Delta Ducks

Make the Mississippi Delta region your destination for duck hunting this month. (January 2008).

Photo by Keith Sutton.

Arkansas duck hunters are always at the mercy of Mother Nature. We never know for sure what to expect from one season to the next. Ducks may be abundant or scarce, depending on a variety of factors ranging from the condition of Canadian breeding grounds to the amount of October rainfall.

One thing is certain, though. Some of the best duck hunting in the U.S. this year will be on public hunting lands in the Mississippi Delta region of eastern Arkansas. Even in the worst years, waterfowling here is better than almost anywhere else. As one of my duck-hunting friends often says, "Even when it's bad, it's the best."

Let's look at the three sections of the region -- the northern Delta, the Grand Prairie and the southern Delta -- and some public areas in each of these sections where your chances of bagging a limit of ducks should be good this season.

THE NORTHERN DELTA

The northern portion of the Delta in Arkansas includes lands just north of Interstate 40 to the Arkansas-Missouri border. The area is bounded on the east by the Mississippi River and on the west by the White and Black rivers basins. This includes areas around Jonesboro, Blytheville, Weiner, Wynne, Fair Oaks, Harrisburg and other cities.

This area requires early rainfall to catch a share of the earliest ducks and to hold substantial numbers of later flight ducks prior to freeze-up. Freezing conditions occur earlier here than in other parts of the area, and in years with early freezing conditions, area sportsmen may have poor hunting conditions much of the season. But when early rains occur, coupled with early or even normal winter weather to the north, this part of the state serves up superb waterfowling opportunities. Good acorn production in hardwood bottoms, and flooded rice or soybeans, help hold ducks in the northern Delta but are less important to a good season than rainfall and winter weather.

The hallmark of waterfowling in the northern Delta is the excellent green-timber hunting available on public lands. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has developed key hunting grounds on several wildlife management areas here.

On the north side of this area, Dave Donaldson/Black River Wildlife Management Area attracts an enormous number of wintering waterfowl. More than half the area's 25,000 acres are inundated each fall to attract an average winter population of 20,000 mallards and 5,000 wood ducks. If water conditions are good, area visitors can enjoy some of the best waterfowling our nation offers. Much of the timber is easily hunted in waders, with no need for a boat. Access is via Arkansas Highway 280 near Brookings and U.S. Highway 67 south of Corning.

Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake WMA, 20 miles southwest of Walnut Ridge, encompasses 10,528 acres along the Black River. A 3,000-acre green-tree reservoir attracts large numbers of ducks -- primarily mallards and wood ducks -- and provides some of the finest timber hunting in the state. Carry a few decoys, a call and a retriever. Access is from Highway 25 at the town of Lynn.

Earl Buss-Bayou de View WMA serves up top-flight duck hunting on one of the last large remaining tracts of bottomland hardwood timber in Poinsett County. The Thompson and Oliver tracts of the 4,254-acre WMA were developed specifically as wintering waterfowl areas, with additional ducks drawn to the area by the many flooded rice fields and pin-oak flats around Weiner. Blue-ribbon mallard hunting is a hallmark of the area. The area is reached by county roads west from Weiner on Highway 49 or off highways 14 and 214.

Strung along 30 miles of the St. Francis River Floodway in Greene, Craighead and Poinsett counties, the scattered tracts of St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA became nationally famous as a duck-hunting paradise more than a century ago. Tens of thousands of mallards and other ducks still flock to this area each winter, providing superb hunting opportunities for visiting sportsmen. There are few roads on the WMA, so internal access requires boating from one of several area launch ramps on the St. Francis River, including those at Siphons, Oak Donnick, Stephens Landing, Mangrum Landing and Iron Bridge. Access areas are off several state highways from south of Paragould to Marked Tree.

Rex Hancock/Black Swamp WMA encompasses 5,640 acres of overflow bottoms along Cache River. Mallards are bountiful when the river floods area woods, but hunters can easily get lost in the semi-wilderness of cypresses, tupelos and red oaks. Scout hunting areas in daylight and take a compass. Access is from state Highway 33 at Gregory (Woodruff County).

Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA preserves 16,888 acres of prime bottomland duck habitat along the White and Little Red rivers. Some 7,000 acres of pin-oak flats are flooded annually to attract wintering mallards. Sunny "bluebird" days are perfect for green-timber hunting, and you don't need lots of decoys. At most, use a dozen. Local hunters believe in high-decibel, continuous calling for pin-oak action. Enter the area from U.S. Highway 64, 5 miles east of Bald Knob.

Nearby, Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek WMA (4,200 acres) in eastern White County is one of the state's newest waterfowl hotspots. Thousands of ducks winter here each year, and this management area promises to be one of area's top hotspots for waterfowling enthusiasts. Check current regulations for this year's hunts.

Federal lands in the northern Delta include large portions of Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge in White County and Cache River NWR in Jackson, Woodruff, Monroe and Prairie counties.

Bald Knob NWR covers 14,800 acres lying roughly 2 miles south of Bald Knob. Formerly a rice farm, the refuge is quickly earning a reputation as one of the top Delta duck-hunting hotspots. Mallards, pintails, teal and wood ducks are abundant most years, providing great gunning for savvy waterfowlers. Call the refuge at (870) 347-2908 or log on to www.fws.gov southeast/BaldKnob/ for a map, regulations and more info.

Cache River NWR currently encompasses 64,000 acres in numerous tracts. The river basin contains some of the most intact and least disturbed bottomland hardwood forests in the Mississippi Valley region. This certainly is one of the northern Delta's best duck-hunting areas, but access to refuge lands is limited, and hunters have to do some homework to find top hunting sites. For more detailed information, call (870) 347-2614 or visit www.fws.gov

THE GRAND PRAIRIE

Southeast Arkansas's Grand Prairie is world-renowned for its excellent duck-hunting opportunities. This area includes lands south of I-40, b

ounded on the south and west by the Arkansas River and on the east by the White River. The area includes all of Arkansas County and portions of Jefferson, Pulaski, Lonoke, Prairie and Monroe counties. Major cities include Stuttgart, England, DeWitt, Lonoke and Gillett.

Hunting on the Grand Prairie is best when early winter storms to the north coincide with heavy rainfall and good acorn production in overflow bottoms and public hunting areas. The combination of large river bottoms, extensive acres of rice, soybeans and private reservoirs, clubs that pump water during dry years, and almost 250,000 acres of prime duck habitat in Bayou Meto WMA and White River NWR assures that ducks will be somewhere in this area every year. A hard freeze-up is about the only factor that shuts this area down. Even then, if there's good overflow water and mast production in river bottoms, fine hunting can be found.

Bayou Meto WMA, in the heart of the Grand Prairie, is one of the AGFC's most popular duck-hunting areas, and White River NWR, a migratory waterfowl sanctuary wintering hundreds of thousands of ducks each year, falls in the eastern portion of the area. A huge network of rivers, bayous and sloughs crisscrosses the area, providing abundant duck habitat and outstanding gunning.

At 33,700 acres, Bayou Meto is the largest of the AGFC's many WMAs. Each year about 13,000 acres of green timber are flooded to attract ducks. These grounds are in the heart of the Big Bayou Meto basin, a major waterfowl flyway. The basin has always been a winter paradise for ducks. Throughout its length -- from Lonoke to the bayou's mouth near Gillett -- excellent duck hunting is enjoyed by thousands of sportsmen. Bayou Meto WMA is in the lower portion of the basin.

Big Bayou Meto flows alongside the eastern boundary of Little Bayou Meto. Another large bayou, Wabbaseka, enters the WMA from the west, and numerous sloughs and oxbows within the boundaries add to Bayou Meto's overall attraction to waterfowl. Nearly all the area contains big timber, and the pin-oak flats hunting is a unique feature that draws thousands of hunters annually. Hunters can walk in with waders, or travel to interior hunting spots via boats, from several access areas around the WMA.

White River NWR falls partially within the Grand Prairie and partially in the southern Delta. It represents the largest remaining tract of bottomland hardwood forest in Arkansas. As might be expected, this bottomland forest provides habitat for huge numbers of wintering waterfowl. Because hunting is very restricted, the refuge bottoms become one gigantic rest area, covered annually with hundreds of thousands of ducks.

White River's surroundings and internal arrangement make it a natural for ducks. Dotted with harvested grain fields and naturally flooded by river overflows, thousands of acres of flatwoods are covered by acorn-strewn backwaters during duck season. More than 200 oxbow lakes scattered throughout the area and adjacent agricultural lands provide food for the hordes of ducks. As the ducks trade back and forth from farmland to woodland, they fly over the thousands of acres of flooded timber across the hunting area within the refuge. Many of them drop into these woods, coaxed by decoys and duck calls, and many of them wind up in the hunter's bag because of that decision.

The portions of the refuge open during waterfowl season offer excellent hunting for mallards, which are the dominant waterfowl species on the refuge. Nearly every duck species using the Mississippi Flyway can be found here, however, and hunters take good numbers of gadwalls, widgeon, wood ducks and green-winged teal.

As is the case with all the state's national wildlife refuges, permits are required for hunting. These are free and unlimited and are available at refuge headquarters and area stores. For additional regulations, and information about hunting areas and times, contact the refuge headquarters in St. Charles at (870) 282-8200 or online at www.fws.gov/whiteriver/.

The Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce -- (870) 673-1602; www.stuttgararkansas.com -- can provide all the information you need to plan your trip to the Grand Prairie: waterfowl regulations, Stuttgart weather, lists of motels and guide services and much more.

THE SOUTHERN DELTA

Counties that lie within the area of the southern Delta include Lee, Desha and Chicot and portions of St. Francis, Crittenden, Monroe, Prairie, Phillips, Jefferson, Lincoln, Drew, Chicot and Ashley. I-40 forms the northern boundary, the White River, Arkansas River and Bayou Bartholomew mark the western edge, and the Mississippi bounds the east.

Many factors -- the success of breeding ground production, the severity and timing of northern winters, food and habitat availability, local water and weather conditions, and more -- influence the number of ducks wintering in the southern Delta.

Local water conditions are, perhaps, the most important factor to consider. Regardless of the number of ducks in the flyway, southern hunters are almost totally dependent on heavy fall rains for a good season. The severity of winters to the north, or the lack of winter, also plays a major role in how many ducks come to the region and when, but nothing is more important than water.

Unfortunately, when compared to the northern Delta and Grand Prairie, the southern Delta holds few public-hunting lands. Trusten Holder Wildlife Management Area, south of Tichnor, and the east side of White River NWR offer superb green-timber duck hunting on public land. Most other waterfowling takes place via boats on big rivers, on public lakes or on private lands.

Trusten Holder WMA in Arkansas and Desha counties is owned by the AGFC (4,406 acres), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1,490 acres) and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (4,372 acres). This public-hunting real estate is divided into two large sections. One tract lies 35 miles southeast of DeWitt near White River Lock and Dam No. 1 on the White River. Another area lies 15 miles northeast of Dumas near the Pendleton Bridge on the Arkansas River.

Both locations draw hordes of wintering ducks that flock here to the area's overflow bottomland hardwoods, oxbow lakes and sloughs. Hunting is excellent for waterfowlers who do some pre-hunt scouting. But unless you're extremely lucky, don't expect to come here on a whim and have a successful hunt. Lots of local hunters use the area, and though there's plenty of space for all who show up, you'll do better if you spend some time surveying the area for out-of-the-way hotspots that draw mallards, wood ducks and other waterfowl.

When other areas freeze over, many waterfowlers stay on or near the flowing water of the White River, which ices over only during the most frigid conditions. Mallards flock here by the tens of thousands when fields and flooded woods freeze up. Wood ducks and green-winged teal join them frequently; gadwalls, ringnecks, shovelers and pintails round out the hunter's bag.

Because the lower White River is so broad and expansive, most hunters stay off the river proper and hunt the flooded green timber at streamside. Look for a place off the main river where ther

e's an opening in the timber. Then, set out a dozen or two decoys, hide your boat and back up beside a big tree. If you're in a fairly remote location, the ducks almost always work well, and you can call them into the decoys. Be certain before hunting, however, that the portion of the river you're visiting is open for hunting when you plan to be there.

One thing is certain. Some of the best duck hunting in the U.S. this year will be in the east Arkansas Delta. Even in the worst years, waterfowling here is better than almost anywhere else.

For information on the AGFC wildlife management areas mentioned in this article, and for season dates, regulations, waterfowl reports and license purchases, contact the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, 2 Natural Resources Drive, Little Rock, AR 72205. Call 1-800-364-GAME toll-free, or check out the agency's Web site, www.agfc.com

(Editor's Note: For a limited time, autographed copies of Keith Sutton's book Hunting Arkansas: The Sportsman's Guide to Natural State Game -- regular price $24.95 -- can be purchased by Arkansas Sportsman readers for $12.95, plus $3.00 shipping. Send a check or money order to C&C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Drive, Alexander, AR 72002.)

Find more about Arkansas fishing and hunting at:ArkansasSportsmanMag.com

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