10 Top Picks for our Late-Season Ducks

Top 10 lists seem to be everywhere -- and just how many of them can help you bag more ducks this season? For a really important top 10 list, read on.

Photo by Steve Carpenteri

By Jim Spencer

Arkansas duck hunters are spoiled. We kill more mallards here than are downed in any other state in the union, and we're second only to Louisiana in total ducks killed. Even last year, when we had a mild winter and a good proportion of the mallards in the Mississippi Flyway stayed north of us until after duck season closed, our preeminence in those categories remained unchallenged. And, what with the larger-than-anticipated breeding bird index and May pond count on the breeding grounds and the larger-than-anticipated Fall Flight Forecast, things are looking better for this season.

Because we have so much high-quality public duck hunting, it's difficult to decide which areas are the best. Duck concentrations shift in response to variations in temperature and the availability of food and water, and sometimes these shifts occur quite suddenly. Sometimes, as happened last year, many of the ducks never get here at all.

But usually Arkansas has some pretty dense concentrations of ducks by the season's last weeks. Here's a run-down on a few public areas that ought to be red-hot this month.

This wildlife management area is celebrated as an early-season hotspot. But if the weather doesn't get cold enough to freeze the flooded-timber impoundments of this 27,000-acre area near the Missouri border in northeast Arkansas, Black River will hold ducks all season long.

One thing that's certain about this area is that it will be flooded for duck season. Scheduled water releases from Missouri's Clearwater Lake flood the area each fall, and the water level stays up throughout the season.

There are a couple of places where walk-in hunting is possible, but most are across private ground and access to the walk-in access points themselves is limited. For the average hunter, boating is the only option, and some years see water deep enough that you must hunt from the boat, too. There are four launch areas: on the south side, Brookings and Hubble, off Highway 90 via Highway 280 at Peach Orchard; on the north side, Datto and Shaffer's Eddy, each with ramps, both reached via Highway 67 east of Pocahontas.

Even though the Sunken Lands are in northeast Arkansas, the current on the St. Francis River usually keeps enough water open, even during freeze-ups, to hold solid numbers of ducks.

This area's almost 28,000 acres are scattered amid a checkerboard of public and private lands stretching along 40 miles of the St. Francis from below Highway 63 near Marked Tree all the way to the Bootheel. Most access is by boat, by way of either the river or the relief ditches on either side of the St. Francis Floodway. Scattered along the checkerboard are public ramps: five in Poinsett County, four in Craighead County.

The area depends on natural flooding, and floods pretty reliably. There's enough water to support decent hunting when the river gauge at Oak Donnick is at 210 feet or more. (Level information is available on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Waterfowl Hotline, which is available online at www.agfc.com.)

Caution is the watchword for any boating expedition in cold weather, but it's especially important here. Thousands of sunken logs and stumps are present, and treacherous currents and eddies threaten when the river is high. Wear a personal floatation device at all times while the boat is in motion, and go slow unless you're absolutely sure of the channel.

From the Oklahoma line to Little Rock, the Arkansas River flows between mountain ranges and provides not only the primary migration corridor from west to east across the state, but also the only significant duck habitat between Bentonville and Millwood Lake. Many ducks use the river as a temporary stopover on their way farther south, but others stay all season long, feeding in the shallow backwaters off the river. Late-season hunting on this stretch of the river ranges from so-so to fabulous, and hunting pressure is generally light.

You might find good duck hunting practically anywhere along this stretch of river, but the islands and cattail flats in the Dardanelle Pool are probably the most consistent areas. The Ozark Pool also has shallow backwaters that provide good duck hunting. Below Russellville, most of the backwater - and thus, most of the ducks - will be in the lower portions of the navigational pools.

As is the case on the St. Francis, the Arkansas is a dangerous river. Outside the marked channel the going is uncertain, with rock jetties, dead timber and sandbars a possibility almost anywhere. Going dead slow and wearing a PFD will be the ticket.

Navigation chart books showing backwaters, channels, jetties, dikes and other features are available for a fee from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers office at 700 West Capitol in Little Rock. Call (501) 324-5551 for prices and ordering information.

Downstream from Little Rock, the Arkansas River flows through flatlands, with piney woods on the west bank and farmland on the east. Below Pine Bluff, it's farmland on both sides.

The flat, water-rich country around Stuttgart, Star City, DeWitt, McGhee, Lake Village and elsewhere pulls ducks away from the river, but many birds return to get grit and to rest between feeding sessions. As a result, backwaters along the lower river provide hunters with a variety of species, even in mild weather. And when bitter cold freezes flooded fields and reservoirs, the action can be fantastic.

As is the case with the upper river, the best backwater areas are found toward the lower end of each navigational pool. Probably the best hunting of all is in the backwater areas within a few miles of the Highway 165 bridge between Gillette and Dumas.

This is mostly deep-water hunting - too deep to wade, at least. Having a boat blind is advisable, and a well-trained retriever can save you a lot of trouble.

This 65,000-acre block of mostly bottomland hardwoods and permanent water at the confluence of the Ouachita and Saline rivers lies amid a sea of piney woods between Crossett and El Dorado. In addition to the 15,000 acres of year-round water surface (most of it in the sprawling, cypress-studded Grand Marais Lake), another 2

1,000 acres of hardwoods are seasonally flooded each fall to benefit wintering waterfowl. This flooding, as is the case of Black River WMA at the other end of the state, is dependable, since it is caused by raising the spillway of the Felsenthal Lock and Dam on the Ouachita River by 5 feet. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service claims that the resulting impoundment is the world's largest greentree reservoir.

There's no hunting allowed north of U.S. Highway 82, but the larger portion of the flooded area south of the highway is open to mornings-only hunting. Some of the backwater is accessible to walk-in hunting, but sloughs and other deeper cuts are a near-constant presence. Most waterfowlers here rely on boats to get to and from their hunting areas.

There are several campgrounds and boat ramps scattered around the refuge, all of which are shown on the refuge map/permit available from refuge headquarters; call (870) 364-3167. All refuge hunters are required to carry one of these permits.

Duck hunters generally don't give a lot of thought to the Ouachita Mountain region. But there are a couple of reasons to make an occasional exception to that rule, and Nimrod WMA is one of them. The WMA's 3,634 acres on the Fourche la Fave River west of Perryville cover all of Nimrod Lake and most of its adjacent bottomlands. The land and the lake belong to the Corps; the AGFC manages the property for ducks and other wildlife.

Except for near the developed campgrounds and boat ramps, the entire lake is open to duck hunting. Some hunters set up in the willow thickets along the shorelines and do well with both puddle ducks and divers. But the most consistent hunting is in the 1,200-acre green-timber reservoir on the lake's northwest arm.

Nimrod is smaller than are most of the state's other greentree WMAs, but this area sometimes holds impressive concentrations of ducks, particularly right after the arrival of a strong cold front. These huge assemblies usually don't last long before the birds move farther south, but during the two or three days following the front you can usually find pretty serviceable duck hunting here until the ducks get rested and move on in search of bigger areas and more food.

Nimrod WMA can be reached most easily off Highway 28 west of Plainview. Several dirt roads lead into developed parking areas, which provide walk-in access and small-boat boating access to the greentree area.

This 31,490-acre area near Stuttgart and Pine Bluff has been plagued in recent years by overcrowding, but it's still a worthwhile prospect for late-season duck hunting. When late-season cold snaps freeze the surrounding flooded fields, the green-timber areas of Bayou Meto WMA remain open for at least a few days. During that time, ducks pour into the place in numbers hard to believe, concentrating near the bayou channels, where deeper water and a slight current keep the water from freezing.

Even when there's not a freeze on, Bayou Meto is still a pretty reliable late-season hunting area, provided you can escape the crowds. Probably the best way to do this is to outlast the other hunters, either starting your hunt at 8 or 9 o'clock and staying until the noon closing time or going early with all the other hunters and simply sticking it out until most of them leave. Either way, late-morning and midday hunting is often better here than the early stuff.

Walk-in hunting and boat-in hunting are both popular here, since the area is ringed by more than a dozen access points and it's easy to reach the flooded timber. Boat ramps are often a three-ring circus an hour before shooting time, though, so be forewarned that it may take you a while to launch your boat. Whether you wade in or boat in, bring chest waders.

The AGFC is trying various tactics in an attempt to relieve some of the overcrowding - limiting hunters to 15 shells with a maximum shot size of 2, banning all commercial guiding, and so forth. It's helping some. But those looking for a solitary hunting experience had best look elsewhere.

These two long, narrow refuges reaching from McCrory almost all the way to the Mississippi River total approximately 200,000 acres. With almost every acre in bottomland hardwood habitat, the two refuges serve as the single most important wintering ground for mallards in the world. White River NWR was established in 1935, and Cache River NWR got its start in 1986. Almost all of Cache River NWR is open for hunting, and so is the North Unit of White River NWR (that portion north of Highway 1). Two smaller hunting areas are also open in White River NWR's South Unit.

Because much of Cache River NWR is in scattered parcels and a good bit of White River NWR remote and hard to reach, a lot of the available hunting land in these two refuges receives fairly light hunting pressure. These bottoms provide great hunting when flooded, and when there's no flooding, the numerous lakes and sloughs are often worth a try.

But like Bayou Meto, it's when the woods are flooded and the surrounding flooded fields freeze over that the White and Cache bottoms really shine. If you want to see duck hunting like what the old-timers saw a hundred years ago, try to get to the flooded bottomlands of the lower Cache when there's a flood on and the thermometer reads in the 'teens.

Boat access is usually the only choice here, and there are numerous access points scattered along both rivers. Most of them are primitive, but some of the ramps are concrete or gravel. Cache River NWR maps are available for a fee from refuge headquarters at Rt. 2, Box 126T, Augusta, AR 72006, (870) 347-2614. A small-scale map of White River NWR comes with the mandatory free permit, but it's hard to read and almost useless from a practical standpoint. Instead, you'd be wise to invest in a map from Pine Bluff Blueprint. Call them at (870) 535-1097 for current pricing and ordering information.

Free user permits - available at the respective refuge headquarters - are required for hunters on both refuges. The permits are not interchangeable.

Lying southeast of Bald Knob at the confluence of the White and Little Red rivers, Hurricane Lake WMA is the northernmost of the public duck hunting areas along the White. When the White gets high enough to flood the area (usually not before the middle part of duck season), it can be among the best public hunting areas in the state. Approximately 6,000 of the WMA's 17,000 acres flood in a good year, and, when they do, the ducks come in droves.

Except what you can access by taking a sometimes lengthy walk through the woods from the campgrounds along the western boundary of the area, there's little walk-in duck hunting on Hurricane Lake WMA. The only boat ramp within the boundaries of the north segment of the WMA is at Mitchell's Corner, which is reached by driving south on a county road about five miles east of Bald Knob off Highway 64. It can get pretty crowded.

There's also a b

oat ramp at Georgetown, in the WMA's lower segment, but launching here requires a 10-mile boat ride up the river to reach the flooded area. A third ramp is at near the lower end of the Little Red River, at Nimo, off Highway 36 west of Georgetown. It also requires taking a considerable boat ride down the Little Red and up the White to reach the hunting area.

Getting into the woods at Hurricane WMA can be a pain, but when the bottoms are flooded, it's usually worth the effort.

* * *
Most of the state's wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges have waterfowl regulations that differ from statewide regulations. For example, most WMAs and all refuges have a morning-hunting-only regulation for ducks, and some areas have a limit on the number of shells each hunter may carry on a hunt.

Keep in mind that finalized waterfowl regulations for 2003-04 weren't available when this article went to press, so hunters should be sure to get a copy of the AGFC's waterfowl regulations guide before hunting on any public land in Arkansas. Copies of the guide are available from any AGFC office around the state, online at www.agfc.com, by mail at AGFC, 2 Natural Resources Drive, Little Rock, AR 72205, or by phone at (501) 223-6351.

Maps of the various areas are available free of charge from the same sources, but the maps are small-scale and of generally poor quality. A better option is to purchase a copy of the newly revised Arkansas Outdoor Atlas, a large-format bound map book of all 75 counties. The Atlas shows WMA and refuge property boundaries and boat ramps. The cost is a reasonable $15, plus $3 shipping, at the above-mentioned outlets.

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