Dirk Nash raced the boat ahead as if he was a NASCAR driver. He knew one throttle position: wide open. The big johnboat blasted through the bottoms, then followed a submerged roadbed. It veered down a winding creek channel, then a flooded logging trail through a stand of tall timber that was ghostly in the dawn twilight. For the uninitiated, it was a white-knuckle ride. For Nash, a guide who had made the run countless times, it was just a way to get to his duck hole without wasting time.
We were on the White River National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Clarendon, Ark. The White was flooding and fresh water was backing into the timber. Nash and other locals knew it meant that the ducks would come in swarms, and he wanted to beat competitors to his spot.
After dropping decoys in a small hole of open water, Nash rammed the boat into a stand of brush on the upwind side. We took off our life vests, retrieved our shotguns from their cases and loaded them with 3-inch shells. “Look at that,” Nash whispered with excitement edging his voice. Twenty or more mallards were settling into our spread. “Boys, it’s going to be a day to remember,” he prophesied.
And so it was. Ducks poured from the Arkansas sky that morning, etching a memory that still remains vivid. The White River National Wildlife Refuge lived up to its reputation as the “duck capital of the world.” Other parties were scattered along the bottoms, and the echoes of their guns rolled like thunder through the towering oaks and cypress trees. Chances are good that on many wildlife refuges in many states, the same sort of scenario was repeated.
The National Wildlife Refuge System is the land management arm of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS). The refuge system’s mission is “to administer a national network of lands and waters for the conservation, management and, where appropriate, restoration of fish, wildlife and plant resources and their habitats within the United States for the benefit of present and future generations of Americans.” One such benefit is providing hunting and fishing when it doesn’t conflict with an individual refuge’s main purpose for being.
Last March, the National Wildlife Refuge System celebrated its centennial anniversary: one hundred years of wildlife and fisheries management and public recreation. President Theodore Roosevelt, an avid hunter, established the nation’s first refuge in 1903 at Pelican Island, Fla. In the decades since, the system has expanded to 540 refuges across the nation, totaling nearly 95 million acres.
“Last year national wildlife refuges logged over two million hunting visits and over six million fishing visits and we had millions more wildlife watchers and hikers,” says Steve Williams, director of the USFWS. “Where it’s possible, hunting and fishing programs are being expanded on refuges. Both activities were identified as priorities under the Refuge Improvement Act (1997). It confirms how important it is to continue those traditions that have supported conservation.”
There’s at least one national wildlife refuge within about an hour’s drive of most major cities. Consequently, a majority of sportsmen can enjoy reasonable access to USFWS lands where outdoor recreation such as fishing and hunting is probably available on a seasonal basis. To find the refuges and learn more about controlled hunts, visit the National Wildlife Refuge System’s Web site: http://refuges.fws.gov, or contact the USFWS at 800-344-9153 and ask for the publication National Wildlife Refuges: A Visitor’s Guide.