Dry conditions bode poorly for first duck season segment

Posted: November 5, 2017 at 1:52 a.m.

Unless we get a lot of rain soon, duck hunters will find it challenging to find places to hunt when duck season opens on Nov. 18.

We're getting accustomed to that in the Natural State, but it's tiresome.

Luke Naylor, the waterfowl biologist for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, understands our frustration, but it rains when it rains. Until then, public land hunters can only wait.

"I know we've had a few years previously where we had a fair amount of rainfall that provided a little more water, but dry conditions are to be expected most years," Naylor said. "It doesn't look like we will have water except for the folks that have the opportunity to artificially flood places.

"Of course, a lot could change in the next month," he added, "but I don't see anything in the long range forecast."

So, here we sit at the beginning of November, with virtually no rain in the last two months and temperatures in the 80s. There's nothing in the weather or on the ground to compel ducks to come south, which means the first segment of duck season doesn't look promising.

"In agricultural fields it takes a little less rainfall to flood," Naylor said, "but it will take a good inch or two to saturate the soils to where you start getting runoff."

Runoff supplies water to the Game and Fish Commission's green tree reservoirs. It wouldn't take more than about about 3-4 inches of concentrated rainfall to provide a fair amount of standing water in the woods, Naylor said.

Even more important than water is food. We've been talking about it for years, but evolving agricultural practices in the rice belt is influencing duck movements around the state.

"With earlier maturing varieties of rice and more efficient harvesting methods, we've got a lot less rice in the fields than there used to be in the 80s and early 90s," Naylor said. "Fall tillage further reduces waste grain availability. As fall tillage gets more common across landscape, its reasonable to assume there's a fair bit less resources across the Delta to provide food for ducks across the winter."

Simply put, ducks concentrate with food, and their migration patterns change accordingly. We already see it with the vast flocks of light geese that spend their winters in Arkansas. Those birds used to concentrate in southwest Texas, but there's a lot less rice farming in that area than there once was. We have winter wheat in Arkansas, so we also have geese.

"Ducks typically are going to settle and stay in locations that have abundant food and other resources they seek," Naylor said. "A lot of it has to do with food. Ducks will spend more time bouncing around from site to site. It kind of changes with the overall feed availability across the landscape."

Naylor said the Game and Fish Commission encourages landowners to provide winter forage for waterfowl wherever possible. Some do, but Arkansas's climate doesn't facilitate second rice crops like they get in Louisiana.

"Where we see waterfowl we see less tillage going on," Naylor said. "You hear people saying ducks are harder keep track of, that they don't stay in one spot like they used to. That could be in part because of overall landscape changes."

Despite the challenges, Naylor said it's unlikely that ducks will avoid or bypass Arkansas. We're "downtown" of the Central Flyway, but the "suburbs" are siphoning off a lot of our ducks.

"Arkansas is such a phenomenal location because of our geology to have ducks consistently migrate here," Naylor said. "Things change, but overall this is still the place to be. Habitat conditions change in Louisiana, too, but they're still in the top three in duck harvest every year."

Nevertheless, we've all seen ducks disperse across a greater area in the last couple of decades.

"We'll continue to get phenomenal numbers of ducks, but lots of other folks have restored wetlands that were lost for many years," Naylor said. "We're still epicenter of mallards, but other states are getting a bigger piece of the pie. We might see that phenomenon increase a little bit, but I'd be pretty shocked if mallards quit coming to Arkansas."

It's not a matter of if ducks will come, but when, and that depends on rain.

"We're starting get some good evidence that rainfall is what really drives high numbers of ducks in Arkansas," Naylor said.

Sports on 11/05/2017