Ducks Beyond The Rice Field
For many Arkansas waterfowlers, duck hunting is synonymous with flooded rice fields, but other public opportunities exist. This season, look beyond the rice field for a chance to bag a limit.By James Joslin
It would take a hunter with a strong back, a deep wallet and weeks of accumulated vacation time to set foot on every public shooting ground in the state of Arkansas during one duck season.
In fact, a quick perusal of a couple of guidebooks and Web sites revealed the possibilities to number at least in the 40s. That means a hunter could almost try his or her luck in a different location every single day of a season under liberal restrictions.
Yes, Arkansas is blessed with an abundance of public places that offer duck hunting opportunities to the wader-wearing crowd. But these wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges are not just a trendy fashion of recent years. Instead, they are as firmly rooted in the Natural State's soil and its duck hunters as the rice fields of the Arkansas Grand Prairie. The history surrounding their existence begins over a half-century ago.PUBLIC DUCK HUNTING HISTORY
White River National Wildlife Refuge was established by the federal government in 1935, its primary objective being "to provide optimum habitat for migratory birds consistent with the overall objectives of the Mississippi Flyway," according to information found on the refuge's Web site, http://www.fws.gov/whiteriver/
By running along the east and west sides of the lower White River in eastern Arkansas, the refuge protects more than 160,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods -- a habitat type that was almost wiped out twice in the 20th century, first by logging and then by the surge in soybean acreage.
With White River NWR in place, public duck hunting opportunities abound in the form of flooded green timber areas whenever the river spills over its banks. However, the refuge also offers other settings in which to bag ducks -- cypress- and tupelo-lined sloughs, bayous and oxbow lakes.
Furthermore, the refuge's Web site touts White River NWR as holding "the largest concentration of wintering mallard ducks in the Mississippi Flyway."
Therefore, with ducks using the area's waters in high-water or low-water conditions, it is easy to see that this is a prime choice for duck hunters using these public grounds that spread across Desha, Monroe, Arkansas and Phillips counties.
On the state side of public hunting grounds, the flagship of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's waterfowl program undoubtedly is Bayou Meto WMA.
This area, also commonly referred to as "the Scatters," is so important that authors Steve Bowman and Steve Wright provided ample coverage on Bayou Meto in their Arkansas Duck Hunter's Almanac, calling it "the most popular duck hunting area in the state" and "the best public duck hunting ground in the U.S."
Roughly 34,000 acres of ground, then known as Bayou Meto Flat, was purchased by the AGFC in 1948, much of it at $7 per acre, for the purpose of providing public duck hunting land. The WMA relies on various water control structures to capture rainwater and utilize it to flood between 10,000 and 12,000 acres of green timber.
The WMA holds ducks well because of the addition of Halowell Reservoir, purchased in 1957 and refurbished in the last few years, and Wrape Plantation, which will likely see renovations in the coming years. These two impoundments serve as rest areas for waterfowl. Lying in the bottoms south of Stuttgart, Bayou Meto WMA is sandwiched between the major duck corridors of the White River and the Arkansas River. It can be accessed by boat or on foot, with walk-in areas at locations that reflect the area's significance and history -- spots like Vallier School Impoundment, Buckingham Flats, Mulberry Turnaround and Long Bell Turnaround.
Bayou Meto does have a reputation for being overcrowded at times, hence its nickname "Bayou Metro," and it leans heavily on rainfall to provide optimum duck hunting conditions. No one can argue its importance as a wintering ground for ducks or that a day on Bayou Meto can be among the most memorable times of a person's life.OTHER OPTIONS
Of course, other prime duck hunting locations besides White River NWR and Bayou Meto WMA exist. And some of these offer up hunting out of the ordinary when it comes to what duck hunters conjure up as a typical scene for Arkansas waterfowling.
For instance, one hunter told me recently that he can go to Felsenthal NWR in extreme southern Arkansas and experience duck hunting in flooded green timber, in cypress and tupelo brakes and sloughs and in open-water settings.
The difference in where he goes depends on the water level and the presence of ducks in the areas, with more water and more ducks often pushing him and the birds farther away from the open water. And, there are several places to check out at the 65,000-acre refuge at the confluence of the Saline and Ouachita rivers.
Some WMAs that provide a different style of duck hunting for Arkansans include:
Steve Wilson Raft Creek: In southern White County, this area of 4,063 acres was acquired by the AGFC in 2000. It provides lots of open fields for duck hunting.Frog Bayou:
Open water and moist-soil habitat plus some willows and buckbrush are found in the 812 acres encompassed by this WMA, the newest for the AGFC at only three years old. The area is near the Arkansas River south of Dyer in Crawford County.Ed Gordon Point Remove:
Found in Conway and Pope counties, these 8,780 acres offer flooded grain fields, willows and buckbrush. About 1,000 acres are wetlands with more seasonally flooded. Steve Frick Waterfowl Rest Area holds ducks for the WMA, which is north of Blackwell off of Interstate 40.Lake Dardanelle:
Open water abounds in the main channel and backwaters of the Arkansas River, plus there are some spots where willows and buckbrush serve as a duck hunting backdrop. This is a large WMA, its acreage covering Franklin, Logan, Johnson, Pope and Yell counties in the Arkansas River Valley.PROFESSIONAL ADVICE
Yes, I love to hunt ducks. But truth be told, with friends who have a farm in the heart of the Grand Prairie and access to green-timber, willow, buckbrush, reservoir and field-hunting on private ground, I must admit that I haven't hunted ducks in a public area in a couple of years.
So, that said, I turned for some more expert advice on where and when hunters should go to the Natural State's WMAs or NWRs for good waterfowl wing-shooting.
First I enlisted Bryan Hendricks, the outdoors writer for Arkansas' only statewide daily newspaper and a fellow who has been writing about and shooting at ducks for a few decades.
"Duck hunting during the early part of the season in Arkansas is inconsistent and undependable in our green-tree reservoirs," he began. "My experience is that the green-tree reservoirs are usually better later in the season, mainly because we have more ducks in the state later in the season. Of course, ducks still use the green-tree reservoirs in the early season, and if you know which areas they prefer, you can enjoy some excellent hunting at places like Bayou Meto and Dave Donaldson Black River WMA." Ducks Beyond The Rice Field
The latter of the two WMAs Hendricks mentioned covers about 25,000 acres in Clay, Randolph and Greene counties in northeast Arkansas. Flooded green timber is the prime attraction for ducks and duck hunters who visit this spot about 20 miles west of Paragould and 15 miles north of Walnut Ridge.
Of Dave Donaldson Black River, Hendricks said, "When the rains come and the water starts to rise, this is a great place because it's up north, so it's the first high-quality green-tree reservoir that ducks see when they arrive in the state."
Another early-season favorite for Hendricks is a double dip that includes a morning run to Dagmar WMA for wood ducks and an afternoon spent going after mallards at Cache River NWR.
That double dip is possible because both of these public shooting grounds are found close to one another in east-central Arkansas. Dagmar totals 7,976 acres in Monroe County. The area is attractive to ducks because of its many bodies of water -- lakes, ponds, sloughs, bayous and Apple Lake Waterfowl Rest Area. It is accessed off of U.S. Route 70 between Biscoe and Brinkley.
Meanwhile, Cache River NWR runs from the confluence of the Cache and White rivers near Clarendon all the way up to Grubbs, a distance of about 70 miles. The refuge was established in 1986 and includes about 64,000 acres of bottomland hardwood ecosystem. Access points range from one end to the other, and the NWR lies near the communities of Hazen, Brinkley, Cotton Plant, Des Arc, McCrory, Augusta and Bald Knob.
"The key is to find rising water, or even receding water," Hendricks explained, "and hunt the edge areas where water is anywhere from shin deep to knee deep. Areas that have been inundated the longest tend to be least productive."
While a fan of the green-timber surroundings, this outdoors writer also likes one place that is a bit different.
"Early in the season, my first destination would be Steve Wilson Raft Creek WMA," Hendricks noted. "It has a lot of open sheet water and ample amounts of grain forage to greet newcomer ducks. This type of open-water hunting is vastly different than hunting in the green-tree reservoirs, and because it isn't what we consider 'traditional' Arkansas duck hunting, many hunters don't like it." Hendricks likens hunting at Raft Creek to his time spent chasing ducks in Missouri and Oklahoma.Also on Hendricks' short list are:Lake Nimrod WMA:
"The green-tree reservoir here can be productive, as can upper stretches of Blue Mountain Lake," Hendricks said. Hunters will find 3,634 acres of public ground here, with that encompassing the Fourche La Fave River and Nimrod Lake bottoms. The greentree reservoir that Hendricks mentioned accounts for 1,200 acres. This WMA can be accessed from state Route 28 west of Plainview.Sulphur River WMA:
"This is another fine duck hunting area that isn't well known beyond southwest Arkansas," Hendricks said. "It has great habitat, plenty of food and plenty of ducks that come in off the Red River. In the early season, it may be one of our best." This 16,000-acre area was established in the 1950s and is one of the few remaining tracts of bottomland hardwoods along the Red River. The WMA and its 500-acre Henry Moore Waterfowl Rest Area are located in Miller County.
"For all-around, excellent mixed-bag hunting, anywhere along this river can be phenomenal in the early season," Hendricks advised. "You can expect to see mallards, teal, pintails, widgeons, redheads, gadwalls, shovelers, buffleheads, goldeneyes, ruddy ducks and just about anything else that flies our friendly skies."
James Staten, a pro staffer for Avery Outdoors and a member of the Zink's Calls Field Staff, agrees with Hendricks' assertions about the river that bisects the state in a roughly northwest to southeast fashion.
"The Arkansas River comes to mind any time that I think of open water and cattail island backwaters," said the waterfowler, who frequents areas in and around the Arkansas River Valley in the west-central part of the state.
He points out that the backwaters are a unique setting when it comes to hunting ducks in Arkansas but that the main channel can be the ticket to success whenever subfreezing temperatures grip the Natural State for prolonged periods.
While there is a little less duck hunting activity in this region of the state, Staten believes that the offerings in this area can provide some good hunting if they are not being hunted too heavily. As far as green timber locations, he points to Petit Jean and Nimrod WMAs as places to go.
As for Petit Jean, this public use area covers 15,581 acres and varies in landscape from rocky ridges to bottomland hardwoods. Found in Yell County, this WMA holds ducks because of its green-tree reservoirs, marsh impoundments, moist-soil units, sloughs, creeks, lakes and ponds.
But, the prospects for good hunting can also sometimes bring a bit more danger. "If the local rivers get up, then the areas expand into some really good timber hunting," Staten explained. "But, this is where experience with the area, a safe boat and time on the water are a must."
Another duck hunting destination within Staten's sphere of influence is Ed Gordon Point Remove WMA. Of this field hunting spot, he said, "This is a good and very large area to hunt. Usually, the AGFC plants the fields each year in millet or some other crop. The hunting here is totally dependent on rain, though, so some years are much better than others."
Even though Staten knows that some fine duck hunting can be found at times in the Arkansas River Valley, he readily admits that the traditional duck grounds of Arkansas are close to his heart. "I have to say that when I think of good green timber and flooded woods, whether it's cypress or tupelo gum brakes, I always think of east Arkansas, Bayou Meto, Big Lake (WMA) and the Cache River area," he said. "They are some of my favorites."
Not mentioned previously here, Big Lake WMA is adjacent to Big Lake NWR in Mississippi County, about 15 miles west of Blytheville. Like Dave Donaldson Black River WMA, this is a favored spot for the early season because the ducks will arrive here in the northeastern part of the state first. Big Lake WMA covers 12,320 acres and is accessible from state Routes 181 and 18.
BEST OF THE REST
While Bayou Meto WMA and White River NWR are the forefathers to the many public duck hunting locations in Arkansas today, and the others noted already are great places to go, there are still many other possibilities for Natural State waterfowlers to consider.
That list includes WMAs like Cut-Off Creek, Earl Buss Bayou DeView, Galla Creek, Henry Gray Hurricane Lake, Rex Hancock Black Swamp, Shirey Bay/Rainey Brake and St. Frances Sunken Lands. Plus, duck hunting opportunities are also readily available at other NWRs including Bald Knob and Pond Creek.Arkansas Sportsman