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It’s more than just mallards in Arkansas

by Keith Sutton | November 20, 2016 at 12:00 a.m.
Arkansas’ waterfowl wonderlands produce a mixed bag of ducks and geese for hunters like Sammie Faulk, left, of Lake Charles, La., and Mike Checkett of Wildwood, Mo., who enjoy taking more than just mallards.

If you listen to some waterfowlers, you might get the idea that mallards are the only ducks found in Arkansas. There’s no disputing the fact that these beautiful birds, which winter by the millions in our state, are the favorites of Natural State hunters. Most ducks killed here each year are this species, and many hunters never pursue other types of waterfowl.

Mallards aren’t the only ducks that can be hunted here, however. In fact, more than two dozen species of ducks live in Arkansas, and several species of puddlers and divers are abundant enough to provide excellent shooting opportunities for hunters who take time to pinpoint concentrations of the birds. Here are some of those species, plus information on hunting hot spots where each can be found.

Diving ducks, Corps of Engineers impoundments

If you don’t mind facing sometimes rugged weather conditions often associated with reservoir hunting, some of Arkansas’ U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes can provide exceptional opportunities for hunting the variety of diving ducks that call our state home. These include common species such as ring-necked ducks, scaups and buffleheads, and much less common but highly prized species such as the redhead, canvasback and goldeneye.

Several of these lakes have adjacent wildlife management areas where you can hunt, including Dardanelle, Greeson, Beaver, Blue Mountain, Bull Shoals, Greers Ferry, Millwood, Nimrod, Ozark and Norfork. If you use good judgment, however, and stay well away from developed sites such as marinas and homes, you can hunt practically anywhere on the Corps lakes without problems. You’ll need a big boat to hunt effectively (waves and wind can often be treacherous), and though you won’t often kill a limit of birds in a hurry, there tend to be enough ducks (and often geese) to provide shooting at scattered intervals. At times, however, when water levels, weather and other conditions are just right, hunting can be spectacular.

Each lake has different characteristics, so the best hunting methods vary with location. Scout before hunting, come up with a good game plan, and you’ll enjoy success more often than not.

Wood ducks, small streams

Wood ducks are tailor-made for hunters who prefer “get-away-from-it-all” sport in the backwoods of Arkansas. These beautiful ducks are almost always common in forested stream bottoms off the beaten path, providing plentiful shooting opportunities for waterfowlers who don’t mind going the extra mile to find the woodies’ secluded haunts. Nice thing is, it only takes a little extra scouting to locate wood ducks on many small streams with public access. Such waters are found statewide, from the Ozarks and Ouachitas to the Coastal Plain and Mississippi Delta.

The Saline River, from Benton to points south, is one example. There are numerous access points along this stretch of water that allow for short float hunts, and while wood ducks tend to be fairly common, hunters are not.

Bayou Bartholomew below Pine Bluff also serves up good woodie hunting most years, as do stretches of Cadron Creek in Faulkner County, the Ouachita River below Camden, the Antoine River along the Pike/Clark county line and Big Creek south of Marvell (Phillips County). A look at a Ouachita or Ozark National Forest map will turn up many small streams worth a visit as well, such as the Fourche la Fave in the Perry County portion of the Ouachita National Forest and Big Piney Creek in the Johnson and Pope county portion of the Ozark National Forest.

To find more potential hot spots, I suggest using the excellent online maps available on the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s website, www.agfc.com. Go to “Resources” and click on “Maps.” There you’ll find interactive maps showing public-land boundaries. You can peruse the public lands you want to hunt and pinpoint small rivers and streams with public-access areas.

Arkansas River ducks and geese

The Arkansas River traverses more than 300 miles of the state, from Fort Smith to the river’s confluence with the Mississippi in Desha County. A few stretches receive considerable hunting pressure, but the river’s vastness makes it possible to find many locales on the main river, and in backwaters and tributaries, that are seldom visited by waterfowlers.

This is “grab-bag” shooting, with much more than just mallards to set your sights on. Other dabbling ducks use the river as a flyway as well, including gadwalls, pintails, shovelers and teal. All the diving ducks can be found here at one time or another, and there’s superb gunning for Canada geese and the occasional flock of snows or white-fronts as well. You never know what you’ll shoot at next, which adds to the fun.

Sandbars provide some of the best hot spots for Arkansas River waterfowl, but it’s important to scout for the best locales. The best thing to do is locate sandbars beneath a major flyway by using binoculars to survey the area. Then, when you’ve located sandbars with ducks and/or geese passing overhead, pinpoint those with other attractive characteristics. The best sandbars tend to have a southern exposure with a fairly tall growth of shoreline willows to break the north wind. These sandbars also have a decent area of water that isn’t more than 2 or 3 feet deep and are usually completely out of the current, so the birds don’t have to swim hard to stay on the bar. In short, the best sandbars provide waterfowl a place to loaf around without expending much energy. And it’s loafing or resting that they’re usually doing here, not feeding.

Most Arkansas River hunters shoot from a boat hidden in some bushes or other cover as a matter of necessity, simply because it’s difficult to find a place on shore where you can set up a blind. When hunting sandbars, however, it’s often possible to build a makeshift blind using materials indigenous to the river. Try to use materials such as old sticks or driftwood that don’t look out of place, and try to keep a low profile. A big high-profile blind on a sandbar is obvious to ducks and geese, and if you want to get any action, you have to keep this in mind.

More complete information on 2016-17 waterfowl seasons and regulations can be found in the current edition of Arkansas Waterfowl Hunting Regulations, available from sporting-goods dealers statewide or by visiting www.agfc.com.

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