Duck hunters scan the early morning horizon for incoming mallards and give little thought to standing in the product of the nation’s largest earthquake.
St. Francis Sunken Lands Wildlife Management Area has a name that tells a story. The region was ravaged by the New Madrid earthquakes of December 1811 and January and February 1812. Few people lived in the area then, but the earth sank along the St. Francis River, along the Mississippi River and created new looks to the environment.
Northwest Tennessee’s Reelfoot Lake was one result. The Mississippi River ran backward briefly after the biggest quake. And today’s St. Francis Sunken Lands plus Big Lake just to the north are Arkansas legacies of the upheaval.
The Sunken Lands today are a 27,360-acre checkerboard of state-owned and controlled land mixed with privately owned tracts. Property lines are hard to determine, even by persons familiar with the area. Efforts by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission continue to improve boundary markings as additional lands are added to the area and surveys are made. A dispute over private hunting blinds on the public land is now in the courts.
Disputes aren’t new in the area. The region rose to national prominence after the Civil War when market hunters found a ready supply of ducks, geese and other wildlife, along with sources in northern cities eager to buy the meat. Wealthy sportsmen from out of state bought and leased land for hunting clubs and conflict arose. Shootings, beatings, burnings and threats were common. Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1915, and gradually the violence subsided.
Unchanged, however, was the appeal of the forested country along the St. Francis River to wildlife. Ducks never stopped using it for a winter home. Deer began returning with the restoration efforts of Arkansas through the middle of the 20th century, and they joined the squirrels, rabbits, quail, doves and other wildlife that never left.
A short synopsis of the St. Francis Sunken Lands geography is the management area and intermingled private land lie between the levees along each side of the river. The area ranges from less than a mile wide to several miles wide in spots. East of Trumann in northeast Poinsett County, the WMA is three miles wide but interrupted by private land.
It’s forested river bottoms. Travel is difficult to even area residents. Boats are essential in some sections, but in other places users can park vehicles and walk to hunt, to watch wildlife and for other activities.
Duck hunting and bowhunting for deer are the leading attractions for sportsmen on the Sunken Lands. Both are highly dependent on the level of water in the river, and close readings of the daily levels in newspapers are a virtual requirement for going after ducks, deer and other game. A change of a few inches in the water in the flat country can make or break a planned outing.
Migrating ducks come to the Sunken Lands, and they join sizable numbers of gadwall and resident wood ducks. Canada Geese frequently come in too, working the farm fields on either side and roosting along the river. Although prime deer habitat is limited to the higher elevations within the floodway where acorn-bearing oak timber dominates, deer are present in huntable numbers. Because of conservative modern gun hunting seasons, some older bucks reach maturity and tend to be large with plentiful food nearby. Turkeys have flourished after restocking efforts up and down the river. Both cottontail and swamp rabbits offer challenges for hunters, and squirrels abound in the forests which are heavy in oak and hickory. Other trees include locust, cypress, cottonwood, elm, tupelo gum, green ash, sycamore and pecan.
If the history of earthquakes and fights over duck territory aren’t excitement enough, a few alligators have expanded their range in eastern Arkansas northward along the St. Francis River. But feral hogs have become established on the St. Francis Sunken Lands and nearby Big Lake WMA. There is no actual hunting season on feral hogs, but hunters are encouraged to shoot them during any open season with weapons legal for that open season. Feral hogs are extremely destructive to wildlife habitat, are known to destroy the nests of ground nesting birds including quail and turkeys, and they compete directly for important food supplied for other wildlife, including acorns, berries and plants.
Sixty miles long, the management area has a few small tracts in Greene County and most of its acreage in Craighead and Poinsett counties. The land came into state ownership and management by several means. About 12,000 acres was mitigation land obtained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for projects in other areas. Some came through the federal Bureau of Land Management. The Game and Fish Commission also bought some of the land from private owners.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.