When it comes to choosing a duck hunting spot in Arkansas, the Arkansas River is not high on the usual duck lover’s priority list.
It typically ranks below flooded timber — be it private land or a wildlife management area — and rice fields, said Steve Bowman, co-author of “The Duck Hunter’s Almanac.” But the river’s position on the duck hunter’s choice of hunts isn’t because of a lack of ducks, Bowman said.
“It’s the highway for the ducks,” he said, noting the Arkansas River guides ducks migrating down the Central Flyway toward its convergence with the Mississippi Flyway. “It has the potential to give you a good hunt every other day.”
Still, hunters are scarce for the most part on the river compared with the Bayou Meto “Scatters” and the fields.
And that suits avid hunter Randy Hoffman just fine. “I don’t hunt anywhere else,” said Hoffman, who has semi-retired near where he hunts, on the river, not far from Reydel.
“I don’t go to the public grounds. There’s too many people. … It’s more for us about just being out. We don’t go out to just slaughter them now.”
Hoffman, an Arkansas National Guardsman, grew up hunting like most of the rest of Arkansas’ duck hunters. He hunted around Tollville and Peckerwood Lake. But his overall love of wildlife made the Arkansas River more of a destination.
Some friends created a club near Swan Lake in 1995, and 10 years ago Hoffman built a retirement home further downriver on an offshoot of the waterway.
“The colder the better,” he said of the most successful days hunting the river. “Especially when the freeze hits, when the hunting grounds and fields freeze up.”
Arkansas River hunting is nothing like sitting in a duck blind among tall timber, and it’s vastly different from hunting the likes of the White River. And the Arkansas River itself, engineered for navigation and water recreation, varies greatly in terms of cover for hunters. For example, sandbars dominate the river from Pine Bluff to the south.
Hoffman said he has hunted the river from Clarksville in the west central river valley to Pendleton, in southeast Arkansas, over the years.
“We just use the natural cover, on the sandbars where you find some willows,” he said of hunting what is essentially his front yard. “The first part of last season, when the duck hunting was kind of slow the first two splits, we killed the heck out of specklebelly geese, just hunting out of the willows. We had a professional goose hunter with us; he was just amazed, saying ‘My friends back home, they will never believe this.’ ”
As a duck “highway,” the waterway allows hunters to see all types of ducks in late fall and winter. Mallards aren’t in the dominant numbers as seen further east, but teal, gadwalls, wood ducks, redheads, canvasbacks, ringnecks, scaup and the like populate the fly-bys.
Then, too, the average outdoor lover can also enjoy the setting.
“Every day, we see something new — bald eagle, coyotes, deer,” Hoffman said. “Everything but people.”
Hoffman notes one disadvantage that likely scares off the bulk of weekend duck hunters: It’s hard getting to the hunting spot.
Hoffman said he could be on the river from his dock in five minutes. But there’s walking, plus carrying hundreds of decoys. No blind is sitting ready waiting for hunters. When it’s raining and cold, a long boat ride back awaits. It’s better to have a 40- or 50-horsepower boat for river hunting than 25 horses or less, which the typical WMA hunter might possess.
“You park your boat on a sandbar, and you can come back after the hunt and the boat or canoe is out of the water,” Hoffman said. “You’ve got to know the river flows. You’ve got to keep a constant check on your boat and the water levels or you’ll get yourself in trouble.
“It’s just a little bigger adventure, although ‘adventure’ might not be the right word.”
What To Look For
Bowman suggests hunters interested in a good experience on the Arkansas River look for an impending cold front.
“A 10-degree drop in temperature sends ducks to a migration corridor, and that is a major migration corridor,” Bowman said. “The river has lost some of its attractiveness because silt and sand has covered up some of the vegetation. But you can go out there and have a pretty cool hunt. I’ve killed my limit of ducks in downtown Little Rock off the Arkansas River.”
Trey Reid, field editor for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, grew up hunting on Arkansas River backwaters near the Lincoln-Desha county line.
“That’s all I knew,” he said. “It wasn’t really an oxbow, but it sort of was. It had cypress trees on the banks and dead timber.”
In the last decade, Reid hasn’t been river hunting as much, but said, “I’ve hunted in the Little Rock pool out by Willow Beach. And I’ve done some in the Maumelle pool up above Murray Lock and Dam, and I’ve done a little bit of hunting on Lake Dardanelle in the tributaries. I’ll find a spot on an island, put some decoys out … and you’ve got to find a place to hide.
“I’ve only had maybe two or three really great hunts, where you kill your limit and everything comes together perfectly. But I’ve had several hunts where you get some shooting in, get a few birds and leave happy. I know friends who say they have had the hunt of a lifetime.”
The river, controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is open to public hunting. Reid suggests hunters obtain a navigational chart from the Corps before hitting the river.
“The charts are invaluable in letting you know where some obstructions are or how to get into some of the backwaters,” he said. “The river is kind of tricky in places. The charts also give you clues to where to look for ducks.
“With the technology we have today, with Google Earth and such, the same technology tools that actually get down on the ground or water, that all duck hunters use to scout areas before they go, those apply as well.”
The drought conditions experienced throughout the summer in Arkansas may make the river an even more popular destination this duck season, Reid said. Besides cold waves, dry times enhance the river hunt because the ducks are looking for habitat. First-timers, he warns, should use caution and respect the water. Know that the river changes constantly. Pay attention to flows and any Corps warnings.
And if a hunter is lucky, he might run into a guy like Hoffman, who will convince him there’s more to duck hunting than getting in and out with a limit in a half hour.
“There’s a dedicated group of hunters who hunt the river and it’s no secret to them,” Reid said.
“I think people would be surprised if they spent a little more time on homework, with maps and scouting, for the opportunity that does exist on the Arkansas River.”