LITTLE ROCK – Unusually dry conditions prevailing in most of Arkansas may mean less water than normal will be available at many duck-hunting wildlife management areas throughout the state.
Steve N. Wilson Raft Creek Bottoms WMA has extremely little water on it, and while the area will still be open to waterfowl hunting, the daily draws conducted on the area to determine hunting locations will be abandoned until sufficient water is available to warrant the need to reduce hunter pressure.
Ed Gordon Point Remove WMA also will not have much water on it, as construction of a much needed habitat project on the area was delayed through spring and early summer – including an unusual August flood – because of heavy rains during that time of year – including an unusual August flood. Although in the short-term project activities will result in reduced habitat, this multiyear project will increase the efficiency of water management on the WMA and greatly enhance AGFC’s ability to conduct intensive moist-soil management activities, leading to improved waterfowl habitat in the long run.
While the delay to easy access via boat on opening day may cause some hunters to cringe, the drier conditions will benefit the habitat in many areas that have seen prolonged flooding during the last five years. According to Luke Naylor, waterfowl program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, greentree reservoirs, in particular, need to see more dry times in the near future if Arkansas is to continue having the excellent green timber duck hunting that made it a bucket-list priority for any avid duck hunter.
“When these greentree reservoirs were built 40 and 50 years ago, the idea was to provide consistently flooded hardwoods to provide ducks food and shelter while providing hunters reliable water during duck season,” Naylor said. “But there’s a reason nature runs in wet and dry cycles, and going against that for too long can have unforeseen impacts.”
One of the most notable impacts to greentree reservoirs created by constant flooding before trees go dormant is stress and damage caused to many species of oaks that provide excellent food for waterfowl.
“It’s a gradual shift that even avid waterfowl hunters don’t really see happening because it has spanned decades,” Naylor said. “But many of the big willow oaks and Nuttall oaks, which create abundant forage, have been replaced by the more water-tolerant overcup oak, which has little food value to waterfowl.”
Buck Jackson, AGFC wetland program coordinator, says properly managed greentree reservoirs with red oaks should not be flooded until the trees go dormant. He says the simplest way to tell if a tree is dormant is if it is still holding green leaves.
“If the tree is still green, it’s still trying to grow and covering its root system with water will stress it,” Jackson said. “Once the tree’s leaves are brown or dropping, it won’t receive as much damage from the roots being submerged. As we fly our preseason aerial waterfowl surveys, we are all seeing a lot of green canopy left in the woods.”
Naylor says this drier-than-normal waterfowl season opener may be the best thing for the beneficial trees left in these bottomland hardwood systems. It also can make for an even better duck hunt when the majority of the waterfowl migration makes it to The Natural State.
“Through our satellite mallard program, we’ve been able to see how ducks respond to flooded areas,” Naylor said. “When the White and Cache rivers flood, the ducks move quickly to newly flooded areas to cash in on all the fresh food and habitat. Once it’s been flooded for a while, they move on to other areas. Duck hunters intuitively know this, and realize peak duck migrations align nicely with natural flooding, even though human nature leads to growing expectations as opening day approaches.”
Areas flooded early during waterfowl season do provide local ducks and early migrants much needed energy, but can be picked clean or rotted away by the time new ducks migrate in from northern states. Later flooding can mean more food on the ground for those ducks at the time they need it most, which can translate to even better hunting opportunities when the ducks make it to Arkansas.