By Tom Eisenhart
There are duck hunters. And then there are duck hunters the caliber of a George Dunklin.
His credentials are extensive. He's an Arkansas Game and Fish Commissioner. He also sits on the board of directors for Ducks Unlimited. And, he comes from a long line of duck hunters and conservationists. In the early 1900s, his grandfather acquired a number of bottomland forest tracts near Stuttgart, Arkansas, ensuring that habitat was preserved for migratory waterfowl.
Today, our crew is visiting George's 10,000-acre rice farm and Five Oaks Duck Lodge located near Stuttgart, a town that bills itself as the 'Rice and Duck Capital of the World.' The thousands of acres of bottomland forests and rice crops in the Stuttgart area certainly make this prime habitat for ducks.
Species like pintails, teals and mallards have just begun to arrive. "Some mornings, it feels like you can almost reach out and touch them when they start coming in. There's no experience like it in the world," he says.
It's not just the waterfowl arriving on his farm that pleases George. He points to a tree where a pair of bald eagles nested the previous winter and says he anticipates that they will return.
Driving around the property, George and Jodie Pagan, a biologist who manages habitat on the farm for waterfowl and other wildlife, excitedly discussed their plans. One field needs to be burned, another planted in trees, still another left in rice. Ponds need to be filled or drained. It's all in preparation for the arrival of hunters who will stay at his lodge.
George feels that duck hunting is special because unlike turkey or deer hunting, it is done in groups. "You can share special moments — like seeing the sun rise on a beautiful day — with your spouse, children and friends." He has done just that with his wife and three daughters.
While eagerly anticipating the arrival of another duck hunting season, George is concerned about the future of waterfowl hunting in the Delta, and in turn, what that means for the conservation of habitat that sustains wildlife and local economies. Without revenue from the sale of hunting licenses and duck stamps, he notes that many wildlife areas would not have been preserved and restored.
Particularly disconcerting is the aging of the hunting population. Of the approximately 100,000 duck hunters in Arkansas, for example, less than one-third are under the age of 35.
"We've got to get out and recruit new hunters, especially the young," George says. "They are our next generation of conservationists."September 28, 2011