Waterfowlers travel from far and wide to experience a style of duck hunting that has been chronicled for decades and put Arkansas on countless hunters’ bucket lists.
Hunting mallards in the the flooded timber, although not entirely unique to the state, is a singular experience. Mallards slamming on the brakes to backpedal through the canopy of limbs and leaves is one of the outdoors’ most mesmerizing sights.
Arkansas is blessed with thousands of acres of prime duck habitat available to the public, which adds heft to the tagline “Duck Capital of the World.” Almost anyone able to buy an Arkansas hunting license and duck stamp can stand in knee deep water, hugging and hiding behind a tree waiting on mallards.
A series of strategic land swaps and purchases over time created bountiful, accessible habitat for wintering waterfowl. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC), which serves as steward for these state-owned properties, converted many of the natural areas into greentree reservoirs.
A greentree reservoir is a stand of bottomland hardwood forest equipped with a levee system, water-control structures and, in some cases, wells and pumps. The state invested in the conversion to ensure water could be controlled before, during and after duck season, as opposed to relying on the whims of Mother Nature.
But controversy has emerged as the 2017-2018 duck season draws near. Public and private landowners are learning hard lessons and are rapidly changing their methods to prevent further destruction of habitat that in turn means fewer ducks.
After decades of the “this is the way we’ve always done it” method of artificially flooding the WMAs in early November — deep enough to run an outboard — changes are coming to protect the valued habitat and food sources that attract waterfowl.
Public lands are moving away from the routine methods of managing the water on these properties, regardless of conditions. Reflecting this trend, the AGFC has announced a new plan, based on years of research and input from some the most knowledgeable conservationists, to manage the state-owned greentree reservoirs, including the famed Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area (WMA).
The plan will more effectively govern how much water is pumped into and out of the reservoirs in a given time of year, and hunters may have to adapt accordingly if they want to continue to see those huge numbers of waterfowl descending through the trees each fall.
“Hunting on greentree reservoirs draws duck hunters from all over the country to the Natural State,” said Luke Naylor, AGFC waterfowl program coordinator. “But over decades, those forests have slowly changed, and our management must change with them if we are to continue this great tradition of hunting flooded timber and providing waterfowl with the habitat that they need.”
Traditionally, ducks begin arriving in Arkansas as a trickle in late October, with an early push in mid to late November and a big wave in mid to late December.
The first two pushes are typically during a historically dry period in Arkansas and duck hunter logic says to start pumping water the first week of November or earlier so the habitat will attract the early migrators and hunters have water to float decoys.
Public land hunters have become accustomed to some water, even in the driest seasons. The huntable acreage may be small and a hunter might be hidden behind every tree, but there would be water. Private landowners are also being more proactive in managing their duck hunting properties for the long term and reaping the benefits with more successful and consistent hunting seasons.
But decades of combined natural and artificial flooding in Arkansas’ bottomland hardwoods have significantly impacted the health of the native trees and composition of the forest where greentree reservoirs exist.
Arkansas is home to 29 species of oak tree, and mallards prefer red oaks like the willow and Nuttall oaks that produce a smaller acorn that is easier to eat. These oak trees become stressed when their base is repeatedly underwater, and years of research and analysis show that flooding hardwoods prior to their becoming dormant causes a long, slow death.
While the more water tolerant trees are become dominant, the duck-friendly willows, or red oaks, are struggling. A 2014 AGFC study of state-controlled greentree reservoirs showed that 40 percent of their willow are beyond salvageable and another 42 percent have notable damage thanks to the flooding.
Not only do consistently high water levels affect the health of the acorn-producing trees, they affect the abundance of invertebrates, another source of duck food best found in 4 to 8 inches of water.
The deeper the water is at the end of the season, the harder it becomes to drain before the crucial spring growing season when tree health becomes most important.
Under the new plan, state-owned greentree reservoirs will this year begin dynamically managing each WMA as an independent tract versus using one plan on all state-owned properties.
Water levels will be adjusted according to a more natural flood pattern — less water in the early season until trees reach dormancy or if heavy rain is expected — certain trees will be thinned, and over time new water control methods and technology will be put in place.
Hunters need to be patient as there will be some frustrating times as things get ironed out with the new management plan. In the short run they will have to make some adjustments to water levels different than they have become used to on their favorite WMAs (see sidebar).
Unless they hire timber management consultants or like reading research papers, duck hunters may not be aware of imperiled state of the greentree management reservoirs. As part of the plan’s rollout, the AGFC conducted a series of public meetings in March in Stuttgart, Searcy, Little Rock, Jonesboro and Russellville to educate and inform hunters.
In the long run, ducks, habitat and the sport of duck hunting should be better for the new greentree reservoir management plan.
“There has been a lot of talk lately about many other aspects of duck hunting on Arkansas’ famous public WMAs,” Naylor said. “But this change is much more important. This is to protect and reestablish the habitat that originally drew ducks to these areas. Without that, Arkansas’ famous green timber duck hunting could very well become a thing of the past.”