The Many Faces Of Arkansas Duck Hunting

No matter where you live in the Natural State, outstanding duck hunting isn't far away -- and the opportunities are far more varied than many sportsmen realize. (December 2005)

Photo by R.E. Ilg

Scene 1: First light, flooded timber, southwest Arkansas. In shirtsleeves, the three hunters are damp with sweat from their long walk through knee-deep water. As they wait for dawn to ramp up enough to bring on legal shooting time, they open the top buttons of their shirts to allow for better cooling, and swat at the mosquitoes buzzing around their ears. By noon, the air temperature is 74 degrees.

Scene 2: First light, a shallow backwater off the Arkansas River. The thermometer stands at 11 degrees Fahrenheit, and for the last 100 yards of the two-mile boat ride, the hunters wonder if they'll get to their hunting spot before their ears fall off. The temperature never rises above 25 that day.

Scene 3: First light, east Arkansas rice field. The hunters stand chest-deep in the pit blind, watching dawn in the east and an ominous black wall of thunderclouds approaching from the west. Sunrise and the front arrive simultaneously, and the calm, pleasant 50-degree morning degenerates to a windy, rainy, sleety nightmare as the temperature plummets 20 degrees in an hour.

Three hunts, three different years, three different areas of the state, three vastly different weather patterns. I was present for all three, and the common denominator is that the hunts all took place on Dec. 11, proving the old saying: "If you don't like the weather in Arkansas, stick around a few minutes."

That's exaggeration, of course. A joke. But humor's based in truth, and the truth is that Arkansas weather is as fickle, changeable and unpredictable as a knuckleball in a stiff breeze. And in late fall and early winter, that's true in spades.

THE DELTA'S THE BEST

The best and most consistent hunting, as well as the largest quantity of it, is to be found in the east Arkansas delta, of course. Jim Ronquest, a veteran duck hunter and guide from Holly Grove -- Rich-n-Tone Guide Service, (870) 734-4497 -- successfully chases webfeet all over the area.

"Depending on the time of month, weather and water conditions, ducks could be anywhere on the east side of the state in December," Ronquest said. "If it's warm and dry, try and find flooded fields in the northeast corner of the state. You can sometimes get permission to hunt a field or lease something by the day if you don't want to go through a guide.

"Also, look for creeks and flooded sloughs that you may be able to get permission on. These areas can be great producers of ducks late in the morning, ducks seem to congregate in these areas."

Securing permission to hunt private land is usually unnecessary if there's plenty of water, Ronquest noted. "If water conditions are good in the state and the tributaries of the White River are swollen up, check the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's weekly waterfowl report to get an idea where to hunt," he said. "If it's warm and the water is stable, look northeast. As the water falls, ducks tend to follow it downstream.

"If things are frozen in the north and central parts, go below the Arkansas River and check out south Arkansas. Again, check those duck reports and call the refuge offices. They will tell you what is happening on federal ground. Hunting overflow water can be terrific, in the woods or backed out in a field. All it takes is some effective scouting."

Ronquest doesn't shy away from big water, either. "Don't forget the Mighty Mississippi," he advised. "There's some excellent hunting in the oxbows, backwater sloughs and flooded willow bars the entire length of the river. Look for areas where ducks may be dry feeding and coming back to the river for rest. This is where large decoy spreads and big boats are the order of the day, along with maps, a compass and GPS."

OTHER OPTIONS

As good as the duck hunting is in the delta, there's plenty more to make Natural State hunters smile. No matter where you live in Arkansas, you're not far from some rewarding and widely varied waterfowling opportunities. Following are some options to consider.

CORPS LAKES MIXED BAG

Hunting ducks at a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake like Ouachita or Bull Shoals is a lot like fishing there. Most of the lake will be empty of ducks, just as most of the lake will be devoid of fish. But even as a fisherman who's familiar with these lakes can locate fish, so can a duck hunter who knows what's what find birds.

There'll always be a few ducks on these large lakes, but severely cold weather and/or fast-moving fronts will usually make the hunting better by putting the resident birds in the air and bringing new ones in. Watch for the flight patterns of ducks trading back and forth on these large lakes, and watch for ducks on the water as you move around the lake. Watch for geese, too, since most large Corps lakes in Arkansas hold a decent complement of Canadas.

Maps are important for most types of hunting, but at a big lake, they're crucial. Not only will they let you safely navigate a big lake and keep you from getting lost, but they can also guide you to likely duck and goose hotspots.

You might get by with the small-scale maps published by the Corps for each of its lakes -- available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at (501) 223-6300 -- but there's a better option: Go online and check out Fishingmap.com -- ground mail address, 21869 Birchmont Lane, Nisswa, MN 56468; phone, (218) 831-1058 -- which sells detailed topographic maps for Millwood, Dardanelle, Ouachita, Bull Shoals, Norfork, Greers Ferry and Beaver lakes -- the lakes that, pretty much in that order, provide the best big-lake duck hunting in the state -- for less than $10 each.

Look for long, narrow points extending into a lake, broad, shallow bays, and shallow flats at the back ends of coves or on the sheltered sides of points or islands. Main-lake points are good flyway features and may yield good pass-shooting and decoying opportunities as well, especially for diving ducks. In extremely cold weather, these main-lake points will sometimes yield oddball varieties of duck not usually encountered by Arkansas hunters -- species like the oldsquaw, the goldeneye and the ruddy duck.

The shallow areas are favored feeding and loafing areas and are better for puddle ducks than for divers. You'll likely have a mixed bag -- mostly gadwalls, widgeon, teal, a few mallards and maybe a wood duck or two.

WOODIES ON WOODED CREEKS

Pass-shooting wood ducks along a creek or bayou or in flooded green timber is poss

ibly the sportiest thing going in Arkansas waterfowling. Because of that, and in light of the bird's excellent table qualities, I've always been puzzled why so few people hunt the wood duck on purpose --particularly when you consider the breathtaking beauty of the drakes. It just doesn't make good sense to pass up wood ducks, but that's exactly what a great many Arkansas duck hunters do.

Wood ducks can save the day when the mallards don't come -- or, as has often been the case in recent seasons, when the mallards aren't even in the country. It's usually an early-morning thing, and by the time the sun clears the horizon most of the action is usually over. But for that 30 minutes of legal shooting time before official sunrise, the action can be fast and furious. And it can be pretty humbling to boot.

If you want to take advantage of this early-morning wood duck flight, be sure you're in place and ready to shoot when the magic minute arrives. (There's also an evening flight, but this usually occurs after sundown, except on cloudy or rainy days.) Station yourself along a creek or bayou channel so you have as long a line of sight as possible, or find a hole in the canopy in the flooded timber and stand where you have the best field of view you can manage.

Stand right in the open, or at least where you have a clear swing, because this isn't like the circling, hide-and-seek game you play with green-timber mallards. These little speedsters will be on you and gone before you can push away from your tree, so get out in the open and have your gun at half-port so you can fire quickly. You still won't be quick enough in many cases.

If you're going to hunt woodies like this, it'd be best to have a buddy with you, so that you can face opposite directions and cover twice as much sky; if you're alone, you're going to get blindsided a lot. Stand either back to back with your partner, or 25 to 30 yards apart, facing each other and covering each other's blind side. Listen as well as watch, because often you'll hear the wooo-eeek call of the female woodie before the ducks come into view.

An open choke and small shot are the best combination for this type of hunting, and a light 20-gauge over-under will probably serve you better than the heavy, long-barreled 12-gauge pump or auto that most Arkansas hunters use for ducks and geese. My choice for wood ducks is my 20-gauge Charles Daly O/U, choked improved and improved modified, with 3-inch loads of No. 4 or No. 5 steel shot or No. 5 and No. 6 bismuth or heavier-than-lead shot.


In extremely cold weather, main-lake points at Corps impoundments will sometimes yield oddball varieties of duck not usually encountered by Arkansas hunters --species like the oldsquaw, the goldeneye and the ruddy duck.
 

You don't have to be in the delta to find satisfying wood duck pass-shooting. The larger permanent streams of the Ozarks and Ouachitas provide a wealth of opportunities, as do the streams of the Gulf Coastal Plain, The important thing, as mentioned earlier, is to be there early, because the action doesn't last long.

FLOATING AND JUMP-SHOOTING

This is another type of waterfowl hunting that few Arkansans bother with, but it's fun and effective, and it can be done in conjunction with pass-shooting for wood ducks on the same streams and bayous.

The stream in question must be navigable with your choice of boat, of course, and in most cases the stream must flow through public land to keep you from running afoul of trespass laws. But there are many such streams in the Ozark and Ouachita national forests, and other suitable waterways and sloughs in the Big Lake, Cache River, Pond Creek, and White River national wildlife refuges.

A canoe or small johnboat is best for this type of hunting. You can have an electric motor or gasoline engine on the boat, but you can't use the motor to approach ducks; if the boat is still in motion from the power of a motor, it's illegal to shoot, so this is a drift or paddle game. All that's required is to float or paddle downstream, remaining quiet while staying alert and ready, jump-shooting ducks as you go. The shooting can be close-up or at the extreme of effective range, so float-hunting usually requires a little more gun and larger shot sizes than does pass-shooting wood ducks.

It's not a bad idea to carry the makings of a boat blind and a sack or two of decoys on a float hunt. Often you'll find a wide spot or sheltered backwater of a creek or bayou that's an excellent blind-and-decoy spot.

THE LIVING BLIZZARD

If you've done much December driving anywhere in the Arkansas delta, you've seen the huge flocks of snow geese that winter there. These huge swarms of birds make all kinds of opportunity available to hunters willing either to shoulder the dual burden of the considerable expense and legwork of freelance goose hunting or to book a hunt with an established goose outfitter.

There are three basic difficulties inherent in the free-lance route: scouting the geese and figuring out where they're going to go; securing access to hunt the private ground they inhabit; and dealing with the huge decoy spreads required for snow goose hunting. More than a few hunters do this successfully, so it's far from impossible.

If you want to give it a try, put together the largest decoy spread your finances and the volume of your hunting vehicles will permit. A minimum spread size is 500 decoys or so; three times that would be better. Now, start driving the back roads to locate fields in which snow geese are feeding. Find the landowner and get permission to hunt (this usually isn't hard for snow goose hunting); then, set out your decoys. Snows will usually hit a field for two days or more, but basically until the food supply is gone.

Calling can help, but since a flock of snows will kick up an awful lot of racket on its own, the more callers you have going, the better off you are. Encourage everyone in the hunting party to call. Talent doesn't make a lot of difference here: It's quantity and volume that count. Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to hunt, since snows usually return to their loafing and staging areas during midday. BB or BBB shot is usually the best choice for snow geese, especially considering that larger white-fronted geese (specklebellies) and even Canadas will sometimes decoy to your spread.

Wear white painter's coveralls and use a camo or brown ground cloth or mat to remain relatively dry, or invest in a good layout blind.

Unless you have a lot of time and inclination to work hard and spend a big chunk of money, though, by far the cheapest and easiest way to experience a good-quality snow goose hunt is to go with someone in the business. One such outfitter is Goose Busters --

www.goosebustershoot.com, (731) 593-0767 or (870) 992-3423 -- which has been in the game for more than 20 years.

Whether you freelance or use an outfitter, the bother and expense are worth it. There's

really nothing to compare with being at the bottom of a funnel of several thousand gabbling snow geese as they settle into the grain stubble around you.

LEARN TO HUNT EFFECTIVELY

Of course, just because you're hunting ducks or geese in Arkansas doesn't mean you're going to kill a limit every time out. You need to know what you're doing as well as where to do it.

"Learn to call as well as you can, and practice as often as you can," advised Jim Ronquest, himself a champion caller who holds many regional and national titles. "Nash Buckingham once said, 'A duck call in the wrong hands is a conservation tool.' And he was right."

But calling alone won't make you effective. "Learn to read maps and navigate strange water," Ronquest offered. "Study up on duck habits. Learn how to rig your decoys for the most effective setups for shallow and deep water. Do your homework; do your scouting. Those are the things that make the difference between the wannabes and the good hunters."

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