Grand Slam On The Arkansas River

When winter weather won't cooperate, waterfowlers can count on one place in the Natural State to produce a wide variety of ducks. Here's your guide to its promise. (January 2009)

Extremely dry or cold winters find many ducks seeking out a sure source of water like the Arkansas River.
Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg.

When in doubt, get the riverboat out!

When Mother Nature throws Arkansas duck hunters a curveball with hot and dry weather, or Old Man Winter drops in for an extended stay, there's only one place that wily waterfowlers know they can go to bag a diversity of ducks -- the Arkansas River.

In normal seasons, most of Arkansas' waterfowling population gives little thought to tossing out a line of decoys in the river that bisects Arkansas from northwest to southeast, running roughly 290 miles through the state that shares its name.

But, there's a saying about the Natural State's climatological conditions that's been thrown around for decades: "If you don't like the weather, just stick around five minutes -- it'll change."

You can eye statistics from the National Weather Service's North Little Rock office as proof of just how variable Arkansas' winters, and their accompanying duck seasons, can be.

For instance, at one end of the spectrum, consider that nine of the top 10 warmest years on record in Arkansas, based on average high temperatures, occurred between 1998 and 2006.

Those warm years translate into a lack of precipitation during the winter months, and even much of the remainder of the year. Such was the case with the drought period that began in May 2005 and lasted into 2006. Much of the state ran 25 to 50 percent below normal in rainfall, meaning many areas received 12-18 inches less precipitation than usual. In fact, 2005 went into the books as one of the driest on record for the state.

Little or no rain generally does not bode well for duck hunting. Unless you have a deep slough, reservoir or lake, or you have access to a field and the deep pockets needed to pump water on that ground, you may end up scanning the skies and pray for the proverbial five minutes to pass.

Step back another decade or so and you'll find six of Arkansas' 10 coolest years on record, again based on average high temperatures. These cooler-than-normal years were often accompanied by average to above-average precipitation.

So duck season rolls around and the Arctic Express makes repeated visits, meets with moisture bubbling up from the Gulf of Mexico, and drops a mix of wintry precipitation on the state. Sometimes, however, the cold just won't go away.

Such was the case in December 1983. Weather reports from Dec. 18-31 detail how freezing rain, light snow and sleet fell across Arkansas repeatedly. High temperatures hovered between the single digits and the teens, and wind chills hit 30 to 40 degrees below zero. Ice formed even on the Arkansas River.

When those ice-in-your-beard, chilled-to-the-bone periods last for a week or so, virtually every farm reservoir, greentree stand of timber or agriculture field becomes locked in ice. As with a hot, dry winter, you can wait around another five minutes and tell stories of yesteryears down at the barbershop.

Then again, you could dust off your camo uniform, step up to the plate and hit a grand slam.

"In dry years and cold weather, I turn to the Arkansas River for duck hunting," noted Todd Brittain, owner of Stuttgart's Black Dog Hunting Club. "Under these scenarios, river hunting can be fantastic."

Brittain has been duck hunting almost as long as he's been walking and talking. He began guiding part-time in 1984 and opened Black Dog two years later.

"I remember my first duck hunt," the 45-year-old waterfowl guide recalled. "It was in the afternoon on Christmas day. I was seven or eight years old, and we hunted off the end of a levee in what is commonly referred to as 'the cemetery brake.' It was all green timber at the time. My father would only shoot the ducks that would land on the levee because we didn't have a way to retrieve them."

When Brittain's father passed away later on in Todd's youth, one of his father's friends picked up the torch and kept Brittain in the hunting game.

Brittain joked that the friend was trying to keep him out of trouble by taking him "duck hunting morning, noon and night," then added, "It worked -- for the most part. I have been duck and goose hunting ever since."

That first hunt, though, is the one that planted a seed in Brittain's mind about the steps needed to become a better duck hunter -- like getting a well-trained retriever. He's never lost sight of such necessities associated with being a better Natural State waterfowler, including learning how to hunt the Arkansas River.

: "When hunting the river, I like to call long and hard at birds at great distances and then try to finish with a whistle and a few chuckles. As far as blind location is concerned, you have to take what the wind and the river give you. I know hunters in layouts who hide under 'fast grass' on sandbars and do really well." --Todd Brittain, Black Dog Hunting Club

"Green timber is naturally my favorite duck hunting spot, but the weather and the ducks tell me where to go and where to hunt," Brittain said. "I tried for years to tell them what to do, but they don't listen."

Sometimes, listening to those ducks leads Brittain and his Black Dog guides to the river. Periods of parched weather or subfreezing temperatures can make the Arkansas River a duck hunting hotspot. But, there are other occasions when he hears and answers the river's call.

"The river can be productive when least expected," Brittain explained. "Sometimes, hunter pressure alone can bring the birds to the river."

Of course, there's a trick or two to be learned when it comes to duck hunting the Arkansas River successfully.

"Dry weather and the lack of fresh water will push the birds to the river also. In dry years, we try to locate large rafts of birds in the main channel and set up between them and their feeding areas," he said. "We first locate a large

group of ducks and then determine from which direction they arrive and depart. We then set up between the raft and bank. The areas that prove to be the most successful are the back bays and the large bends of the river."

The hunts on the river also require some equipment and tactical changes, Brittain explained.

"When hunting the river, I like to call long and hard at birds at great distances and then try to finish with a whistle and a few chuckles. As far as blind location is concerned, you have to take what the wind and the river give you. I know hunters in layouts who hide under 'fast grass' on sandbars and do really well.

The shot size changes from No. 2s to BBs when we move to river hunting. Also, when hunting on the river, we use bigger boats, long strings on our decoys and a lot of natural cover. We never go with fewer than two boats."

That lattermost point lends itself to the enhanced need for Arkansas River duck hunters to keep safety at the forefront.

"All of the hunts on the river are memorable because of the harsh conditions that have brought us here. Extreme freeze-ups or extreme droughts are what bring us to the river," stressed Brittain.

"One year, when the river froze over, it was so cold that all the hard-plastic parts on the motors, fuel tanks and fuel lines turned brittle and were falling apart in our hands. The fuel lines snapped like pieces of dry spaghetti. We had four boats on the river and ended up with one towing three others back to the launch. We arrived with boatloads of ducks, but had risked our lives to do it. I came home and designed an 'unsinkable' pontoon blind for future use on such occasions."

Brittain also emphasized the need to be aware of obstacles in the water, the river's unforgiving nature, the importance of packing extras of everything, the use of logic in how many people to place in a boat -- and the probability that duck hunters will find a way to validate Murphy's Law.

"Safety is the only thing that matters when hunting on the river," he said. "If you don't respect the river and are not afraid of it, then stay away."

Living in the Arkansas River Valley does not lend itself as well to the duck hunter's lifestyle as does living near Stuttgart -- the "Rice and Duck Capital of the World." But James Staten has been hunting ducks for more than a decade and has found over the last eight seasons that the stretch of river here, in west-central Arkansas, can be a productive honey hole.

About the Arkansas River he said, "It is the ultimate in hit-or-miss. One day, the ducks are really using it, and the next, they just aren't. It can be a tricky place to learn and get into the groove. Being careful and knowing the water and terrain that you are hunting is very important. Some of the holes on the river can go from knee deep to over your head in just a matter of no time. Be sure and hunt with a friend."

Staten noted that scouting and watching the birds, perseverance and choosing your hunting times wisely all are keys to hitting a home run with Arkansas River ducks. This highlander also includes the use of a minimum of three- or four-dozen decoys as a prerequisite for river hunting.

"Of course, birds are the best way to tell that you have found a good spot," Staten continued. "Watch to see what type of holes the birds are using. Are they using shallow bays, big, open flats, coontail flats -- or just sitting in the creek channels? Look for what they might be feeding on. There are many aquatic plants that the birds do use as food on the river, and if you look for those, you will find the ducks."

Furthermore, this river valley hunter believes that good duck hunting times are based not just on the weather, but also on both the point in the season and the time of day. "The early-morning shooting can be good on the river, but the best time is midmorning," explained Staten. "By this time, the 'big ducks' like mallards and such have gone to feed and are returning to the river to loaf for the day and find some safe place to hang out. Times between 8 and 9 in the morning are usually our best times. The best time of the season is later in the year. The best weather for hunting the river is sunny and windy."

But, this member of the Zink Calls Field Staff and Avery Pro Staff is also quick to point out that the river can bring six-foot rollers on some of those windy days, so safety should unceasingly be a hunter's first thought.

Like Brittain, Staten likes cold, cold temperatures for river duck hunting.

"The colder the temps, the better," he said, noting that birds will look for a sanctuary out of the wind. "If the temps really drop out of the bottom and the fields begin to freeze and the woods start to lock up, then the river is the hot spot. The deeper and more open water is the last to freeze, and the birds have to have water. I love it when the shallows freeze with all the fields, the sun is bright and the wind is up. I know that we are going to really get them on the river."

When the ingredients of the recipe fall into perfect portions, the result can be awe-inspiring. This is when the ducks on the pond -- both divers and dabblers -- produce the hunter's grand slam.

"All species of ducks congregate on the river at different times," Brittain stated. "When it is really cold or really dry, you can harvest as many puddle (dabbler) ducks as you do divers. In normal situations, you can expect more divers than big ducks."

That's not to say that the list of divers doesn't include some sizable members, such as the redhead.

While Staten's hunting time is not as lengthy as Brittain's, he concurs about the diversity of a hunter's potential bag, saying, "On the river, I have taken a wide variety of birds. Mallards, gadwalls, teal -- both bluewing and greenwing -- shovelers, widgeons, pintails, wood ducks and various divers. Canvasbacks, bluebills, buffleheads and ringnecks are the most common divers on the river. We do sometimes manage to take a goldeneye or redhead from time to time."

Yes, it's possible to get a limit of ducks and not have a single one be the same kind of bird. Arkansas may well be known more for its mallards and greentree reservoirs, but the allure of man versus nature at its extreme, the adventurous journey of a river ride and the opportunity to harvest species of birds on which many Natural State hunters never draw a bead make the Arkansas River a must-see duck hunting destination.

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