From duck calls to duck gumbo, Stuttgart's 76th annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival showcased the bird that has made the town a household name for hunters around the country and even the world Saturday with a full slate of activities.
From duck calls to duck gumbo, Stuttgart’s 76th annual Wings Over the Prairie Festival showcased the bird that has made the town a household name for hunters around the country and even the world Saturday with a full slate of activities.
The week-long festival that began on Nov. 19 is sponsored by the Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce.
A large tent in the parking lot of the Producers Rice Mill was the site of the 31st annual World Championship Duck Gumbo Cook-Off that saw 56 teams competing.
Curtis Ahrens of Stuttgart is in his eighth year as manager of the cook-off.
“I oversee everything related to this event,” Ahrens said. “We have 105 volunteers who assist with everything, including ticket and T-shirt sales. This year we have the 56 teams competing with a total of 500 team members. We have more new booths this year and some of them are pretty elaborate.”
Ahrens said there is an award given to the team with the best booth in addition to first, second and third places awarded for the best duck gumbo.
“In judging for best booth, they look at the demeanor of the people who are manning it in addition to the physical structure,” Ahrens said. “We use blind judging in the gumbo cook-off, with contestants given a cup to put their gumbo in that has a number attached that they keep and another number to identify it to the judges. A representative from every team acts as a judge, so the teams are judging each other’s gumbo.”
Ahrens said nearly 3,000 people had bought a ticket for the cook-off as of early afternoon Saturday and he expected a total of around 4,000 by the end of the day.
“Our record turnout was 4,500 two years ago,” Ahrens said.
Ahrens said all proceeds from the cook-off benefit the Stuttgart Chamber.
Lynann Papan of Little Rock grew up in Stuttgart and has her father to thank for her devotion to stirring up duck gumbo every Thanksgiving weekend.
“Back in 1980, Dad and some of his friends came up with an idea for the duck gumbo cook-off as something to do over the holiday weekend and they suggested it to the Chamber of Commerce,” Papan said.
Papan’s father passed the torch of leadership to her several years ago and she is happy to lead team J.B. Gumbo.
“This is a lot of fun,” Papan said. “It is kind of a reunion. I’ve been doing it for 15 years.”
When asked what the secret to a good gumbo is, Papan said that early and sufficient duck preparation is key.
“It’s really about how you prepare your duck,” Papan said. “You have to let it soak up the spices and get the vegetables in with it. Our tradition had always been to start preparing the gumbo after the Arkansas-LSU game, so we were glad that the game is back on Friday because that Saturday game really messed things up.”
Randy Cress of Stuttgart has been the leader of Doc Gumbo for fifteen years now with his family members as loyal teammates.
“Our kids are grown now but they haven’t missed a year of this,” Cress said. “The time spent here with family and friends is the best part of this. It had better be because you never know how the judges are going to rate your gumbo. Some years you’ll place and some years you won’t.”
Cress said the key to a good gumbo is preparing the best rue, which is the base of the gumbo.
“If you want your gumbo to be good you have to start with the rue,” Cress said. “You’ve got to have the right veggies, too; prepare it with TLC. It’s an art, not a science. The people who make the best gumbo are those who have been doing it a while and do it consistently.”
Cress said seeing old friends is one of the best parts of the whole event.
“It’s like a real big class reunion except it’s not for one year but for decades,” Cress said. “It’s held on a four-day weekend and that makes it simpler for them to come home. There are people who will come home for gumbo that won’t come back for a class reunion.”
Julianna Bobo of Wabbaseka is another multi-generational gumbo team leader.
“It is a family affair,” Bobo said. “We’ve been doing this for 31 years. My mom was the very first Miss Duck Gumbo. This team was handed down by my family, and that includes our team name, Lagnaf. There are people that you see here every year.
“The thing about gumbo is that everybody has their own opinion of what a good gumbo is,” Bobo said. “We actually change ours up every year. We just put a lot of different things in.”
The 76th annual World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest was held on a stage along Main Street adjacent to the Stuttgart Chamber building.
Chamber Executive Director Steven Bell said a total of 69 competitors from 39 states and Canada were in Stuttgart for the top duck calling contest in the world.
“This whole event is really a celebration of the start of duck hunting season, which is the start of our tourist season,” Bell said. “Most people think of warm and sunny weather when they think of tourism, but here we like it cold and rainy. It kind of seems fitting that you have rain during the duck calling contest.”
A steady, heavy rain began to fall minutes before the start of the contest.
Madison Heflin, 14, of Pine Bluff was the winner of the Women’s World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest, held before the marquee event.
“I’ve been calling since I was 3 years old,” Heflin said. “I really enjoy picking up a call and just calling. My parents inspired me. My coach, Rick Dunn, with Echo Calls, works with me once a week for three hours and I spend another 30 minutes every day going through my routine. It’s really just practice, practice, practice.”
Heflin’s parents, Russell and Cherie Locke, are understandably proud of their daughter, who began training for competitive calling in May of this year.
“We’ll be ready for next year,” Heflin said. “Now I’m ready to go kill some ducks.”
Kyle Dennis of Galesburg, Illinois, has been involved in competitive duck calling for eight years.
“The best part of these competitions is being around a bunch of duck hunters like me,” Dennis said. “They are all friends. I probably compete in about 10 of these per year. In order to make it to this competition, you have to qualify at one of the regionals held around the country.”
Antonio Jones of Redfield has been calling ducks since he was 10 years old. “I enjoy this for the friends; trying to qualify and just being able to do it,” Jones said.
Seth Hartman of Kansas City, Mo., has been part of the competitive duck calling scene for six years.
“This is something to do in the duck hunting off season,” Hartman said.