JACOB’S AND PECAN LAKES, ARKANSAS COUNTY
Two major far-reaching events changed the Mississippi Flyway in eastern Arkansas. One was the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812, which created the Sunk Lands, and the second event was rice. Once it had been planted in the first decade of the twentieth century, it spread rapidly throughout the Grand Prairie region during that decade and especially during the 1920s and the 1930s. Doing so, the prairie could not exist so it vanished.
Rice changed the Flyway in two ways. For one, it moved a lot of the migration of waterfowl from the Mississippi River westward to the rice-growing regions. Second, it also shifted waterfowl from overflying Arkansas and heading to the rice fields of Louisiana. No place in eastern Arkansas reaped rice’s benefit more so than the twin lakes of Jacob’s Lake and Pecan Lake in Arkansas County.
Prior to rice production, there had been productive waterfowling years on the Grand Prairie. Perhaps, the greatest back-to-back winter seasons were 1893-1894 and 1894-1895. The winter season of 1899-1900 was also one of the best. In 1900, there were an estimated 150 million migrating waterfowl in North America.
When rice farming began, enough rice was planted in 1912, with it being a wet fall, that the duck-hunting season of 1912-1913 was a portend of things to come for the Grand Prairie. The Illustrated Outdoor World and Recreation reported May 1913 about the “slaughter” of mallard ducks during the season 1912-1913:
The existence of an abnormal quantity of duck foods in Arkansas, coupled with an unusually mild winter, induced an extraordinary number of inland ducks to winter there, and the Arkansas pothunter rushed in at the commencement of the season on his mission of extermination. Hundreds of thousands of ducks have been ruthlessly slaughtered and shipped out of that state.
The Arkansas Democrat reported November 22, 1913: “A very successful duck hunt was had in the vicinity of Gillette during Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday by F. M. Peters, A. N. Peters, and Walter Turner. They succeeded in killing a total of 130 ducks of all kinds and returned to Little Rock on Wednesday loaded down with ducks.”
Farmers made every attempt to get their rice out prior to November 15, as migratory ducks usually arrived about November 20. However, their arrival occurred in 1917 when two-thirds of the Arkansas rice crop was still in shocks as wet weather had delayed harvesting. With their arrival from the north, mallards, during the season, came into the “cafeteria” and fed all night, where they destroyed $35,000 worth of rice in the Stuttgart, DeWitt, and Gillett regions, the latter being a popular destinations for ducks, and many sport and market hunters came to Gillett via the train in the 1920s, from as far away as Chicago, New York, and Kansas.
With World War I, or the “Great War,” in progress, the U.S. was an increasingly important food supplier, especially rice. Therefore, in the fall of 1917, many complaints were received of damage by ducks to the rice crop of the Grand Prairie after mallards had come in to rice fields in large flocks to feed, especially on moonlight nights.
Arkansas waterfowlers were expecting a great hunting season, as the advance guard of a cold winter appeared the second week of August, which was followed by a series of “highs” which occurred in September and October, with freezing temperatures covering Arkansas during the first week of October and even a stronger series of three enforcing “highs” during October 18, 20 and 22.
The climax of the fall weather came during October 28 to 31. During the first half of November, the weather moderated somewhat but that soon changed. In the Grand Prairie, ducks arrived days before the wet cold fronts’ arrival and also after it passage, with November 23 and 24 being below freezing. The front resulted in wetter fields, and some fields around Stuttgart, DeWitt, and Gillett were flooded, but not frozen. As one reclined in a bed under warm blankets, one heard the passing of great waterfowl armies in the night.
As the winged wayfarers poured into the region, those were the days when the coming of new northern flights were sights to witness and to stir the blood—not merely a few thousand birds, but actually tens of thousands. They filled the heavens; the roar of their wings was like rolling thunder; they came in endless procession, flock after flock, as far as the eye could see. When they finally gathered in the region, they covered acres and acres, and the sounds they made were deafening.
The besieging birds were so thick they pulled or trampled down the shocks, while the straw was trampled into the mud. Other shocks had their cap sheaves pulled off and their heads had been entirely stripped by the ducks. Feathers and duck dung, the latter composed almost entirely of the rough hulls of the rice ground up during the process of digestion, were scattered about in each field.
Some shocks had been trampled over until they were flattened down so that all grain had been exposed. Paths had been worn in the mud about the flattened bases of the shocks as the birds worked about them. Furthermore, the ducks had burrowed in between the bases of the sheaves in many shocks in order to get at the grain inside.
Farmers resorted to allowing hunters to shoot at night in their fields, but it had little effect. So eager were they for food that only those within a few yards would rise at a shot and all would alight immediately. In one 125-acre field, 15 shooters hired by a farmer, when they exhausted their ammunition, the bag limit of 25 being ignored, resorted to “yelling,” to scare them away Farmers paid as high as $5 a gun per night and furnished free ammunition. Rivalry was keen as to who would kill the greatest number of ducks with a specified number of shells. Bags of 200 or more per gun in a night were not uncommon.
In one 100-acre field, 30 hunters were unable to keep the ducks out by shooting mercifully and yelling. In other fields, farmers tried to frighten them away by railroad lanterns or by setting dogs on them.
Efforts were made to thresh the shocks where the ducks had fed, but so little of the grain remained that the attempt was abandoned. Threshing at night or day also had little effect of keeping the overwhelming hordes of ducks out of a field. In one field, 4,000 bushels were lost to the feeding hordes in three nights. An attempt to thresh afterwards yielded only 10 bushels of rice secured from 15 loads, so harvesting was abandoned and the hogs turned loose in the duck-harvested field.
On a quiet winter night, from all over the rice fields would sound the sullen boom of the guns. For a number of nights, shooters were at work throughout the season. Shooting during the day was excellent also as newly arriving mallards feasted on shocked fields or the few harvested fields full of waste grain. For the latter, the mallards competed with hogs that had been turned loose into the field to eat up the shattered waste grain and red rice.
The season of 1917 was repeated again in 1919. To shoot at night, in 1919, it was necessary to get a special order under the regulations of the migratory bird treaty act from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was granted for the very first time for Arkansas under the following stipulations:
. . . . effective during November 14 to December 31, inclusive, permitting, under certain restrictions, the shooting at night of wild ducks which have become seriously injurious to rice crops in Arkansas, Lonoke and Prairie Counties. The ducks may be killed by persons owing or leasing the rice lands, or by their agents . . . None of the ducks so killed may be sold, offered for sale, or shipped for purposes of sale. . .
This led to considerable infractions, in particular near Gillett where many thousands were thus shot illegally.
Once rice made its appearance in the Grand Prairie, the two premier duck-shooting spots in the olden times, from 1907 to 1930, were the sister lakes of Jacob’s Lake and Pecan Lake, located between Gillett and DeWitt. Nothing compared to the two. The two were such hot spots for duck hunting that a large numbers of ducks died from lead poisoning in January 1925.
The two lakes were incomparably better than anything in Arkansas. Those who lived near Jacob’s and Pecan Lakes said there was never a day during the three months open season in the 1920s that the hunters were not booming away at the harassed birds. They said on the opening day of November 1, 1921 that thousands of ducks were killed on the two lakes. It was a rare occasion when less than 100 ducks were killed on each of the lakes at night by a hunter. An average of 100 ducks for each lake for 90 days, November through January, is 18,000 birds for the season. According to Stuttgart hunters this was a very low average. Some estimated that as high as 30,000 mallards a season were killed on the two bodies of water. These lakes were only two of the many shooting places in the vicinity. One of the best spot on Jacob’s Lake was an arm of the lake known as the “Willow Hole.”
One reason for the swarms of ducks at these two lakes was the surrounding rice fields, which covered most of the Arkansas Grand Prairie. In the rice fields, there were small puddles of water in the fields where the ducks congregated by the millions to eat the grain that was wasted during the harvest or the shocks of rice stacked up in the fields. As the fields were cut and as there was no cover but the stubble it was extremely difficult to approach within shooting distance of the birds when they were feeding. For that reason, it was difficult to hunt with much success on the rice fields but were greeted with hot lead whenever they attempted to light in the two lakes.
Jacob’s lake was about a half a mile long and a quarter of a mile wide with much overflow water spread out into the thick timber. It was a natural depression surrounded by rice fields. Hundreds of thousands of ducks, mostly mallards, were not unusual to see flying about as they passed over from one rice field to another. It was nothing to see a flock that contained at least 20,000 birds hovering over Pecan Lake or Jacob’s Lake, and no one who ever hunted at either lake would consider that number greatly exaggerated. The “natives” said the best shooting was in the morning.
About 1923 ,the owner of Jacob’s Lake built a rough-hewn camp with mess hall, bunkhouse, and outdoor facilities. The owner charged $5 a day for lodging and shooting rights. It was not the first commercial duck-shooting place in Arkansas, but in the Grand Prairie it was.
As a result of the rice boom in the Grand Prairie, four duck-hunting clubs organized, followed by others. The first to organize was the Pecan Lake Hunting Club in October 1919. It was immediately fenced and posted and patrolled by a caretaker. No one was allowed to hunt unless accompanied by a member. The hunting was so good here that it was often poached. In fact, the club’s caretaker and deputy game warden, Joe Rousseau, was killed by Chester Holbert and Eddie Larue, two poacher from Pine Bluff, in December 1930.
Next was Belcher Lake Hunting and Fishing Club, organized in 1921 by a group of men connected with the American Southern Trust Company. They purchased 240 acres around the lake in Lonoke and Prairie Counties from the Belcher family. It was about ten miles northwest of Stuttgart. The third club was (Joe) McGraw Surround Club, organized one year later in southeastern Arkansas County. The fourth was Cooper Lake Club, organized in 1922, with the club buying land around the “Smoke Hole territory” of Prairie County.
When the federal White River NWR was created September 5, 1935, a census was taken during January 24-26, 1936 that covered the White River watershed, the refuge, and its vicinity. Some 161 localities were inspected in the three counties of Arkansas, Monroe and Desha, with the most census localities being in the county of Arkansas, which also had by far the most ducks: 1,292,987. The NWR, composed of 45,000 acres during the census, contained 85,146 ducks of which 84,035 were mallards. In Arkansas County, outside of the NWR, the Lumsden’s Reservoir, adjoining Pecan Lake and Jacob’s Lake, had the most ducks: Lumsden’s Reservoir, 283,496; Jacob’s Lake, 233,506; Pecan Lake Hunting Club, 42,546; Pinchback Taylor Club, 209,941; Frank Freudenberg Reservoir, 113,352; Ash Reservoir, 77,666; Wilcox Lakes, 78,500; Warner’s Lake, 25,040; Dilday Lake, 25,533; Freedman Reservoir, 12,000. During the census, there were several commercial duck-shooting operations: Wilcox Lakes, Jacob’s Lake, and Clarence Elmer “Tippy” LaCotts.
Then came another change, but not nearly as radical as the New Madrid earthquakes and the planting of rice, but a change nevertheless no matter how one characterizes it. Before rice, when the ducks tended to overfly Arkansas for the rice fields of Louisiana, the main stop-over point was what is today the White River NWR in the area where the White and Arkansas Rivers snaked down close together to empty into the Mississippi River. This was the narrowest middle section of the migratory funnel of the Mississippi Flyway in the olden days. Here they fed on pinoak acorns and rested. Gillett being the nearest to this area was the duck-hunting center, and remained so for a number of years even after rice was planted. Many out-of-state sportsmen made their way to Gillett in the 1920s, and many from Stuttgart made their way to Gillett by automobile, a three hour trip for the 26 miles. As more reservoirs were constructed and more rice was planted, ducks were drawn northward away from Gillett, the then duck capital of Arkansas, to a great extent, so that by the mid-1940s the mallard capital was Stuttgart, 26 miles north of Gillett.