Arkansas' Best Bets For Late-Season Ducks
September 24, 2010
Arkansas is the first and last name in duck hunting. Try one or more of these five public hotspots for your late season duck outings.
If cold was money, we'd have been as rich as Scrooge McDuck that day. It was the final weekend of duck season, and central Arkansas was in the deep freezer. The air temperature hadn't been above 32 degrees Fahrenheit in four days, and all the flooded fields around Stuttgart were solid sheets of ice thick enough to skate on.
If it had been up to me, I'd have closed my duck season a little early and stayed by the fire that final weekend. But I had company coming in from Kansas - four friends who'd driven through the night to sample the famous green-timber duck hunting of Arkansas. Since my Kansas turkey hunting was a trade-out for their Arkansas duck hunting, I had no choice but to take them out to do some shooting.
We met the sixth member of our party at one of the many parking areas at Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, a place I've been hunting for more than four decades. When you pile up that many years' experience with an area, you begin to learn a little about the place, and, despite the super-cold conditions, I thought I knew where we might find a little bit of open water. And if we could find some open water, I knew, there would also be plenty of ducks.
The only problem would be getting to the open water in the first place. If you have very much experience with hunting in frozen woods, you already know the story: You start out easily enough, simply walking onto the ice at the edge of the backwater, but as you go farther into the woods and the water gets deeper, the ice gets gradually thinner. Sometime before you reach open water, the ice becomes too thin to support your weight, and, after creeping and tiptoeing (as if that would help) for a while over creaking, cracking ice, you finally break through.
In itself, this isn't much of a problem. You're wearing waders, and the water probably won't be more than thigh-deep. But now you have to break a pathway through the ice in order to advance, and even though an inch of ice won't hold up the average duck hunter, it's still very tough. Making progress through such stuff is slow and wearying, and it requires shift work to make any headway at all. And then, of course, at the end of the hunt, you have to smash your way back through that rotten ice until it gets thick enough for you to walk on.
When severe cold weather hits Arkansas, savvy hunters head for the timber and seek out flowing water. Photo by Jim Spencer.
So that's how we spent the first chunk of legal shooting time that morning - busting our way one step at a time through a tree-studded ice field. We'd walked/skated almost a half-mile from the parking area into the timber before the ice gave out, and even though we could see leads of open water less than 150 yards through the relatively open woods, it still took us almost an hour to hack a path to it once we fell through.
It was worth the struggle. We could hear ducks on the water farther out in the open stuff well before we broke out of the ice field, and ducks were pitching in ahead of us as we worked. We moved toward the sound of the ducks, waves of which began getting up off the water in front of us. We let them go without shooting at them, and quickly found trees to lean against.
It didn't take long for things to start happening. We didn't know whether it was the ducks we'd run out of the hole coming back, or new ducks just getting there, but for the next two hours we had almost nonstop action. Ducks eager to get back into that 40-acre patch of open water were constantly in sight. We'd see a bunch and hit them with a hail call; they'd fall in on us like thirsty crop-dusters at quitting time.
We started rationing the shooting to make it last longer, allowing only one of our party to shoot at each incoming bunch, and allowing that shooter only one duck per flock - and still finished by 9:30, anyway, six limits of mallards lying in a long row on the trunk of a blown-down overcup oak. Somehow, two hens had gotten mixed up in the battle, but the other 22 birds were full-feathered, large-bodied greenheads - the mature "redlegs" that migrate last and show up in the latter part of the season.
The next day's shoot was a near-repeat performance. There were only five of us that day, and our log only held 20 mallards at the end of the hunt, but the level of action was pretty much the same: phenomenal.
When conditions are right, that's the way late-season public duck hunting can be in Arkansas. Conditions never were right last season, as most Natural State hunters know, but in most winters, the last two weeks of the season are usually pretty cold. That generally spells bad luck for flooded-field hunters, since ducks quit frozen fields. It also hurts most private clubs with green-timber reservoirs, since most of the small private or corporate impoundments are smaller and shallower than are public hunting areas and generally are four-sided shallow reservoirs with no moving water. But for those of us who know our way around Arkansas' multitude of public duck areas, those late-season cold snaps signal the best part of the season.
Even when everything isn't frozen, late season is the most rewarding time for visiting many of the public duck hunting areas of Arkansas. Here's a run-down of some of the better prospects for late-season action:
LATE SEASON HOTSPOTS This area needs little introduction to waterfowl hunters. The oldest, largest and most famous of Arkansas' bottomland wildlife management areas, it's perhaps the best public waterfowl hunting area in the nation.
Bayou Meto WMA
At Bayou Meto each year, an area of approximately 18,000 to 20,000 acres is artificially flooded by an extensive system of levees, and in normal years the area holds a solid duck population. In extreme cold weather, most of the birds flee, leaving a smaller number of ducks crowded into the few areas having enough current to keep the water open. If you can find these holes and get to them, the shooting can be little short of fantastic.
Going into the frozen woods by boat is one option, provided your boat is a sturdy one. Breaking through up to 2 inches of ice is rough duty for a light aluminum boat. It's probably better to simply walk in, staying on top of the ice as long as possible. Don't go on a hunt like this alone, however, and don't do it if you're not able to walk long distances and hold up under considerable exertion. Wear durable chest waders and, on your lower body under the waders, several layers of clothing.
Arkansas River Anywhere along the entire 290 miles of the Arkansas River within the state's boundaries, the duck hunting can shine at any time of the
season - but it can positively sparkle late when things freeze up in the season. There will always be open water on the Arkansas, so even in cold weather, there will always be some ducks. The action can be fast in the Ozark Pool and the Dardanelle Pool.
In normal weather, the lower reaches of each navigational pool usually provide the best all-around duck hunting opportunity, because shallower backwater areas exist on the lower ends of the impoundments. These shallow flats are prime wintering grounds for an amazing variety of both puddle ducks and divers; it's not uncommon for a six-bird daily limit to include five or six different species.
Be careful when you're motoring in these shallow backwaters, since snags, sandbars, mudflats and other hazards are common. Some savvy backwater hunters carry belly boats or small one-man paddleboats for final approach to the chosen hunting area.
A good duck call ably blown, a few dozen decoys, and a sharp knife for cutting cane and brush to build a blind are the essentials for hunting the Arkansas River backwaters. There are many small islands and brush patches to hide in, and if you're in the right area, the ducks will find you.
Keep an eye on the sky after you've set up. If you notice a consistent flight pattern elsewhere, pick up and move. It'll be worth the trouble.
During deep-cold weather, much of this backwater freezes solid, and the ducks congregate elsewhere on the river where currents keep the water open. Look for pockets of relatively sheltered open water below wing dams - not places you'd pick for hunting during mild weather, but red-hot when things are frozen. A couple of dozen decoys (attach 25 feet of cord or more to each) can furnish all the visual attraction you need, and with a portable boat blind, it's a simple matter to hide yourself at the edge of the wing dam.
Boaters should exercise extreme caution on the Arkansas, both in and out of the marked channel. This is big water, and severe weather can quickly get you in trouble if you don't have enough boat. Outside the marked channel, keep your speed to the absolute minimum. Carry a signal flare or two as well as a cell phone or some other means of summoning help in an emergency.
A set of maps detailing backwater areas and boat ramps is available for $14 plus $3 shipping from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Little Rock office at (501) 324-5551.
White River And Cache River NWRs These two long, narrow refuges span several hundred miles of the channels of White River, Cache River and Bayou DeView - from near the mouth of White River upstream to near Augusta on the White and Grubbs on the Cache. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Hurricane, Black Swamp, Raft Creek and Dagmar WMAs form part of the well over 200,000 acres of overflow bottomland that are in the public domain along these waterways. Much of this acreage is open to mornings-only duck hunting.
Multiple access points along all three streams provide access. Some of these are primitive ramps consisting of little more than a bare spot on the muddy bank from which to slide a boat into the water; others are well-maintained concrete ramps with gravel parking lots. For both the Cache and the White River national wildlife refuges, a daily-use permit is required for all hunting, but there's no quota, and they're free. You can get White River NWR permits from refuge headquarters in DeWitt at (870) 946-1468. Cache River NWR permits are available from refuge headquarters in Augusta at (870) 347-2614. Permits for both refuges are also available from the AFGC at (501) 223-6351 or www.agfc.com, and at many stores and bait shops in towns near both refuges.
No permanent blinds are allowed at any of these public areas, but in reality, you don't need one. Boat blinds are useful when the water is deep, but in many cases you'll be able to wade in to lean against a tree in standard green-timber fashion. Decoys are sometimes handy for hunting along the edge of lakes and flooded fields or openings, but if you're in timber, they're probably more trouble than they're worth.
Mississippi River Forming the east boundary of Arkansas, the Mississippi River is not a stream to be taken lightly, and this is never truer than in the dead of winter. You'll remember the warnings in the discussion of the Arkansas River above. Well, double them for the Mississippi. If, however, you have a wide-beamed, deep-sided 16-foot (or bigger) boat and are able to exercise a degree of caution that would make your grandmother proud of you, the Mississippi and its bars and backwaters can provide some topnotch cold-weather duck hunting.
Setting up along the downstream edge of willow thickets and other flooded brush in a boat blind, and with a fair-sized decoy spread, is probably the most effective way to hunt the Mississippi. But you can also do well sometimes by digging a small temporary pit, or by building a driftwood blind on the lower end of a sandbar and hunting over decoys. One or two motion decoys planted within your spread can help it stand out amid the wide-open spaces of the big river.
A book of navigational charts for the Mississippi is available for $14 plus $3 shipping from the Corps at (501) 324-5551.
Felsenthal NWR The portion of Felsenthal NWR lying south of Highway 82 is open to mornings-only duck hunting throughout the season, but in most years hunting there before Christmas is largely a waste of effort. Late-season hunting, though, can be very worthwhile.
Unlike most artificially-flooded areas, which depend on seasonal rainfall for water, Felsenthal is flooded by raising the spillway of a dam on the Ouachita River an extra 5 feet and allowing the water level to rise accordingly. This extra 5 feet of water puts an extra 6,000 surface-acres on Felsenthal's permanent surface area of 15,000.
It's possible to find some duck action by walking into the woods from the edges, but the numerous sloughs and permanent-water areas make walk-in hunting both risky and of limited application. A small but stable boat - a 14-foot johnboat with high sides and wide beam is ideal - will get you into a lot more Felsenthal ducks.
Several campgrounds and boat ramps are present at Felsenthal. All of them are depicted on the refuge map and permit available from refuge headquarters, (870) 364-3167. As at White River NWR, all Felsenthal hunters are required to have one of these permits in possession at all times on the refuge.
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Except for the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, the rule is morning hunting only at all the areas mentioned above. Other special regulations apply at some of the areas (for example, Bayou Meto WMA hunters are limited to 15 shells per day and must have a special area permit in their possession), so be sure to consult the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's waterfowl regulations pamphlet, available at most sporting goods stores or from AGFC headquarters.
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