Million-dollar mallards

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STUTTGART, Ark. — The mud-and-grass caked pick-ups lined both sides of the Highway 63 in front of Mack's Prairie Wings on Saturday, a testament to the flood of waterfowl hunters who descend on Stuttgart every fall.

The town that calls itself the rice and duck capital of the world — no coincidence that one follows the other — is always a Mecca for men who like to shoot birds.

This time of year, though, a week after the opening day of Arkansas' duck season and during the Wings Over the Prairie Festival, this store is a mob scene, even in a slouching economy.

"We cater to a special group," said Mack's owner Marion McCallum III, whose father, Marion "Mack" McCallum founded the store 65 years ago. "It's a small group, waterfowl hunters. But a waterfowl hunter, he's a special hunter. He'll do without this or that, but he will hunt."

Business this year has been solid, McCallum said. Whether it's because of suddenly dipping gas prices or strong commodity prices buoying the region, Mack's hasn't seen any dropoff in business.

It hasn't hurt that Arkansas legalized spinning decoys for the first time in four years, leading many local hunters to stock up on the newest spinning-decoy technology (remote controls, intermittent spinning, quieter motors).
"We're having overall record days," he said. "Which is saying something, for the days we're in."

Over the four-day Fall Festival in October, about 25,000 customers hailing from 47 states patronized Mack's, a 32,000-square-foot retail space with another 75,000 in warehouse space stretching into a soybean and rice field here in east-central Arkansas.

The net effect on this town of 9,700 souls is massive. Duck season produces a million dollars of daily economic activity in this town, according to Stephen Bell, the executive vice president of the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce. During the Wings Over the Prairie Festival, the town's population triples, he said.

"They say that when babies are born in Stuttgart, we put a duck call in their mouth instead of a pacifier," Bell said.
Next to Mack's, the Rich-N-Tone store was a steady stream of customers on Friday and Saturday, as hunters bought new calls and brought in old ones for adjustments.

Mack's, meanwhile, was its usual playpen for hunters. Underneath dozens of stuffed ducks suspended from the ceiling, shoppers in reed-patterned camo pecked through the accoutrements of blasting waterfowl. To see the prices on some of this stuff, you'd think a dead duck was worth its weight in diamonds.

That included thermal baselayers ($60) and puffy down coats ($110) and lambswool socks ($18) and waders ($200) and dog boots ($25 for four) and 65-quart coolers ($280) and binoculars ($600 for the nice ones) and shotguns ($660) and Realtree-patterned bikinis ($36).

No wonder one shopper was overheard to mutter, in the jam-packed lane between the .20 gauge shells and the .30-06s, "I've got to quit buying hunting stuff."