Serious duck hunters rarely if ever let a spate of bad weather keep them from hunting. But most of them still want to know if the weather around them will influence how many ducks they might see on that particular hunting morning.
Of course, the serious hunter also knows that weather, here or in all parts north of Arkansas along the major waterfowl flyways, is just part of the equation for determining a good duck hunt.
Regularly, it seems, some hunters particularly in South Arkansas hear the same line, “the ducks just haven’t gotten here yet,” as the 60-day season runs its course. Hunters keep a close eye on the nightly TV weather forecast and websites such as the National Oceanographic and Aeronautical Administration (NOAA) for key information that might influence Arkansas hunting.
If only someone could accurately forecast the entire duck season — the weather and the ducks’ arrival — in the Mississippi Flyway…
Well, somebody has tried. Successfully, it appears.
Researchers at Mississippi State University’s College of Forestry Resources and its James C. Kennedy Endowed Chair of Waterfowl and Wetlands Conversation investigated the relationship between changes in relative abundance of ducks and changes in weather in the Mississippi Flyway.
What the researchers came up with was a weather severity index (WSI) – the sum of (1) the average daily temperature, (2) the number of consecutive days with average temperature below freezing, (3) snow depth and (4) number of days with snow cover.
Without letting the math equation cause a headache, what the WSI explained was the significant variation in changes in relative abundance of ducks at mid-latitudes in North America during the 2009-10 and 2010-2011 seasons. What they found was that as the WSI increased, the likelihood of mallard migration to southern locales increased as well.
And somewhere out there, the veteran everyday smart-aleck duck hunter is probably saying “No s***, Sherlock. When the ducks’ food gets covered up and the snow or ice doesn’t thaw, the ducks come our way.”
But at least somebody put this down on paper, and on the Internet. Read all about it here.
The last two season’s weekly forecasts are archived, and as best as we can tell, the Mississippi State study was dead-on for Southeast Arkansas duck hunting.
“I think it’s a really cool thing,” said Luke Naylor, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s chief waterfowl biologist. “People have been asking this question about what drives bird migration, specifically duck migration. This is really the first formal way to use analytical technology and data sets to see what factors into duck migration.
“It predicted to a pretty strong degree these migration movements the past two years. There are so many factors in play, and something like this, as successful as it was, was a big step to understanding duck migration.”
Steve Bowman, a Little Rock-based outdoors journalist, who hunts ducks throughout North America and co-authored the definitive duck book, “The Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac,” is like most veteran everyday Arkansas duck hunters: He gets his information the old-fashioned way.
“I’m always looking at the forecast, Weather.com, the Weather Channel, watching [Little Rock TV weathermen] Ned Perme, Ed Buckner, Barry Brandt. I’m going to try to catch every little clue I can,” Bowman said. “Weather.com gives me a 10-day forecast. If it tells me I’m getting a cold front, I’ll actually plan seven to 10 days out, knowing that it can change, that it will change. But I’m ready to hunt before, during and after the front comes through.”
Bowman said the expert hunters are also looking at the snow or ice cover “from the U.S.-Canadian border to the Missouri boot heel.”
Duck biologists such as Naylor say the birds aren’t necessarily spurred to move when cold weather hits in the north – “Blue-wing teal will move with the first cold front, whereas mallards won’t,” he said. What prompts them is when their food options run out. Then they’re looking for more carbohydrates from waste grains during the migration south; only late during the mating season does their diet change to proteins (re: invertebrates) for egg production.
If Arkansas has the food but not enough water, that can push the migration further along. If the state has the water and not enough waste grain – same thing. In fact, the same Mississippi State research group, led by Rick Kaminsky, has studied the impact of decreasing waste grain in the Delta on duck distribution.
Ducks inherently traveled the established flyways for eons for food while navigating the major water sources, and confluence of several major waterways in the Central and Mississippi flyways coincided with the food (i.e., rice).
But in the past several years, food opportunities north of Arkansas have kept many of the ducks from moving this far, especially if the weather remained mild.
“Some ducks don’t even migrate out of their nesting habitat at all,” Bowman noted. Arkansas only benefits when the abundance of food in the north is covered up in snow and ice.
But, with a record estimate of 45.1 million ducks in the northern breeding grounds, counted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service this summer, plenty of mallards and other ducks will find their way to Arkansas’ wetlands, woods and fields.
“We harvested 700 thousand mallards this [past] year and 1.4 million ducks total, so duck distribution hasn’t changed much,” Naylor said.
The Arkansas mallard limit remains at four per day, with six total ducks per day, so hunters know it’s worth their while. Nobody is staying home, even if the snows never dump on the honey holes further north.
“At the end of the day, a duck hunter is going to go when he can go, when the season is open, and he can spend the greatest amount of time in the field,” Bowman said. “The other side of that is, if he’s out there and the perfect storm is lining up from the north and he sees that thing marching down, he’s for sure gonna make the time. It’s always a last-minute deal for a lot of hunters and it’s just the craziness that makes up waterfowling.
“My wife knows that. When the electricity is off and the ice is on the road. I’m gone. The women folk want the men folk at the house to take care of things in that weather, while a waterfowler just wants to be out in the ice busting caps…I really never think about the weather until the weather makes me think about it.”
Arkansas has to have rain, preferably in November in the two weeks before the first season split begins, because the bottoms need to fill with water, but hunters probably would rather not hunt in a downpour.
“And ducks will hunker down on a bad day too, they’re a lot like humans are in that respect,” Bowman said.
A cold front running as deep as the southern end of Missouri, and frozen precipitation with it, is like heaven to the Arkansas waterfowler.
Then, give a hunter like Bowman a clear day, 34-35 degrees, with a 10-mile-per-hour wind at the back, a breeze that’s just enough to put a little ripple in the water to bounce the decoys around and bring the cupping ducks into the hole.
That is the perfect duck weather in Arkansas. It’s just made better if the folks up north are caught in a blizzard. “I hope everybody above us is freezing their ass off,” Bowman said.
The Weather Severity Index (WSI) – the sum of (1) the average daily temperature, (2) the number of consecutive days with average temperature below freezing, (3) snow depth and (4) number of days with snow cover – estimates when ducks will arrive in Arkansas. As the WSI increases, the likelihood of mallard migration to southern locales increases as well.