WALNUT RIDGE, Ark. - A beard dominates his face and it’s a good one – thick, squared at the jaw, straight off the face of Woodrow Call of “Lonesome Dove” fame.

It is the color of egret feathers, as is the ponytail that snakes down his spine. A hunting guide, Hammertime looks the part. He belongs in a catalog modeling camo bibs, head tilted skyward with a duck call at his lips, a panting lab at his side.

He talks a wonderful game. Upon hearing his soft drawl, you will instinctively trust this man - pay him even - to find you ducks. And find them he will. Hammertime has the knack.

If you draw a straight line west from the sole of Missouri’s boot heel, it will just about run through Walnut Ridge, Ark., hometown of Charles “Hammertime” Snapp. This northeast area of the state, about 20 miles west of Jonesboro, has seen a boom in rice production over the years. With the rice acreage upswing, ducks have been pulled in and stay longer. Operations like Snapp’s well-tended Alamo Lodge and Davy Crockett Guide Service (with a requisite coon skin cap-wearing, musket-toting mascot) have benefited tremendously.

“One reason we keep the ducks is location,” says Snapp. “No doubt about it. We’re located smack-dab in an area that grows more rice than the rest of the state put together. When they first began producing rice, Stuttgart and the Grand Prairie region were sucking all the ducks out of the Mississippi flyway. Now, we’re doing the same. Ducks love rice and there’s an abundance here. We don’t have to go far. Everything we hunt is within a 30-mile radius – primarily in Lawrence, Jackson and Craighead counties.”

Blood work

He comes to this job honestly; it flows in his bloodstream. His uncle and namesake was an Arkansas Game and Fish commissioner in the 1950s, and almost all his family members were serious outdoorsmen and conservationists.

“I was raised outdoors – squirrel, rabbit, duck, whatever was in season,” he says. “Day in and day out, that’s what we did. Some mornings, my daddy would drop me off in the woods with a couple of beagles. I’d hunt all day and Daddy would come back at sunset to pick me up.”

As a boy, Snapp’s family owned a motel in Walnut Ridge. At the time, traveling salesmen worked circuits and stayed at the motel regularly. Often, salesmen would be milling around the parking lot when the Snapps came in from hunting. Impressed with the take and knowing they’d be back in a week or so, the men asked if they could bring their shotgun and tag along. Eventually, someone offered the Snapps money for the privilege. That’s how a passion for the outdoors morphed into guided hunts.

“The first person who paid us years ago has turned into the business we run now,” says Snapp. “It was totally unexpected. It was kind of an incredible, lucky accident. You know, we seem to have those at regular intervals.”

Theories and practices

While the start may have been an accident, building the operation into a success has been anything but. It’s taken years of sweat and countless hours of duck observation. Now, firmly established, Hammertime is willing to talk about what allowed his clients to average nearly five birds per day last season.

Despite what others think, Snapp “firmly believes” that most of the ducks from the northern ranges are making it at least as far as northeast Arkansas and southeast Missouri. The region begins getting birds as early as mid- to late October.

Despite misgivings in other areas about the practice, farmers working with Snapp flood some fields to catch those early birds. Flooding begins, at the latest, by the third week of October. By doing so many early birds - pintail, gadwall, widgeon, and green-wing teal - are caught and stay. Some mallards also hit the early flood.

Snapp points toward some modern farming practices as reasons for the dearth of ducks in central Arkansas. “Compared to 20 years ago, combines work better, headers work better, and you just don’t lose the grain you used to. On top of that, the crop is harvested so much earlier now – especially in the Grand Prairie – that once the seed is dropped and rained on a couple of times, it’ll sprout. Up here, we still harvest early but not nearly as early as they do in the Grand Prairie.”

Many birds using Louisiana as their wintering haven buzz through Arkansas on the way down. But Arkansans don’t flood their ground early enough to catch them, says Snapp.

“There are literally hundreds of thousands of ducks – of a variety of species – that fly through Arkansas because there isn’t enough water to hold them. I hear the argument, ‘Well, if we flood that early, the ducks will eat our fields out.’ So far, we haven’t had our fields eaten out.”

Torching it off

Snapp isn’t afraid to flick a Zippo. As soon as they cut their precision leveled fields, the farmers Snapp works with dry-roll the ground. While this doesn’t mud stubble in, it does break the ground over. The stubble is then burned as soon as possible.

This goes against much conventional wisdom. Snapp pulls a story that ran in Delta Farm Press a few years ago. In it, there is ample warning about burning rice fields too early.

“Man, you’d think doing this is nothing but doom and gloom,” he says. “Well, they’re wrong. I’m here to tell you it works.”

Snapp realized the benefits of burning through another happy accident. Six years ago, a hapless farmhand burned a field off before duck season.

“He wasn’t supposed to do that, and we were in a panic,” says Snapp. “We thought the seed was burned all up and the field was ruined for hunting. When we walked through the stubble ash, it looked like a total loss.”

But then it rained, soot and ash washed away, and the rice seed was exposed. Having been through a flash fire, the rice wasn’t viable as seed – any hope of future germination had been cooked away. But Snapp soon found that the ducks didn’t care about anything except calories. The field was one of the years hottest.

“After that, we started talking to farmers about the possibilities. If it’s a dry year on these no-till fields, it’s actually an advantage to go ahead and dry-roll and burn them. This way, there’s a whole lot more grain at the start of the season to keep the ducks fat and happy.”

His views were reinforced several years ago during an exceptionally wet fall. A couple of fields were too wet to burn. As a result, after several weeks under water, “you could see fine, green hairs” sprouting off the rice seed. Duck production in those fields plunged 40 to 50 percent.

Fewer invertebrates

There is an obvious drawback, though: after burning, invertebrates that normally build up in the flooded, rotting stubble won’t be available to ducks heading back north to nesting grounds. But Snapp has a fallback.

“Within a mile of the rice fields we work, we have three moist soil units – untouched wetlands - that hold shallow water and provide refuge for ducks heading back north. Ducks pack those out.”

In the Bible, the Old Testament calls on farmers to leave their land fallow every seventh year. Snapp has found a variation on the law fits duck hunting.

“You know, sometimes you can fall into a bucket of (dung) and come out smelling like a rose,” he says. “Last year, I broke my back and my wife, Jackie, and I were debating whether we needed to shut the operation down for the season. To cope, we decided to downsize our operation and work in at least one day per week to just leave our hunting ground alone.”

Snapp maintains enough hunting ground so that, even when running at capacity, his clients will shoot only half the locations any given day. Even so, the extra day of shooting rest meant the ducks stayed in the area even longer.

“That rest period worked very, very well – keep in mind, last year produced our best kill average ever. In fact, we feel so positive about the volume of birds we held that, next season, we’re going to try and work in an average of three days per week that we let the ground just sit. We’re going to hunt Thursday through Sunday.”

Scouting and field size

As much as he loves his work, Snapp has to make peace with a maddening fact: making sure clients have a great hunt leaves little time to do any hunting himself. It’s a trade-off he has come to accept, if not embrace. During season, he spends the majority of his day scouting in preparation for the next day’s hunt. Saying temptation might prove too great Snapp doesn’t carry a shotgun on such forays.

For hunting success, Snapp also says the size of fields comes into play.

“Most small fields we won’t use – 40 to 80 acres surrounded by fence rows just don’t work well here. The successful hunts we have are on 150-acre-plus fields with one pit. Sometimes we’ll have just one pit in a 300-acre field that’s completely flooded.

“On a 300-acre field, you may have birds at the end away from the pit and they’ll stay there while you’re shooting. While those at the other end will suck a lot of ducks out of the air, at least they’re in the area. You can at least pick up a few here and there and it still means a great hunting day for our clients.”

“Why Hammertime?”

He laughs and pops a tape in the VCR. The raw footage, shot for use in a hunting show, begins in flooded timber just before daylight bleeds over the horizon. At first, it’s too dark and the camera picks up only a chorus of quacks, beating wings and splashdowns. The birds are so close their wingtips brush the boat. The cameraman, jazzed with adrenaline, begins to breathe heavily.

“What time is it?!” hisses an anxious hunter every minute or so.

“Not yet,” is the soft reply of the timekeeper. “Don’t shoot yet.”

The deluge of birds continues as the seconds pass. They sound like flat stones smacking the water all around.

The barest light finally arrives and reveals an astonishing number of ducks. They are everywhere and still coming. At the sight, the cameraman begins to sound like a locomotive powering its way up a mountain. It’s impossible not to be impressed. They bob in the water; they flutter earthward in groups of 10, 20, 30; they float down through cracks in the trees; the scene is wonderful beyond any telling.

“It’s time,” the timekeeper finally says. At this, lightning and thunder erupt.

Snapp is pleased with the spectacle. “Do you see the way the ducks kind of put the brakes on? You see the way they cup their wings when they’re landing and bend back? Well that, my friend, is hammer time. That’s what put us on the map and that’s what keeps folks coming back year after year. Duck hunters know that hammer time is magic -- it’s good for your soul.”

(Editor’s note: for more on Davy Crockett Guide Service, visit arkansaswaterfowl.com)

For more photos and more on this and other stories, see the latest issue of Delta Farm Press.

e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com