After weeks of tough hunting conditions and widespread ice, it looks like several factors could be lining up for a strong finish to Arkansas' regular duck season, which closes Sunday.
After a freeze out which began on New Year's Eve, the weather finally has warmed, the ice is melting and there is generally plenty of water on the landscape. All that's needed is ducks.
"It's been really slow," says says Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) Wildlife Biologist Jason Carbaugh, who conducted an aerial survey in the state's northeast quadrant last week. "Everything was frozen."
The number of ducks he saw, Carbaugh noted, was about half of what was counted during the Jan. 2-3 midwinter survey.
"The Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge normally has 60,000 to 70,000 ducks this time of year, and it can hold 150,000," Carbaugh says, "but it only had around 20,000 in the areas they could keep open. Lake Ashbaugh only had about 10,000, and that's a low number for that lake."
The popular Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in Clay, Greene and Randolph counties has been "pretty much locked up" with ice, says AGFC biologist Zack Yancey, and at its peak, it was 7 to 8 inches thick. "I drove the area the other day and didn't see very many birds at all."
A "ghost town" is how Holt Blackwood at Delta Duck Farms in Brinkley described the Grand Prairie region last week. "The ducks and geese just moved out," he says.
Fortunately, this week's warm-up is coming at just the right time and should bring good numbers of birds back from the south. Large temperature swings, like Arkansas has seen over the last several days, Yancey says, tend to get birds moving well.
"I expect to see a push from this warm-up," he says. "If it thaws, usually the last week is the best week. It's got potential to get really good."
The ice is "already starting to thaw out, and we're seeing some high ducks moving around," says Blackwood, who is optimistic about the final days of the season. "We've had a great south wind, and that helps thaw the ice and brings ducks back up. Give it a couple days, and they'll start to 'come home' as we say."
When those ducks do start returning this week, hunters will need to adjust their tactics to stay ahead of the game. Ducks Unlimited Regional Biologist Nick Biasini says late in the season, ducks are starting to isolate themselves from larger flocks as they begin their mating rituals, and hunters should be aware of those changes to have success. "They're more structure-oriented as far as the habitat they'll use, and they prefer to be isolated," he says.
Blackwood agrees, saying much better hunts can be had in the waning days of the season if hunters focus their efforts around thicker cover. "Timber and buckbrush is always better versus open areas," he says. "They're also more difficult to decoy when their courtship begins, and smaller spreads seem to help."
Large numbers of snow and white-fronted geese already have made their way back, offering good hunting, especially in rice fields where ice has melted and food has become more abundant. Time, however, is quickly running out on the seasons for white-fronted and Canada geese, which also close Sunday.
The state's split Light Goose Conservation Order, with relaxed regulations, will run Jan. 29−Feb. 2 and again Feb. 4−April 25. The one-day break on Feb. 3 is set aside for the youth duck hunt, for hunters ages 15 and younger.
Find and submit migration reports to the DU Migration Map.