Duck hunters once again will flock to Stuttgart in Arkansas this fall.
You don't have to be crazy about ducks to have a good time in Stuttgart, Ark., but it certainly helps.
Truckers nicknamed the place “Sugar Town” (drop the t's out of Stuttgart to see what they're talking about), but the second you hit town, you see that quacking waterfowl are venerated here. The welcome sign proclaims the town “Rice and Duck Capital of the World,” and there's little that meets the eye to dispute that.
Wings over the Prairie
If you want to experience the true flavor of the duck madness that grips this part of the world every winter, plan to visit Stuttgart during the fall Wings Over the Prairie Festival. The annual event, easily the most important on the city's calendar, is in its 80th year and draws thousands from around the world to its many activities.
The festival kicks off Nov. 21 with the annual Queen Mallard and Junior Queen Mallard beauty pageants, traditions that span 59 and 24 years, respectively. Thanksgiving weekend brings more big attractions including the Sportsman's Party. This event, slated for the city's sparkling performance venue, the Grand Prairie Center, features live entertainment and is one of the year's hardest tickets to get.
More accessible is the annual World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-off to be contested Nov. 28. This event, open to those 21 and older, has grown into one of the most popular events of the festival, drawing thousands to sample the competitors' best concoctions, which must utilize duck for at least 50 percent of the meat in the stew. You never know who will drop by–Dallas Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones is a frequent attendee, as are state politicians, media figures, and other local celebrities, along with folks of all walks of life.
As big as these events are, they all play second fiddle to the duck calling competitions contested throughout the festival. National titles in various age categories are awarded leading up to the festival's final day and the headliner 80th World's Championship Duck Calling Contest where competitors will vie for thousands of dollars in cash and prizes. Visitors to the 2015 event have the additional privilege to witness the Champion of Champions competition that's open only to previous world titlists and held every five years.
Thrill of the hunt
Stuttgart sits along the famed Mississippi flyway, a 2,300-mile migratory route for northern waterfowl looking for warmer climate to ride out winter. According to Ducks Unlimited, Arkansas winters more mallards than anyplace in the country, and this concentration brings out hunters in droves.
Many beginners and experienced shooters alike consider hunting Stuttgart a bucket list experience of sorts, the feathered version of visiting Boston's Fenway Park or Lambeau Field in Green Bay. Though there are large tracts of public land upon which to hunt, aficionados prefer to hunt private lands, making hunting an important source of income for local farmers outside the growing season.
Other options include duck camps, another important local industry. Duck camps vary in amenities from relatively bare-bones hunting hostels to opulent lodges with guides to lead you to the quarry and chefs to cook them up afterward.
No sportsman's trip to Stuttgart is complete without a stop at two local businesses–the legendary Mack's Prairie Wings and the smaller but equally regarded Rich-N-Tone duck call factory and store.
Mack's is a sportsmen's superstore–its 102,000-square-foot operation features a 32,000-square-foot showroom and a catalog business that reaches more than 2.4 million worldwide. The company offers everything imaginable for a successful hunt, from shotguns to shoestrings, and provides prime people watching to boot.
Rich-N-Tone, founded by local Champion of Champions duck caller, the late Butch Richenback, and today owned by three-time world champ and hunting television host John Stephens and his wife, Angie, sits just next door. The company manufactures handcrafted calls on-site, prized by the discriminating hunters and collectors who haunt the showroom to talk shop and check out the newest models. The calls also make popular client gifts and giveaways among RNT's growing corporate customers.
Birds of a Different Feather
As important as hunting and fishing are here, you'll find more to do in Stuttgart. A visit any time of year should include the Museum of the Arkansas Grand Prairie, a free attraction that charts the history of the community and local culture. The award-winning museum depicts the development of agriculture in the region with more than 10,000 artifacts. Its waterfowl wing showcases an impressive collection of decoys, firearms, and antique duck calls, while rows of antique tractors and other conveyance trace the local settlement from Native Americans through today. It's also the hub of activities that make up the annual German Heritage Festival every April, including a 5K run, beer and food sampling, and music.
Other educational attractions nearby include two nationally recognized research labs devoted to the city's other noteworthy product–rice–of which Arkansas produces almost half of the entire U.S. Crop.
free with advance reservations. Also, the Harry K. Dupree Stuttgart National Aquatic Research Center conducts important research in the field of aquaculture, an industry that produces half of the fish consumed annually in the U.S. It also can be toured for free with advance reservations.
Year-round programming is also available at the Grand Prairie Center, Stuttgart's four-year-old performance venue on the campus of Phillips Community College. The 63,000-square-foot multi-purpose facility hosts a variety of cultural events, concerts, theatrical performances, and educational seminars.
Downtown, be sure to check out Stuttgart's many shops and boutiques, especially Coker Hampton Drug Company, a fixture in the community since 1928. Owned by Stuttgart native Kim Bethea and her husband, James, the landmark is a working drugstore and pharmacy, but also through the original antique storefront you'll find a dazzling array of gifts and mementos.
For a tasty lunch or relaxing dinner, try the jambalaya and po'boys at La Petite Cajun Bistro on Main Street, one of the town's more popular local restaurants.
From 5Ks to flyways and bass to ballet, there's something interesting to see and do around every bend in Stuttgart.
Dwain Hebda is a contributor from Little Rock, Ark.
September/October 2015 Issue
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