Weather and water. They are paramount to a duck hunter’s success and he has control of neither.
From the breeding grounds to Bayou Meto, those two factors influence everything from the spring hatch to pushing ducks down the flyway to what they do when they get to Arkansas.
The 2011-12 season had plenty of water and not nearly enough cold. With the White River well outside its banks, mallards spread throughout the Cache and White River woods and made for tough hunting for waterfowlers outside those flyways.
Arkansas still harvested the most mallards in the United States, nearly 640,000, but that was a decrease of 52,000 from the 2010-11 season. Where did the ducks go? Illinois had a nice season with hunters killing 88,000 more mallards over the previous year. Minnesota had 42,000 more.
The most telling statistic of the mild winter? North Dakota tagged over 82,000 more mallards than in 2010-11.
Fast forward to spring 2012 on the breeding grounds. Conditions teetered on dangerous heading into late spring and just in the nick of time the big rains showed up and saved the hatch.
A run of recent, solid breeding seasons have duck numbers going through the roof. Amazingly this has happened despite a 32 percent reduction in breeding ponds.
Mallards are up 15 percent over last year and 40 percent over the long-term average. If the weather and water get right, this season could be one for the ages. But that’s a big if.
The Midwest has been impacted by record-breaking drought. Most numbers point to it being the worst in half a century. Many farmers cut their corn crops well before peak harvest time trying to salvage what made it through the brutal summer. Soybean crops struggled mightily across the lower Mississippi Flyway.
The good news for Arkansas is rice has sustained the tough summer very well. Farmers with the ability to irrigate their crops effectively seem to be doing all right and that equals waste grain food for the ducks in November. But many farmers are cutting rice early and the odds of spoilage of waste grain is high by the time ducks appear.
“Dry conditions will impact habitat quantity and quality produced this summer as well as available water in areas for birds to stop on migration and to winter,” Ducks Unlimited waterfowl biologist and avid Arkansas hunter Mike Checkett said in August. “This will mainly produce regional effects as birds will leave or not stay long in dry areas, looking for better habitat, impacting local hunting opportunity.”
Conventionally grown crops are not the only food source impacted by the drought. Throughout the Mississippi Flyway, moist soil production has suffered greatly.
Moist-soil habitats provide high-energy seeds and an environment for aquatic invertebrates, which provide energy and nutrients for waterfowl through fall and winter. The mast crop for the coming season may be impacted, although it’s a little early to tell.
Greenbrier Wetland Services scientist Dr. Mickey Heitmeyer said white oak production is already showing signs of depreciation while red oaks are doing well because of their two-year pollination cycle.
“When oaks get stressed, they tend to abort acorn production altogether,” Heitmeyer said. “The very dry conditions in the upper half of the Mississippi Flyway could lead to an accelerated mallard migration due to a limited food supply. But Arkansas needs water as well to provide habitat for the ducks once they get here.”
Despite the dry conditions, North Dakota’s mid-July waterfowl production survey revealed the duck brood index was up 110 percent from 2011 and 155 percent above the long-term average. Average brood size was 6.9 ducklings, down 0.8 from last year. The long-term average is 7.1 ducklings per brood.
This success comes despite North Dakota’s water index being down 48 percent from the same time last year.
Duck production is impressive given those circumstances, but the dryness will impact the brood survival rate as adequate water conditions are necessary for the young to prosper and avoid predators before heading south.
How will the 2012-13 season shape up? With record duck numbers available to make the move this way later this fall, waterfowlers across the state are hoping the conditions shake out to something huntable.