By Paul Davis
With a little more than a week to go in the Arkansas duck season, good weather conditions and duck numbers are finally lining up for hunters, creating the potential for a strong finish.
“Our total ducks were up a little bit,” says Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Waterfowl Program Coordinator Luke Naylor when talking about the recent midwinter waterfowl survey.
Observers in the state’s delta region, Naylor says, estimated 1.4 million ducks, which is above the long-term average of 1.2 million. In the Arkansas River Valley, an estimated 34,000-plus ducks were counted, and in southwest Arkansas, total ducks numbered around 27,000.
While overall duck numbers are up, Naylor says, the percentage of mallards in the mix is down slightly. In the delta region there are an estimated 730,000 mallards, about 100,000 below the long-term average. In the Arkansas River Valley, mallards make up about two thirds of the total duck population. And in southwest Arkansas, only about 2,000 mallards were counted.
Mallards also have shifted in response to habitat conditions and hunting pressure. “The midwinter survey showed mallards in spots where there are hardly ever any mallards,” Naylor notes. “In talking to folks in northwest Mississippi, the southeast delta of Arkansas, and the area southwest of Memphis, they say they’re seeing some of the biggest piles of mallards they’ve seen in years, and nobody is messing with them. In fact, half the mallards in the delta are sitting over there.”
With bird numbers above average, the difference in species makeup comes mostly from pintails and gadwalls, with some shovelers thrown into the mix. “With those 70-degree temperatures and south winds, they turned around and moved up here,” Naylor says.
December was relatively dry for Arkansas, but several inches of rain recently changed the landscape. “We got a big rain right after our survey and definitely got some more habitat out of the deal, which is probably good for the ducks,” Naylor says. “A big change in the habitat like that, more than anything else, just stirs things up. It gives ducks some new places to look and hunters some new places to look.”
Mother Nature is also cooperating, at least for now, bringing much colder weather than the state has seen recently. “It just lines up that we finally got some conditions to get people excited,” Naylor says. “I think people have a lot of options for places to go, and the weather conditions, with crisp, clear mornings and a little ice on the decoys, are the type where people get excited about going.”
The colder temperatures may help push some birds back into much of Arkansas. “It’s a little late to expect any kind of push of mallards from anywhere, but maybe some birds that drifted back north during the warmer weather the last couple weeks will drift back south these last few cold days,” Naylor says.
Cold temperatures won’t last through the remainder of the season, however. Daytime highs are expected to reach around 60 degrees late next week. Naylor says that could make things a bit tougher for hunters. “Once it warms back up, with how late it is in the year, birds being paired up, and how they’ve been hunted for a long time—it all adds up to birds that are typically not all that cooperative,” he says. “Fresh habitat, however, can override a lot of that.”
And for those who put in the work, Naylor expects “there will be some people with great hunts.” If ducks do start heading north, hunters in the northeast portion of the state could benefit and finish the season strong. “It depends on how much south wind we get to start moving ducks, but people in northeast Arkansas may like it if a whole bunch of ducks shift up that direction,” Naylor says.