By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor
A year ago, waterfowlers in Arkansas were facing a second-split opener with dry conditions across the state and hardly a puddle for ducks to settle on. Fast forward to 2018 and habitat conditions are much better, with enough recent rains to fill most managed wetlands.
“We’ve got water up to our eyeballs,” says Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) Northeast Region Biologist Jason Carbaugh, who notes much of the state received an average of three inches of rain last weekend.
“In northeast Arkansas, all of our wildlife management areas are now 100 percent flooded, and all of our greentree reservoirs are at full pool.”
“Definitely, no two years are the same, but most wildlife management areas statewide have pretty good amounts of water on them,” says AGFC Waterfowl Program Coordinator Luke Naylor. Still, he says, last weekend’s rain “didn’t lead to any widespread overbank flooding.”
Recent rains have raised river levels, with some already out of their banks or close to it, reports Echo Calls founder Rick Dunn in Beebe. “The Cache is out,” Dunn says, “and the White is up but not quite out.”
Lots of water, however, doesn’t necessarily mean lots of ducks, and that’s the situation hunters face as the second season kicks off. The most recent aerial survey from AGFC staff showed just under 900,000 ducks across the state, and not much has changed in the three weeks since.
“We’re in that middle ground right now where ducks are just bouncing around,” Naylor says. “It doesn’t seem like we’ve had any drastic increases as far as duck numbers in the last couple weeks, and I don’t hear any great reports from anywhere that folks are seeing any big influx of ducks.”
Water and weather conditions, he says, just haven’t lined up yet to result in any appreciable pushes of ducks, especially of mallards, but he notes the situation is “truly not all that abnormal” for this time of year. The normal peak of migration is still a couple weeks away and “it should be just starting to build now.”
AGFC biologist Zack Yancey, who manages the popular Dave Donaldson Black River WMA in Clay, Randolph, and Greene counties, has “seen pockets with good numbers of ducks, and Lake Ashbaugh is holding a lot of birds, but I don’t really think they’re here yet.”
“Driving around, I’m not seeing many ducks,” adds Bayou Bottoms Guide Service owner Kenny McNeal in the Bayou De View area, and he suspects the majority of the birds already in the state may be on the White and Cache Rivers.
“Experience tells me that when we have this much water, the ducks often go to the big rivers,” McNeal notes.
Fortunately for Arkansas duck hunters, a powerful cold front is in the weekend forecast, with significant snow predicted across Missouri, which has been holding more than 1 million ducks for weeks, 90 percent of which are mallards. Even parts of northern Arkansas are expected to receive precipitation, which Naylor says can only help.
“We need change, and we need something to stir things up and move ducks around a bit,” Naylor says, “and hopefully this weekend’s front will do it.”
Without a major push, Naylor adds, hunters likely will experience “a second opening-day flurry followed by a bit more of a down period until we get more water on the landscape and a good push of mallards.”
Big Lake WMA biologist James Foster thinks second-split hunting is “definitely going to be better than last year,” but he expects “the birds will spread out because of all the water.”
Until all the right conditions align, Carbaugh says hunters just have to “think positive. With low temperatures at night and a good weather front, the situation can change quickly.”
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Paul Davis is a writer and photographer with a lifelong passion for the outdoors, including waterfowl, turkey, and deer hunting. He resides in southeast Missouri and will be providing migration, habitat, and hunting information for Mo., Ark., Tenn., Miss., and Ky., through the 2017-2018 waterfowl season