Migration Alert: Low Water, Low Duck Numbers Persist in Arkansas

Dec. 10, 2020 – Mississippi Flyway – Arkansas

© Michael Furtman

By Paul Davis, Mid-South Migration Editor

With Arkansas’s second duck season set to open Friday, hunters will have their work cut out for them, as low water conditions across much of the state, and a correspondingly low number of ducks, promise a challenge.

“Water is a problem. We haven’t had a major rain in quite a while now,” says Luke Naylor, waterfowl program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC). “It’s pretty clear that surface water is what drives duck numbers, and it’s extremely low right now. There’s really not a lot out there that hasn’t been artificially provided.”

The only region of the state with normal amounts of water is northeast Arkansas, but even there, water levels vary greatly.

“Right now, all the GTRs are over 100 percent full,” says Zack Yancey, wildlife biologist for Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area (WMA), located in Clay, Greene, and Randolph Counties.

Jason Carbaugh, AGFC biologist in the Northeast region, flew over the area earlier this week and says there are only a few areas holding water.

“As far as water goes, [Big Lake, Dave Donaldson Black River, Shirey Bay Rainey Brake, and St. Francis Sunken Lands WMAs] are considered to be at normal target water levels,” Carbaugh says.

He notes that there are a fair number of fields that have been pumped, especially along the Black River and south of Jonesboro, but otherwise conditions are very dry.

“The Cache and Bayou De View Rivers are very, very low,” Carbaugh adds.

In the southwest region of the state, Mossy Oak Pro Staff member Shane Smith says, “We’re extremely dry. The Red River is so low you can walk across it. Every pump on the river is out of the water.”

To find success, Smith says he’s had to resort to hunting big water.

“We need a four-, six-, or eight-inch rain over 48 hours—the kind that really changes habitat conditions,” says Naylor.

Low water levels also typically mean low duck numbers, and while surveys flown earlier this week haven’t been tabulated yet, Naylor expects duck numbers to be down.

“I don’t know for sure where we’re at, but anecdotally, I’ve got to assume that numbers are pretty low out there. It seems pretty consistent that folks just aren’t seeing that many ducks around,” Naylor says. “I’d be shocked if they’re not low.”

There were some areas holding significant concentrations of ducks, however.

“In my opinion, northeast Arkansas, as far as duck abundance, is fair,” Carbaugh says . “Lake Ashbaugh was covered up with ducks, and Big Lake [and Wapanocca National Wildlife Refuges] … those were kind of the biggies that had large concentrations.”

Carbaugh also notes that he hasn’t yet seen any big pushes of mallards, so hunters will find mostly early migrants like pintails, gadwalls, and teal.

During his survey flights, Carbaugh was surprised to find that most ducks remained on known resting areas.

“Our season has been closed the past eight days, and I was expecting to see more ducks scattered out in the fields than I did,” Carbaugh says. “They just weren’t widespread. I’d fly over 30 to 40 fields in a row and not see a single duck, and then all of a sudden, for whatever reason, I’d fly across another field and it would have 1,000 or 2,000 birds in it.”

Given all the challenges, Naylor expects hunting to be tough until the weather conditions change.

“Sometimes you get that ‘second opening day' effect, and the birds are kind of relaxed a little bit, but based on what [the field staff] are saying, I don’t know,” Naylor says. “There will be some good experiences in a few places, and I’m sure they will be vulnerable for a few days, but it’s probably going to end up with a day or two of pretty good hunting and then a very, very quick dropoff.”