In what appears to be an annual chant that drums across the Arkansas Grand Prairie and Delta before the duck season opener, hunters and waterfowl managers alike are repeating the same thing, “If you have water, you’ll probably have ducks.” As temperatures plummet to the north, ducks and geese are pouring into the state, seeking the only available habitat on the landscape: agricultural fields and other impounded habitats with pumped water.
Heath Hagy, waterfowl ecologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Southeast Region, has been flying surveys over West Tennessee and northeast Arkansas. This past week, there was a significant spike in not only duck numbers, but mallards.
“We had a huge blowup in the numbers in this region this past week,” Hagy reports. “Our survey numbers went from 5,000 total ducks to 80,000 total ducks, with 70 percent of them being mallards.”
Hagy explains those numbers correlate with Missouri Department of Conservation surveys over this same period. Dramatic increases in mallard numbers and other species of ducks have shifted further south. While duck numbers are increasing, he is still seeing very dry conditions in the region.
“When we flew the survey on November 3, there was zero water on the landscape,” he reports. “Within the last 10 days there has been a significant increase in ‘clear’ water, which indicates pumped water.”
It’s the dry conditions that continue to plague some popular hunting areas, and waterfowl managers always note that landscape-level water and habitat are what hold ducks in Arkansas. Even the relatively small amounts of rainfall the state has received recently appear to have helped.
“Up until a couple of weeks ago, it was terribly dry,” says Jake Spears, DU biologist for Arkansas. “Since then, we’ve gotten a couple of rains, which didn’t provide much runoff, but enough to saturate the ground. This will help hold water a little better. I’m hearing reports that there are a lot of ducks on any available water.”
The severe drought through September and October will impact Arkansas public land hunters, who rely on precipitation to fill the bayous, rivers, and bottomland hardwoods that are currently dry. Nevertheless, Spears and others are optimistic.
“There’s not much habitat for the opener, but the stage is set for the public land hunters,” Spears says. “There are good numbers of birds south of us even. One or two good rains in the future will have the public land hunters in good shape.”
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Wildlife Management Division Chief Luke Naylor offered additional optimism, but also reassured hunters that it’s still early in the season.
“I’ve heard a few rumors and seen a few videos of big duck numbers on some properties,” Naylor says. “Only a few people out there publicize the ducks they have. But when you can hear the snow geese moving over at night, you know ducks are going to be with them.”
Naylor explains that the 14-day forecast doesn’t include any substantial rain events, but with luck, the Natural State will get traditional mid-December storms that create an abundance of habitat for ducks and duck hunters.
“We just need a big 4- to 6-inch rain that comes down quick and creates enough runoff to flood up those habitats,” he says.
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