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Reservoirs for rice drew ducks and then hunters

In olden days, the Grand Prairie occupied nearly 1,000 square miles, bounded on the east by the White River Bottoms, on the south by the Arkansas River, on the west by Bayou Meto, and on the north by the old Rock Island Railroad. The bottomlands bounding or transecting the area totaled more than 250,000 acres.

By the mid-1940s, several tributary bayous and ditches draining a prairie devoted to rice culture within these boundaries. Dotting the prairie were numerous timbered depressions known as “islands” or “pin oak flats,” at least two dozen of which were used as rice reservoirs or as “green tree” reservoirs. The reservoirs were estimated to occupy about 10,000 acres, while the rice acreage of the Grand Prairie was about 175,000 acres.

Rice reservoirs were leveed flats or damned creek bottoms choked with dead or dying timber. They had two uses in the Grand Prairie area: irrigating rice fields and duck hunting.

Green tree reservoirs were built similar to rice reservoirs, but were used specifically for duck hunting. After hunting season, the water was released so that the timber did not drown and die.

Rice culture required the use of enormous quantities of water, most of which on the Grand Prairie was pumped from shallow wells. As ground-water levels dropped, ground-water supplies became overtaxed, making pumping more expensive than formerly.

At first, reservoirs were built to develop cheaper water supplies. Later, when it was discovered that the reservoirs attracted ducks, many farmers found that hunters were willing to pay enough for their sport to offset initial and maintenance costs for reservoirs as well as pumping costs for filling them.

Many farmers preferred reservoirs to wells — not only because duck hunters paid for the irrigating water, but also because fields could be flooded more quickly and evenly from reservoirs than from wells.

The first rice reservoir in the area was built in 1926 by Verne Tindall. He was astonished when wintering ducks congregated on his 450 acres of flooded timber after spending the night in the nearby rice fields.

Tindall told the Stuttgart Daily Leader: “It was quite a sight to see. Eight to 10 acres of the reservoir would be a mass of ducks.” A hunter remarked: “The ducks concentrated on the prairies around Stuttgart and it looked like millions and millions.”

The next reservoir was built in 1931 by Frank Freudenberg. Twenty or more were built between then and 1945, mostly during the height of the duck depression (1929-1935, the Dust Bowl Years). While the rest of the country suffered with a shortage of ducks during this time, the Grand Prairie enjoyed some of the best shooting to be had.

At first, the duck-hunting center was Gillett near the lower end of Grand Prairie. As more reservoirs were constructed, ducks were drawn away from their former haunts of the White River bottoms, so that by the mid-1940s the mallard capital was Stuttgart, 30 miles north of Gillett and 25 miles from White River Refuge.

In the early days of scattered rice farms, the ducks rested in the White River bottoms during the day and left around 3 p.m. for the rice fields, some 25 to 100 miles away. The flights continued way past dark.

However, as rice production increased and as more reservoirs were built, by the mid-1940s, most mallards rested on reservoirs and fed in the adjacent rice fields. Thereafter, they only returned to the White River bottoms during periods when high water covered fresh feeding grounds or the hunting pressure got too hot in the rice country.

By the 1970s, 100 reservoirs comprised about 25,000 acres. There were also approximately 150 duck clubs, which controlled more than 60,000 acres. About two dozen of these clubs were commercial. The Game and Fish Commission public shooting areas covered about 75,000 acres.

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