What a difference a year makes! Arkansas waterfowl hunters will be greeted with far wetter conditions this year than they have experienced in recent years, as the state’s waterfowl hunting season opens Saturday, Nov. 17, at 30 minutes before sunrise.

Last year, much of the public hunting grounds were like most of the state – in the midst of a fall drought that wasn’t abated until mid-December, well into duck hunting season. This year, though, hunters should find water and good habitat conditions for ducks throughout the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s WMA system. And, not only that, Mother Nature has contributed some extra colder weather in the run-up to waterfowl season than Arkansas has seen in recent years.

Boards were to be put in place where structure is required on WMAs on Nov. 15 to hold water on the grounds. The exception is the south unit green tree reservoir area of Henry Gray Hurricane Lake WMA, which will not use boards this year after a significant die-off of green timber within the unit, according to Luke Naylor, the AGFC’s waterfowl program coordinator. The north unit boards will be in place Nov. 15.

A new addition to the AGFC’s WMA system for waterfowl hunting in 2018-19 is the management of nearly 1,000 acres newly purchased for Cypress Bayou WMA, situated between Ward and Beebe a short distance off U.S. Highway 67-167 and near state Highway 31. The addition of Cypress Bayou WMA waterfowl-managed acreage offers central Arkansas hunters a much closer alternative than having to travel some distance to WMAs in southeast or northeast Arkansas.

Biologists surveys of duck breeding populations in the northern regions in the spring indicated somewhat fewer mallards are forecast for this year, though the figures are still above long-term averages. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, estimates for total mallards this year are 9.3 million, which is 12 percent lower than 2017 estimates but 17 percent above the long-term average. Gadwalls are expected to be 31 percent lower than 2017 numbers, but 43 percent above their long-term average, at 2.9 million. The American widgeon was the only species that saw a rise in estimate over 2017, at 2.8 million, or 2 percent above the previous spring’s estimate. The overall drop in prairie-breeding puddle ducks was attributed to drier than normal conditions in the prairie breeding grounds.

The Weekly Waterfowl Report highlights all WMAs managed for waterfowl hunting in Arkansas, with water levels and weather trends noted along with waterfowl habitat conditions. WMA managers provide information on a weekly basis to help hunters find possible locations for hunting. Food sources that were planted, like millet, and food sources prepared through extensive manipulation of native vegetation are listed as well as a snapshot of what sort of hunting conditions hunters may expect. Flooding conditions also are noted. For example, you may see “100% flooded” or “35% flooded” listed with a unit inside a particular WMA.

Naylor says the term “flooded” may mean something different than what the typical duck hunter might expect, though.

“When an area is deemed flooded, that means water is covering the ground,” Naylor said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean there’s enough water to float a boat or run a motor through the area.

“Dabbling ducks like mallards are most attracted to water less than 18 inches deep, because they can easily reach the food at the bottom in that depth. If you want to attract ducks and provide the energy they need for migration, the food has to be accessible. It may mean getting out of the boat and walking occasionally, but shallow habitat makes for fantastic hunts and can even prevent people from setting up on top of you if you’ll take the time to walk a little to get to your location.”

An area listed as “100% flooded” means that the unit is completed covered in water. A unit listed as, say, “35% flooded” means that there is 35 percent coverage of water on the particular unit, and 65 percent of it has no water on it.