Remembering the duck season that wasn't

Posted: February 4, 2018 at 2:41 a.m.

Duck hunters are going to remember 2017-18 as the season that wasn't.

Most of us lost the first half of the season due to the double whammy of unseasonably warm temperatures and drought. Ducks largely stayed north in the grain country where warm weather kept ponds, sloughs and prairie sheetwater open.

Those that ventured south early found a parched landscape. They concentrated in the few places that had water, and if you had access to those places, you enjoyed some superb hunting up to around Christmas.

Ducks weren't the only waterfowl that packed into limited amounts of water. Hundreds of thousands of white-fronted geese and other light goose species joined them. I visited one area in November where, in the evenings, so many ducks and geese piled into it that there was hardly any space between birds.

The downside of such high bird concentrations is disease. I know of one privately owned place where ducks and geese experienced exceptionally high mortality early in the season.

Rain finally came around Christmas, and hunters rejoiced, at least for a few days. It got cold on New Years Day, and we experienced sub-freezing temperatures for most of January. Our popular greentree reservoirs froze. The ducks that stayed in Arkansas crowded into any open water they could find.

If you found one of those places and refrained from broadcasting it on social media, you enjoyed some good hunting. By then, unfortunately, it was too late for even some of the best spots.

A person that is close to me owns a prime duck honeyhole in southeast Arkansas. When the weather finally got warm enough to thaw the ice, he was set up to end the season in epic fashion, or so he thought.

Ducks were in that spot early in the season, but after the ice melted, they never returned.

For those that measure the success of a hunt and season in the number of ducks they kill, 2017-18 was disappointing.

I had some fabulous hunts, but mostly because of the company. My favorite was the third annual Purple Hull Hunt with Jess "The Undertaker" Essex, Andy Lock of DeWitt and Glen Chase of Conway. The Purple Hull Society and its outings are limited to 16-gauge shotguns. We shot well and bagged a few birds, but the fellowship made the hunt at Mill Bayou special. I could spend a day without seeing a bird with that group and feel good about it.

I had another great hunt with Mike Freeze of Keo, Jimmy Green and Matthew Green. I got a limit of ducks, but the highlight was bagging two specklebelly geese that flew too low.

Those hunts were during the lean times of the drought. I saw where the trend lines were heading early and called it quits by mid-December. I devoted that time to deer hunting and fishing.

Chase, a news reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, spent the last week of the season hunting at Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area. He graciously invited me to join him.

"I can get away a few days at the end," I said. "Let me know if there are any birds."

I didn't hear from him for awhile, which can be translated two ways. One, there weren't any birds, or two, the place was covered with birds and he didn't want to tell me.

It was the latter. Chase said a fair number of birds were using the area, but there were hardly any hunters in the Government Cypress Walk-in Hunting Area. He had it mostly to himself.

Chase said that a lot of ducks flew early, but they quickly lit and formed vast rafts.

"A lot of times I could see them, but I couldn't get close to them," Chase said. "Without any hunters in there, they could just sit pretty as you please. You need some people in there shooting to stir them up and move them around."

Around 10 a.m., there was another flurry of activity as ducks got up to fly around, but again, Chase found it near impossible to work any ducks with so many live ducks on the water calling to them.

The only people that killed anything took passing shots over the treetops, Chase said.

I suspect that hunters killed fewer mallards in Arkansas than usual. If so, maybe more mallards will return to the breeding grounds and beget a phenomenally large year class of ducklings in the spring.

That would portend an excellent season next year, weather permitting.

Sports on 02/04/2018