Duck hunters got a brief respite from frigid temperatures through most of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday Monday, but then it was not only back to sub-freezing, it became another deep freeze similar to the one that hit in late December, only this time with significant snow accumulation.
Most of Arkansas’s open water outside of the rivers was locked up Tuesday and Wednesday, according to observations by Arkansas Game and Fish Commission biologists. Ducks appeared sparse in most areas, they reported.
The good news from the National Weather Service is that the freeze should be lifting starting Friday, and Arkansas’s last two weekends of the regular duck season should present optimal temperatures with more rain on the way. The duck season will end at sunset Sunday, Jan. 28, though the second of two state youth hunts will be Saturday, Feb. 3, using regular duck hunting hours.
More information became available from the Midwinter Waterfowl Survey conducted Jan. 1-4 in the Delta, Jan. 4 in the Arkansas River Valley, and Jan. 9 in southwest Arkansas. Observers estimated 1,155,128 ducks in the Delta, including 949,331 mallards. There were 80,380 ducks estimated in the Arkansas River Valley, of which 50,893 were mallards. The southwest Arkansas duck population index was 38,114, including 18,412 mallards. Observers were AGFC biologists J.J. Abernathy, Jason Carbaugh, Jason “Buck” Jackson, Cameron Tatum and Alex Zachary.
The Delta mallard population is in line with the 2009-2017 long-term MWS average and much higher than the December count of 432,977 mallards. The estimate for all ducks in the Delta is slightly lower than the long-term average, but higher than the previous month’s duck population estimate of 791,399. Observers estimated over 40 percent of mallards in the Bayou Meto-Lower Arkansas survey zone, with the next highest estimates (about 15 percent of all mallards in each) in the Cache and Lower White River survey zones. Patchy mallard distribution, due to dry and icy conditions, resulted in a little less confidence than usual in the mallard population estimate; the actual population, according to AGFC waterfowl program coordinator Luke Naylor, could be 20 percent more or less than reported.
Observers noted that about 25 percent of mallards in the Delta were in buckbrush/bottombush wetlands, with another 23 percent in moist-soil habitat, 13 percent in agricultural reservoirs and 10 percent in oxbow lakes. Mallards in the Arkansas River Valley were in oxbow lakes along the Arkansas River (43 percent) with another 39 percent in the river. Mallard distribution had a major influence on total duck distribution, not surprisingly because mallards represented 62 percent (river valley) and 82 percent (Delta) of all ducks counted.
Biologist Carbaugh, part of the aerial survey team, said that after flying in northeast Arkansas all day Tuesday and Wednesday, the only open water he observed were the main river channels of the White, Black, Cache and St. Francis rivers. “All fields were 99 percent froze up,” he said. “There were a few private reservoirs that had open water as well. Overall the duck numbers were very, very low. We need a good thaw very quick.”
The Midwinter Water Survey has been conducted in cooperation with many state and federal partners across the Mississippi Flyway and the United States since 1935. The AGFC will conduct its final survey of the season late in the month.