On Thanksgiving weekend in Stuttgart, Ark., the wind carries
strange and desperate sounds. There is a daffy, raspy cacophony,
more insistent than the wailing of babies, more urgent than the
vendors hawking cotton candy and corn dogs to the gathering
throng. Cutting through the crisp fall air, it is sirenlike in
its allure. Men, women and children in camouflage dress, walking
Labradors on leashes, cup their hands to their ears, transfixed
by the raucous, euphonious gabbling.
Welcome, pilgrims, to the World Championship Duck Calling
Contest, the centerpiece of the Wings over the Prairie Festival,
Stuttgart's annual celebration of the start of the waterfowl
season. Duck and goose hunting is a way of life in Arkansas's
Grand Prairie, and Stuttgart (pop. 9,745) is the self-proclaimed
Rice and Duck Capital of the World. More than 1.4 million ducks
were taken in Arkansas during the 2001-02 season, 847,920 of
them mallard, by far the most greenheads shot in any state.
Situated in the funnel of the Mississippi flyway between the
White and Arkansas rivers, smack in the center of 117,000 acres
of flooded timber and rice fields, Stuttgart has been a magnet
for duck hunters since the early 1900s. And since 1936 it has
hosted the duck calling championship, a rite of autumn for
contestants, duck hunters, gumbo lovers and party animals from
as far away as Germany.
The weeklong festival kicks off with the Queen Mallard beauty
pageant--eat your heart out, Donald Trump--and culminates with
the crowning of the world's best duck caller. In between, all
manner of quacko activities take place, including everyone's
favorite: a duck gumbo cook-off that is a sort of Mardi Gras. One
year Arkansas native Jerry Jones imported the Dallas Cowboys
cheerleaders to the cook-off, which attracts some 5,000 revelers
into a single Oktoberfest-sized tent.
Still, the duck calling is what the estimated 75,000 visitors
come for. Contestants flap their elbows and flutter their fingers
around their calls, producing hour after hour of the damnedest
caterwauling you've ever heard. For the 2002 worlds, 64
competitors from 34 states qualified, a field that honked and
cackled and gabbled for more than six hours before Bernie Boyle
of Danville, Iowa, a 41-year-old postal carrier, won. "I'd been
second three times and finished third in 2001," says Boyle, who
collected $8,000 in cash and some $17,000 in prizes. "I didn't
try anything different. You've got to be loud, but not too loud.
You need a good feeding call. Heck, you got to sound like a duck."
Easier said than done when performing a 90-second routine before
discriminating, human ears. "Calling ducks in the field is a lot
simpler than calling for judges," says three-time champion Barnie
Calef, 43, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, one of the five judges last
year. "Ducks are a lot more forgiving." The judges are stationed
beneath the elevated stage, where they can neither see nor be
seen by the contestants. They score competitors on five elements:
hail call, feeding call, callback, lonesome-duck call and overall
In the last two decades the equipment has gone modern. "Everyone
uses acrylic calls now," says legendary caller Pat Peacock, 65, a
former world champion (the only woman winner) and Queen Mallard.
"Acrylic has a sharp, clear, crystalline sound to it. Wood is
mellower. But we're just not hearing anyone win with wood anymore."
Times, and materials, change. But as long as hunters thrill at
the whistling of wings, as long as their blood warms at the sight
of a brace of mallard taking flight, Stuttgart's world
championships will be synonymous with the beginning of another
waterfowl season. "The neatest thing to me is driving into
Stuttgart and seeing those big rice elevators on the skyline,"
says champion Boyle. "It's like going into New York City. It
takes your breath away."