You’ve settled in on cruise control. Duck and goose seasons have been open for a while now, and you’ve been taking your share of greenheads and geese at your favorite haunts. Then comes the weather forecast: cold and nasty. Within days, those action-filled hunts — and the birds — are gone. Everything is covered with ice from the sleet, freezing rain and arctic temperatures. Now is when you have to make the move to moving water.
That is where the birds have flown, providing a mixed bag of wing-shooting action that could include everything from woodies and white-fronted geese to canvasbacks and Canadas. The decision now is, where to go? Arkansas is blessed with more than 9,700 miles of streams and rivers, so there are many destinations from which to choose. Here’s the advice a trio of waterfowling professionals had to offer.
WHERE, WHEN AND HOW
With 14 of his 32 years spent chasing ducks and geese, Avery Outdoors pro-staffer James Staten has learned a lot about reacting to cold snaps. While some of his hunts are in green timber or brushy areas, he’s spent many hours on the Arkansas River and its backwaters. Staten knows, though, that hunting rivers and streams is the exception and not the rule for Natural State waterfowlers.
“Hunting moving water is not the most common thing done in our area,” he said. “but when the freeze hits or the water is scarce in areas you usually hunt, then it can be a good change of pace.
“Usually, the best time to really key in on the moving water is during a hard freeze like the one we had last season,” Staten continued. “When the backwaters, fields, timber and sheet water freeze, the current in the moving water will keep it open and a good spot for ducks. Also, this is when smaller streams and creeks can hold ducks that normally don’t go to these types of places.”
With the Arkansas River bisecting the state for roughly 320 miles from Fort Smith to where it encounters the White River in southeast Arkansas, there’s no shortage of water to hunt. Accesses are found at many of the lock and dam sites and major highway bridges along the Arkansas. But, the river itself is not all that is available here.
For instance, Staten sometimes heads up Illinois Bayou to chase ducks and geese. That waterway spills down the south side of the Ozarks and runs into Lake Dardanelle. It is more familiar as a fishing destination. But, accessing the bayou from various U.S. Forest Service roads or Arkansas Route 164 or 27 bridges can bring shotgunning opportunities for enterprising waterfowlers.
“The opportunity is endless when hunting this type of situation. Mallards and gadwalls will most usually be the greatest part of the duck bag, just like always in Arkansas, but you never know what may fly into the spread,” Staten explained, noting that goldeneyes, redheads and buffleheads are commonplace for hunts on the bigger rivers.
“Smaller streams that have good moving water tend to hold more puddlers than divers, it seems. Divers, especially the big ones such as canvasbacks and bluebills, don’t mind the moving water at all since they are very used to being on larger water systems,” he added.
One of Staten’s keys to success is scouting. “I do lots of scouting from my boat,” he said. “I run the rivers looking for rafts of birds holding in places. If a river or stream is accessible from a truck, then drive it and glass it with binoculars. Watch for general bird movement.”
After scouting is accomplished, the next step is a good setup. Staten prefers a point in the main part of the river. The spot should face away from the sun, usually downstream, he said. “In smaller waters, I like a place that has a good, deeper hole with a shallow flat that the birds can rest on.”
Steve Bowman, the outdoor writer and television producer, co-produced the “Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac” and “The Season: A Photographic Look at the Sport of Duck Hunting.” His 32 years of waterfowling are well documented in those books and through the various articles he’s written.
While he agrees with Staten about hitting the Arkansas River during a freeze, he also believes there’s another time to hunt moving water.
“Moving water is always best after a brutal cold front,” Bowman began. “It doesn’t have to freeze, but when birds move, they head to migration routes, which are typically where water moves — creeks, rivers, etc. Moving water can also mean rising water, and those newly inundated areas are ripe with grass seeds, invertebrates and possibly acorns. Catch it on the rise and stay with the rise or crest and find where the water is spreading out.”
Bowman likes the Cache River and Bayou DeView for moving-water hunts. But, he’ll also set up in the Arkansas River, choosing to target puddlers over divers by hunting slack water rather than the main current.
“On the Arkansas River, you are hunting an interstate highway for migrating fowl, and there is the possibility to shoot every species that travels down the Central and Mississippi Flyways. When you get on the main thoroughfare, you will likely see it all,” said Bowman.
The key, he said, are the cold fronts. “The more brutal the better. Ducks want to feed in slack water, loaf in slack water, but they follow moving water on their migration. When they are traveling or being pushed, rivers and creeks can be awesome.”
Another item of importance, according to Bowman, is patterning waterfowl movement.
“Realize that ducks (and geese) may use fields in the mornings and evenings, and then start moving. I think they key on creeks and rivers as flight paths. But, when the conditions are right, moving water may be better in mid-day than any other time.
“Stay with it,” he advised. “Look for river bends where you can set up a big presentation because that is normally a wider spot in the river and traditionally it will be closer to slack, spreading water.”
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