By Wade Bourne, WF360 Mississippi Flyway Field Editor
All eyes north! That's where Arkansas duck hunters are looking as a massive winter storm blankets the state and sends temperatures plummeting. Anticipation of a new push of mallards from northern states is high, though they haven't arrived in appreciable numbers as of this writing. However, as rain and frozen precipitation fall across the state, habitat conditions are improvng, and hopes are high for a strong upsurge in new birds and hunter success.
"The second segment of our season opened yesterday (Dec. 5)," says Luke Naylor, waterfowl program coordinator for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission. "I hunted in western Arkansas, and I personally didn't see evidence of a big migration. I don't think we've had a major push in the last few days. I know they're coming, and it will be interesting to see where they go when they get here. We still need more water. Most fields that haven't been flooded artificially are dry, and our rivers are low."
Naylor adds that duck numbers were average during the first segment of hunting (Nov. 23-Dec. 1), and hunter success was fair to good in pumped fields. But there is little flooding in Arkansas' major river drainages, and concentrations of ducks have been scattered out. Thus, many hunters on private lands have enjoyed good shooting, while success for public land hunters has been sporadic. Naylor says, "I'd say we've had a typical early season – spotty; on again, off again."
Naylor adds that the water level in Bayou Meto, Arkansas' premier public waterfowl area southwest of Stuttgart, is steadily rising, and hopefully precipitation from the current storm will speed this area's flooding. As of yesterday, however, ducks haven't piled into Bayou Meto.
Stan Jones runs Stan Jones Mallard Lodge near Alicia in north Arkansas. Jones corroborates Naylor's assessment that the big push hasn't arrived.
"We don't have nearly the ducks we had before the first season started," says Jones. "When the season opened, we had 3-4 nightly freezes, and I'm guessing that 90 percent of our ducks left, and they haven't come back. This morning we probably had just a fraction of the birds we had on the first opening day. And this morning we didn't see evidence of a new push of ducks into our area."
Jones adds that he's heard reports of large numbers of ducks in southern Arkansas. "They got 5 inches of rain last week when we got just a little, and supposedly there's a lot of water out in the fields down there, and the ducks typically follow the water."
Bill Alexander is manager of the Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge near Bald Knob, Arkansas. He reports that the last count on his refuge showed 260,000 ducks, which might be the peak for the year. "We haven't seen a big migration of new ducks in the last few days, and we might actually see a big migration out this coming week owing to forecast low temperatures in the teens. When we freeze up, many of our ducks head further south. When we thaw back out, we generally pick some back up, but usually not as many as left."
So, by the time this report is posted, a new flight may be winging into Arkansas. So far, however, their arrival is all smoke and no fire. It's inconceivable that new ducks won't come in from South Dakota, Iowa, northern Missouri and other points north. But as of this writing, biologists and hunters are still scanning the skies and hoping the current storm will bring a whirlwind of new birds and an improvement in hunting across much of Arkansas.
Wade Bourne is the Ducks Unlimited Magazine editor-at-large, former DU-TV host, avid waterfowler and conservationist. Bourne will provide habitat and hunting reports for the Mississippi Flyway throughout the 2013-2014 season for Waterfowl360 and the DU Migration Map.