By Keith Sutton
For a waterfowling enthusiast like me, it was a day to remember: ducks in the morning; geese in the afternoon.
We started with a serving of mallards and teal in flooded timber. Lewis Peeler and I tried to shiver off the cold as we sat high and dry in a well-camouflaged blind. Outside, standing in knee-deep water, Brad Avery cut loose with a raucous come-hither call that echoed through the peaceful morning woods. Ronald Caldwell was beside him, adding to the medley of mallard notes. Brad’s chocolate Lab and Ronald’s white Lab sat side by side in the open end of the blind, both watching the sky for birds.
The first ducks – a small flock of mallards – appeared just as the sun broke over the delta horizon. They were silhouetted against the leaden winter sky, determined, it seemed, to make the Louisiana marshes before nightfall. But Brad’s calling convinced them otherwise.
The timbre of his notes was pure perfection. One second, the mallards appeared and rocketed straight past us; the next instant, several were cupping their wings and dropping into the decoys. Four fluttered into our hole. Only one flew away. The well-trained Labs eagerly entered the icy water and made quick retrieves.
A green-winged teal dropped in unannounced a few minutes later – another tasty duck shot, retrieved and added to the stringer.
Thirty minutes then passed. Scores of ducks passed high overhead, too far up to notice Brad and Ron’s expert calling. But when a flock lifted off a nearby rice field and came toward us at treetop height, the duck-calling duo turned them our way with a few well-played notes. The greenheads circled our little opening twice, then cupped their wings and dropped from the sky like big metal-flake hailstones. We could see their orange legs, outstretched to meet the black water, and their emerald heads, luminescent against a gray-and-brown background.
“Get ‘em!” Brad shouted. And they all got got.
That afternoon, Lewis and I joined another group of hunters – clients at Ronald’s Xtreme Waterfowl Hunts operation – for a goose hunt in a nearby field. Several hundred decoys blanketed the tilled earth, creating the illusion of a huge flock of feeding snow geese with satellite flocks of Canadas nestled amongst them.
The illusion worked. As several guides called, we watched, enthralled, as hundreds of snow geese started tumbling from the sky, twisting and rocking this way and that as they plummeted earthward. My heart was in my throat. The sky was full of geese.
No one claimed responsibility for firing that first premature shot. It’s not hard to imagine, though: a man on his first goose hunt, anxiously watching that enormous flock of birds about to pitch in, wave upon wave of them pouring down like a blizzard of snow sweeping across a mountain pass – and that poor greenhorn hunter, overwhelmed by the excitement of the moment, squeezing off a shot before a shot should have been squeezed. Even the most stalwart hunter is thus often tempted. And on this afternoon, one was.
Lewis and I heard the shot ring out from across the field. But we couldn’t take our eyes off those geese. We watched the ivory birds rise and depart, a backward-played video on nature’s TV screen. And though we hadn’t fired a shot, neither of us was too disappointed. Goose hunting means shooting geese, of course, but it is much more than just killing. It is the unforgettable calling of a thousand snow geese pelting down like the gusts of a winter storm, and being outdoors with a good friend when nature’s raw, wild beauty unfolds before you. Until you have sat in a decoy spread and watched a winter day unfold the way I have just described, you have missed one of life’s greatest pleasures.
It’s easy to picture an outline of the Delta Triangle. The western boundary is U.S. Highway 67 from Little Rock to Hoxie. To trace the eastern leg, run a finger down a state highway map from Hoxie to West Memphis, following U.S. Highway 63 and Interstate 55. The southern edge of this great waterfowling tract is formed by Interstate 40 from West Memphis to Little Rock.
Some of the state’s best-known public duck hunting areas lie within this east Arkansas triangle, and dozens of guide services offer additional hunting opportunities – both ducks and geese – on private lands. Hundreds of thousands of mallards, snow geese and other waterfowl winter in this area each year, offering hunters an opportunity to experience first-hand the Natural State’s world-famous wing-shooting.
Henry Gray/Hurricane Lake WMA in White County preserves 16,888 acres of prime bottomland duck habitat along the White and Little Red rivers. Some 7,000 acres of pin-oak flats are flooded annually to attract wintering mallards and other ducks. Hunting can be hot for those who learn to navigate the near-wilderness of oxbows, sloughs, rivers and backwaters. Enter the area from U.S. Highway 64, five miles east of Bald Knob.
Nearby Steve N. Wilson/Raft Creek WMA (4,200 acres) in eastern White County is one of the state’s newest waterfowl hotspots. Thousands of ducks winter here each year, and this management area promises to be one of region’s top hotspots for waterfowling enthusiasts. Last season, hunting was allowed only on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays for those lucky enough to draw one of the limited permits available each day at the refuge headquarters two and a half miles southwest of Georgetown off Arkansas Highway 36. Check current regulations for this year’s hunts.
Rex Hancock/Black Swamp WMA (Woodruff County) tak
es in over 5,600 acres of overflow bottomland in the Cache River floodplain. The Cache, which runs through the middle of the area, is a natural flyway for ducks. When the water is up and ducks are in the woods, shooting is fast and furious. Access is off Arkansas Highway 33 at Gregory.
Dagmar WMA, six miles west of Brinkley (Monroe County), encompasses almost 8,000 acres of bottomland hardwood habitat, including numerous lakes, ponds, sloughs and bayous. It doesn’t get the attention from waterfowlers it deserves, but when conditions are right, it’s a duck magnet offering superb hunting opportunities. Travel there via Arkansas Highway 70 six miles west of Brinkley or 10 miles east of Biscoe.
Wattensaw WMA, another often-overlooked duck hunting area, covers over 17,000 acres of bottomlands north of Hazen and De Valls Bluff in Prairie County. Wattensaw Bayou, Hurricane Creek, Miller Creek, Clark Creek, Barkley Branch, Bell Branch, Webb Lake, Moore’s Lake and other waters attract thousands of wintering mallards, wood ducks and other waterfowl, creating excellent hunting opportunities for those who visit at prime times. Access is from Arkansas Highway 11 or U.S. 70 near Hazen.
One large hunting area in this region often overlooked by duck hunters is Pine Tree Cooperative WMA in St. Francis County. Owned by the University of Arkansas, this 11,850-acre area in the L’Anguille River basin draws ducks with an intermixed habitat of crop fields, hardwood bottoms and sloughs. Duck hunting hot spots are sparse but scouting can lead to beaver ponds, dead-timber reservoirs and other prime habitat where a hunter with a few decoys can enjoy fast-paced wingshooting. Access is from Highway 306.
For additional information on these WMAs, contact the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s regional office by phoning 1-877-734-4581 (for Earl Buss WMA, 1-877-972-5438), or log on to the AGFC Web site at www.agfc.com. The Web site provides a weekly waterfowl and water conditions report, hunting license and waterfowl stamp sales and information, and more. The same info is available by phoning the agency’s toll-free hotline, 1-800-364-GAME.
The Bald Knob area, established in 1993, covers 14,800 acres two miles south of Bald Knob on Coal Chute Road. Formerly a rice farm, the refuge is quickly earning a reputation as one of the top delta duck-hunting hot spots. Mallards, pintails, teal and wood ducks are abundant most years, providing great gunning for savvy waterfowlers. Call the refuge at (870) 347-2614 for a map, regulations and more info.
Cache River NWR currently encompasses 40,000 acres in numerous tracts. The river basin, containing some of the most-intact, least-disturbed bottomland hardwood forests in the Mississippi Valley region, is protected by the RAMSAR Convention as “Wetlands of International Importance.” This certainly is one of the region’s best duck-hunting areas, but access to refuge lands is limited, and hunters have to do some homework to find top hunting sites. For more information, call (870) 347-2614.
Goose hunting is allowed on most of the public lands already mentioned, but there are seldom enough grain fields on the wildlife management areas to attract geese on a regular basis. Cache and Bald Knob NWRs can be pretty good at times, especially toward the end of the statewide season when all-day hunting is allowed. Hunters will have to work hard to stay on top of the birds, however, because feeding and resting areas change frequently.
The Delta Triangle’s best goose hunting is on private agricultural lands where most geese are concentrated, and hunters willing to knock on some doors find many landowners willing to grant hunting privileges to courteous sportsmen.
Hiring a guide is another option for private-lands hunting. Guides know the best ways to hunt these birds. They lease large tracts of land where geese are likely to be feeding during the winter hunting season, so there’s no problem with access either. Best of all, guides do all the work. The hunter doesn’t have to spend endless hours scouting, doing the legwork to gain hunting permission from landowners and setting out and retrieving decoys. For a reasonable fee, reputable guides do all this – and clean and pack your birds, too.
One service I highly recommend is Xtreme Waterfowl Hunts, which offers guided goose hunting and duck hunting on 15,000 acres of prime waterfowl habitat along the Woodruff-St. Francis County line. Their lodge is on Arkansas Highway 306 two miles east of Hunter. For additional information, go to their website, www.xtremehunts.com, or phone 1-888-235-9891.
For additional guide services in the region, contact the chambers of commerce in Cross County, (870) 238-2601, Brinkley, (870) 734-2262, and Jonesboro, (870) 932-6691.
A wet spring on northern breeding grounds means there should be good duck production this year, but at the time this article was written, biologists say it’s too early to hazard anything but a guess on actual numbers of ducks we may see in Arkansas during the upcoming season.
Goose hunting is a bit easier to prognosticate. Hundreds of thousands of snow geese winter here, with plenty of food to support them and relatively few hunters pursuing them. Unless there’s a major die-off on northern breeding grounds (a situation some biologists are predicting if numbers keep skyrocketing), Delta Triangle snow goose fans will continue enjoying some of the nation’s best hunting. White-fronted and Canada geese are still on the upswing.
Waterfowl season dates are announced by the AGFC in mid-August after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hands down its guidelines. For the most current information available, check out the AGFC’s Web site at www.agfc.com or phone 1-800-364-GAME.
(Editor’s Note: Keith Sutton is the author of Hunting Arkansas: The Sportsman’s Guide to Natural State Game. To order autographed cop
ies, 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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