Ducking In At Dave Donaldson/Black River WMA

World-class duck hunting awaits those waterfowlers willing to explore the swamps of this vast wilderness of bottomland hardwood habitat in northeast Arkansas. (December 2007)

Dave Donaldson WMA's 25,000 acres offer waterfowlers a smorgasbord of duck species. It's mallards that the author seeks when on his green-timber hunts at this public hunting area on the Black River.
Photo courtesy of Billie R. Cooper.

Great duck hunting in Arkansas awaits discriminating waterfowlers willing to work for, and to explore the quality of, opportunities found beyond the world-famous Stuttgart area.

For sure, you don't have to think "Stuttgart" when planning for a green-timber duck hunt in the Natural State. The 25,000-acre Dave Donaldson-Black River Wildlife Management Area in Clay, Randolph, and Greene Counties in northeast Arkansas is among the finest public hunting venues in the Natural State.

Dave Donaldson must have been quite a man. Black River WMA was originally named after the namesake stream that flowed through the area. After 30 years of service with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Donaldson retired in 1977. To pay tribute to his many contributions to the state conservation efforts executed by the AGFC, they renamed the area in his name.

Dave Donaldson WMA is 10 miles south of Corning, 10 miles east of Pocahontas, 20 miles west of Paragould and 15 miles north of Walnut Ridge. Acquisition of lands began in 1957 in an effort to begin preserving bottomland that offered top-quality waterfowl hunting opportunities.

As the demand for soybeans and rice expanded during the 1950s and '60s, wetland habitat was disappearing at an alarming rate. Land surrounding the Black River corridor represents a large portion of the bottomland hardwood habitat remaining in eastern Arkansas. To hundreds of thousands of migrating waterfowl and neo-tropical birds, the area is critical to survival. Its importance to the Mississippi Flyway population makes preserving some of the very best greentree duck habitat in the nation paramount to waterfowl management.

Dave Donaldson WMA exhibits a perfect combination of factors for fine waterfowling experiences. All hunters understand the funnel effect. The natural geography of the land, vegetative barriers and river corridors all serve as natural funnels that direct the travel of animals. The Black River bottoms have long been the tail of a funnel created by two geographic features: the Ozark Mountains to the west and Crowley's Ridge to the east. Right in the middle of these two impediments lies a north-south corridor of flat, often flooded river bottoms. Large expanses of hardwood forest induce ducks to stop, feed and rest. The dominant species of oak -- nuttall, overcup, pin and water -- provide tons of mast for hungry birds. Add the AGFC's innovative management of the area, and it's no wonder that Dave Donaldson WMA is a hot waterfowling destination. A 17-mile system of levees, pipes and stop-log structures assists the Black and Little River in flooding anywhere from 12,000 to 18,000 acres of the 25,000-acre area.

"The area offers spectacular waterfowling," said the AGFC's Stephanie Daniels, who has worked at the Dave Donaldson area for more than a year. "Hunters can expect to see many different species of ducks here. We seem to have them all, but mallards, pintails, wood ducks, black ducks, shovelers and teal are the most common species."

Daniels noted that hunting is on a first-come, first-serve basis. "Hunters don't have to face a morning draw here," she explained. "There is a lot of territory to hunt. However, arriving early is wise if you want to secure the better spots."

Hunters must be out of the area by noon. The afternoon rest period helps to hold ducks in the area, allowing them to feed and loaf without being disturbed. Waterfowl that do hold over are available for hunters the next morning.

Waiting until opening morning to look for a hunting spot on the massive WMA is a serious mistake. Hunters need to make several scouting trips to the area to find the best access areas, locate several areas to hunt, and discover duck foods and water sources. Studying area maps and talking with officials who work the area are invaluable sources of information. Investigations should continue right up to the day of the hunt. Conditions can and do change quickly, and those in the know will reap the rewards of hard work.

"Duck hunters have to negotiate waterways in the cover of darkness and should spend some time familiarizing themselves with the area in daylight hours to learn about obstacles and navigation landmarks," Daniels said. "It will certainly make for a safer and more enjoyable experience."

Green-timber hunting is as exciting as waterfowl hunting can get. The adventure of getting into heavy timber by water, and in the dark, is exciting enough in and of itself. However, when you toss tall, green standing timber into the equation, you get a style of duck hunting that is chock-full of special challenges and temptations.

Water depth is the controlling factor in setups. Water too deep to wade limits hunters to the confines of a boat. Boat positioning is extremely important in timbered situations. Gunners need to be facing open areas or, at least, the most-open areas aligned with either the direction from which ducks predominantly approach or the prevailing winds. Ducks that can light into the wind provide shooters with the best shots.

Shallow-water areas give hunters a bit more flexibility. Standing by a tree, both for stability and cover, is a longtime tradition of green-timber duck hunters. Few things in the hunting world match the thrill of being hunkered down by a giant ancient oak and calling to pods of circling mallards. Ducks swirling, twisting and turning through the timber makes for some fast, furious and fun shooting.

Carrying several choke tubes can enhance shooting success. Switching tubes to cope with changing situations offers advantages that one tube can't match. Hunting areas with thick overhead cover or tight landing zones for ducks will require an improved cylinder choke for close-up shots. The smart hunter can then change chokes as conditions or locations may require, which may call for longer shots and tighter chokes.

Experiment, and do what works for you with your decoys. However, never forget that flexibility can be the best tool in your arsenal. Smaller sets often work well in the timber, and can easily be picked up to move to another area. But using only a few dozen decoys often brings the temptation to move often, which can be a mistake. Many times, sticking it out and making a few adjustments to your spread is key for success.

Without doubt, knowing where to go in the Dave Donaldson WMA is one of the most important aspects of

hunting ducks there. Experience is golden: Old-timers have it figured out, while newcomers will generally do well to stick to the major access areas.

"Some great waterfowl hunting is available near the major access points," Daniels pointed out. "Sometimes, hunters don't have to travel over a few hundred yards from where they put in to get into ducks. Many people think they have to boat deep into the area to get the best hunts. That is not always the case."

Major access points are plentiful. Travel north on Highway 90 about two miles from Deleplaine and turn left on Highway 280; next, go north about four miles to a stop sign and turn left. This will lead you to the Brookings Access on the Black River. From Brookings, another access is available by going east on Highway 280 toward the small town of Peach Orchard for only a mile. Make a left turn on a secondary road. The Hubble Bridge Access is less than a mile away on the Little River. The Datto Access can be found by traveling south out of Corning on Highway 67 to Reyno. Watch for signs for Datto Access. Highway 304 will lead to Lake Ashbaugh. Watch for Arkansas Game and Fish Commission access signs.

Daniels suggested that all hunters check current regulations for Dave Donaldson WMA before going on their first hunt of the year. Both state and federal waterfowl regulations are subject to change every year, and hunters are responsible for keeping themselves current. Check out this season's regulations at the AGFC's Web site,

Daily river-gauge readings can be important to boaters and are published each day in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Hunters may also phone the AGFC's Northeastern Region office in Jonesboro at (870) 972-5438. The Arkansas Geological Commission -- (501) 296-18977 -- can provide topographical maps of the Peach Orchard, O'Kean, Reyno Manson, Knoble and Pocahontas quadrangles.

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