Capital City Ducks and Geese

North, east, south or west — no matter which way you travel from Little Rock, you can find good waterfowl hunting nearby.

By Keith Sutton

Hunters throughout North America associate Arkansas with superb waterfowl hunting opportunities. This year, tens of thousands of hunters will harvest well over 1 million ducks and geese in the Natural State. Many of these hunters reside in the Little Rock/central Arkansas area.

Fortunately for these enthusiasts, several public-owned waterfowling areas are within a one- to two-hour drive of Little Rock, or less. Each offers fine duck and/or goose hunting opportunities. There also are good guided hunts on private lands available for those who don't have time to scout a hunting area or who prefer to let a guide handle the details. Here are some to consider this season.

NORTH: HARRIS BRAKE WMA

Owing to its proximity to Little Rock (about 40 miles northwest), the extremely popular Harris Brake Wildlife Management Area, one mile south of Perryville in Perry County, sees heavy use by hunters. A small area as WMAs go, it often provides quality duck hunting.

The WMA encompasses 1,200 acres of bottomland hardwoods that are flooded each year to provide a greenwoods duck area. Abundant acorns attract waterfowl, as does a small parcel of cropland on the northern boundary of the unit near the Fourche la Fave River.

The management area is separated from 1,300-acre Harris Brake Lake, which serves as a waterfowl rest area, by a dam with water-control structures that make flooding the hunting area possible. State Highway 300, the main access, enters from Highway 10 on the west, crosses the dam, and continues eastward where it intersects Highway 216. Areas dubbed the "upper" and "lower" hunting areas are separated by a short levee road running north off Highway 300.

About 90 percent of the ducks harvested here are mallards. The rest are mainly wood ducks, with a few teal, gadwalls, widgeon and other species mixed in. Nearly all the waterfowl area can be hunted in waders if one is familiar with the WMA, but hunters should beware of drainage ditches running through the woods.

Scout the area prior to mid-October, when flooding usually begins. Harris Brake is heavily used during duck season, and success depends on knowing the management unit well enough to find a hole isolated from other hunters.

SOUTH: BAYOU METO WMA

Bayou Meto WMA holds special significance to Arkansas outdoorsmen. With nearly 34,000 acres, it's the largest WMA owned by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. Bayou Meto was also the first WMA purchased by the AGFC. Some portions of the management area are little more than an hour's drive southeast of Little Rock.

Purchase of Bayou Meto brought into public stewardship an area famous since the late 1800s for green-timber duck hunting. To attract wintering ducks today, the AGFC manipulates flow in area canals to create a 6,000-10,000-acre greentree reservoir. The grounds are in the heart of Big Bayou Meto basin, a major waterfowl flyway. The basin, always a winter waterfowl paradise, stretches from the Lonoke area to the bayou's mouth near Gillett, providing excellent sport for thousands of hunters.

The prime duck hunting portion of Bayou Meto is in the basin's lower end. Big Bayou Meto flows along the eastern boundary, Little Bayou Meto practically splits the center and another large bayou, Wabbaseka, enters from the west. Numerous sloughs and draws add to Bayou Meto's overall attractiveness to waterfowl.

Nearly all of the area contains big hardwood timber, and duck hunting on the pin-oak flats is a unique feature drawing thousands of hunters from not only Arkansas but much of the rest of the nation as well. The area's real claim to fame is its huge wintering flock of mallards, which numbers nearly 500,000 birds some years. Wood ducks are plentiful; hunters also take gadwalls, widgeon, green-winged teal and pintails.

Bayou Meto's flooded timber area is surrounded by nearly a dozen access points. Most have boat-launching facilities adequate for small boats, but many Bayou Meto hunters never use boats, preferring to walk in. Good hunting areas are easily accessible on foot, particularly from the upper and lower Vallier School access points in the northern part of the unit.

Bayou Meto is approximately 15 miles southwest of Stuttgart and 22 miles northeast of Pine Bluff. Access is via U.S. 79 southwest of Stuttgart and Arkansas 11, 152, 88 and 276.

Superb duck hunting opportunities are found at many public areas near Little Rock. Photo by Keith Sutton

EAST: REX HANCOCK AND HENRY GRAY WMAs

Located in Woodruff County between Augusta and Cotton Plant, Rex Hancock/Black Swamp WMA takes in over 4,000 acres of overflow bottomland in the Cache River floodplain about an hour-and-a-half drive east of Little Rock. It's a natural environment for timber-loving ducks - a semi-wilderness of cypress, tupelo and red oak with a sprinkling of old river lakes, bayous and sloughs. The Cache River, running through the middle of the area, is a major waterfowl flyway, and if the water is up, the Hancock area is as good as anything in Arkansas for its size.

Hancock WMA is remote. The only public access is off Highway 33 at Gregory, but when water is up, you can access the area via the Cache River from one of the highways or county roads skirting the WMA.

As a general rule, nearly all the area will be covered by overflows for seven to nine months each year. There is little controlled flooding on the area; flooding is incidental to the river level. Good rain is critical.

About 90 percent of the ducks harvested on Hancock are mallards. The rest are mainly wood ducks. The population will vary with water conditions, but a typical season will find 10,000 to 20,000 birds on the area.

Hunting the flooded woods on Hancock WMA is exciting, and the aerial display of greenheads dropping through a canopy of limbs and tree trunks is a spectacle every duck hunter should witness. The key to green-timber hunting is the call. Considering the geography of Black Swamp, with its heavy overstory of branches, it's obvious that trading birds would have to be right on top of a decoy spread before they could see it. Consequently, the oversized blocks of decoys used in open-water or field hunting just don't work here.

Sound in the form of duck talk is what first attracts birds in green timber. Hunters call constantly. Cool, calm bluebird days offer the best hunting since sound carries and lingers longer then. Timber ducks hear the calls, and they're

able to zero in on the location.

Decoys are needed to lure ducks those last critical few yards. Usually, hunters throw out a half-dozen or so in a small opening and blend into the shadow of a nearby tree. One or more hunters call, while others slosh the water with enthusiastic kicking to get the decoys moving and create the impression of mallards feeding on acorns.

Hancock hunters should be especially attentive when the river is up. There are a lot of tributaries, and it's easy to get lost. It's hard in some places to follow the river channel, so hunters are wise to mark their way when they use the area.

Another superb waterfowling area east of Little Rock is Henry Gray/ Hurricane Lake WMA (16,400 acres) in White County, barely an hour's drive from North Little Rock. This is prime real estate for wintering waterfowl, with extensive bottomland hardwood habitat. The WMA is bounded on the east by the White River. The Little Red River separates approximately 4,000 acres from the main body of the acreage. Glaise Creek also traverses the WMA, and there are several oxbow lakes, including Big Hurricane, Little Hurricane, Big Bell, Little Bell, Whirl, Honey Lake, Big Brushy and Mallard. Other important wintering waterfowl areas (Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge and Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek WMA) are nearby, enhancing the area's ability to attract thousands of migrant mallards and other waterfowl.

In early fall, water-control structures are closed in an attempt to catch and hold run-off from fall rains. Approximately 7,000 acres are flooded in this manner, making the WMA more consistently attractive to ducks than areas without such management enhancements. Hunting can be good practically anywhere, but it pays to scout for a good place to set up before you visit.

Access is from U.S. Highway 64, five miles east of Bald Knob, where there is a WMA road sign directing you into the area. Access to the south side can be gained by taking state Highway 36 east from Searcy to Georgetown.

WEST: PETIT JEAN WMA

Head west from Little Rock and you can find good duck hunting within the scattered parcels of Petit Jean WMA (approximately 15,000 acres) along the Petit Jean River in Yell County. Just to the north are Holla Bend NWR, Galla Creek WMA, Lake Dardanelle and the Arkansas River. To the south is Nimrod Lake WMA, and to the west, Harris Brake. Petit Jean's proximity to these waterfowl areas contributes greatly to its ranking as a topnotch green-timber duck area.

Duck hunting is generally good on the area, though like other waterfowl areas, duck concentrations are highly dependent on water levels. If the river is up and out of its banks, duck hunting potential is good in bottomland hardwoods on most of the area. If these water conditions aren't present, then ducks can usually be found on the area's east side around the small reservoirs and flooded fields.

Mallards and wood ducks account for most of the ducks harvested on Petit Jean. Many hunters find them by boating the river into the area's interior. A concrete boat ramp at the Highway 7 bridge north of Ola is a favorite launching site for visitors accessing the WMA in this manner.

Land access is very limited. Gravel roads off Highway 154, east of Centerville, lead to the area. Access to the southwest quadrant is off Highway 10. Other access is off Highway 7 north of Ola and from St. George on Highway 154. There are few all-weather roads; many roads are closed during winter because of flooding and bad weather.

METRO: ARKANSAS RIVER

DUCKS AND GEESE

You can launch a boat at several ramps along the Arkansas River in Little Rock or North Little Rock and travel upstream or down to find good waterfowling opportunities just a few miles from the metropolitan area. There are many locales with plentiful ducks and geese that you can hunt with little chance of disturbance by other hunters, but be certain to ascertain you're hunting in a legal area on public ground before you proceed.

This is grab-bag shooting with more than just mallards to set your sights on. Other dabbling ducks use the river as a flyway as well, including gadwalls, pintails, shovelers and teal. All the diving ducks can be found here at one time or another, and there's superb gunning for Canada geese and the occasional flock of snows or whitefronts as well. You never know what you'll shoot at next, which adds to the fun.

Sandbars provide some of the best hotspots for Arkansas River waterfowl, but it's important to scout for the best locales. The best thing to do is locate sandbars beneath a major flyway by using binoculars to survey the area. Then, when you've located sandbars with ducks and/or geese passing overhead, pinpoint those with other attractive characteristics. The best sandbars tend to have a southern exposure with a fairly tall growth of shoreline willows to break the north wind. They also have a decent area of water that isn't over 2 or 3 feet deep, and are usually completely out of the current, so the birds don't have to swim hard to stay on the bar. In short, the best sandbars give waterfowl a place to loaf around without expending much energy. And it's loafing or resting that they're usually doing here, not feeding.

Most Arkansas River hunters shoot from a boat hidden in bushes or other cover as a matter of necessity, as it's difficult to find a place to set up a blind on shore. When you're hunting sandbars, however, it's often possible to build a makeshift blind using materials indigenous to the river - things like old sticks or driftwood that don't look out of place. Try to keep a low profile. A big, high-profile blind on a sandbar is obvious to ducks and geese; keep this in mind if you want to get any action.

Use big decoy spreads, if possible, so that passing birds can spot them from a distance. Combined with good loud calling, a properly set spread usually will attract several flocks of birds daily, enabling you to enjoy plentiful shooting opportunities.

GUIDED HUNTS

AROUND STUTTGART

Many central Arkansas waterfowlers prefer to hire a guide and hunt on uncrowded private lands managed specifically for waterfowl, and many of these seek out the services of one of the dozens of excellent guide services in the Stuttgart area, many of which are less than an hour's drive from North Little Rock.

The Stuttgart Chamber of Commerce can provide all the info you need for your trip. Write or call them at P.O. Box 1500, Stuttgart, AR 72160, (870) 673-1602. Ask for their Directory of Duck Hunting Camps (guide services) and information on overnight accommodations, season dates and regulations and whatever else you might need. If you're surfing the Web, you can find details on every facet of Stuttgart waterfowling by visiting the chamber's site at www.StuttgartArkansas.com.

(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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