Moving-Water Mixed Bag
November 29, 2010
By this time of the season, Arkansas waterfowlers should be targeting moving-water hotspots for taking a mixed bag of ducks and geese.
A pair of waterfowlers retreive a duck from their decoy spread near Casscoe. Moving waters from the White River can keep backwater oxbows like this one open except during the most frigid of temberatures. Photo by James K. Joslin.
You've settled in on cruise control. Duck and goose seasons have been open for a while now, and you've been taking your share of greenheads and geese at your favorite haunts. Then comes the weather forecast: cold and nasty. Within days, those action-filled hunts -- and the birds -- are gone. Everything is covered with ice from the sleet, freezing rain and arctic temperatures. Now is when you have to make the move to moving water.
That is where the birds have flown, providing a mixed bag of wing-shooting action that could include everything from woodies and white-fronted geese to canvasbacks and Canadas. The decision now is, where to go? Arkansas is blessed with more than 9,700 miles of streams and rivers, so there are many destinations from which to choose. Here's the advice a trio of waterfowling professionals had to offer.
WHERE, WHEN AND HOW
With 14 of his 32 years spent chasing ducks and geese, Avery Outdoors pro-staffer James Staten has learned a lot about reacting to cold snaps. While some of his hunts are in green timber or brushy areas, he's spent many hours on the Arkansas River and its backwaters. Staten knows, though, that hunting rivers and streams is the exception and not the rule for Natural State waterfowlers.
"Hunting moving water is not the most common thing done in our area," he said. "but when the freeze hits or the water is scarce in areas you usually hunt, then it can be a good change of pace.
"Usually, the best time to really key in on the moving water is during a hard freeze like the one we had last season," Staten continued. "When the backwaters, fields, timber and sheet water freeze, the current in the moving water will keep it open and a good spot for ducks. Also, this is when smaller streams and creeks can hold ducks that normally don't go to these types of places."
With the Arkansas River bisecting the state for roughly 320 miles from Fort Smith to where it encounters the White River in southeast Arkansas, there's no shortage of water to hunt. Accesses are found at many of the lock and dam sites and major highway bridges along the Arkansas. But, the river itself is not all that is available here.
For instance, Staten sometimes heads up Illinois Bayou to chase ducks and geese. That waterway spills down the south side of the Ozarks and runs into Lake Dardanelle. It is more familiar as a fishing destination. But, accessing the bayou from various U.S. Forest Service roads or Arkansas Route 164 or 27 bridges can bring shotgunning opportunities for enterprising waterfowlers.
"The opportunity is endless when hunting this type of situation. Mallards and gadwalls will most usually be the greatest part of the duck bag, just like always in Arkansas, but you never know what may fly into the spread," Staten explained, noting that goldeneyes, redheads and buffleheads are commonplace for hunts on the bigger rivers.
"Smaller streams that have good moving water tend to hold more puddlers than divers, it seems. Divers, especially the big ones such as canvasbacks and bluebills, don't mind the moving water at all since they are very used to being on larger water systems," he added.
One of Staten's keys to success is scouting. "I do lots of scouting from my boat," he said. "I run the rivers looking for rafts of birds holding in places. If a river or stream is accessible from a truck, then drive it and glass it with binoculars. Watch for general bird movement."
After scouting is accomplished, the next step is a good setup. Staten prefers a point in the main part of the river. The spot should face away from the sun, usually downstream, he said. "In smaller waters, I like a place that has a good, deeper hole with a shallow flat that the birds can rest on."
Steve Bowman, the outdoor writer and television producer, co-produced the "Arkansas Duck Hunter's Almanac" and "The Season: A Photographic Look at the Sport of Duck Hunting." His 32 years of waterfowling are well documented in those books and through the various articles he's written.
While he agrees with Staten about hitting the Arkansas River during a freeze, he also believes there's another time to hunt moving water.
White River, Cache River and Felsenthal NWRs provide some of the best moving-water waterfowling in Arkansas. Photo by James K. Joslin.
"Moving water is always best after a brutal cold front," Bowman began. "It doesn't have to freeze, but when birds move, they head to migration routes, which are typically where water moves -- creeks, rivers, etc. Moving water can also mean rising water, and those newly inundated areas are ripe with grass seeds, invertebrates and possibly acorns. Catch it on the rise and stay with the rise or crest and find where the water is spreading out."
Bowman likes the Cache River and Bayou DeView for moving-water hunts. But, he'll also set up in the Arkansas River, choosing to target puddlers over divers by hunting slack water rather than the main current.
"On the Arkansas River, you are hunting an interstate highway for migrating fowl, and there is the possibility to shoot every species that travels down the Central and Mississippi Flyways. When you get on the main thoroughfare, you will likely see it all," said Bowman.
The key, he said, are the cold fronts. "The more brutal the better. Ducks want to feed in slack water, loaf in slack water, but they follow moving water on their migration. When they are traveling or being pushed, rivers and creeks can be awesome."
Another item of importance, according to Bowman, is patterning waterfowl movement.
"Realize that ducks (and geese) may use fields in the mornings and evenings, and then start moving. I think they key on creeks and rivers as flight paths. But, when the conditions are right, moving water may be better in mid-day than any other time.
"Stay with it," he advised. "Look for river bends where you can set up a big presentation because that is normally a wider spot in the river and traditionally it will be closer to slack, spreading water."
Accesses to the Cache River, Bowman's favorite moving-water spot, are many. You can find out more by visiting the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge's headquarters, 16 miles south of Augusta on Arkansas Route 33, or by going to http://fws.gov/cacheriver/. Comprising about 56,000 acres in Jackson, Monroe, Prairie and Woodruff counties, the refuge and its namesake river can be inundated with moving-water opportunities during wet years.
Meanwhile, Earl Buss Bayou DeView WMA is located in Poinsett County. The 4,254-acre area was purchased by the AGFC from 1958 through 1967. Its location near Weiner makes it prime waterfowling real estate. Accesses are via Arkansas Routes 49, 14 and 214 from Weiner.
Another location with moving-water potential is Rex Hancock Black Swamp WMA in Woodruff County. There, we're again in Bowman's Cache River hunting grounds. The WMA's 6,394 acres were fashioned with multiple AGFC purchases from 1971 through 1995. You can access Black Swamp by traveling Arkansas Route 33 from Augusta to Gregory, then turning east for three miles or heading south one more mile on 33 before going east two miles. Another access point is three miles west of Cotton Plant off Arkansas Route 38.
While most Arkansas waterfowlers are probably familiar with the locations previously mentioned, it's doubtful names like Buffalo River, Crooked Creek, Eleven Point River or Strawberry River come to mind as duck- or goose-hunting destinations. It is on such highland streams, however, that Dennis Whiteside spends much of each winter with shotgun in hand.
"I've been float-hunting since the 1960s and have floated a couple of hundred streams in Arkansas and Missouri, including several in the Ouachitas and the Delta of Arkansas," Whiteside said. "About the only thing that moves ducks (and geese) around is food and harsh weather, and it's usually January before things start rolling in waves. Remote streams always have ducks, period. The key ... is nasty weather. I made one float trip up here last year in Zone 1 (northwest Arkansas) with snow and ice and -5 temps. The ducks and geese were everywhere because my float water wasn't frozen."
Constructing a blind on his canoe and using only a paddle for power, Whiteside said that he's been within touching distance of birds. The bag can include about any species imaginable, but he targets mallards, wood ducks, gadwalls and Canadas. Whiteside chooses to go without decoys and a call, instead drifting downstream toward the birds and jump-shooting them when in range.
His pursuit of waterfowl on these waters is so unusual that he's had AGFC wildlife officers scratching their heads trying to decipher the method to his madness.
Defining the access points for all the mountain streams, creeks and rivers Whiteside has guided on for decades would make for an article in itself. The best ways to find out more information on these and the following destinations is to call the AGFC at 1-800-364-GAME, visit the commission's Web site: www.agfc.com, or go to www.denniswhiteside.com.
Remember that waterfowl regulations can vary from one NWR, WMA, river or stream to another. So, check with the AGFC before heading out and make sure that the season is open on the moving waters you choose.
Hunters on open water areas are likely to get some pass shooting on geese, like these specklebellies, at this time of the season. Photo by James K. Joslin.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION
While our three Arkansas waterfowling experts have their favorite places to head when conditions for moving-water hunts prevail, there are many other possibilities for hunters to consider.
White County, for instance, offers four choices. They include 15,022-acre Bald Knob NWR, 953-acre Bayou Des Arc WMA, the approximately 17,000 acres of Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA and Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms WMA's 4,063 acres.
Each of these wildlife units offers potentially good waterfowling because of their landscape and their closeness to the White River and its tributaries, like the Little Red.
Southern Arkansas finds a pair of moving-water destinations with Beryl Anthony Lower Ouachita WMA offering 7,500 acres in Ashley and Union counties and Felsenthal NWR covering 65,000 acres in Ashley, Union and Bradley counties.
As can be surmised from the name of the WMA, these areas pull on the Ouachita and Saline rivers for their wintering waterfowl populations. A few more places to consider include:
'¢'‚Dave Donaldson Black River WMA: Roughly 23,000 acres in Clay, Randolph and Greene counties in northeast Arkansas.
'¢'‚Mike Freeze Wattensaw WMA: Nearly 17,000 acres in Prairie County, traversed by Wattensaw Bayou with the White River to the east.
'¢'‚Petit Jean River WMA: Off the Arkansas River in Yell County, covers about 15,000 acres.
'¢'‚Shirey Bay-Rainey Brake WMA: In Lawrence County, covers 10,528 acres.
'¢'‚Sulphur River WMA: More than 16,000 acres found in Miller County, with Mercer Bayou flowing through area.
'¢'‚Trusten Holder WMA: South end of White River NWR in Arkansas and Desha counties, totals 10,000-plus acres off Arkansas River near confluence with the White and Mississippi.
'¢'‚White River NWR: Roughly 160,000 acres, located in Desha, Monroe, Arkansas and Phillips counties.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION
With a combined century-plus of waterfowling experience on rivers, bayous and streams, Staten, Bowman and Whiteside each offered advice on staying safe while chasing ducks and geese on such waterways.
"The biggest key is to be very sure of your footing when walking and wading the water," Staten began. "Depending on the current or area you are in, you could be swept down by current. Also, a lot of times, the water is deeper in the moving-water areas we hunt, so you have to know the depth of the water and if it's safe to wade. If you have a boat, it could be pushed away from you and you'd not be able to retrieve it, leaving you stranded."
Reiterating, Staten said, "You have to remember lots of new rules when hunting this way. Always hunt with a buddy, so that someone is there in case you happen to go down in the water. If you hunt a dog, like I always do, take extra care with them on retrieves. The current can be hard on them to fight and swim against, and ducks can quickly wash away from their normal reach of retrieving. Help them out if the birds you down are close, and give them extra time to make the retrieves."
Saying that waterfowlers hope for extreme weather conditions, Bow
man pointed out that hunting moving water means a heightened need for safety. "Obviously, you have to have a good platform, which means a wide boat or a blind. Standing and shooting can be precarious; your 'be careful' instinct has to be turned up a notch on any river or creek when the water is moving, regardless of the weather."
Meanwhile, Whiteside shared that experience and skill are essential for tackling waterfowl hunting on rivers and other moving waters.
"It's not for the novice! You must know the streams, your limits, and have all the tools to deal with the unexpected," Whiteside said. "The last time I dumped one of my big canoes was in 1973, but it could happen again on my next float. That's how I think. It's much like my attitude about cottonmouths when I'm float fishing. I never expect to step on one or to be bitten. But, I'm looking for them like a hawk watches for a mouse, nonetheless."