The Best Of The Best For Arkansas Ducks
September 24, 2010
Without rival as a duck hunting destination, the Natural State offers fine shooting throughout. Some areas, however, do tend to outshine the rest.
Photo by Ken Archer
Let's face it: Arkansas duck hunters are spoiled. Even when our duck hunting is substandard, it's still a lot better than what duck hunters in most other states have to put up with. Arkansas consistently leads the nation in mallard harvest, and is second only to Louisiana in total duck harvest. That's held true even during recent seasons, when warmer weather and other factors have combined to keep many ducks north of Arkansas and reduced hunter success rates.
That's not a shabby record. We have an abundance of high-quality duck hunting areas, both private and public, and although these areas are naturally much more plentiful in the east Arkansas delta, there's decent public duck hunting within a two-hour drive of every resident of the state.
Here's a run-down of a few of the better ones.
The superb duck hunting available along the Arkansas River today is a happy byproduct of the McClellan-Kerr Navigation System, completed in the 1960s and 1970s. The 12 water-control structures on the river within the state's boundaries transformed the Arkansas from a wild, shallow, silt-laden, treacherous and often near-impassable river into a navigable stream made up of a series of deeper, stable pools threaded through by a well-marked navigation channel of known minimum depth.
Not only did this stabilization increase the safety factor for recreational boaters on the river, but the higher water level necessary for carrying barge traffic also inundated many low-lying areas along the river, creating shallow, protected backwater areas teeming with life. The river quickly became known for its good fishing -- and for the excellence of its duck hunting, as well.
Puddle ducks are the Arkansas River's stock in trade, but there are good numbers of divers, too. Mallards are common here, but they don't dominate the scene the way they do in most other parts of the state. Gadwalls, widgeon, teal, pintails, shovelers, wood ducks, black ducks, mergansers, ringnecks, scaup, ruddy ducks, redheads and canvasbacks are all likely customers. You'll even see an occasional common goldeneye, oldsquaw or bufflehead.
This abundance and diversity of species stems at least in part from the fact that the Arkansas River is 1,450 miles long and stretches across the entire Great Plains region, from the east slope of the Rockies all the way to the Mississippi River. Every duck migrating south between the Mississippi and the Continental Divide is eventually going to encounter the Arkansas River. Since the river provides a wet corridor through an arid region, many ducks turn and fly along the river rather than continuing south across the arid plains. Eventually, they wind up in Arkansas.
The nature of the hunting here differs considerably from most Arkansas duck hunting. A seaworthy boat is almost a necessity. Currents can be strong, and the large, open expanses of water make for windy conditions and high waves at times. Many hunters here use bass boats, but a wide, deep-sided 16-foot or 18-foot johnboat will also work well. Regardless of your boat size or type, be careful. Stay in the marked channel until you reach your hunting area, and then proceed at low speed outside the channel. Sandbars, rock jetties and other underwater surprises are common. Be aware, too, that the river channel is used by large barges and other big vessels. Keep your wits about you, and don't get tangled up with a barge.
Some hunters use elaborate pole-frame boat blinds for hunting the Arkansas. Others carry cane, brush or camo netting to camouflage their boats against a brushline or cattail marsh, or to build a blind on an island or on the shoreline. Others don't bother with all that and simply hide themselves in cattails or brush in shallow water or on the shoreline.
Decoys and some calling ability are important for Arkansas River hunting. You might find a place that provides some pass-shooting, but usually the big-water situation means you must attract ducks to your position to do much shooting. Small spreads can be effective at times, especially in small open-water areas surrounded by dense cover. Generally, though, the bigger your spread, the better -- five to six dozen decoys should probably be enough, but twice that many won't hurt anything.
Look for sheltered areas, especially during bad weather. (Bad weather, incidentally, usually provides the best action on the Arkansas.) Likely spots are the lee sides of islands, brushy areas and shorelines; wind-protected areas behind breakwaters and levees; and small openings in brush or standing dead timber.
The entire run of the Arkansas River within the state's boundaries provides duck hunting opportunities, and it's hard to say whether the hunting is better in the portion upstream from Little Rock, or the downstream portion. There's excellent hunting in both stretches of river, and it's all open for hunting except in Corps of Engineers parks, within the city limits of cities along the river, along the stretch bounded by Holla Bend NWR near Dardanelle, and a handful of other select locations. You'll find a lot more shallow backwater areas in the lower ends of the navigational pools, nearer the upstream side of the dams.
There are numerous boat ramps scattered along the river, and these are shown on a series of free maps published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission; go online to www.agfc.com or phone (501) 223-630). However, the Corps also sells at reasonable cost a bound set of navigation charts of the river that show much more detail. Contact them at (501) 324-5551 for ordering information.
This isn't the easiest type of duck hunting you'll ever try. It can be cold and miserable and downright dangerous for a hunter who's not adequately equipped. But it can also be some of the best duck hunting you'll ever experience.
ST. FRANCIS SUNKEN LANDS WMA
The St. Francis River runs along the wet boundary of the Missouri boot-heel and down the east side of Crowley's Ridge, joining the Mississippi River not far upstream from Helena. The geography of the east Arkansas delta, the St. Francis channel and the visual barrier of Crowley's Ridge makes the St. Francis a popular flyway for mallards and other ducks migrating south into Arkansas.
Much of the St. Francis basin is swampy and almost impossible to negotiate, except by boat, and even that can be difficult. Much of the area was impacted by the New Madrid earthquakes nearly 200 years ago, when thousands of acres of this already swampy bottomland fell six to 10 feet and filled with water. This area is now known as the "St. Franci
s sunken lands," from whence the wildlife management area takes its name.
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission currently owns or leases more than 26,000 acres along approximately 30 miles of the St. Francis in Craighead and Poinsett counties. The public land is an irregular checkerboard interspersed with private lands, and the public parcels extend as far north as the southeast edge of the Missouri bootheel and south almost to Marked Tree.
As with all Arkansas public duck hunting areas, the Sunken Lands receive a lot of hunting pressure. Even so, it's possible for a hunter skilled at navigation and map-reading to find uncrowded hunting because of the checkerboard pattern of public ownership.
As already mentioned, a small boat is almost a necessity for hunting here. There's very little walk-in duck hunting. You'll probably have to hunt from your boat, too, since water depth in most of the Sunken Lands is above wader height. Unlike most other Arkansas WMAs, permanent blinds are allowed here, but most of the better hunting is where the blinds aren't. For maximum effectiveness and versatility, avoid the blinds -- use a boat blind instead.
Decoys may or may not be necessary. In open water, they're a big help, but in flooded timber they're usually more trouble than they're worth. However, there's no question that a Sunken Lands hunter needs some skill as a duck caller. Competition from other hunters is probably going to be considerable, and you can rest assured that most of them are going to be good callers.
Unless you have permission to cross adjacent private ground, almost all public access to the Sunken Lands is via the St. Francis River. The AGFC maintains seven ramps that provide access to the Sunken Lands. Stevens Landing, Oak Donnick, and The Siphons provide access to the lower portion of the area in Poinsett County. The Iron Bridge, Cocklebur Slough, Lake City and Williams accesses provide access to the upper portions of the area. The locations of all these ramps, as well as the locations of the parcels of land that make up St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA, are found in the Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, available for $18 postpaid from the AGFC at 2 Natural Resources Drive, Little Rock, AR 72205.
HENRY GRAY/HURRICANE LAKE WMA
Located at the junction of the White and Little Red rivers, a half-dozen miles southeast of Bald Knob, this overflow area contains more than 17,000 acres of prime bottomland hardwoods. It has been a popular duck hunting spot for many years -- since long before it became a WMA. An old newspaper account from the 1890s tells of four Chicago hunters who hunted the "Hurricane Bottoms" of Arkansas for a week and shot more than 1,000 mallards.
Those meat-hog days are long gone -- and good riddance. However, the Hurricane Bottoms still provide some fantastic mallard hunting when the river is flooded and the bottoms are inundated, and the place is a trifle easier to reach than when the Chicago hunters came here more than a century ago.
Today, a well-maintained road system off Highway 64 provides access to the interior of the area and to both the White and Little Red rivers. When the area is fully flooded, however, the access road becomes the boat ramp where it drops off the high ground just inside the management area boundary. There's a second boat ramp on the south side of the Little Red at Nimo, off Highway 36 near Georgetown.
Most of Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA lies north of the Little Red, but approximately 4,000 acres lie to the south near Georgetown. This area doesn't flood as regularly as does the north part, but when it does, it provides some fantastic and usually uncrowded hunting. A ramp on the White River at Georgetown provides access to this portion of the WMA, and to the east side of the management area as well, following a five-mile upstream run.
Boating in is the best way to hunt here, although a limited portion of the west side of the area can be reached by walking in from the gravel access road on the west boundary. There are several primitive campgrounds along this gravel road, as well as another primitive campground at the boat ramp at Georgetown.
CACHE RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
Bayou DeView and Cache River are legendary mallard hotspots with a long history of fantastic hunting. However, the recent rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker on Bayou DeView has resulted in the closure of portions of this area to the public, so check current regulations before planning a trip here.
Hunting pressure at Cache River NWR varies from heavy to almost nonexistent, depending on water levels and the remoteness of the part of the refuge you're hunting.
Boating is the rule here, but walk-in hunting is possible, especially in the northern sections, which mostly consist of a narrow band of public land on either side of the stream. Access points (many primitive and traversable only by four-wheel drive vehicles) are too numerous to mention, but you can reach portions of the refuge from Clarendon, DeValls Bluff, Brinkley, Biscoe, Des Arc, Cotton Plant, Augusta, Patterson, McCrory and Beedeville. Most of the accesses appear on the official refuge map, available for a fee from refuge headquarters in Augusta, (870) 347-2614. A free hunting permit, also available from headquarters, is required for all hunting.
Only morning hunting is permitted, and hunters can't enter the refuge until 5 a.m.
BAYOU METO WMA
No discussion of the best public duck hunting in Arkansas would be complete without mentioning Bayou Meto, although the area's great reputation already causes definite overcrowding at times.
Located 15 miles southwest of Stuttgart between the Grand Prairie and the Arkansas River, and surrounded by a duck-friendly mixture of private duck clubs and flooded grain fields, Bayou Meto WMA is a natural for wintering mallards. At approximately 32,000 acres the largest state-owned WMA in Arkansas, it's also the oldest, with the first land acquisitions taking place in the late 1940s. Almost every acre is bottomland hardwood forest, more than half of it flooded seasonally by 33 miles of levees and many water-control structures.
Bayou Meto WMA attracts hunters from all over the state and all over the nation, and over-crowding is becoming more and more of a problem. On some weekend days, it's hard to find a place to park at the boat ramps.
To help relieve the crowding and the hunting pressure, the AGFC has banned guiding on Bayou Meto and has limited hunters to 15 shotgun shells each on the area. So far the agency has resisted imposing a quota permit system on Bayou Meto or any of its other public duck areas. However, it doesn't take a Rhodes scholar to figure out that such a move is coming some day. Be sure to check the latest regulations before planning a hunt here -- or to any other public area in the state, for that matter.
Walk-in and boat-in hunting are both popular on Bayou Meto WMA, but boating is probably a better choice, because it broadens a hunter's choices and extends his effective range. The use of boat motors isn't allowed on the management area between 1 p.
m. and 4 a.m. the next day; there's a 25-horsepower limit at the area. Only morning hunting is permitted, except for the last three days of the season.
Chest waders are a must here, since there are dips and sloughs in this supposedly flat terrain that are too deep for hip boots. Bring decoys if you wish, but they're usually more trouble than they're worth.
Campgrounds and access points are numerous on all sides of Bayou Meto WMA, but there are no hookups or facilities. Maps of Bayou Meto and all other state-owned WMAs are available from the AGFC at (501) 223-6351.