Limited Habitat, Spotty Success in Arkansas

Migration Alert: Dec. 13, 2016 – Mississippi Flyway – Arkansas

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Photo © Michael Furtman

By Wade Bourne, WF360 Mississippi Flyway Migration Editor

Currently, duck hunting in Arkansas is a case of the haves and have nots.

Significant numbers of new birds are starting to show up in the state, and hunters who have water in their fields or woods are faring well. However, other hunters who depend on public lands that flood from natural runoff are having difficulty finding water and ducks. Recent rain events have skirted southeast of the Arkansas Delta, and traditional duck-rich river bottoms continue to be high and dry.

Mark Hooks is the supervisor of wildlife management in southeast Arkansas. "We still need a lot more water. We've had a couple of 1-inch rains, but they weren't enough to give us the big runoff needed to fill our public areas," Hooks says. "Bayou Meto is still 2 feet below flood pool, and there's virtually no flooding in the White River bottoms. So what ducks we have are mostly concentrated on private clubs and fields that have been pumped up. We really need a 3-inch rain to get us in good shape."

After a first opening split that was warm and dry and offered spotty shooting, the second split opened Dec. 8 and continues through Dec. 23. Heavy snows and brutally cold temperatures in prairie Canada and the upper Midwest have ramped up the migration of mallards and other ducks into Arkansas. And with another Arctic blast predicted for later this week, biologists and refuge managers are anticipating yet another surge of new birds to show up. That's good news for hunters. But still, more water is needed to spread this wealth around.

An aerial waterfowl survey completed Dec. 8 confirms that more ducks are winging into Arkansas. In the Mississippi Alluvial Valley (Delta), observers counted just over 750,000 ducks, including 445,000 mallards. This year's December mallard count was still below the long-term average of approximately 700,000 birds, but it represents a quantum leap above the November survey that tallied less than 83,000 mallards. In the December survey, mallard numbers were highest in the Bayou Meto-Lower Arkansas survey zone, followed by the Cache and Lower White survey zones.

In addition, the survey showed that ducks were concentrated in a few hotspots (areas with abundant water) rather than distributed evenly and widely. Aerial surveyors found notable concentrations of ducks in the northern Delta area; east of Lake Ashbaugh/Peach Orchard; south of Amagon along the Cache River; and at Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) near Blytheville.

Steven Rimer manages Big Lake NWR, and he's seen a major increase in duck numbers in recent days. "We've had a big influx of new birds within the last week. Until recently we've had just a trickle of new ducks, but no major push. But this past Thursday morning I noticed a big increase in the number of birds we're holding—mainly mallards and gadwalls."

Zach Yancy manages Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area (WMA) near Pocahontas, and he reports that rainfall in northeast Arkansas hasn't been sufficient to cause any major flooding along the Black River. "I've heard that hunters in pumped-up rice fields and private timber holes are doing okay, but hunting on the WMA in areas we've pumped up has been spotty," Yancy says.

Bo Sloan, manager of White River NWR near Gillett, says the bottoms are dry and ducks are scarce on his refuge. However, Sloan adds, "I drove to northeast Louisiana last week to help with a project there, and the farther south I got, the better the water conditions were. Recent big rains dumped a lot more water there and in Mississippi's Delta region than we got in Arkansas. I'm wondering if a lot of ducks haven't overflown us and gone to where habitat conditions are better."

Arkansas' second split closes Dec. 23, then resumes Dec. 26 and continues through Jan. 29. And Hooks offers hope for hunters who are frustrated by a lack of success.

"Two years ago we didn't get water in our big public areas until early January. But once we got it, we had three weeks of really good hunting," Hooks recalls. "That season turned out to be one of the best we've had in years. So there's still time for the rains to come and conditions to improve to provide hunters with the good shooting they're hoping for."

Wade Bourne is the Ducks Unlimited magazine editor-at-large, co-host of DU TV, avid waterfowler, and conservationist. Bourne will provide habitat and hunting reports for the Mississippi Flyway throughout the 2016–2017 season.