Waterfowl Hunting is Here and Arkansas Could Not Be Happier

by Mike Brooks

“When you have shot one bird flying you have shot all birds flying.  They are all different and they fly in different ways but the sensation is the same and the last one is as good as the first.”  – Ernest Hemingway

Although deer hunting, for most Arkansans, is “king”, duck hunting and all its facets generate about as much excitement for its participants as any Razorback football game, or any sporting event, for that matter.  Within the sporting world, there are few things as picturesque and impressionable as having a flock of mallards fall in to your “hole” in the middle of a flooded stand of timber. A seasoned hunter, or a combination of questers working together, with a perfectly tuned call and technique, can redirect a flock of ducks away from their setup and cause them to fly right toward the very hunters sizing them up.

The desired effect of the calling and the proper placement of decoys is to “work” the ducks with a mixture of “hail” and “feeding” calls. This gives them a false sense that their quest to find a nice, safe feeding spot for the morning or roosting for the evening has been located.  Once the ducks decide they have found the most appealing area, they will circle overhead for several minutes, surveying the site and determining the best way to approach the setup by considering the wind direction and openings between the limbs and branches of the leafless trees.  Once they determine the angle of approach, and provided they aren’t spooked by reflecting light or the whites of a preying hunter’s eyes, they will “fall” through that “hole” in the forest, flaring their wings and slowing for a landing on the water among their fellow feeding fowl.  Then the fun begins…

But the work and planning starts long before the avid hunter rises to race to his favorite spot. He strategically places his decoys in the proper position and direction, situate himself in his blind and waits for legal shooting time.  Remember, this is a symbiotic relationship, in a sense.  The ducks need the hunters as much as the hunters need the ducks.   The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, in conjunction with national and private organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl, work diligently every day, not just in this country but Canada and Mexico as well, to ensure the continued success of the sport by providing protected nesting grounds in Canada and wintering areas in the southern United States and northern Mexico.

The Mississippi River serves as a geographic flyway for the yearly migration of many species of ducks and geese.  Eastern Arkansas, particularly the area around the convergence of the White and Cache Rivers, has been traditionally considered the premier area in the country for mallard duck hunting.  For the serious duck hunter, an invitation to that area of the country is coveted as much as a Super Bowl ticket, especially if said hunter is not from the area.  Whether it be hunting flooded timber where the ducks feed on the acorns, or the flooded farm fields where they feed on the rice and beans intentionally left behind by the farmers, the hunting in the Mississippi River delta can produce memories cherished for a lifetime.

According to a fourth generation native of Clarendon, Arkansas, and a life-time duck hunter known to the author only as “Boom-Splash,” “the economic impact on the area is, and has been for years, staggering.”

The money generated comes from a bevy of sources: hunting licenses, state and federal “Water Fowl Stamps”, steel shot, specialized camouflage, insulated waders, gloves, masks, calls, decoys, not to mention the training and year long care of a well trained retriever dog.  Those things alone can easily run into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars, but its expanse is much wider than that.  There are even specialized sporting goods stores, such as Max’s Prairie Wings, in Stuttgart, Arkansas, that depend on duck season and its fanatical participants for a large majority of their yearly income by sponsoring such events as the annual World Championship Duck Calling contest and duck gumbo cook-off.

But that’s just the retail side of the economic impact. Let’s consider the rice and bean farmer in the river deltas of eastern Arkansas.  A farmer takes a serious risk every year at planting time. Every spring he, in a sense, gambles that his investment of money – seed, equipment, fuel, employees and time –  will pay off at the end of the year in the form a high yield.  If Mother Nature cooperates with the right amount of rain, the delicate balance between a drought and flooding, and ideal growing conditions, he can expect his efforts to be worthwhile. However, there are no guarantees when dealing with nature and its unexpected challenges, especially in “The Natural State.”  There is one source of income on the farm that is guaranteed, though… Duck Season!

Although the farmer plants, works and harvests his crop(s) with the intent of making a profit and satisfying his creditors, the delta rice and bean farmers will use that part of the crop not harvested by their reapers (between 10 and 15 %) in the field. Then the other critical element in duck hunting comes into play: Enough rainfall to saturate the rice fields so the fowl will have a place to land, scatter and feed.

The revenue generated by the availability of duck hunting leases runs into the millions. Individuals and corporations spend tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of dollars for the opportunity to hunt waterfowl in the premier area of the country. Without the feed in the form of the rice, beans left in the fields and acorns in the flooded timber, the ducks would not be as tempted to stop here during their annual migration south. One can only imagine the energy required to fly from the breeding grounds in Canada to the wintering grounds in the south. The fertile Arkansas delta area affords them the opportunity to rest up and re-fuel with the fat building food available for their inevitable continued journey.

Without the un-harvested food supply intentionally left by the farmers, the birds might simply fly past the area in search of better feeding grounds along their journey, and the farmers would lose out on one of the few yearly guaranteed sources of income – money from hunting rights.

So, the next time you see a duck hunter towing his camouflaged boat piled high with bags of decoys, headed for the middle of somewhere or nowhere, for an adventure you may or my not think anything of, reflect for a minute…thank the thousands of people who work and plan for countless hours on a yearly basis to ensure that one hunt, or a season’s worth, is as successful and memorable as possible.