On a quiet, cold morning in January, thousands rise; dressed completely in camouflage, the hunters make their way to a duck blind. Weighted down by shotguns, ammunition, duck calls and the other paraphernalia necessary for the perfect duck hunt, it may be their first hunt; for others, it could easily be one of hundreds they’ve enjoyed.
Big Creek Ducks ‘N Bucks
Located in Lee County, Ark., Big Creek Ducks ‘N Bucks is comprised of over 8,500 acres of hunting property for deer and duck hunting. Started in 1997 by Brian Herndon as a guide business, Big Creek now offers full-service hunting excursions, complete with lodging, meals and everything necessary for the perfect hunting experience. From November to February of each year, Big Creek Ducks ‘N Bucks welcomes nearly 1,200 guests, with the majority of them being out-of-state. “About 50% of our guests are from Georgia,” says Brian Herndon, owner of the lodge. “I would estimate that only 2% of our hunters are from Arkansas.”
On this day, the hunters included a native New Yorker, a dedicated hunter from Georgia, a former Arkansas governor, and a legendary rocker known for his zeal for hunting. They all hail from different backgrounds but they share a common passion – duck hunting.
For former governor Mike Huckabee, duck hunting has become a favorite pastime in recent years. “I’ve hunted most of my life,” says Huckabee. “But I never duck hunted until 14 years ago. Now I can’t get enough of it.” Huckabee’s guide for that first duck-hunting trip was Buck Gardner, the world championship duck caller who now designs his own line of duck calls.
Rock music legend Ted Nugent is known for his passion for hunting. He admitted this was his first duck hunt in The Natural State. “Arkansas is a global destination for duck hunting,” says Nugent. “Hunters around the world will tell you that the best duck hunting – in flooded timber – is in Arkansas.” Like many other hunters, Nugent did not come alone to Big Creek. With him was his beautiful black Lab, Gonzo. Nugent wasn’t the only one excited about hunting that day. “Gonzo is ready to go,” he said with a gleam in his eye. “He’s as excited as I am!”
“My wife gave me a choice for my birthday – I could go to Cabo San Lucas or to eastern Arkansas to duck hunt,” Gene Tripodo proudly declares. “You see what I chose! And I’m loving every minute of it.” A native New Yorker, Tripodo has been hunting since he was 16-years-old. He’s always heard about the great duck hunting in Arkansas, so the choice for his birthday present wasn’t a hard one. He didn’t make the trip alone either. His wife Janet and their 3 year old yellow Labrador, Remington, came along the for the week’s stay. “I’ve always wanted to duck hunt in Arkansas,” says Tripodo. “This is a dream come true for me.”
Bucky Buchannan, a contractor for FedEx who lives in southwest Georgia, normally hunts in Tennessee, Florida, and Georgia. “I’ve always heard,” says Buchannan, “that the best duck hunting in the country is in eastern Arkansas.” When asked about his stay, Buchannan quickly responds, “I’ve really enjoyed the entire experience. I will definitely be back!”
“Our average stay is three to four days,” says Big Creek owner Brian Herndon. “We harvest around 1900 ducks a season. But it’s no longer just about killing the ducks – it’s about the hunters’ overall experience.” Big Creek Ducks ‘N Bucks employs seven guides and two cooks and strives to give the hunters and their families the ultimate hunting experience. Package options range from morning hunts with a guide to a complete package that includes guided hunts, food, lodging and all necessary licenses.
Arkansas native Mike Huckabee explains why eastern Arkansas is known for its duck hunting. “Duck hunting here is special because of the Mississippi Flyway,” Huckabee says. “Two flyways are merging into one and natural food is provided by the rice fields. The area literally becomes a duck magnet.”
Ted Nugent is quick to point out that other forces are working to keep duck hunting flourishing in eastern Arkansas. “The hunters, the landowners and organizations like the Arkansas Game and Fish are taking care of the land and the resources,” states Nugent. “These people have taken great care to preserve the land. It’s all about taking care of what we have.”
Mack’s Prairie Wings
As duck hunters trek into eastern Arkansas, the majority of them will share one destination – Mack’s Prairie Wings in Stuttgart, considered to be the premiere waterfowl outfitter in the country.
The store began in 1944 when M.T. “Mack” McCollum decided to open a sporting goods store for all the duck hunters who came each year to Stuttgart. The business was very successful and was expanded in 1970. A mail order catalog business, called Mack’s Prairie Wings, debuted in 1993. Both businesses continued to grow and, in 2000, the two combined into Mack’s Prairie Wings, a 100,000-square-foot building featuring 32,000-square-feet of retail space, located on U.S. 63 North in Stuttgart.
The store employs 93 people and store sales for 2008 totaled $24 million. “Unlike many businesses, we haven’t been impacted by the recession,” says Cheryl Raney, Chief Financial Officer for Mack’s Prairie Wings. “Our sales for 2008 were up 15% and sales for Thanksgiving 2008 were up 22% from Thanksgiving 2007.”
The store does 85% of its business from August to January of each year. In 2008, 1.3 million catalogs were sent to customers worldwide. According to Raney, one of the store’s largest customer base is, surprisingly, California.
“Our main focus is gaining new customers,” says Raney. Mack’s Prairie Wings does 29% of its yearly business via the Internet. In the next few months, Mack’s will debut its own store on Amazon.com. “Our customers have been able to buy our products on Amazon.com for several years, but starting soon, we will have our own store on the site.”
Duck hunting is serious business in eastern Arkansas – for the hunters and for the economy. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, migratory bird hunters spent $111.5 million at small businesses in Arkansas in 2007 alone.
For the economy of Stuttgart, considered the rice and duck capital of the world, duck hunting has an overwhelming effect on the local economy. “We estimate that the economic impact on Stuttgart is $1 million a day during duck season,” says Stephen Bell, executive director of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce. “Waterfowl hunting is a huge draw to Stuttgart and eastern Arkansas. We draw people from all over the country and Canada.”
For more information on Big Creek Ducks ‘N Bucks, visit www.BigCreekDucksNBucks.com or phone 870-768-4868. The lodge is located off U.S. 79 approximately 12 miles west of Marianna.
Mack’s Prairie Wings is located at 2335 U.S. 63 North in Stuttgart. You can access the Web site atwww.MacksPW.com or phone 870-673-6960 for more information.
Article and photographs provided courtesy of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism. Visit their websitewww.arkansas.com to find additional outdoor activities offered by the state.