Politics. Sports teams. Music. Duck hunting. Whether you want to hear and read it or not, trending topics generate hot takes from a wide range of “experts.” Opinions range from informed to unsolicited. Divisive input from knuckleheads is part of society and has undoubtedly become amplified with the advent of social media. However free speech is a valued principle in this country.
Duck hunters are notorious grumps. Too much water. Not enough water. Too warm. Too cold. The season starts too early. The season goes too late. It goes on and on. Sometimes the hot takes come from knowledgeable and informed contributers who can see both sides of the coin. Other times, the commentary comes from a narrow, what’s-best-for-me perspective that frequently misaligns with what is best for the resource.
A spirited discussion involving just about anything related to waterfowling is enjoyable. The sport and the wildfowl we chase are so complex; there is plenty to talk about and plenty of people to speak with across various topics. It’s fortunate to have a network of passionate, level-headed hunters and conservationists through multiple channels within the waterfowling community.
Conversations with and through this network can make us better waterfowlers with a more expansive understanding of the good, the bad and the ugly regarding ducks and duck hunting. Accumulating a more comprehensive, profound knowledge of things, can help a hunter to become less disheartened by tough hunts or seasons and be more energized and proactive about making improvements in the sport of duck hunting.
While hurdles within duck hunting aren’t tied to any single action, these year-round conversations inspire the notion that knocking around some of these fixable, controllable issues can help hunters make some headway. If hunters don’t start thinking beyond their decoy spread and acting on what they know is best for the resource, duck hunting will continue to fizzle, possibly to the point of no return.
To identify some “control the controllable” items, a group of trusted duck hunting advocates assembled to discuss the one thing they would change about duck hunting and why. Ideally, their answers will inspire others to offer less lip service and keyboard pontificating and more acting on what is best for the sport.
D. SCOTT PERRY
Prairie Oaks Duck Club | Cache and White River National Wildlife Refuges
PERRY: I’ve been an avid Arkansas duck hunter since my first outing as a boy in the late 1970s near Humnoke. For me, duck hunting today is not so much about shooting ducks as it is about reconnecting with the halcyon days of my youth, disconnecting from the modern world, testing my skills and continuing to experience an elevated awareness of nature with all its grandeur and mystery.
When asking myself, “If I could change one thing about duck hunting today,” numerous topics came to mind, from bag limit size, season length and hunting dates, to habitat issues, hunting pressure and social media. However, what stood out most was the battery-powered decoys and gadgets that have penetrated duck hunting over the past 24 years.
As I thought about all these contemporary devices to lure ducks, I contemplated the words of author Bob Hinman who wrote, “When done under the rules of good sportsmanship, duck hunting is a culmination of art, skill and scientific endeavor. It is also an act of love, for who loves the birds more than the hunter?”
So, if I were given the control to change one thing about duck hunting today, I would withdraw anything battery-powered to lure ducks to the gun. These automated instruments violate the spirit of fair chase, in my opinion. I don’t see any difference between battery-powered decoying devices and battery-powered calling devices, which are illegal. Using these apparatuses to attract ducks places too much importance on killing and diminishes the time-honored art and skill of hunting. Additionally, I believe using these modern devices has tarnished the stature of duck hunting in the classic world of wingshooting.
Although various battery-powered products are used to lure ducks today, spinning-wing decoys (SWDs) were first on the market and continue to be the most popular. SWDs were introduced in 1999 and caused a dramatic rise in hunter success. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission banned using SWDs in 2004 but lifted the ban in 2008. Many hunters claim ducks have adapted and learned to avoid SWDs. However, recent research suggests these devices continue to contribute significantly to hunter success and are highly effective on juvenile ducks in the northern latitudes in the fall.
Rice Farmer | Desha County, Arkansas
SMITH: From my perspective as a duck hunter and rice farmer in southeast Arkansas, if I could change just one thing, I’d say farming practices would benefit from a better balance between farm efficiency/profitability and waterfowl.
Farms in Arkansas have grown steadily over the past 25 years that I have been a farmer, and farming practices have changed considerably. Farmers have to make a living, but at what cost to waterfowl?
Fall ground preparation is one of the biggest shifts that impacts waterfowl. Planting and harvest operations are now performed as early as possible to maximize yield and harvest when it’s dry. As a farmer, it’s hard for me to argue those points because those practices made the difference in my operation’s ability to farm 4,000 acres or better versus 1,000.
It’s hard to put a number on the positive effects fall prep work has had on my operation in Desha County, but it’s high. Fall groundwork has caught on along the Grand Prairie and in northeast Arkansas as well.
But here’s the flip side of that coin. Though yield and productivity have increased, the gains haven’t been distributed equally, mainly due to soil type and slope. Flat buckshot rice ground has mostly benefited from the fall work from a soil workability standpoint, whereas the sandy silt loams along the bayou banks and high ground have seen high rates of nutrient loss from erosion and weathering.
The fall tillage, coupled with a zero-tolerance policy toward resistant Palmer amaranth, has been devastating to HEL (highly erodible land) field roads and ditches from erosion.
The Grand Prairie, where it was common a decade ago to see the majority of fields go into the winter untilled, has seen an increase in one fall tillage pass. More rice fields are seeing levees torn down and a tillage pass, [with]corn and beans receiving a tillage pass as well.
These fall tillage farming practices have a negative impact on waterfowl.
Farmland has been a suitable substitute for the bottomland habitat loss that has occurred from agricultural expansion, but with the increase in fall tillage, are we doing more damage than good?
The trend to me appears to be ducks concentrating in certain areas more, and night feeding in areas that have unharvested crops left especially to attract waterfowl. GPS data on collared ducks are proving this out on a small sample. Fall tillage fields attract significantly less waterfowl, if any at all, because there is simply no waste grain available.
A staggered approach using many different practices is likely our best bet. Fall tillage, covering crops to fight erosion and not touching the ground until spring, based on soil type and slope, may be a better fit. [We should try] leaving fields untilled with higher slope and erodible soil types, because they will be the first to dry in the spring, coupled with lightly tilled flooded areas in the bottomland that can be easily drained.
What producers and landowners should be striving for is a system that balances farm profitability with a sustainable practice that minimizes soil erosion and elevating nutrient management, which will automatically provide the habitat wintering waterfowl need to make a successful trip north in the spring.
3 Mile Refuge | Poinsett County, Arkansas
GRAVES: Being impactful in the world of waterfowl is as critical today as it ever has been. The work done locally has been and will continue to be vital to the long-term success of the sport and the incredible bottomland landscape we are blessed with in the Natural State
Today, I am intensely focused on improving the habitat on our farm in northeast Arkansas, though I am left with a desire to figure out how to make the resource better.
For the sport and the resource to survive, the status quo must change. I believe we must change the way we look at duck populations. We. All of us. Hunters, policymakers, wildlife managers around the country, conservation organizations, commissioners, industry leaders, congress, public or private land guys — it doesn’t matter.
The fact is, the complexity of what makes ducks in the Mississippi Flyway thrive is far-reaching. The challenges and forces working against the resource and what we love are strong and ever-present. That is why we have to put a great focus specifically on areas impacting Arkansas’ migrating ducks, particularly mallards.
We must unequivocally realize our current path is unsustainable. We have lost so much breeding habitat in the past 20 years. Cycles of weather impacting production, as well as our hunting seasons, ebb and flow. We can’t change the weather or how much corn Missouri planted, but we can adapt our ways. It is our responsibility to future generations that we do in fact see the forest through the trees and take the higher road in regard to the quality of the resource. Leaders cannot argue with aiming to have millions more ducks in the Mississippi Flyway. I don’t buy the old line that we as hunters have no real impact on the populations.
Many factors affect the duck population numbers including the annual harvest. The sum of many small things, like not shooting that hen, equates to a lot. “Compounding interest” is real, as is “duck compounding.” We all should work to shoot fewer hens and promote that to others as well.
Change the mindset, be more involved, ask more questions, dive into the research, support and donate more to organizations doing the right thing such as Osborne Labs. In some instances, launching new independent advocacy groups may be necessary to be more target-focused while enhancing collaboration among organizations. Driving accountability is key. The legacy of our sport relies on us not accepting mediocrity. Strong duck numbers drive retention and recruitment, period.
Our views and leadership cannot be cemented here in our state alone. A more aggressive approach on state and federal lands, along with waterfowl production lands in the Prairie Pothole Region should be implemented. We must realize what we have is finite. Significant investments must be made overall to outfit specialized research teams. Better data is incredibly important to long-term success. A coalition of Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee would be in a prime position to lead change and impart a higher standard and vision. It’s a monumental task overall, but it can be done if we change our mindset.
At some point, we experienced something great, and we are driven as hunters to partake in that again and again. Through our persistence and our passion for the ducks, may the current and future generations get to forever enjoy a quality waterfowl resource and sport.