Arkansas has long been a premier waterfowl hunting destination. From ducks in the flooded timber and rice fields to massive flocks of geese in the grain fields, millions of waterfowl cup their wings and descend upon Arkansas each year. Residents and non-residents alike,
drawn to the exceptionally good gunning, wait in tense anticipation for season openers.
But is this season's outlook favorable for good hunting? To find out, I spoke with a couple of waterfowl experts about what they believe the season holds in store for the rest of us.
Both were careful to point out that when I spoke with them, it was a bit early to be making too many predictions, but based on what they were seeing at the time, and how it relates to historical figures, they were able to offer some insight, based on those early impressions.
Steve Adair is the Director of Operations for the Great Plains region of Ducks Unlimited. You may be wondering what the Great Plains region has to do with waterfowling in Arkansas. The answer is: quite a bit!
Many of the ducks that are harvested in Arkansas begin their lives on the Great Plains in the Dakotas, Minnesota, northern Iowa, parts of Montana and on up into Canada. The birds then migrate south and east, many finding their way here to Arkansas.
"The band returns I have seen show that a majority of the birds harvested in Arkansas come out of the Prairie Region," said Adair.
He explained that in his neck of the woods, the weather had been a little different over the past year. "We started off with a good bit of snow in the prairies until about early January. We were kind of on a record pace, and then it quit and we ended up with just pretty average snowfall.
"Then," Adair continued, "when it melted this spring, a lot of it went into the ground. And, we had been fairly dry in the fall."
That resulted in fewer wetlands than biologists had hoped for. In turn, that of course resulted in less resting and feeding areas for waterfowl.
Adair said they are now actually in drought conditions in the Dakotas and into Saskatchewan, which means that bird numbers are down in those areas. This doesn't mean the birds have died off, but had to go elsewhere when migrating north.
Adair says that makes the birds have to keep going.
"It forces them to continue on to the boreal forests. That kind of helps carry them over, but it's just not as productive there."
Adair says the hens strongly rely on the aquatic insects and invertebrates that the prairie pothole wetlands provide to get their protein, which helps the eggs form. When that area is dry the invertebrate population is down as well. That results in fewer eggs laid and less re-nesting.
So, Adair says, waterfowl numbers from his part of the world will be down some this year. "It's different up here this year," he said. "We've been pretty wet for at least the last 20 years so I would be expecting a smaller fall flight this year than we have had."
There is hope, though. As Adair puts it, "It won't be like turning off the faucet, but it will be less than we are used to."
I asked Adair what Ducks Unlimited and other conservation organizations are doing in his region to help offset some of the conditions and to benefit waterfowl overall. Adair said that in addition to what he calls "classic work" such as securing conservation easements and buying and restoring land, they are working on new programs to help with cover crops.
"A lot of this land is in crop production," Adair says, "so we see a lot of corn, soybeans and so forth being grown in the prairie region. Sometimes ducks don't do very well in those landscapes so there are some new things we have been working with.
"Cover crops are beginning to become a more popular agricultural practice. What they basically do is plant things like clover, legumes and winter wheat in the crop fields in the fall in order to conserve moisture and add organic matter."
These cover crops leave nesting cover in the spring. Something Adair, and those who work to conserve waterfowl and other wildlife, are excited about — cover crops as a way to boost waterfowl production from intensely farmed landscapes.
Adair says Ducks Unlimited and others are stepping up efforts to promote such farming practices, even adding personnel to study the benefits and work with farmers to encourage them to try the methods.
Adair went on to say that a lot of waterfowl habitat comes from the Farm Bill and they are working on the 2018 version to ensure that it contains a lot of conservation programs. Those programs are so important to wildlife management as a whole, and particularly to waterfowl habitat related programs.
Adair believes it is very important that hunters and others interested in conservation speak up and let their voices be heard to encourage lawmakers to keep those programs in the Farm Bill. He says these programs help the farmers as well as the wildlife.
Another waterfowl expert I spoke with was Luke Naylor, waterfowl programs coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. At the time of our interview, Naylor said that several Arkansas Game and Fish Commission employees had just returned from Saskatchewan where conditions looked better than what Adair was experiencing in the Dakotas.
Naylor says conditions were good in the Canadian potholes and that should help fill the void in the Dakotas.
"It seems like we have been setting records every year for years and years and years," he said. "We may not set any records this year, though. But it may still be pretty good."
The good news is that Naylor added he doesn't expect any significant falloff in numbers, overall.
Naylor and I switched gears to discuss the outlook on goose numbers. Although it was very early in the nesting season when we talked, Naylor began by discussing Arctic nesting.
"Geese such as white-fronted geese, snow geese, and Ross' geese that we get down here are just starting to nest," he explained, "so it's tough to know yet. I haven't really gotten any reports yet, but they are pretty well tied in with ice-out in the Arctic.
"If they show up and have to sit and wait for the ice for a little, they typically have lower production. If they can get right to it and start nesting, they have better production. But, overall, those populations seem to be in really good shape right now.
"There is some indication that snow geese might not be breeding at quite the rate they were maybe 20 years ago, but still really, really high numbers for light geese in general — snow geese, Ross' geese, and white-fronted geese — so I'd expect another good year."
Naylor continued with, "Hunters who hunt geese, particularly light geese, know that better production leads to better hunting that year because of more young-of-the-year birds are in the flight. You typically can have better success with more (of the) young, vulnerable birds in the populations."
The younger, less experienced birds, obviously make for better success, but Naylor feels that our seeing plenty of light geese is a given. "Overall, we're still going to have a whole pile of geese around. We'd have to have something pretty major happen not to have a whole bunch of Arctic geese."
Canada geese, of course, are an entirely different scenario from the light geese, and Naylor says the AGFC doesn't do any kind of regular population counts or surveys on the local Canada goose populations to get an index of numbers.
But he acknowledged, "We band some of those geese every year, go back several years later and recalculate numbers, but it's always after the fact to just keep an eye on general population growth. They are a lot like the ducks on the prairies, the local populations can vary a lot based on local conditions."
Naylor said unfavorable conditions in one part of the state will simply move the geese to other areas that are more favorable in that particular year. But overall, Canada goose numbers should be on par with the last few years. Hunters may need to seek out alternative locations this season.
Hunters also should be aware of some regulation changes for this season. Commissioners met in June and approved rule changes that affect non-residents, but are intended to offer more opportunities on WMAs for those of us who live in the Natural State.
With the changes, the annual Non-resident Waterfowl WMA Permit has been done away with, leaving only the 5-day permit as a purchasing option for non-residents who are looking to hunt waterfowl on a state-operated WMA. The five-day permit is specific to a single WMA, which the buyer will choose at the time of purchase, as opposed to a general WMA permit that allowed for the purchaser to hunt any open WMA.
Non-residents will be allowed to purchase only six such permits per waterfowl season, and the price has been increased from $25 to $30.50. Commissioners feel this will allow residents better opportunities to hunt the state's public lands that their tax dollars help fund.
Overall, duck numbers may be down a bit this year, but there should still be plenty of shooting available for Arkansas waterfowlers. Goose numbers should be steady and on par with recent years.
Arkansas is still one of the preeminent waterfowl destinations in North America, and so here's hoping you get a chance to get take advantage of it this season!