MANILA – Nowhere has Arkansas’s face been changed by man more than in the northeast section of the state.
Massive clearing of forested land coupled with enormous drainage projects for more than a century have resulted in a completely different complexion.
Big Lake Wildlife Management Area in northern Mississippi County covers 12,320 acres and provides attraction for wintering waterfowl plus good hunting opportunities in the 21st Century as the tract did in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Big Lake WMA’s next-door twin is Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Both trace their origins to the New Madrid Earthquakes of a three-month period in the winter of 1811-1812. Few people lived in the area then, but the earth sank along Little River, along the St. Francis River, along the Mississippi River and dramatically changed to the environment. Northwest Tennessee’s Reelfoot Lake was one result. Big Lake is another.
Unlike Reelfoot, Big Lake is a series of connected waters, some seasonally dry. This is on the federal refuge. Water on the state WMA is maintained by impoundments.
Ducks are the top attraction – but not the only one – at Big Lake WMA, and they have used the area since prehistoric times. Northeast Arkansas was the state’s top duck region before Stuttgart, before the Grand Prairie turned to rice growing early in the 20th Century.
When railroads developed extensively after the Civil War, with the invention of ice making following, market hunting of ducks, geese, deer and other game was a major activity in the Big Lake area. Meat went to St. Louis, Chicago and other northern cities.
Wealthy sportsmen, most of them from out of state, bought and leased land for hunting clubs and conflict with the market hunters arose. The “Big Lake War” lasted off and on for about 40 years, with shootings, some fatal, along with beatings, burnings and threats. Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1915 by President Woodrow Wilson, and gradually the violence subsided.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was also established in 1915, but the prospect of federal troops arriving on railroads that hauled out ducks and other game was much more a factor than the half-dozen state game wardens in Little Rock.
Conflict garnered headlines, but drainage work was more of a wildlife habitat factor. With much work by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local drainage districts, land was cleared and planted – and flooded by nature nearly each year.
The timbered wetlands adjoining the federal refuge were not suitable for farming, and the creation of Bayou Meto WMA between Stuttgart and Pine Bluff was soon followed by Big Lake WMA. About 7,000 acres were bought by the AGFC from a drainage district in 1950, and several other purchases in the years that followed brought the total acreage to 12,320.
Big Lake WMA lies in the throat of a funnel of lowlands draining from the Missouri Bootheel south to the St. Francis River. AGFC biologist Robert Zachary said, “We don’t have a flowage easement, so this is used as a sump area. The water comes from Missouri.”
Ditches and cross levees help with the water flowing on Big Lake WMA. Three-fourths of the area is flooded in late fall and winter on two impoundments, one of 6,160 acres and the other 3,100 acres.
This is what the ducks like. There is water, there is food from hardwoods and from easy-to-reach farmlands. Squirrels and raccoons also are numerous on the WMA, with squirrel populations rising and falling with the acorn crops. Big Lake WMA is popular with coon hunters wanting to train dogs.
Deer are not plentiful on the area, and modern gun hunters are limited to shotguns or handguns only.
Primitive camping is permitted at several sites and at Mallard Lake at the southern end of the WMA. Fishing is popular at 300-acre Mallard Lake, the home of Arkansas’s state record largemouth bass. This 16-pound, 4-ounce eye-opening fish was caught in 1976 by Aaron Mardis of Memphis.
Area anglers know, too, that some excellent catches of crappie, bass, bream and catfish are made sometimes on the borrow ditches and other waterways in the management area to the north of Mallard Lake. The area is a cross-hatch of ditches, most accessible by boat and most fishable.
Heavily timbered Big Lake WMA has large stands of cypress and tupelo in the wetter areas and much oak, ash and hackberry on the low ridges and less-moist sections.
Birding is popular on the management area and on the refuge next door. Eagles and ospreys have nested on both. Well over a hundred species of songbirds have been counted on the management area alone.
Big Lake WMA is reached off Arkansas Highway 18 east of Manila and west of Blytheville. The northern portion of the WMA can be reached by turning on Arkansas Highway 181 at Dell then taking a gravel county road west to the AGFC’s Bois d’Arc Access with its boat launching ramp.