arkansas for centuries. Native American pottery from the region dating to roughly 1100 A.D. showcases waterfowl that were hunted and provided food for early Arkansas residents. Arkansas is and was still home to expansive natural habitat tied to various rivers, bayous, ditches, creeks, and other small waterways that streak across the region. Although only a fraction of the native flooded timber, willow brakes, and swamp-like thickets remain, the ducks continue to winter in Arkansas due to this ancestral draw.

The famed flooded timber of Arkansas significantly declined since the early 1900s as much of the region converted to cropland. But numerous places too wild and wooly for the primitive logging methods of a hundred years ago were spared and still exist to this day. These duck water-based “highways” are the lifeblood of Arkansas duck hunting

Although the ducks disperse in search of food and shelter, they typically don’t stray far from these general areas. And duck hunters don’t either; numerous historically productive duck camps reside on or very close to the tributaries.

The following is an excerpt from The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting’s Hallowed Ground detailing one such “highway” littered with famous clubs like Pin Oak, Tuf Nut, Circle S, Big 6, Maxwell Ranch, Brimstone, Lacott’s, Drake’s Landing, Pecan Lake and many more. The historic and highly productive Mill Bayou.

Mill Bayou

The shortest major flyway within the Grand Prairie, Mill Bayou starts almost equal distance between Stuttgart and Almyra and runs south roughly twenty miles until it spills into Big Bayou Meto just west of Flag Lake. Despite the Bayou Meto tributary’s lack of length, productive duck hunting of varying styles exists almost the entire length of the waterway. Sandwiched between Bayou Meto and Lagrue Bayou, Mill Bayou takes advantage of its location between large blocks of rice ground and huge reservoirs that hold thousands of mallards throughout the season. From man-made impoundments to open lakes to buckbrush thickets, Mill Bayou is firmly entrenched in the annals of Arkansas waterfowling.

Mill Bayou was made famous by several of the nation’s elite businessmen from the first half of the 1900s coming to the DeWitt area to hunt. Tippy LaCotts’ “duck hunter’s paradise” on Mill Bayou was the preferred spot. Famed outdoor writer Nash Buckingham was a consistent figure hunting along Mill Bayou with LaCotts and wrote a story in his famed book Blood Lines about “settin’ on a log in a pin oak flat” with Elmer (a/k/a Tippy).

The Mill Bayou area has been tagged with the “pin oak flats” moniker ever since. LaCotts referred to the smallish acorns preferred by mallards as “legal duck bait.”  As described in Bowman and Wright’s Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac, LaCotts touted the mallard’s desire for pin oak acorns:

“I’ve shot ducks that had such a craw full of them that you wondered how they could fly. Their craw looks like a sack of marbles.” 

Modern research has since concluded those mallard-friendly flats described as pin oaks were willow oaks, which are part of the red oak family.  The confusion apparently lies in the leaf of a willow oak resembling a fountain pen and early inhabitants of the area referred to the trees as “pen oaks.”  True pin oaks are rare in Arkansas and only naturally found in the northern half of the state.  Mature willow oaks can produce between 2.3 to 14 gallons of acorns per year.  

Current landowners are now challenged with using evolving conservation and timber management techniques to ensure the experiences of LaCotts, Queeny, and Buckingham will survive for future generations.

Lying roughly three miles west of Mill Bayou along the Elm Prong Mill Bayou, Tindall Reservoir serves as a major magnet for ducks and geese in the area, despite its unique habitat. The original reservoir occupied 450 acres, with additional acreage added over time, and features a western edge of buckbrush and willows. The eastern two-thirds is essentially wide open with very sporadic timber patches since most of the trees that once covered the entire reservoir died in the early days due to the year-round presence of water inside the levees. The water typically stays very shallow in the hardpan basin and is a rusty brown color that is very unusual for the Grand Prairie. The ten-plus-man blind is positioned on the eastern edge of the remaining willows, allowing hunters to shoot ducks looking to land in open water before paddling into the thickets behind the blind.

For nearly a century, ducks have been descending on the reservoir from rice fields that surround the leveed lake. J. Roy Stockton noted the volume of ducks huddled up on Tindall Reservoir on a hunt there in 1931 on the invite of Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Henry “Heine” Meine:

“The duck hunting season in Arkansas opened Monday, November 16, at noon and Heine Meine’s gunner arrived at Tindall’s Lake about 11:30 o’clock and as the automobiles stopped at the point selected for entry into the shooting grounds, a great roar could be heard in the swamp. “Do you all want to see some ducks?” Glover [Constable B.C. Glover of Stuttgart] drawled. The gunners allowed as how they did, and Glover clapped his hands. Up went a cloud of birds a few hundred yards away. He clapped again and there was another whir of wings as another swarm took flight and moved a few hundred feet, only to settle in the swamp again. The first shot was fired at 12:15 and at 1:30 most of the shooters had their limit [15 ducks] or had used up all their ammunition.” 

About the Author

Brent Birch is a contributing editor to the Tom Beckbe Field Journal. A lifelong waterfowler who cut his teeth duck hunting in the White River Bottoms at Crocketts Bluff as well as rice fields and reservoirs across Lonoke, Prairie, and Arkansas counties, Birch is the publisher of The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting’s Hallowed Ground, which details the legacy of Arkansas’s rich waterfowling history. He is also co-creator and editor of Greenhead: The Arkansas Duck Hunting Magazine and co-founder of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame located in Stuttgart, Arkansas.

Photograph (L to R) Elmer “Tippy” Lacotts, George Wells and legendary outdoor writer Nash Buckingham after a morning hunt along Mill Bayou.