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Quackin' Good

Every Thanksgiving, competitors and mallard mavens fly south to Stuttgart and the world's most resounding duck calling contest

By E.M. Swift

  Click for larger image Using mostly newfangled acrylic (as opposed to old-school wooden) calls, contestants do 90-second routines. Simon Bruty
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 performance.

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."

Issue date: December 1, 2003


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