Whether pursuit of waterfowl involves hunting them with a camera, binoculars or shotgun, reviews are mixed this winter on getting a nice photograph or bagging the main ingredient for a pot of duck gumbo.
Winter has been fairly mild in Arkansas with a couple of quick cold snaps. That generally translates into fewer waterfowl on the region’s waterways, especially when temperatures are mild in the northern United States. That’s the word from Joe Neal of Fayetteville with the Northwest Arkansas Audubon Society.
“Unless we get those below-zero cold fronts up around the Great Lakes, a lot of bird life you just don’t see here,” said Neal, who’s written numerous books about birds. Waterfowl and bald eagles, too, have all they need farther north. There’s no need for them to fly this far south.
Neal goes bird watching nearly every day around Northwest Arkansas. He looks for birds about everywhere, in wide-open meadows, forests, even at sewage treatment plants. Travels routinely take him to small waterways and to 31,000-acre Beaver Lake. Even during mild weather this winter, Neal has seen fair numbers of ducks on the reservoir through his binoculars and spotting scope. Species include mallards, goldeneyes and buffleheads.
For pursuing ducks with a camera, the Charlie Craig State Fish Hatchery in Centerton is a prime destination, he said. People are welcome to walk the levees and gravel paths around the numerous fish hatchery ponds. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission operates the hatchery.
“Those ponds have a lot of open water all winter because they’re spring fed, so the water is warmer,” Neal said. Birders are likely to see greenwing teal, gadwall and shoveler ducks on a walk at the hatchery.
Lake Fayetteville is another waterway that always attracts lots of waterfowl, Neal added.
Some shotgunners will testify that hunting up some fowl for duck gumbo has been a challenge at Beaver Lake the last couple of waterfowl seasons. Arkansas’ duck hunting season annually opens around Thanksgiving. It closes this year at sunset on Monday.
Alan Bland of Rogers and a hunting buddy hit the lake at first light on Jan. 10 with high hopes for a couple of mallards. A cold front had blasted through Northwest Arkansas two days earlier. That can bring squadrons of ducks flying toward Beaver Lake’s unfrozen water. If the cold freezes small lakes and farm ponds, so much the better.
Waterfowl hunting is allowed on the islands and along the public shoreline at Beaver Lake, except in the Army Corps of Engineers parks.
The pair hunkered down in some shoreline bushes close to the water on a flat gravel point. The woody vegetation is a natural duck blind. Hunters are nearly invisible when dressed in camoflauge from head to tow.
Sunrise was beautiful. The temperature was 20 degrees. Black coffee tasted divine poured from a steel thermos. By 10 a.m., Bland and his friend had called to some high-flying mallards that ignored their decoy spread floating in the shallows. A trio of buffleheads flew by out of gun range.
“This is about what I expected,” said Bland, a retired Beaver Lake Army Corps of Engineers park ranger. “A few random ducks.” The hunters never squeezed a trigger on this morning hunt.
One way to hunt ducks at Beaver is by boat. Bland and his buddies motor to their hunting spots in an aluminum boat, then cover it with camouflage netting when they reach the shore. Sitting on buckets or stools and hiding in the vegetation, the waiting game begins.
If the pop of a 12 gauge dispatches a flying mallard cartwheeling from the sky, they retrieve the duck with the boat. Gumbo awaits.
Duck hunters are a dedicated bunch. Some travel far in their quest for good hunting.
Reese Jones is one Northwest Arkansas hunter who travels to Kansas and Oklahoma. A hunt on public land in south-central Kansas on Jan. 15 was particularly memorable.
“It was snowing like crazy and we had ice up to here on our waders,” said Jones, 25. “But it was one of our best days. We shot five mallards.”
He and his pals also hunt along the Arkansas River in eastern Oklahoma near Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge. Hunting there has been fair, Jones said.
Nick Gann runs Hook, Line and Sinker in Bella Vista and hears reports from hunters. Some travel to public waterfowl areas in west central Missouri. Hunting has been good there, Gann said.
Only a few days remain in the season for shotgun-toting duck hunters. After that, the click of a camera bags a trophy shot.