Of the 15 species of ducks most likely to be killed by Arkansas hunters, only the wood duck lives here in appreciable numbers year-round. Most ducks breed north of The Natural State, then return to Arkansas to overwinter. But wood ducks are common in our forested stream bottoms and swamps during all seasons. Most years, they are the second-most-harvested duck in Arkansas behind mallards, comprising about 10 percent of the take.
Wood ducks are common now, but they haven’t always been plentiful. In the early 1900s, populations reached all-time lows as a result of excessive clearing of bottomland forests, draining of swamps and market hunting. Wood-duck numbers fell so low that the bird’s hunting season was closed nationwide for 20 years. It reopened in 1941 with a modest one-bird limit in 14 states.
Unfortunately, the decline in Arkansas had not ended. Files at Big Lake National Wildlife Refuge showed 1,000 to 5,000 young and adult wood ducks present during summer in the 1940s, but only 500 in the 1950s and many fewer yet in the 1960s.
Many folks believed wood ducks could never recover, but they were wrong.
Thanks to its amazing resiliency and sound wildlife management, the woodie staged a remarkable comeback. Artificial nest boxes built by government officials and conservation-minded citizens, the construction of thousands of wooded ponds and the comeback of the beaver (which creates prime nesting and rearing habitat for wood ducks) have all helped increase and stabilize wood-duck populations.
At Big Lake NWR, for example, a nesting-box program produced 3,000 young in 1971. At White River NWR, the decades-old nesting box program was discontinued because the extensive forested bottomlands there are now believed to have enough natural nesting cavities to accommodate the estimated summer population of 3,000 birds.
Dam construction on our big rivers may also have boosted woodie numbers. At Fort Smith, wood ducks were considered rare prior to the damming of the Arkansas River in the late 1960s. Today, wood ducks are common there.
Although these beautiful birds are seen statewide during warm months, they become increasingly rare in upland areas as autumn approaches. Few are generally seen after October in the western Ozarks, and wood ducks are rare or very uncommon in all northern areas of the state during winter. Those who enjoy hunting woodies will do best by traveling to the forested lowlands of eastern, southern and central Arkansas, where wintering populations are highest.
To successfully hunt wood ducks, first you must find them. Top locales include beaver ponds, sloughs, creeks, rivers, farm ponds in woods and forested swamps, such as those found on most of our bottomland wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges. Among the many public hunting areas worth investigating are the White River, Felsenthal, Overflow and Cache River NWRs, and the Wattensaw, Henry Gray Hurricane Lake, Dagmar, Rex Hancock Black Swamp, Dave Donaldson Black River, Earl Buss Bayou de View, St. Francis Sunken Lands and Bayou Meto WMAs. Check the Game and Fish Commission website, www.agfc.com, for rules and seasons on each area this year.
The places you find the birds will give a good idea of how to hunt them. On certain rivers and bayous, float hunting can be extremely effective. Canoes or johnboats can be used, but canoes are often the best choice because of their easy maneuverability. Regardless of the craft, camouflage it before each hunt with camo netting or splotches of flat brown and green paint. Dead branches or brush draped over the bow adds to the effect.
Two hunters work better than one for float hunting. One paddles from the rear while the other handles the gun in the bow. Both should keep a low profile, sitting, if necessary, on the boat’s floor. Keep the boat headed straight downstream, and remain immobile and silent. When approaching bends in the stream, hug the inside edge. This allows you to get as close as possible to any birds that may be around the corner.
There are thousands of acres of flooded timber along the L’Anguille, Cache, St. Francis, Black, White, Red, Ouachita and Mississippi rivers, with healthy wood-duck populations available for hunting. But it is the smaller streams where float hunting is often at its best, streams such as Bayou de View, Big Creek, Big and Little Bayou Meto, Bayou Bartholomew, Moro Bayou, Dorcheat Bayou, Bodcaw Bayou, the Sulphur River and Bayou Des Arc.
Hunting small, out-of-the-way waters like beaver ponds, brush-entangled swamps, little overflow lakes and backwoods farm ponds is another way to zero in on wood ducks. These secluded waters attract the birds in great numbers if acorns and other foods are available.
Jump-shooting is one technique for hunting these places. The hunter studies the contour of the land surrounding the water, then figures the best way to sneak within gunning range without being detected. It may mean walking a quarter-mile circuitous route, then belly-crawling 50 yards to the water’s edge. Or it may be as simple as slipping into some brush on the outside of a pond levee.
You also can sneak into the area before daylight or a couple hours before dark and wait in hiding until the ducks come in. You can use a portable blind for this hunting or simply wear camouflage and hunker down in brush near the water’s edge.
Of course, timber hunts made Arkansas waterfowling famous, and to enjoy wood-duck hunting to its fullest, one should don waders and camouflage clothing and be waiting, waist-deep in the water of a flooded pin-oak flat, when wood ducks come roaring in at dawn or dusk. Decoys are unnecessary, although a half dozen mallard sets may serve to put the birds at ease and coax them to circle overhead before pitching in. There’s no need for fancy calling, either, so even novice waterfowlers can go it alone.
Quick, instinctive shooting is best, especially during the first few minutes after legal shooting time. Woodies are on top of you in flooded timber almost before you can spot them. This is especially true on foggy mornings. The ducks appear out of the mist and vanish quickly if you react too slowly. If you miss your first few shots, however, don’t despair. Odds are you’ll be able to adjust your shooting in time to bag a limit.
Arkansas winters more wood ducks than any other state in the Mississippi Flyway except Louisiana. Our bottomland rivers and wooded pools provide winter homes not only for wood ducks that nest and are hatched here, but for thousands of birds from breeding grounds in the Great Lakes region.
Many Arkansas waterfowlers can still remember days when wood ducks were illegal game. But thanks to intensive management and protection, hunting opportunities for these home-grown ducks are plentiful again. The mallard is king among Natural State duck hunters, but the wood duck is the handsome prince of our woods. Hunting this colorful bird is a magical experience not to be missed.