Arkansas Waterfowl Preview

Will duck and goose hunting be good or bad this year? Few are willing to make predictions, but there's hope for a rewarding season if weather and habitat conditions are favorable.

By Keith Sutton

In August 2003, two months before the opening of the 2003-04 waterfowl season, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and other sources were predicting a rosy outlook for the season to come.

"Duck hunters have a reason to be excited about the upcoming season due to a rise in breeding populations," said an Aug. 13 report in Arkansas Outdoors, the official news organ of the AGFC. "Habitat conditions are also excellent, and that translates into good duck production."

Mike Checkett, regional biologist with Ducks Unlimited, provided the reasons for the optimistic forecast.

"A strong breeding population of 36.2 million ducks (up more than 16 percent from last year), as well as good production and higher July pond numbers indicates an increased fall flight," he said. "The predicted fall flight estimate for the mallard population is 10.3 million birds, which is up 11 percent from last year's estimate of 9.2 million birds and similar to the 2001 estimate of 10.5 million."

Checkett also reminded sportsmen that weather can be a major factor in determining success. "Weather and habitat conditions drive migration, hunting opportunity and success," he said. "In other words, hunting opportunity and success are not decided by duck numbers alone; weather and habitat conditions are the determining factors throughout the flyway and local hunting areas. The weather must cooperate."

AGFC news editor Keith Stephens summarized the forecast thus: "With all of the preliminary information pointing toward a favorable season, hunters may see a rebound of hunting success from the past two seasons that were below Arkansas standards."

Well, as you probably already know, the 2003-04 Natural State waterfowl season did not live up to all the pre-season hype, at least for most Arkansas hunters. To their credit, however, prognosticators like Checkett and Stephens hedged their bets when they first looked into the crystal ball.

These men have learned the hard way that pre-season predictions don't always come true. Mother Nature has a way of throwing a monkey wrench into the whole forecasting business.

Canada geese got lots of attention last season, when weather and other events conspired to make for a tough duck season. Photo by Keith Sutton

OVERVIEW OF THE

2003-04 SEASON

When the early teal season started in September, it appeared that forecasts for a topnotch hunting season might hold true. There were reports of good to excellent shooting of these fast-flying ducks in many areas along the Mississippi River Valley, including portions of Arkansas. This initial success contributed to raising hunters' expectations for a fast and furious regular duck season.

At the end of the first day of regular duck season, Nov. 22, most hunters were cheering the forecasters after an opening day that produced lots of mallards and other ducks. In many areas, however, day two of the season was a bust. Mild temperatures statewide, coupled with extremely dry conditions, made it difficult to hold ducks. When the opening split ended on Dec. 7, cheers had changed to boos in many areas. Lots of folks were asking, "Where are all the ducks you told us we'd have?"

As it turns out, most were in still in states north of Arkansas.

"Not unlike the last two years, unfrozen lakes, ponds, and streams over large portions of the upper flyways have been the norm in 2003," Ducks Unlimited reported in a January 2004 news release. "Due to unseasonably warm conditions, all sources indicate large concentrations of ducks and geese as far north as South Dakota, Wisconsin and Minnesota. In fact, according to the latest state waterfowl surveys conducted in mid-December, nearly four million birds remain scattered across nine states in the upper Central and Mississippi Flyways."

In mid-December, Missouri was holding the most birds, with an estimated population of 571,359 ducks. Duck hunting there and in other northern states continued to be excellent to good where the season remained open. But in Arkansas and other states in the southern portion of the Mississippi Flyway, duck hunting still was spotty at best.

During the second split of the season, Dec. 12-24, hunters in the Walnut Ridge area in northeastern Arkansas reported they were bagging limits of mallards almost every day. Hunters in the Wynne and Stuttgart areas, however, said they hadn't seen a mallard since the season opened. Many in this latter group had turned to killing teal, gadwalls and wood ducks - which were relatively abundant in some locales - in order to have a few ducks to take home.

The best hunting seemed to be for those hunters willing to scout and locate new hunting areas with less hunting pressure. In these areas, birds weren't so blind-, decoy- and call-smart, and many hunters did fairly well throughout the season. Duck clubs that were able to pump water early in the season enjoyed fairly consistent shooting as well, and permanent water bodies (i.e., oxbow lakes and cypress/tupelo brakes) often held good numbers of ducks.

When the last split of the season (Dec. 26-Jan. 25) began, reports continued to indicate good hunting in northern portions of the Mississippi Flyway and only to poor hunting in most southern portions.

Missouri was still holding close to half a million ducks, and these hardy birds remained in the Show Me State because the lack of snow and ample open water provided food resources for their energy needs. Most Missouri hunters experienced "average hunting with some areas above average," according to a DU report. "Several Missouri Department of Conservation Waterfowl Areas averaged almost three birds per man per day for much of the season."

Conditions in Arkansas, however, remained less than favorable, and most hunters continued to be frustrated with the lack of birds. There would be brief periods of good shooting as new birds arrived ahead of snap cold fronts, but the action tapered off quickly in most of the prime waterfowling spots.

During the final weeks of the season, the northern tier of states finally received some significant snowfall, and as the waters and fields up north began to look more like winter, the ducks began a renewed push southward. Arkansas hunters hoped they might be able to salvage some of the season when more ducks moved south, and some did. For most, however, there were only brief spurts of good gunning; overall, conditions were still very dry, and there was no river flooding. Without this

core of habitat, it proved difficult to hold birds, even when large flocks began winging into the state.

"This recent (mid-January) front was strong, but we didn't get significant rainfall, and that has been the pattern all winter," said Dr. Thomas Moorman, director of conservation Planning for DU's Southern regional office. "We need good arctic fronts that produce heavy rain as they move through the Deep South. That produces floods in the White River and others that haven't flooded much during recent duck seasons. Add to that the fact that weather behind these fronts has had a tendency to moderate quickly, and we just don't have conditions that make birds move south, or stay in the region if they do move because habitat conditions are far less than ideal."

During the final days of the season in Arkansas, the vast majority of waterfowling reports told of hot gunning one day and nearly empty skies the next. Many hunters who had hoped to shake off some of the slow-season blues didn't get their wish.

On Jan. 29, 2004, DU issued a news release summarizing the season. "The 2003-04 waterfowl season could be summed up as one of extremes," it began.

"Hunters either had one of their best or worst seasons, and there wasn't much middle ground among most of the hunters I spoke with," said DU biologist Chad Manlove.

The report noted that while "ducks numbers were up compared to the last couple of years, populations remain below the strong fall flights observed in the late 1990s. Consistent shooting was rare, as Mother Nature continued to challenge duck hunters across all four flyways, particularly those in southern portions of the Central and Mississippi migration corridors," including Arkansas hunters.

Goose hunting was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy Arkansas waterfowl season. Canada geese were available in moderate numbers in the Arkansas River Valley and Delta hunting areas, and snow and white-fronted geese were found in high numbers all season in much of eastern Arkansas. Because ducks were hard to find, perhaps a larger-than-normal contingent of goose hunters was in the field, particularly after duck season ended and the Feb. 2-April 30 Conservation Order snow goose season began.

2004-05 SEASON OUTLOOK

As you might imagine, getting state and federal officials to stick their neck out and make predictions about the upcoming waterfowl season isn't easy. Most are gun-shy following three seasons in a row that proved to be far less productive than many forecasters had predicted. At the time this article was written, there also was little information available upon which to base a sound prognostication. Ducks and geese were just starting to nest on northern breeding grounds, and no one was yet willing to guess how good reproduction might be. In a news release from DU on April 13, 2004, however, DU biologists and field staff across Canada and the north-central United States reported on the habitat conditions waterfowl would likely find on the breeding grounds during spring of this year.

"Some areas will need a healthy shot of precipitation in the next few weeks to assure an overall good production year in 2004," said Bruce Batt, DU's chief biologist. "Precipitation has improved during the last couple of weeks, so we are optimistic that the pattern will continue as it did last year with good snow and rain through April and May."

The areas of most concern to Arkansas hunters are Saskatchewan, the north-central U.S. and Alberta. Banding reports indicate these areas produce most of the mallards and some other duck species that traditionally winter in the Natural State.

Across much of Saskatchewan, a poor frost seal and below-normal precipitation produced fair to poor habitat conditions for breeding waterfowl. In the west, soil moisture levels were so low that many farmers were expected not to be able to plant crops. The only bright spots were small pockets of good habitat in the east and along the U.S. border. "Heavy spring rains will be required to improve habitat conditions across the majority of the province," said DU.

In the plains of the north-central U.S., following a warm, dry fall and winter, wetland habitats had deteriorated. For the first time in eight years, only fair habitat conditions existed in much of North Dakota and South Dakota. Drought persisted in eastern Montana and northeastern Wyoming, where habitat conditions are generally fair to poor. Farther east, March snows produced good habitat conditions in northern Iowa, western Minnesota, extreme north-central Nebraska and southern and eastern South Dakota. "Significant spring precipitation will be needed to maintain existing habitat for breeding waterfowl on the U.S. prairies," DU officials noted.

April reports from Alberta indicated below-normal snowfall and extremely low soil moisture conditions that produced little or no runoff across much of province. On the prairies, waterfowl habitats ranged from poor in the east to fair in the west. In the parklands, wetland conditions gradually improved as one moved from south and east to north and west. "Heavy spring rains will be needed to fill many wetlands depleted by drought," biologists reported.

The important thing to remember here is that these were very early reports - too early, perhaps, to serve as accurate portents of things to come during the 2004-05 waterfowl season. A better indicator will be later breeding reports that will no doubt be available by the time you read this. Look for them on the Web sites of Ducks Unlimited (www.ducks.org) and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (www.agfc.com).

If you've read last season's scenario, however, you realize that breeding-grounds reports, good or bad, don't always throw a true light on the actual situation that will be encountered when the waterfowl season actually begins. Current weather and habitat conditions will make or break the season, and no one can say for sure what those will be until the season opener is underway.

The best way to know what's happening is to check weekly waterfowl reports from the AGFC. You can receive these in your e-mail inbox each time they are released by signing up at the commission's Web site.

THREE KEY FACTORS

In the end, whether or not we have a good hunting season will boil down to three key factors: breeding-ground production, weather and habitat conditions. If there are enough ducks produced on the northern U.S. plains, in Alberta and in Saskatchewan, if early cold weather in the north freezes up food sources and drives the ducks south to Arkansas, if, once the ducks arrive in Arkansas, they find good habitat conditions, including plentiful water and food, and if Arkansas doesn't experience below-normal temperatures that cause icy conditions that move the ducks even further south, then maybe - just maybe - we'll have one of those wonderful seasons like the one in 1999-2000 when a record 1,146,207 mallards were killed here.

The good news is that even during the worst years, Arkansas is one of the best places in the nation to hunt ducks and geese. During the 2002-03 season, for example (the latest for which figures are available),

despite less than ideal conditions, large numbers of Arkansas duck hunters (89,476) were successful, and the Arkansas total duck harvest was the highest in the country (1,127,025). Furthermore, despite a 23 percent decline in our mallard harvest that year, Arkansas remained the top state for mallards with 575,305 taken, representing 12 percent of the total in the U.S.

Good or bad, hunting in the Natural State is likely to be the best available in the nation.

(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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