Big-Water Ducks Of The Natural State
September 24, 2010
The waterfowler will find that Arkansas' big rivers and reservoirs offer a whole different ballgame than do its rice fields or flooded timber -- but one just as likely to foster success. (October 2007)
Photo by Michael Cary.
When most folks think of duck hunting in Arkansas, one of two images comes to mind: green timber or flooded rice fields. And, true, most of the duck hunting in the Natural State is of these two types. (Most of the duck-hunting publicity, too.)
But there's ample opportunity for another kind of duck hunting in Arkansas, and this one isn't quite so well known. This state has an abundance of big-water hunting spots in the form of large U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes and large rivers such as the White, Arkansas, Red, Ouachita and Mississippi. These large waterways and impoundments can provide excellent duck hunting, and they really shine when cold weather comes and freezes the traditional green-timber and flooded-field hotspots solid.
For a good example of what I'm talking about, recall with me a big-water hunt that a friend and I shared several seasons ago:
It was the last week of the season, and a strong Arctic front had a firm and frigid grip on the lower Mississippi River Valley. The north wind was howling at 20 knots, and the cheerful voice of the all-night DJ told us it was 4 degrees above zero when we arrived at the boat landing on the lower Arkansas River at 5:45 a.m. Bill and I agreed that we really didn't have any business going hunting that morning, but we didn't have enough sense to listen to ourselves. We loved to watch 'em fly, and we knew they'd be flying in this brutal weather, heading for the river in search of open water.
We were bundled up like Arctic Ocean seal hunters, but the five-mile downriver run in the open johnboat was still torture. We were almost frozen when we reached the spot we'd decided to hunt that morning, and before we set about putting out our decoys, we raised the sides of the Avery boat blind and fired up the propane camp heater to thaw out a little.
Our chosen spot was a little pocket of open water the size of a basketball court at the downstream end of a half-flooded willow sandbar. The pocket was just off the river and protected from the current by a narrow spit of muddy sand that extended downriver from the willows. The water in the pocket wasn't deep, only about 4 feet, but enough current eddied into it around the sand spit to keep it from freezing in the bitter cold.
In the surrounding willows, where the water wasn't moving, 2 inches of ice had formed, and more little fingers of ice started growing on the sides of the boat as soon as we tied it off in the willows. We knew the shallow fields and reservoirs away from the river had also iced over, which was why we'd come to the river in the first place. The ducks would be here, too, and if we'd guessed right about our hunting spot, we'd be in for a good day.
Evidently we'd guessed right. When daylight came, the ducks came with it, and flock after flock worked our small spread as if they'd never heard gunfire.
It wasn't long before Bill and I were wishing that we'd brought two or three more hunters with us that day. Given enough shells and the inclination to do it, I'm confident that we could have killed 250 ducks that morning. Instead, we tried to prolong the hunt as long as possible -- partly because hunts like that don't happen every day, but also partly because we dreaded that brutal return trip upriver. We took turns, shooting only mallard drakes, taking no more than one bird from each flight. Even so, it was over in less than an hour, and we gave eight greenheads a chilly boat ride back to the landing.
BIG WATERS VS. SMALL
Within an hour or so of almost every point in this state will be found a lake or big river that makes big-water hunting available. The large rivers mentioned above and nearly a dozen huge Corps of Engineers impoundments provide thousands of acres of public-hunting opportunity. No matter where you live, some of this type of water is within day-trip distance. Still, most Arkansas hunters stick with small waters -- flooded fields, flooded timber, dead-timber brakes, marshy areas, farm ponds.
For one thing, equipment needs are lower when you hunt small waters, and access to small waters is usually easier. But another reason to avoid big waters is the same reason for some anglers to shun the same places: That much water is daunting, confusing. Where in the world should you fish? Where in the world should you set out your decoys?
LOOK FOR SHELTER
At most lakes and rivers, a little common-sense detective work, either in a boat on the water or in your La-Z-Boy in the den with a good set of maps, can narrow the field considerably. A big-water site needs to have two elements if it's going to be any good as a hunting spot: protection from the elements, to make it attractive to waterfowl, and some sort of vegetation or other available cover, so you and your party can hide from incoming birds. Fortunately, these two things can often be found in conjunction.
Look for broad, shallow bays or shallow flats at the back end of coves or on the sheltered side of points or islands, preferably bordered by a sandbar or mudbar, with enough nearby vegetation so that you can blend in with your boat blind. In rivers, a slight current is probably OK, but it's better if no current's moving through the area at all, as long as the water doesn't freeze.
Another type of spot that's often of interest is one on main points that extend into a bend of the lake or river. Waterfowl often key on these places during normal flight, in much the same way that doves key on single shade trees in pastures, and sometimes the pass-shooting at a spot like this can be fantastic. If the point also provides shelter from the elements, it can be a good place for decoying ducks as well.
At most large lakes and a good many rivers, spots like this are relatively scarce -- and, if you stop to think about it, that's a good thing. A scarcity of suitable sheltered resting places tends to concentrate waterfowl activity more, and leads to more productive hunting when you do find one of those places.
However, in sections of quite a few large rivers, inviting waterfowl hangout spots like this are common: the Dardanelle portion of the Arkansas River, for example, or the flooded backwaters and sloughs along the river's lower 100 miles or so -- say, from Redfield downstream -- or the backwaters of the Ouachita River down around Felsenthal. And don't forget the sandbars, flooded willow brakes and backwater areas of the Mississippi River itself.
Of course, the fact that a lake or section of river abounds in likely setup spots only serves to make the overall bo
dy of water more attractive to waterfowl, so it's usually not much of a problem. Even though the activity of the birds will be spread out over more hotspots, a lot more birds will be present to be spread around as well.
The net result is usually positive, but with waters like these, on-the-water scouting is a lot more effective than is the armchair variety. It's considerably harder to pick out likely hunting spots when hundreds of them from which to choose are on offer. Get out there and take a look, and hunt where your observations tell you waterfowl activity will be highest.
If wind direction or waterfowl activity shifts, don't hesitate to pick up and move to a new location. Nothing's to be gained by sitting in your boat blind and watching ducks fall into a hideyhole across the lake. If you can get to the place without crowding other hunters, do it. And do it fast -- because things might change again.
TRAVEL AS LIGHT AS POSSIBLE
Given the need for instant mobility, it'll pay to minimize and simplify your equipment as much as you can. For this style of hunting, a pop-up boat blind attached to the gunwales is a big advantage. You can hide yourself and your boat under one of those leaf-type camouflage covers, but these things get in the way when you're running in the boat, get wet and uncomfortable, catch aggravatingly on everything -- branches, gun barrels, boat corners -- and are a general pain in the butt. A pop-up blind such as those manufactured by Avery Outdoors provides better concealment and protection from the elements, goes up faster, and isn't nearly as much in the way when it's not being used.
Whichever type of boat blind you choose, you need one or the other very badly for big-water hunting. Many likely hunting spots are somewhat shy of the cover needed to hide a good-sized boat, and building a blind on site takes considerable time.
Decoys are also very important for big-water hunting in most cases, but again, keep things as simple as possible. Six dozen decoys make a bigger statement on the water, but three dozen take half the time to put out and pick up. And motion decoys can make a difference on big water, but they're usually not worth the trade-off in setup and takedown time. Using the old goose hunter's trick of flagging at distant birds is a good way to attract their attention at a distance.
Speaking of which: A half-dozen or so full-body or shell Canada goose decoys are often worth the extra time and effort at many big-water areas -- particularly along the Arkansas River and its backwaters. These big birds favor the same kinds of sheltered areas that you hunt for ducks.
DON'T NEGLECT YOUR CALLING
While calling is perhaps a little less important than is effective decoy placement, it's still a plus in big-water waterfowling. Ducks and geese are both very vocal birds, and if they don't hear at least some duck or goose talk coming from your spread, they'll be less likely to commit. And, as good calling beats mediocre calling hands down, gaining some proficiency with this skill is a good idea.
Sometimes the decoys by themselves will be effective, but a combination of good decoy placement and decent calling will almost always work better. Additionally, several people calling at the same time will almost always be more effective than a single caller.
You're almost certainly going to have to use a boat for big-water hunting, and hitting big water calls for more boat than hunting a farm pond does. Your trip to your hunting spot or spots is likely to be a long one, and you're apt to encounter big towboats and barges on a river and rough water on rivers and lakes alike. Therefore, a sturdy, seaworthy, wide-beamed, high-sided, shallow-draft boat is mandatory. At the minimum, you'll need a 25-horsepower outboard; 40 or larger is better. Wear a PFD at all times when the boat is under power.
Maps of almost all large waters, lakes and rivers alike, are available somewhere. Sniff out these sources and get those maps. All COE lakes have a resident engineer's office where maps are available, and district COE offices sell books of navigation maps for rivers like the Mississippi and Arkansas. Commercial maps for fishermen are also available at reasonable cost for many COE lakes. One such company is Fishingmap.com, 21869 Birchmont Lane, Nisswa, MN 56468, (218) 831-1058, www.fishingmap.com. Or you can always rely on good old topo maps. The point here is that some type of map is absolutely vital to success and safety on big water.
PLAN FOR BAD WEATHER AND ROUGH WATER
The weather doesn't have to be bad for big-water hunting to be good, but in general, its quality is inversely proportional to the quality of the weather: The colder and nastier it gets, the better the action. At such times, sheltered spots become a lot more appealing to waterfowl and waterfowl hunters alike.
Of course, conditions like that can be extremely uncomfortable at best and life-threatening at worst, and it's axiomatic that you must prepare for it beforehand. Even if you're beginning a hunt in mild weather, be prepared for bad stuff.
While keeping that "travel light" motto in mind, put together a survival kit in a watertight plastic tote. Fill it with such items as heavy parka-style float-coats with drawstring hoods, waterproof insulated mittens, waterproof matches and fire-starting materials, high-energy foods such as candy bars, a flare gun and flares, an extra compass, a cell phone, and similar items. You may never need your kit, but if you do need it, you're going to need it very badly.
None of this is meant to scare you away, but waterfowl hunting on large rivers and big COE lakes is quite a bit different from hunting ducks in a flooded field or farm pond within sight of your vehicle. It can be dangerous if you're not prepared and don't have the right equipment.
Last but not least, it's a good idea to be up to speed on duck identification and on specific bag regulations where you're hunting. Big waters tend to attract a hodgepodge of species, and you literally never know what's going to come into the decoys next. In many areas, it's not uncommon to see a dozen species of ducks -- everything from common birds like mallards and gadwalls to gee-whiz species like oldsquaws, goldeneyes and ruddy ducks -- on a good big-water hunt.
Aside from equipping yourself properly, scouting via maps or on-the-water recon, and boning up on regulations and species identification, the only thing left to do is get out there on the big water and see what happens. Properly done, it will add a whole new dimension to your waterfowling pleasure.