Big fun on Big Lake

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Shots rang out like rolling thunder from other parts of the hunting grounds, signaling the start to the second day of Arkansas' duck season. It wasn't long until flights of wood ducks started streaming through the treetops, the hens squealing their presence long before the birds came into view.

The Duck Trek crew stayed with the Towell clan in the blind as the three Bennetts waded in the trees alongside the well-hidden blind. Well-placed shots brought down five wood ducks over the first hour of shooting, including one banded bird that Cotton Bennett tracked down after it sailed into the trees 100 yards behind the hole.

(Cotton Bennett later reported the band recovery at >www.reportband.gov, and found the wood duck had been banded in Wisconsin on Sept. 14, 2004).

The early-morning flight was slow in the woods, but overhead we witnessed a tremendous flight of birds riding the winds at high altitude. Thousands of ducks flew in formation high above Big Lake, stretching as far as the eye could see in all directions.

Unfortunately, those big flights never made it into our hole. A hen shoveler fell to the guns in the first hour, and a single gadwall committed on its first pass and fell to a single shot from my 12 gauge.

And as far as the ducks were concerned, that was the extent of the action. But there was plenty of action in the blind.

Just as the wood ducks had been careening through the trees, the smell of cinnamon rolls began rising through the cool morning air. That tied us over until Larry Towell produced plates of eggs, sausage and biscuits about an hour later.

"Having these blinds is what makes the bad days good days," Jeremy Bennett said. "Do you know how many times a plate of breakfast has been spilled on the floor?"

The Towells have been serving a daily breakfast in this blind since the early 1970s, when Carroll Towell, 67, built a blind on the site. He has hunted the area since the 1950s and knew of a place where an old blind had fallen into disrepair.

"There was an old blind here that probably dated to the '40s or '50s," Carroll Towell said. "I was friends with the game warden, Bobby Moore, and we came in here and boated around and finally found it."

The Towells have maintained a blind on the site ever since, part of a Big Lake hunting tradition that is one of the oldest in Arkansas.

When it comes to the subject of Arkansas duck hunting, the first place that comes to mind for most waterfowlers is Stuttgart, a small town on Arkansas' Grand Prairie that bills itself the "Duck Capital of the World." But it's a little known fact that organized duck hunting in Arkansas actually began at Big Lake.

The area was formed by a historic event, the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, when it is said the Mississippi River flowed backwards. And the area's more recent history has seen significant upheavals of the man-made variety.

This area is where market hunters once filled wooden barrels with ducks and shipped them by steamboat to the markets in St. Louis. It was also the site of armed conflict between private landowners who hunted for sport and market hunters.

Walter Gleabes, a deputy U.S. marshal and warden of the Big Lake Shooting Club, was shot on 12 separate occasions. The club hired the Pinkerton guards to protect their property after their clubhouse was burned out. The conflict grew so large that it eventually resulted in President Woodrow Wilson declaring part of the area the Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 1915, making it the first national refuge in Arkansas.

Today, the 11,038-acre Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge and the 11,447-acre Big Lake WMA comprise one of the largest tracts of wetlands remaining in northeast Arkansas. The federal refuge consistently holds huge numbers of migrating waterfowl. Hunting isn't allowed on the refuge, but since 1951 hunters have had access to productive hunting grounds on the state-owned wildlife management area next door.

"It's a very good partnership between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission," Jeremy Bennett said. "Each of has something unique to offer the public."

But it's the hunting that draws hunters from miles around, waterfowling pilgrims coming to pay homage to the sport they fervently worship.

"People who aren't from here can't understand how the people around here feel about waterfowl hunting," Jeremy Bennett said.

Those feelings are easily interpreted: In Arkansas, duck hunting is a religion.