Around the turn of the century, passengers passing through Arkansas on the Cotton Belt Rail Road were given a small handbook titled "With Rod and Gun in Arkansas."
The handbook was printed in 1900 by Charles Sumner Nichols. A through car left Chicago, going to Texas, every night, and passed right through the St. Francis territory. The morning train from St. Louis reached the St. Francis in the evening, and the night train reached the St. Francis at a convenient hour the next morning. The train carried a through chair car and a Pullman Sleeper.
In addition to the St. Francis region, excellent hunting was advertised in many other points along the Cotton Belt Route. Deer and turkey were to be found in Poinsett, Cross and Woodruff counties and the White River country.
Prairie county and Arkansas counties were listed as the finest quail shooting in the country.
Photo pages in the book showed scenes on the St. Francis River and Big Lake, which included bait casting, a dugout and boatman, a steamboat, the Annex at Bertig (Buffalo Island Hunting and Fishing Club), trotting, a river house, fly casting, duck shooting with a retriever, lone Gum Tree Island Outing Club House (near Paragould), land hunting with retriever, a river bayou, guide spearing frogs at night, an old road near Hornersville.
The St. Francis River was said to run from Bismark, Mo, to Helena, Ark., finally emptying into the Mississippi River. For about 140 miles the river's width ran from one to 10 miles across, running through a tangle of vegetation, giant cypress and gum trees.
The waters of the St. Francis, near Bertig (between Paragould and Hornersville), were listed as being pure and clear, and in many places reached a great depth. This spot was listed as being unique in it its own originality, believed to be without comparison. The current was said to be about three miles an hour through the main channel. Natives in small dugout boats pushed through beds of pond lilies and flags, sometimes six feet tall, provided great frogging, shooting and fishing expeditions. Moss on the top of the water was said to extend down 10 feet, making a great place for the gamey bass fish.
From May until October fishermen enjoyed trolling for black bass. Fly and minnow fishing were also favorites A string of 30 black bass, weighing from a pound to four pounds was listed as an ordinary catch of two hours on the St. Francis. No license fee for fishing or hunting was collected from visiting sportsmen.
Rich habitat supplied hiding places for the wood duck and other waterfowl, for their nests and rearing their young. Habitat included thousands of acres of flag, smart weed, timber land overflows, and various other forms of vegetation.
The Buffalo Island Hunting and Fishing Club at Bertig was organized by a number of St. Louis gentlemen and was managed by Steve Verfilio, an experienced restaurateur and caterer. Memberships in the club were set at $2.50 per year, which included board, lodging, boats, and use of fishing tackle. Natives earned up to $1.50 a day for working as guides.
Sportsmen caught a train out of Paragould (population 3,000) to Hornersville, where it turned around and went back to Paragould. Bertig, on the St. Francis, was located midway on the line. Cardwell was between Bertig and Hornersville, and was famous for possessing one of the largest egg case making plants in the United States. Cardwell also had several saw mills.
Sportsmen could also leave the Cotton Belt train, at Jonesboro (population 5,000), and take the J.L.C.& E. (Jonesboro, Lake City, and Eastern) 16 miles to the "sunk land" on the St. Francis River at Lake City. Lake City had two good hotels and many places for the entertainment of sportsmen. Monette, 10 miles east of Lake City, is located in the midst of fine prairie surroundings, and was said to have some of the finest quail shooting in Arkansas. A new hotel had been built at Manila in October 1900 for the accommodation of sportsmen.
The Cotton Belt train ran the 32-mile trek from Paragould to Hornersville twice daily. At the end of the line hunters left the train, where guides would take them south to Big Lake, a wide spot on the Little River. The lake was 20 miles long with an average width of five miles or less. The Little River rises somewhere in Cape Girardeau County, Mo., and empties into the St. Francis about a mile above the town of Marked Tree.
All species of wild ducks, geese, and other water fowl are part of the Big Lake area. Black bass, both of the large and small mouth species, were taken in large numbers. Deer were so extremely plentiful in the area, and trophy size animals were constantly found.
Native hunters pursued wild turkeys at night, often shooting them in their roosting places in the trees. The hunters worked as guides using ancient paths through the maze and tangles of dense and almost impenetrable vegetation.
Most all the land in around the St. Francis River and Big Lake has been drained, cleared and cultivated through the past 100 years, but area hunters continue to take pride in the abundance of fish and water foul, found along the waterways and wildlife management areas today.