I asked Manley why Arkansas is still so important to mallards, considering the changes that man has wrought on the landscape over the years. He gave me several general reasons.
First, he said, is tradition. For longer than anyone can tell, the Mississippi Delta has been the historical wintering grounds for the mid-continent mallard population. Eastern Arkansas is attractive to those southbound birds because of its sheer size and because of its water resources. For illustration: "The Delta portion of Arkansas," he said, "is twice the size of the Delta portion of Mississippi."
Add to that the number of major drainages in Arkansas, and you begin to put a lot of water on the landscape. Those drainages include the White River, St. Francis River, and Arkansas River-a major east-west drainage that even pulls birds eastward from the Central Flyway.
We arrived at a huge hole in the timber and began unloading. Hundreds of decoys were already sitting motionless on the chest-deep water. Snapp explained that the Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA is one of only a few public areas in the state where hunters are allowed to leave their blocks out overnight.
That's a unique regulation, but it comes with a unique caveat-you are not allowed to prohibit someone else from hunting over your decoys. That means if you show up at your spot and someone else is already there, you better just make a quick friend and plan on spending the morning hunting together.
But we were the only hunters in this hole this morning. Manley and I hung our gear on either side of a huge old Nuttal oak, steeled ourselves against the icy water pressing against our waders, and turned our eyes skyward as the heavens began to lighten.
As I leaned against that oak, trying to stay concealed, I started thinking about how long the tree had been there, and the millions of acres of trees just like it that had blanketed this area more than 100 years ago. Manley told me that even though many of the original forests have been cleared and much of the habitat has been converted to agriculture, eastern Arkansas still has a relatively large hardwood component, compared to the other Delta states of Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Illinois.
Snapp's scouting report served us well. Because there had been a full moon the night before, the birds had been feeding in the surrounding grainfields all night. At sunrise, they would begin moving into the timber to find shelter and resting areas. And that's exactly where we were waiting.
It was a clear day, and the sun was already nearing the treetops when the first flights began arriving. Just about every duck hunter in Arkansas will tell you that sunny days are the best for hunting timber. But try to find out why that is and you're likely to get a variety of responses.