They say shooting one in the woods is as good as two in the field. Considered by many to be the pinnacle of waterfowling, hunting mallards in the Arkansas timber is an experience unique within the sport. Even more unique is spending a weekend with the “Rowdy River Rats” on their floating duck camp. To understand how this club came to be, a dive into the history of Arkansas is necessary.
Living on the river is a way of life that began in Arkansas in the late 19th century. Unable to afford land or driven by a way of life on the river, many houseboat communities popped up along the rivers of eastern Arkansas. The people who lived in these communities made their livelihood on the river, netting fish for market, diving for mussels, and market hunting the surrounding woods. Life on the river was lawless with justice often being served by the residents upon each other with little legal intervention. For these reasons, the river people were given the unaffectionate name “river rats” by the town’s folk.
Today there are very few remaining houseboats with permanent residents. As life became more modern in the wake of WWII, many people moved off of the river in search of a better means of income. Dam construction and other Corp. of Engineer projects forced the rest away. There are legends of a few holdouts still living off the land in creeks and coves well hidden but largely, the way of life or the river people has flowed away with time.
The “Rowdy River Rat” camp is filled with decades of this rich history. In the shop up on the river bank, a wall of antique boat motors, old photos from river life long ago, and a parade float sized “river rat” (used for the annual Gumbofest in Stuttgart) tell the story of the camp through the years. The boardwalk out to the house creaks as you walk out to the massive floating structure fifteen feet below. For as big as the structure is the inside of the camp is quite small with a living room and kitchen downstairs and two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Wrap around porches on both floors are perfect for enjoying a post-hunt cocktail and watching the madness at the nearby boat ramp.
Alarms go off each morning at 3 AM. Walking out the door of the houseboat, loading into the hopped up aluminum boats and preparing for one of the fabled boat races through the flooded timber provides a stark clash between what life once was on the river and what it is now. A slower pace of life, based on subsistence living off of what the river provides has yielded to seasonal, high-octane races for the best timber holes. Generations of knowledge of the local river bottoms give the River Rats a distinct advantage over the competition and lead the hunting party to a place few would ever find.
After racing through the woods and an hour and a half wait, shooting time finally arrives. The first silhouettes of mallards whizz through the trees. The suns first light begins to snake its way through the leafless branches. The straps begin to fill. A group begins to circle the treetops. More and more ducks join in. Finally, one breaks the canopy and the floodgates open. Hundreds of mallards pour in through a slender opening in the trees. Amidst the chaos, no one calls the shot. Everyone is awestruck by the rare scene that is taking place. As the mallards escape towards the open sky, the group reflects on what happened with great enthusiasm. Witnessing such an extraordinary event is fitting for hunting at such a one of a kind duck club.
John Smolko is a full-time fishing guide, hunting guide, and photographer. Based in North Carolina, he migrates with the seasons and spends summers fishing in Alaska and winters hunting in Mississippi. You never know where he'll pop up next.