Photo by Keith Sutton.
When my friend, Sammie Faulk, visited to hunt ducks with me in the east Arkansas Delta last year, he was constantly studying to learn more about the area. While examining a map of public-hunting areas one evening, he asked, “Who are these people?”
“What people?” I replied.
“Henry Gray, Rex Hancock, Dave Donaldson, Earl Buss, Steve Wilson — the people your management areas are named for. Who were they?”
It’s a good question. The areas named for these men are among our nation’s best-known and most productive duck-hunting grounds. But many waterfowlers are unacquainted with the conservationists whose names have become synonymous with these blue-ribbon hunting areas. Had it not been for the lifelong dedication of these far-sighted individuals, some of those places open to the public for hunting might have been open for mall shopping instead.
It seems fitting then, as we look at some places where you can expect to find good duck hunting this season, that we learn a bit about these honored namesakes as well. They gave us a legacy of public duck hunting that is unexcelled, and for that, they deserve our remembrance.
DAVE DONALDSON/BLACK RIVER WMA
In 1957, the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission began purchasing bottomlands along the Black River in Clay, Randolph and Greene counties to protect important wintering habitat for ducks. During the 1960s and most of the ’70s, these lands were known simply as Black River Wildlife Management Area. But in 1977, the commission voted to rename the area to honor Dave Donaldson of Paragould who worked more than 30 years as a state waterfowl biologist. When the Arkansas Wildlife Federation gave Donaldson its Conservation Achievement Award in 1974, it said Donaldson “has been at the business of trying to preserve habitat for over a quarter of a century, and has kept at it, which, in view of the severe obstacles, is something of a record. We are glad to recognize him for his many years of effort in the preservation of these waterfowl resources.”
With 25,000 acres of prime duck habitat open to public hunting, Donaldson WMA qualifies as the public duck-hunting capitol of the northeast Delta. A 17-mile system of levees, pipes and stoplog structures assist the Black River and Little River in flooding half the heavily wooded area each fall. That in turn attracts tens of thousands of mallards, wood ducks and other waterfowl.
The WMA is divided into three compartments, all of which can provide spectacular hunting opportunities. Little River Island on the east end of the area is popular with walk-in hunters who find access from Hubble Bridge near the area headquarters off Highway 280. The Reyno side compartment is on the north side of the area with access from Highway 67. The Lower Area is best accessed via the Black River off Highway 280 at Brookings.
Ducks are hard to see in tall timber and can be on top of you before you ever realize they’re near. You must decide in a split second if they’re within range, if they’re going to decoy, or if they should be taken on the pass. You’d probably kill more if you stuck to pass-shooting exclusively, even though it’s tricky to track, lead and shoot a bird in the scant seconds before it’s swallowed up in the maze of branches. Too often mallards that appear to be decoying circle and circle, and then disappear over the treetops when they spot something out of place. But resisting shots holds a special reward. Few sights in the sport of hunting are as memorable as a flock of ducks skimming the winter-bare treetops, wings cupped in classic fashion, as they drop from the sky into a flooded forest.
EARL BUSS/BAYOU DE VIEW WMA
From the time acquisition began in 1958, this tract of bottomland hardwoods in western Poinsett County was known as the Weiner Area or Bayou de View. The name Bayou de View originated from the stream that meandered through the area years ago, but which was channelized to provide improved drainage for the nearby farming community of Weiner. On Dec. 17, 1984, the AGFC voted to rename the WMA in memory of Earl Buss, a caretaker for the privately owned Thompson Duck Club that, through acquisition, became a part of the management area. Mr. Buss was retained by the commission because of his firsthand knowledge of the area and became its first area manager. He was a well-liked and respected member of the Weiner community.
This WMA exemplifies the old saying, “Good things often come in small packages.” Although it only covers 4,254 acres, those acres tend to provide blue-ribbon duck hunting opportunities each fall and winter. The WMA encompasses a significant portion of Bayou de View. The bottomland woods surrounding the bayou, and the rice fields surrounding nearby Weiner, have drawn ducks and duck hunters to the area since the turn of the century. Access is via county roads west out of Weiner on State Highway 39 or off State Highways 14 and 214.
The WMA is separated into three areas: the Martin Impoundment, 1,200 acres of naturally flooded timber at the northernmost end of the WMA; the Thompson Impoundment, 2,000 acres of pumped area bounded on the north by State Highway 214; and the Oliver Tract, 1,400 acres of naturally flooding bottomland at the southernmost end of the WMA, bounded on the south by State Highway 14. The key components of good duck hunting here are having enough water in the nearby St. Francis and Cache River bottoms, as well as having fields and surrounding areas flooded. Lake Hogue, which is within the WMA, also helps attract ducks. This 340-acre AGFC lake serves as a waterfowl rest area.
Mallards are the most-common and most-shot waterfowl, but wood ducks, gadwalls and occasionally other dabbling ducks make up part of the hunter’s bag as well.
REX HANCOCK/BLACK SWAMP WMA
Located in Woodruff County between Augusta and Cotton Plant, Rex Hancock/Black Swamp WMA encompasses 6,394 acres of overflow bottomland in the Cache River floodplain. It’s a natural environment for timber-loving ducks — a semi-wilderness of cypress, tupelo and red oak with a sprinkling of old river lakes, bayous and sloughs. Cache River, running through the middle of the area, is a major waterfowl flyway. If the water is up, this area provides some of the best duck hunting in Arkansas for its size.
When the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission first purchased lands there in 1971, it retained the name by which the area had long been known: Black Swamp. Then, in 1981, the name was changed to honor Stuttgart dentist Rex Hancock,
an unrelenting conservationist who fought for decades to save the Cache River and its tributaries from channelization by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. His leadership prevented drainage of 170,000 acres of east Arkansas wetlands, one of the largest remaining waterfowl wintering grounds in North America. And his distinguished career as a volunteer conservation activist earned him the most prestigious honors given by state and national conservation organizations.
The area Hancock worked so hard to protect is remote. The only two public accesses on his namesake WMA are off Highway 33 at Gregory, and hunters must use care not to get lost in the maze of flooded timber. But the aerial display of mallards dropping through the canopy of green timber is a spectacle every duck hunter should witness.
The key to successful hunting is the call. Considering the geography of Black Swamp with its heavy overstory of branches, it’s obvious trading birds would have to be right on top of a decoy spread before they could see it. Consequently, the oversized blocks of decoys used in open water or field hunting just don’t work. Sound in the form of duck talk is what first attracts birds in green timber. Hunters call constantly. Cool, calm bluebird days offer the best hunting because sound carries and lingers longer then. Timber ducks hear the calls and can zero in on the location.
Decoys help lure ducks those last critical few yards. Usually, hunters throw out a half-dozen or so in a small opening and blend into the shadow of a nearby tree. One or more hunters call, while others slosh the water with enthusiastic kicking to get the decoys moving and create the impression of mallards feeding on acorns.
HENRY GRAY/HURRICANE LAKE WMA
There’s little wonder ducks are attracted to this 17,000-acre management area in White County. This is prime real estate for wintering waterfowl, with extensive bottomland hardwood habitat adjacent to several water bodies. The WMA is bounded on the east by the White River. The Little Red River separates approximately 4,000 acres from the main body of the acreage. Glaise Creek also traverses the WMA, and there are several oxbow lakes, including Big Hurricane, Little Hurricane, Big Bell, Little Bell, Whirl, Honey Lake, Big Brushy and Mallard. Other important wintering waterfowl areas –Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge and Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek WMA, for example — are nearby, thus enhancing the area’s ability to attract thousands of migrant mallards and other waterfowl.
Hurricane Lake was the name given to the WMA when it was established in 1958. In 1985 the name was changed to honor then-director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department Henry Gray. Before becoming highway chief, Gray worked for many years as a state wildlife biologist, and he was instrumental in the initial purchase of the Hurricane Lake area. Gray also developed the Marine Fuel Tax system in which state taxes on boat fuels are used to build access to waterways.
In early fall, Gray WMA’s water-control structures are closed in an attempt to catch and hold runoff water from fall rains. Approximately 7,000 acres are flooded in this manner, making the WMA attractive to ducks on a more consistent basis than areas without such management enhancements.
Here, mallards and flooded green timber are the basic ingredients in the duck-hunting recipe. Less than a dozen decoys are required, and most hunters stand in the shadow of trees in knee-deep water. Calling is usually continuous — high calls to turn their heads, and then a lot of feeding calls alternated with quacking. Retrievers can be a special blessing in the thick cover and backwaters where a downed bird can be lost quickly.
The smart hunter doesn’t wait until opening day to get ready. He studies area maps, questions officials who are constantly on the area, and most important, scouts his hunting area from the ground. Sometimes, the choice spots away from the madding crowd are hard to get to, requiring long hikes across marshy ground. Others are easy to reach, but only if you know where you’re going. Hunters should scout several optional hunting spots just in case they’re beaten to the preferred stand by other hunters.
Access is from U.S. Highway 64, five miles east of Bald Knob, where there is a WMA road sign directing you into the area. Access to the south side can be gained by taking State Highway 36 east from Searcy to Georgetown.
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