Ducks have adapted over time and will continue to do so as habitat continues to shrink. If you have ever wondered why ducks go to one block of woods over another, or why they abandon blocks they used to fill, it has everything to do with how the timber is managed.
Water, at the right time and at the right level, is crucial for habitat survival. The deeper the water is at the end of the season, the harder it becomes to drain prior to the crucial spring growing season when tree health is extremely important. Too much water for too long can affect the availability and attainability of food sources like acorns and invertebrates as well as the health of the trees themselves.
Oak trees — including the willow, or red oaks and Nuttalls ducks prefer for their acorns — become stressed when their base is repeatedly underwater. Research and analysis show that flooding hardwoods prior to their becoming dormant causes a long, slow death.
Acorns provide a significant amount of protein and energy for ducks. Arkansas is home to 29 species of oak trees but ducks are picky as what acorns they eat. Arkansas’ bottomlands are dominated by white oak family, namely the overcup oak tree that handles flooding and moist soil better than other species.
Unfortunately, ducks cannot eat overcup acorns because they are too large for a duck to swallow whole. Mallards prefer red oaks such as the willow and Nuttall oaks because of their size and small cap.
In the past, water was put on the WMAs early so hunters could hunt and then the water level was adjusted best as possible given big rain events or lack thereof. But according to the AGFC there is a time for shallower levels; the best depth for mallards to feed on viable acorns, which sink while rotten ones float, is 2-8 inches while invertebrates, the jet fuel of the duck world, are found in 4-8 inches of water.
Additionally, the deeper the water late in the season, the harder it is to drain the reservoir before the spring growing season, which is critical to a tree’s health.
Here are a few things hunters can plan for in the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s new greentree reservoir management plan:
The plan will follow a more natural flood pattern and vary from WMA to WMA as each is unique. If the late summer and fall have been dry, there won’t be water on your favorite WMA until the trees have transitioned into a dormant status and the growing season is over until spring.
If a big rain is forecast, expect water to be drained in anticipation of natural flooding.
Be be ready to walk a little bit within the WMA. If possible, water levels will be managed for the ducks and not for outboards.
Hunters will likely be able to motor close to where they want to be, but running wide open all the way to the hunting hole will likely not happen unless you have a shallow drive motor, which is a different topic.
Expect some selective removal of the less duck-friendly species of trees so the red oaks can make a comeback.
The larger, more dominant white oaks tend to take over the forest floor and are less susceptible to spring flooding damage.
Removal of these trees will provide better growing conditions for the duck-desired willow and Nuttall oaks.
Look for investment by the AGFC in terms of new infrastructure with new or redesigned water control structures and levees. Current infrastructure can’t meet these new strategies without modification.