STUTTGART, Ark. St. Peter's Cathedral, the Dome of the Rock, the Mormon Tabernacle
Every true religion has its sacred shrines and high holy days. If you worship in the temple of the whistling wings, then Stuttgart, Ark., is your mecca — and the Saturday after Thanksgiving is like Christmas, Passover and Ramadan, all rolled into one.
If that sounds like blasphemy, you've obviously never stood at the corner of Main and 6th during the Wings Over the Prairie Festival and watched a thousand camouflaged devotees stand in rapt silence, mouths agape, watching men, women and children blow duck calls on stage in the rain for hours.
They come from across America and around the world, drawn by the promise of green-headed mallard drakes cupped over the decoys in the pale morning light. They gather in rice fields, sloughs and river bottoms; scanning the skies, swapping stories and telling lies.
Young and old, rich and poor, natives and visitors all united by a common affliction, a mania unlike any other. Duck hunters are all crazy, but no matter their backgrounds, there are no strangers in a duck blind. The Saturday morning after Thanksgiving at Mallard Pointe Lodge in nearby Brinkley, five native Arkansans played host to a Wisconsin Cheesehead, a Connecticut Yankee and a transplanted Floridian.
This was our 11th stop on the Duck Trek.
The school bus rolled to a stop right on schedule, even though no one was in a real hurry. A line of gun-toting, camo-clad hunters stood in waders waiting their turn to board.
It was a short trip down gravel roads to a buck-brush slough and a duck blind to rival the Taj Mahal. The bus creaked to a halt at the end of a wooden gangway, lit by solar-powered landscape lights. Moments later, the hunters were seated, safe and warm, inside of a two-story blind, shrouded in cut willow bushes and draped in burlap. The guides took their positions atop ladders at the back, peering through holes cut in the roof, calling at passing ducks as the sun rose.
This is not your granddaddy's duck hunt, a thought confirmed by the aroma of honey buns warming over a camp stove as the shooters peered through holes cut in the burlap screen, wailing away on an assortment of calls.
"Some folks would call it a 'slipper hunt,''' said Bill Thomson, one of the owners of Mallard Pointe.
The description is made because it's easy enough that if you wanted to, you could walk to the blind in your house slippers. Most of the crew, though, doesn't have it that easy on a standard hunt. So waders were the norm, if for no reason than to stay warm. Not that it was necessary. Part of the accoutrements at this blind included propane heaters that would make even the coldest day a toasty retreat.
"Some of it may be a little over the top for the die-hard group,'' said Robbie Horton, the head guide. "But those aren't the guys we cater to. We have folks who want to come in with a business partner and enjoy an Arkansas duck hunt, without any pain and suffering."
As you get farther down the Mississippi Flyway, these corporate-retreat style duck hunting establishments become more commonplace. During much of the season Mallard Pointe hosts, on average, 30 hunters a day, all of them wanting to hunt without the grind of having to deal with all the little things.
"This is their personal duck club for a day,'' Horton said.
In the weeks since the Arkansas duck season opened, Mallard Pointe has played host to a Kennedy, a congressman and a group of Honduran businessmen. All of them showed up to a wood-grain lodge, where the bathrooms feature Jacuzzi tubs and the beverages are all top-shelf.
"Roughing it" is not on the agenda at Mallard Pointe, where the staff's only mission seems to be catering to their guests' every need. [NEXT PAGE]
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