4 Options For Your Late-Season Ducks

As the end of duck season draws near, look for hunting action to peak at these tried-and-true waterfowling areas.

Photo by John N. Felsher

By Keith Sutton

When we think of Arkansas duck hunting, we're often reminded of numb toes, frozen fingers and rosy cheeks. Chances are good that we're going to get cold - really cold - during a January duck hunt, but chances are good as well that we'll enjoy some of the season's best shooting during these final days and weeks. A few frozen extremities are a small price to pay if we can experience the joy of ducks cupping their wings and pitching into our decoys.

The question for many hunters is: Where can I maximize my efforts at this point in the game? We all want opportunities to make the best of each and every outing as the season's end draws near. And while Mother Nature keeps us from making guarantees that one public hunting area will be better than another, the law of averages provides some assurance that certain locales are more likely than others to provide top-flight shooting for mallards and other ducks. The following paragraphs describe a few such areas worthy of consideration.

BLACK RIVER BOTTOMS

The Black River bottoms in northeast Arkansas have always been a haven for waterfowl, thanks to the funneling effect of two natural features. To the west lie the high Ozarks; to east is Crowley's Ridge. In between is a north-south corridor of flat, often-flooded river bottoms that draws one of the densest concentrations of wintering mallards in the world.

Much of those forested bottoms have been cut and cleared, but thanks to the efforts of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, two prime tracts of Black River duck habitat were protected. The northernmost area, Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA, encompasses 21,150 acres of bottomland hardwoods in portions of Clay, Randolph and Greene Counties. About halfway down the river, one enters the second area - 10,711-acre Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake WMA near Lynn in Lawrence County.

As part of its commitment to buy land for duck hunting, the AGFC made its first Black River WMA purchase in 1951. There wasn't much prime waterfowl habitat left in northeast Arkansas then, but this piece of ground often overflowed in late autumn and stayed that way until late spring, attracting flocks of ducks numbering in the hundreds of thousands. The commission knew it was choice property, and ranked Black Rock's purchase third on the list of priorities, just behind Bayou Meto and Big Lake. The area later was renamed to honor Paragould conservationist Dave Donaldson, who served as state waterfowl biologist from 1950-1977.

A 17-mile system of levees, pipes, and stoplog structures assists the Black River and Little River in flooding approximately half (12,000 acres) of the heavily wooded WMA each fall. Spectacular hunting is the norm in the WMA's three segments. Little River Island on the east end of the area is popular with walk-in hunters who find access from Hubble Bridge near the area headquarters off Highway 280. The Reyno side compartment is on the north side, with access from Highway 67. The Lower Area is accessed via the Black River off Highway 280 at Brookings.

The key to success at a large area like Black River WMA is knowing where to go and having a boat to get there. The best hunters are experienced people who know the waterfowl area. They've been at it long enough to learn how the ducks are likely to move and they're not afraid to try new areas.

When ducks are in the woods, shooting is fast and furious. Ducks are hard to see in tall timber and can be on top of you before you realize they are near. You must decide in a split second if they're within range, if they're going to decoy, or if they should be taken on the pass.

You'd probably take more birds if you stuck to pass-shooting exclusively, even though it's tricky to track, lead and shoot a bird in the scant seconds before it's swallowed in the maze of branches. Too often, mallards that appear to be decoying circle and circle, and then disappear over the treetops when they spot something out of place. But resisting pass shots holds a special reward. Few sights in hunting are as memorable as a flock of ducks skimming the winter-bare treetops, wings cupped in classic fashion, as they drop from the sky into a flooded forest.

In 1954, just three years after the first Black River purchase, the AGFC bought the first land in Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake WMA. This area encompasses a wilderness realm of bottomland hardwoods, sluggish streams and old river cutoffs in Lawrence County. Geographically, it is divided into two separate parts by the Black River. The roughly 7,000-acre Rainey Brake portion lies west of the river near Lynn. The Shirey Bay part lies to the east near Portia. The WMA's western edge lies in the Ozark foothills; however, most of the acreage is bottomland hardwood forest.

About 4,000 acres are flooded from Lake Charles, just north of the area, by a series of levees, pipes and stop-log structures. In addition, over half the area is subject to overflow by the Black River, with at least one flood event per year on average. These factors make the area a magnet for ducks and duck hunters alike.

Here, hopeful hunters usually wade in and stand next to trees, kicking water, blowing calls, waiting for a pod of mallards to pitch into holes in the timber. Hunting pressure is relatively light compared to many Arkansas WMAs', but it's a smaller area than most, and can seem crowded even without the crowds. The best hunting often comes late in the morning, as other hunters leave and birds start responding to calling more positively.

For additional information on hunting these areas, visit the AGFC Web site at www.agfc.com, or phone 1-800-364-GAME.

LOWER WHITE RIVER COUNTRY

If the winter weather gets particularly cold during the latter part of duck season, many shallow-water feeding areas will ice over, driving ducks to areas where current or depth keep freezing to a minimum. Big rivers are especially attractive to ducks when this happens, and none provides more ideal winter habitat than does the White River below Highway 64 at Augusta.

Just below Augusta, the White forms the border of Henry/Gray Hurricane Lake Wildlife Management Area, a popular green-timber duck hunting hot spot for hunters from the Searcy/Bald Knob area. Continuing southward through the rich agricultural lands and hardwood forests of the southern Delta, the river bypasses the community of Des Arc, then runs along the east side of Wattensaw WMA, another favored duck hunting area covering over 17,000 acres of bottomlands north of Hazen and De Valls Bluff. The southern reaches of the river bypass Clarendon and Crockett's Bluff and then run 70 miles through White River National Wildlife Refuge before joining

the Mississippi River in Desha County. The White is accessible via numerous state and county roads off Interstate 40 and U.S. highways 64, 79 and 165.

The White is a superb duck hunting stream, and hunters encounter everything from hooded mergansers to Canada geese resting on its muddy currents. Mallards and wood ducks are especially common, handsome prizes for the river hunter. Green-winged teal tend to be common in January, and there are always widgeon, gadwalls, ringnecks, shovelers and pintails to round out the hunter's bag.

Because the lower White 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 there'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 of the best public hunting areas on this portion of the river is White River NWR. The bottomland forests here provide habitat for huge numbers of wintering ducks. And because hunting is very restricted, the bottoms in the refuge become one gigantic rest area, covered with hundreds of thousands of birds.

The refuge'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. Over 200 oxbow lakes are 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 that make up the hunting area on White River NWR. 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.

Refuge permits are required for all hunting. With the exception of general gun deer hunts, permits are unlimited and are available at refuge headquarters and area stores. For additional regulations, including information on those areas within the refuge that are open for late-season hunts, contact the refuge headquarters in St. Charles by phoning (870) 282-8200.

CORPS IMPOUNDMENTS

If you don't mind facing sometimes-rugged weather conditions and other hardships often associated with reservoir hunting, some of Arkansas' U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes can provide exceptional late-season waterfowling opportunities. Diving ducks find these impoundments attractive throughout the winter, and when the water on a given lake rises high enough to flood surrounding woods and vegetation, puddle ducks often congregate to feed as well.

Several of the lakes have adjacent wildlife management areas where you can hunt, including Dardanelle, Greeson, Beaver, Blue Mountain, Bull Shoals, Greers Ferry, Millwood, Nimrod, Ozark and Norfork. If you use good judgment, however, and stay well away from developed sites such as marinas and homes, you can hunt practically anywhere on the Corps lakes without problem. You'll need a big boat to hunt effectively (waves and wind can often be treacherous), and though you won't often kill a limit of birds in a hurry, there tend to be enough ducks (and often geese) to provide shooting at scattered intervals. At times, however, when water levels, weather and other conditions are just right, hunting can be spectacular.

Each lake has different characteristics, so the best hunting methods vary with location. Bull Shoals, for example, is deep and tends to attract more diving ducks than dabblers. Millwood, on the other hand, is a shallow, timber-filled lake that attracts numerous mallards, gadwalls and other puddle ducks in addition to scattered flocks of divers. Scout before hunting, come up with a good game plan and you'll enjoy success more often than not.

MERCER BAYOU/

SULPHUR RIVER

In Miller County near the Arkansas- Texas- Louisiana border, big-river hunters can enjoy excellent late-season wingshooting on Sulphur River and Mercer Bayou within Sulphur River WMA. This area encompasses more than 17,000 acres in the rivers' floodplain. It is remote and wild, with plenty of cypress, oaks and tupelos, old river lakes, sloughs and bayous. Hunting pressure is relatively light.

Birds taken here are a mixture of those species that use the Central Flyway. Gadwalls, teal, widgeon and pintails comprise six out of 10 ducks in the hunter's bag. Mallards account for about 30 percent, while 10 percent of the harvest is wood ducks. Diving ducks such as scaup, ring-necked ducks and buffleheads round out the harvest.

As the birds move toward wintering areas along the Gulf coast, they detour to the lower portion of Texas and wing into Arkansas because of the abundance of food and water. A series of dams and levees constructed on Mercer Bayou aids in holding rainwater on the WMA; as a general rule, about 40 percent of the area is flooded during winter months. When combined with AGFC efforts aimed at drawing more ducks into the area, it paints a rosy picture for duck hunting in southwest Arkansas.

Hunting here is mostly an open-water proposition. Waterfowlers boat to shallow cypress flats on the old river lakes or Mercer Bayou and lay out strings of decoys. Little calling is involved. Widgeon, gadwalls, teal and mallards all decoy readily, and there's plenty of pass-shooting for woodies, shovelers and bluebills as they trade back and forth over the flooded bottoms.

Many hunters launch a canoe or other shallow-draft boat (the pirogue, a modern version of the Indian dugout, is favored by locals) and drift downstream on Mercer Bayou or Sulphur River. Ordinarily, the later in the season you do this, the better. The best time of all is when the lakes, ponds and potholes are frozen and the birds are bound to be on the river or bayou.

There are two schools of thought with regard to floating a stream for waterfowl. One school advocates camouflaging the boat with cane or other material in order to drift into the ducks without alarming them too soon. The other theory is that there's no sense in decorating the craft, because camouflage won't fool ducks, anyway - their mood determines how close you can get.

Regardless of the method you use, watch for ducks close to shore. Most avoid the current and take cover beneath overhanging grass or trees. Others stay in eddies or backwaters created by deadfalls. In most instances, if you remain motionless and silent, you'll be within range before they jump.

Sulphur River is 15 miles south of Texarkana where food, supplies and overnight accommodations are available. Camping is allowed only in a few designated areas. All hunters should carry a map and compass; getting lost in this vast bottomland is extremely easy. For additional information, contact the AGFC.

The 2004-05 duck hunting seasons and regulations had not been set at the time this was written. You'll find them in the current

edition of the Arkansas Waterfowl Hunting Regulations available from sporting goods dealers statewide. This and additional information, including a weekly report on waterfowl numbers and conditions for each area mentioned in this article, is available at www. agfc.com, as well.

(Editor's Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Hunting Arkansas: The Sportsman's Guide to Natural State Game. To order autographed copies, send a check or money order for $28.25 to C & C Outdoors, 15601 Mountain Dr., Alexander, AR 72002; Arkansas residents should add sales tax. For credit card orders and more information, log on to www. ccoutdoors.com.)



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