Perception is reality. Sometimes.
For the last handful of years, a lot of chatter among Arkansas duck hunters has centered on the improved habitat up north and the contiguous states becoming a hotbed for hunting mallards. States like Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma have even begun to increase their marketing efforts to attract more hunters chasing greenheads as a boost to their tourism industry.
The reality is the habitat has improved and opportunities are greater in those states than they were 10 to 20 years ago. Conservation programs and willing landowners have improved food supplies and habitat for wintering ducks more than ever before, especially in the eastern Central and western Mississippi Flyways. Television appearances on popular hunting shows by outfits such as Habitat Flats in north-central Missouri and Wildlife Inc. in west Mississippi have enhanced the perception that these guys are whacking all the mallards nowadays.
Without question, some excellent hunting opportunities exist outside Arkansas. The popularity and affordability of trips to Canada and the Dakotas for early-season birds proves that to be true. But the assumption Arkansas is losing its place as the premier mallard-hunting destination simply isn’t true.
So where is successful and improving mallard hunting taking place?
Harvest totals and per-hunter averages from a handful of competitive states, according to U.S. Fish & Wildlife data, tell the story.
For the purposes of this analysis, we will compare Arkansas with Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and Oklahoma with figures dating to 1994. The results should be eye-opening for Arkansas duck hunters and, at worst, make an excellent topic for debate.
A Little Background
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) started conducting surveys of federal duck stamp purchasers dating to 1952 in an attempt to estimate waterfowl harvests and hunter participation levels each season. This survey was in place until the 2001-02 season when the Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program, which waterfowlers know as HIP, officially replaced it.
Upon issuance of a license, hunters in each state must complete a HIP survey based on their previous season’s results. Granted, the numbers represented in this article are estimates, but given the complexity of tracking every single hunter afield and every downed duck, this is the best available information. If these numbers are good enough for the FWS, they are good enough to prove who is harvesting the most mallards.
Analytics for the Waterfowler
Some duck hunters like to crunch the numbers. These are the guys that keep detailed records for their club. Each spring, bird counts and forecasts of fall flights are carefully broken down and compared to past reports. The numbers allow the detailed hunter to establish a measuring stick as to the success or failure of a season.
Others fall into the category of skeptics, where the forecasts and counts are just made-up numbers to drum up more duck stamp sales, and ballpark estimates on number of ducks harvested are good enough. Their seasons are measured in terms of excellent, pretty good, fair and terrible without hard facts to back it up. Not that there is anything wrong with that.
But I am a numbers guy, and when I started tinkering with this breakdown, I was surprised at some of the results and put a little less belief in mallards stopping short of Arkansas due to recent improvements up north. Note: I said “a little less,” as I am not totally converted. No doubt hundreds of thousands of mallards never make it this far due to various factors waterfowlers love to blame, like weather, improved food supplies up north and availability of water.
Put your duck call down and get your pocket protectors and scientific calculators ready. On to the statistics.
Lets start off with the rise and fall of hunters afield. Based on duck stamp purchases, Arkansas has seen a sizeable decline in hunters since a recent history peak in 2000-01. My buddy Matthew Finley likes to refer to that explosion in hunters as the “Class of 2000.” Attribute that growth to spinning-wing decoys (SWDs) and the largest fall flight in many years. With the SWDs temporarily outlawed and the ducks getting wise to such devices, the hunting got tougher for some and they bailed. Others have been chased out by expensive prices for land and leases, or the competition to hunt ducks on public land.
Interestingly, Louisiana has seen its stamp sales skyrocket. Maybe the popularity of Louisiana’s own Phil Robertson (a.k.a. The Duck Commander) has something to do with it, or hunters decided to get legal down there and actually purchase a license. A more likely explanation is Louisiana offers a wealth of hunting opportunities for various species of ducks and geese, and hunters are taking advantage.
Most hunters have seen the charts or raw numbers showing Arkansas, in grand totals, harvests more mallards than any other state. In 2010-11, Arkansas harvested nearly 300,000 more mallards than the entire Atlantic Flyway and nearly 100,000 more than the entire Central Flyway (which includes Kansas, Oklahoma and the Dakotas). Pretty impressive numbers when looked at in the aggregate.
But the raw numbers aren’t really an apples-to-apples comparison, not when you consider the number of Arkansas hunters chasing ducks versus a state like Kansas. Arkansas sells exponentially more duck stamps than many other states, so from a 30,000-foot level, one would assume Arkansas appears to kill more mallards in total because we have more duck hunters.
In 2010-11, Louisiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Texas and California had more active duck hunters than Arkansas, but significantly fewer mallards harvested. Louisiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin are all in the same Mississippi Flyway that funnels ducks to Arkansas each season, but most know those aren’t exactly hotbeds for mallards. A lot of ducks end up in Louisiana, but mallards aren’t plentiful, especially the farther south you go.
Looking at grand totals of number of mallards harvested is the quick and easy way to proclaim Arkansas as the No. 1 mallard hunting location in the United States. Local hunters still like to complain that things aren’t like the good old days. So let’s dig a little deeper.
This is the breakdown that really opened my eyes to where Arkansas stacks up as far as harvesting mallards goes. Take a close look at that chart. Per the FWS surveys, Arkansas hunters averaged more mallards per hunter this past season than 2000-01. Hard to believe, as most waterfowlers remember that as the last really good season. Maybe the surveys are a shade off? Maybe the hunters that are still pursuing ducks after the decline of the “Class of 2000” know how to hunt mallard ducks and are more efficient afield?
Most of the folks reading this magazine kill more than 13 mallards a season, which was Arkansas’ average for 2010-11. But remember, the number is an average. Many hunters buy a stamp but don’t hunt other than a couple of weekends. Many hunters buy stamps from out of state, hunt one weekend the entire season in Arkansas and sometimes go home empty handed. All that factors in the average, and although it seems sketchy that an Arkansas duck hunter only averages 13 mallards all season, that’s the only number we have to go on based on what the FWS releases. Regardless, that 13-per-hunter average blows away any other state in the country. North Dakota reports 4.2 mallards per hunter. South Dakota hunters each average 5.1 mallards. Get the picture?
Arkansas is still the one. And it’s not even close.
A few other interesting items to take away:
With improved habitat and against a relatively flat growth in duck stamp sales, Missouri has seen an increase in mallards harvested. An astronomical 263 percent jump since 1994-95 but relatively flat yet consistent year-to-year since 2000. But if flat since 2000, how are ducks considered to be stopping short of Arkansas if Missouri’s hunting success hasn’t continued to climb? We’ll give you a minute to think on that one and provide my theory a little farther into the article.
Illinois rode the wave in the mid-2000s only to see its harvest rates level off somewhat, going from 8.4 mallards per hunter in 2006-07 to 5.62 in 2010-11. Ducks stopping short the last five years? This number makes you doubt that Illinois is where the mallards are holding up.
Anyone surprised how low Mississippi’s average mallard per hunter is? Western Mississippi has some fantastic hunting grounds very similar to Arkansas with backwater off the river, flooded green timber and agricultural fields aplenty. Arkansas kills in excess of 575,000 mallards more than our neighbor with over 35,000 more duck stamps sold. No wonder so many folks out of the Memphis area head west, versus south, to duck hunt.
Mallards aren’t bypassing Arkansas for a better deal to the south. Louisiana hammers the gadwalls, teal, woodies, specks and spoonbills, but not a lot of whackin’ and stackin’ of mallards going on down there.
Not many hunters consider Oklahoma a mecca for mallards, but the eastern edge of the Central Flyway has produced some good hunting periodically in the 2000s. Oklahoma typically has a higher bag limit for mallards than neighboring states. In 2010-11 Oklahoma allowed a hunter to bag five mallards, which boosts the per-hunter average when things get right.
Why All the Complaining?
The 2010-11 season didn’t seem as awesome as a decade ago, but Arkansas’ average per hunter was higher. What gives? Waterfowlers are pessimistic by nature. The reality is duck hunting is a lot like baseball. Three hits in 10 at-bats in baseball is All-Star material. Good to great duck hunting is a higher percentage that that, but that depends on your expectations. We all know a buddy or two who slam them “every day,” but that isn’t the norm. Odds are most duck hunters would be tickled to death if they could limit on mallards one out of every three hunts.
Notice I said, “most.” To others, this would be a disappointment. Success in duck hunting is relative.
Another factor for a higher-per-hunter average is the hunters chasing ducks 10 years after SWDs and the record fall flight are better hunters. This past season had more dedicated hunters afield with more experience scouting, calling, managing habitat and shooting versus those in the sport 10 years ago. Most of the marginal hunters gave up due to lack of water and opportunities, and hunting ducks isn’t easy as literally flipping a switch like in 2000.
So Where Are the Ducks?
Now, back to the question posed seeking an explanation as to Arkansas hunters’ perception that ducks are stopping short to the north while the average per hunter in other states (such as Missouri) has stayed relatively flat since 2000. There is no doubt ducks are sitting tight north of Arkansas and/or moving back up there if the weather allows once they get here and shot at for a few days. The main reason Arkansas waterfowlers aren’t seeing the numbers we think we should is the investment in habitat to the north of us by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Missouri Department of Conservation and other conservation organizations. Acres upon acres of ground have been improved to house migrating mallards with food supplies that are an all-you-can-eat buffet as long as the weather keeps it available. The weather has to get extremely harsh to lock up Missouri’s rivers and refuges to push all the mallards out of the state. Therefore, a large chunk of mallards never make it to Arkansas and the vast refuge and rest area properties prevent Missouri hunters from taking advantage as the ducks have very little incentive to leave these sanctuaries.
The Place to Be
Who knows if there will ever be another flight like the one in 2000-01 where 3.3 million mallards were harvested in the Mississippi Flyway (a third of them were killed in Arkansas). Hunters should probably stop comparing any and all seasons to that particular event, as it may have been a once-in-a-lifetime situation.
The projections for 2011-12 appear to be our best opportunity since 2000-01, with the mallard population 9 percent above 2010’s numbers and 22 percent above the long-term average. With the right weather and water conditions, the season could be special. The early spring flooding in Arkansas will play a role, as will the very dry summer we’ve had.
Despite perceptions and some marketing to the contrary, Arkansas still is the unrivaled destination for hunting mallards. Nothing against our border states, as they do have fine hunting opportunities in certain pockets or intervals in time. But year after year, the numbers confirm Arkansas’ flooded timber, rice fields and sloughs consistently give hunters more bang for the buck when getting after greenheads.
Let’s hope the trend continues.