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Big fun on Big Lake

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MANILA, Ark. — Duck hunting is like a religion in Arkansas. And while that might seem like hyperbole to the uninitiated, it's hard to dispute after experiencing the state's opening weekend with devout practitioners of this peculiar creed.

The Duck Trek touched down at Big Lake, a vast wetlands complex in Arkansas' far northeast corner, on the second day of the state's duck season. The opening weekend dawned colder than any Arkansas opener in memory, and the waterfowling pilgrims responded positively.

It was 25 degrees when the Duck Trek pulled up to the boat ramp at 4 a.m. With the scores of trucks and boats assembled in the darkness, it looked like a Wal-Mart parking lot on Black Friday.

"Welcome to the madhouse," said Larry Towell of Manila, Ark. "But if you think this is bad, you should've seen it yesterday."

According to James Foster of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, who manages the 11,447-acre Big Lake Wildlife Management Area, 202 vehicles were parked at the area's boat ramps on opening morning.

Although fewer vehicles were present on Day Two, the numbers provided a glimpse into the reverence Arkansans have for duck hunting.

And at Big Lake WMA, arriving early also means a better chance of securing one of the area's permanent blinds for the day's hunt. Big Lake is one of three public hunting areas in Arkansas that allow permanent blinds. The blinds are built and maintained by individuals but are available to hunters on a first-come, first-served basis.

"You don't want to be late at Big Lake," said Towell, whose family maintains and hunts from a large blind on the management area.

We piled into two flatbottom boats at the ramp and shoved off for a cold ride through a series of man-made ditches that cover Big Lake WMA like a grid. A main ditch runs through the area north and south, and every half-mile a lateral ditch runs east and west. The ditches provide boating access to the oak, cypress and tupelo forests, and they also help area managers seasonally flood the woods for duck season each year.

Towell and I lay flat on our backs on the drop-down deck in the bow, allowing our pilot, Cotton Bennett of Malden, Mo., an unobstructed view of the tree-lined ditches. It also kept us out of harm's way as we motored just beneath the overhanging limbs of trees and bushes. We were luckier than Carroll Towell, Larry's father, who took a tree limb to the nose, losing a chunk of skin that opened an ample stream of blood.

As the boat crunched through ice just below our heads, millions of stars shined through the leafless treetops.

"It looks like we're going to have a bluebird day," Larry Towell said. "And that's exactly what you want for hunting in the timber."

The boats idled to a halt at a narrow turn-off into the flooded woods, where several members of the hunting party disembarked to push and pull the boats through shallow water for the final 200 yards to the blind. After substantial rainfall in the spring and summer, Arkansas experienced a drier fall, leaving water levels lower than usual in Big Lake WMA.

"Usually we can run the boats right up to the blind," Larry Towell said. "But it's a little low now, and you just can't run the boats through here with all the logs and cypress knees."

We arrived at the blind at 5:20 a.m., still an hour until legal shooting time, and pulled the boat into a covered slip behind the massive structure. Larry Towell hoisted a 12-volt battery onto a wooden deck and attached wires to the power source, illuminating the boat blind for the transfer of guns and gear into the finely appointed duck blind.

The true scale of the blind came into focus as we walked through a door from the boat blind to the hunting portion of the structure. My first apartment wasn't this big, and the amenities were about the same.

Electric lights powered by the battery revealed a propane-powered stove in one corner near the back of the blind. A big cabinet on the other end of the blind held supplies, including a first-aid kit that came in handy for Carroll Towell's run-in with the tree limb. A propane heater sat in the middle of the back wall.

A skillet and other cooking utensils hung from nails on the wall. Toward the front of the blind, steps led to an elevated shooting platform with two school bus seats for added comfort. Wooden boxes provided additional elevation for younger hunters, including Larry Towell's daughter, Savannah.

"We've got pretty much anything you could ever need out here," Larry Towell said.

A nice touch was a 2x6 board running the length of the blind, a roof support beam with a message: "Caution — Watch for Falling Ducks."

"The lawyers made us put that disclaimer up there," Larry Towell said in jest.

The blind rose about 15 feet above the water's surface, and large openings in front looked out over a decoy spread in a clearing roughly 60 yards long and 40 yards wide. Large flaps built from metal fencing material covered with ample brush spun on hinges, allowing concealment from overhead ducks.

Jeremy Bennett, refuge manager at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge that's adjacent to the state wildlife management area, arranged decoys and hid the second boat with his brother, Christopher.

As we waited for shooting time, the starry sky we'd seen during the boat ride gradually gave way to clouds, a change that was vociferously lamented by several members of the hunting party.

"It was cloudy yesterday, too," Larry Towell reminded the party. "And we killed 28 ducks."

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