The last words I wrote for this space were composed in a mood of tense anticipation, a feeling that comes over me each year before the opening day of duck season. With a heavy rain falling just days before this year’s opener, my mood brightened more than usual.
And then reality set in. There weren’t many ducks flying where I set my decoys on opening weekend. My friends and I shot a few, but we inaugurated the season in a far less prolific manner than I’d pictured in my mind’s eye.
After seeing results from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s aerial waterfowl survey, it makes perfect sense.
There just weren’t many ducks in the state for the first segment of duck season.
AGFC biologists took to the skies Nov. 14-18, the week prior to the Nov. 19 season opener, and counted an estimated 627,841 ducks in the Delta. That represents a 26 percent decrease in the three-year average for November aerial surveys. And the number fell far short of the estimated 1.1 million ducks the same observers counted in last year’s November survey.
Worse yet, they counted roughly 132,000 mallards, about 50,000 fewer than they saw during the November 2010 survey.
Although the counts were considerably lower than the three-year average, the survey results aren’t that unusual. Eye-popping duck numbers are rare in the early stages of the season; it’s usually December and January before the birds start to pile into The Natural State.
“It’s kind of what we expected,” said Luke Naylor, AGFC waterfowl program coordinator. “This survey was conducted during a period of rapidly changing conditions. It started out very dry, but there was a huge increase in available habitat during the survey period because of heavy rainfall.
“Unfortunately, there wasn’t a lot of immediate response to the flooding events. But we did see most ducks where we might expect to see them this time of year, including areas of the Cache, lower White and the Bayou Meto-lower Arkansas River watersheds.”
The rainfall that pumped up my expectations took place as the AGFC biologists were flying the survey, and although the observers saw a vast increase in waterfowl habitat during the latter part of the survey, they didn’t see the birds taking advantage of it. Nor did they see a massive influx of ducks.
The places where the AGFC observers saw the ducks were the usual hangouts. Based on density maps created by the AGFC, it appears that the two largest concentrations of ducks were around Stuttgart (mainly an area along the convergence of Arkansas, Lonoke and Prairie counties) and along the upper reaches of the Cache River in northeastern Arkansas. The area around Stuttgart features numerous private duck clubs that artificially flood timber and agricultural lands.
“In all likelihood those areas had some managed water available,” Naylor said, “and a reasonable conclusion to draw is that many of the ducks that migrated early had settled into those habitats before the rainfall made more areas available.”
Naylor also noted that most of the ducks counted during the aerial surveys were spotted in flooded rice and soybean fields, while a much smaller portion were seen on reservoirs and small ponds.
Since the AGFC observers flew the surveys, however, the state has received even more rainfall, so it’s likely there’s even more habitat on the landscape. It’s very likely that a lot of ducks have spread out to other areas, including naturally flooded bottomlands and other natural wetlands.
But air temperature in Arkansas and to the state’s north probably was the biggest factor in the low number of ducks in the state. The birds just didn’t have a reason to come here, not with ample water and food in places along their migratory routes.
About the same time Arkansas was conducting its first survey of the season, the Missouri Department of Conservation counted roughly 750,000 ducks on their state-owned conservation areas and federally owned national wildlife refuges. That doesn’t even include private land. The species composition of the birds in Missouri ranged between 40 and 75 percent mallards.
Duck abundance in Arkansas probably is changing as I write these words. The state has been gripped by much cooler weather for the past several days. Many locations experienced their first sub-freezing temperatures Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. The better news for Arkansas duck hunters is that points north have been experiencing even colder temperatures. When the water and food freezes, the ducks to our north are forced to head south.
“We fully expect to see significant changes when we conduct the next aerial survey the week of Dec. 12,” Naylor said. “We surely have had more migration events since this habitat has become available.”
Let’s hope he’s right. Conventional wisdom dictates at least an optimistic view for the second segment of the season, which opens Dec. 8. The rainfall set the table in the form of abundant habitat, and now we’re hoping this prolonged spell of colder weather will push birds into the state and over our decoys.
Personally, I’m lamenting the season’s current closure. I would’ve loved to be hugging a tree in flooded timber on several occasions this week.
But once again, my mood is brightening. I just hope the reality of the second-segment opener, unlike the first, is a lot closer to what I’m seeing in my mind’s eye.