Shadow of a Season
The struggle is real.
At least as far as duck season in Arkansas is concerned. Doom and gloom settled in on lower Mississippi Flyway waterfowlers about mid-December last year and hasn’t left. And the gloom won’t dissipate until the skies are again full of ducks.
Until then, social media and coffee shop talk abounds with complaints, frustration and numerous theories as to what caused what many feel was the worst season of a lifetime.
Without question, this past year was tough. The difficult season impacted everyone from the public-land weekend warriors to some of the most historic and bountiful duck clubs in the state. The downturn wasn’t isolated to Arkansas, as Missouri and Louisiana hunters have also been vocal in their displeasure. The southern Mississippi Flyway season never really got going and remained unproductive as the days of January rolled off the calendar.
"Tough seasons are just part of it,” said Anne Marie Hastings Doramus, of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. “They don’t call it killing, they call it hunting. Nothing is guaranteed and it’s to be expected."
It’s true we’ve had poor seasons in the past. According to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Harvest Report data, 2017-2018 was the worst in the past 15 years in terms of the average seasonal bag limit per hunter.
Hunters were naturally disgruntled after that, but it was nothing like the widespread moaning and groaning of 2018-2019. Duck hunters are complainers by nature, but we’ve never witnessed the volume of angst and finger pointing we had this past year, especially on social media. Hunters’ emotions ranged from depression to surrender to outright, boiling-over anger with blame for the poor duck harvest slung in every direction.
While the wide-ranging blame game questioned science and floated conspiracy theories, it would be short-sighted of duck hunters to think there is any definitive thing that has caused declining days afield.
With so many variables at play, it is worthwhile to investigate and attempt to determine what is going on with duck hunting in Arkansas.
Clearly, the weather was tough on the state last season.
An El Niño event brought us plenty of water and mild temperatures. Once ducks did hit the state, there was no shortage of habitat thanks to consistent rain from late fall into spring. From Nov. 1-Jan. 31, a whopping 41% of the days had some amount of rain, according to the Farmers’ Almanac.
Stuttgart National Airport reported 16.23 inches during that period with an average temperature of 45.2 degrees. Believe it or not, previous years have seen more rain in the November-January period. In 2011-2012, more than 18.5 inches fell and, interestingly, that season also marked a 15-year high in average temperature at 49.4 degrees.
But that warm and very wet season was decent, overall, for hunting, ranking No. 8 in the past 15 seasons for average seasonal bag limit per duck hunter. Maybe there are some variables as to what time of day or week the rain fell or the amount of pre-November ground saturation, but going back 15 years, one cannot simply blame too much water for the epically bad 2018-2019 season.
For comparison, the best season since 2003, per harvest reports, was 2010, which produced a seasonal, average bag limit of 26.8 ducks. Stuttgart Airport only received 5.59 inches of rain that season, the lowest in the 15-year window.
Also, by Dec. 7, 2010, solid snow covered the Mississippi Flyway north of middle Iowa well into Canada. Very light snow coverage with some gaps occurred over the same region and same date for 2018. There was snow north of Arkansas last December, but not enough to cover up all the food.
Hunters should recall the weekend before the 2018-2019 season began. A nice cold front pushed a good number of big ducks into the state and the opener looked promising. But the state got a light snow midweek and the ducks were gone before anyone could fire a shot on Nov. 17.
Those early migrators wanted no part of that cold snap and vanished literally overnight. If they went south to Louisiana, they sure didn’t stay long. Whenever they pushed back north, the ducks skipped Arkansas altogether. The season got off on the wrong foot and never really recovered.
Hunters know that rain, snow cover, frozen temperatures or lack thereof all play a role in duck migration and distribution. But as past seasons have statistically supported, there is no clear-cut weather sequence that predicts duck movement or hunter success.
Unfortunately, it just isn’t that simple as other factors come into play.
Less than ideal weather conditions have had an impact on mallard harvests each hunting season, however the bad weather alone doesn't always account for a bad season. A warm and wet 2011-2012 was a relatively bountiful period for hunters, while average rainfall hit a 15-year low in 2010 and resulted in a 15-year high for harvested ducks. DATA: U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE
As last season wrapped up, a groundswell of social media support began to develop for a grassroots organization known as the Flyway Federation. The group, which has over 10,000 Facebook followers, is rallying behind the theory that “hot cropping” is hurting duck harvests.
Hot cropping is the practice of growing grain, typically corn, with no intention to harvest, then flooding to attract waterfowl for hunting. The Flyway Federation and others believe it is causing ducks that once made their way to the southern Mississippi Flyway to hold up in the northern part because of the amount of flooded, unharvested corn in the northern sections.
Josh Goins, of DeQuincy, Louisiana, started the Flyway Federation in 2018 and has managed to catch the attention of state wildlife agencies, Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl as well as a lot of duck hunters looking for a scapegoat.
Goins says, “I’ve duck hunted all of my life. As with anything, there are good years and bad years. Still, over the past 10 years, I’ve had more bad seasons than good. I am not alone in this, and I’ve realized it's not just coffee shop talk. Duck hunting in the southern reaches of the Mississippi Flyway has changed.“
The Flyway Federation and its members believe hot cropping is in violation of fair chase ethics and uses a loophole in the Migratory Bird Treaty Reform Act. Flooding and hunting over the unharvested corn constitutes baiting in the federation’s eyes.
Fields are flooded up to the first set of ears on the cornstalk and when that food is gone, the landowners raise the water level to the next set and so on, creating a nearly endless supply of food. Add in the belief that more and more “heated ponds” have been created to keep food plots from freezing, and ducks get bunched up on small bodies of open water.
There is no doubt that using running relifts, pulling up warmer well water and running ice eaters, among other methods, are being used to prevent water from freezing, but the massive expense of this kind of effort to prevent a migration is hard to comprehend.
Hot cropping has been around for quite some time and hunting over unharvested, flooded grain crops is perfectly legal. However the hunter will find himself in a sticky situation with a wildlife officer if the unharvested grain has been manipulated in any way, such as through bush hogging, disking, mowing or even riding an ATV through the field to mash down and disperse grain.
For decades, numerous clubs in Arkansas have provided food plots, many of which are not hunted to serve as rest areas that allow ducks to have a place of refuge away from hunters and disturbances. Southwestern Louisiana rice farmers have also engaged in the practice, leaving ratoon rice for ducks and crawfish.
The belief that ducks are shortstopping before reaching Arkansas is not new. With legitimate climate change, private landowners in northern states developing habitat, plus public refuges and conservation areas, migrating ducks have definitely found new food sources as they venture out of the breeding grounds.
Is this enough food to halt a centuries old pattern of ducks pushing south? Iowa and Illinois, in the northern Mississippi Flyway, produce nearly one-third of all corn grown in the United States and their hunting has remained relatively flat with no noticeable spikes the past 15 years. For reference, Missouri, also of the northern flyway, produces less than 4% of the country’s corn and Arkansas, of the southern flyway, less than 1%.
More habitat north of the border is definitely a factor, but again, not the sole cause for a down season.
The duck harvest rate gap between the eight northern Mississippi Flyway states and four southern states has narrowed in recent years but not at a remarkable pace and with no consistency that would pinpoint a trend. Hunters in the southern states averaged 7.27 more ducks in their season bag limits than those in the northern states in 2017.
The highest differential was 2010, when southern hunters killed an average 13.18 more ducks. The lowest was 2003, when the southern states averaged 5.33 more ducks per hunter than their northern peers.
Last season was no better in Missouri, so don’t think they had all the fun while Arkansas hunters stared at the empty sky. In fact, in the last 15 years, per hunter duck harvest rates for Missouri show no irregular spikes or troughs and almost mirror Arkansas in relative trends.
Former Missouri Conservation Commissioner and avid waterfowler Jeff Churan laments north central Missouri’s tough 2018-2019 season.
“In the fall of 2018 we experienced only two significant migrations and they were both huge,” he says. “The first flight came during the last week of October, before our season opened. Our second and last major flight came the day before deer season opened, Nov. 9. We had good gunning for a couple days before these birds joined those already here, spending their days on the refuges, feeding out at night and making themselves mostly unavailable. We experienced no more flight days, and only a few more dribbled down.”
A dry spring on the breeding grounds had a big impact on what was witnessed last season. The May 2018 pond counts for southern Saskatchewan (down 21%) and the eastern Dakotas (down 32%) pushed breeding ducks well into Canada to find suitable habitat. These conditions have traditionally led to inferior breeding success due to low pair density, limited, if any, re-nesting and low brood survival.
The conditions became more unpredictable after the May surveys, causing a recipe for a down year in terms of duck production. Delta Waterfowl predicted the lackluster spring pond counts would impact hunter success, but it isn’t clear how keenly people listened.
Populations were down across many species, including mallards, but not at alarming numbers across the long-term average. The problem was there was a limited amount of young, inexperienced mallards in the flyway, especially by the time the less-than-spectacular fall flight reached Arkansas. Veteran birds are obviously harder to hunt as they get wiser to decoys, blinds, duck calls and so on. Poor conditions and shrewd ducks are a recipe for disgruntled hunters and bored retrievers.
Older ducks have been tracked and have proven to stay farther north with less food to avoid high pressure hunting areas. In other words, the ducks get smart. Think how hard it gets to hunt late January mallards in Arkansas then throw in the fact that most ducks seen last year were older and wiser.
Veteran ducks learn to feed at night and seek refuge during the day. Duck hunters are up against a worthy adversary and perhaps modern-day hunters are underestimating the challenge of the chase.
As evidenced, last season was the perfect storm of circumstances for a disappointing year. Is this a trend that continues? Hard to tell.
Climate change continues to be a hot topic that reaches far beyond the topic of ducks. Weather will forever and always be the most significant factor, whether it is a wet spring for breeding ponds or strong cold fronts to move ducks in waves.
Unfortunately, the July 2019 breeding ground surveys provided more bad news, as Canada’s southern prairie pothole region was extremely dry, much like last year. The Dakotas were excellent in terms of habitat but that isn’t where Arkansas’ big numbers come from.
Not to be pessimistic, but the fall flight could very well be thin again this season. Especially if the ducks find plentiful food north of Arkansas and if the state gets too much rain this fall and lacks any significant cold weather.
The spring floods in the Midwest had some impact on the amount of corn planted this year, but by mid-June, 92% of top-producing states’ corn was in the ground. It will just be maturing later than normal. The Arkansas River flood of June will also have an impact, as it pushed water into cropland and delayed or prevented the planting of numerous rice and soybean crops.
If and when conditions get right, Arkansas will once again be in the thick of the mallards. Wild, harsh winters will happen, forcing ducks to push to the southern half of the flyway. Wet, ideal breeding conditions will happen again to boost the fall flight numbers.
Like everything else, when depending on wildlife and weather, things are cyclical. The questions center on when the seasons will cycle, how often, and if the duck numbers will still support the lengthening of seasons and handle the hunting pressure.
The best waterfowlers can do is to support conservation and habitat improvement projects and buy time until conditions turn around. Now is not the time to get stingy or short-sighted, as the future of waterfowling will depend on what the current roster of duck hunters does with conservation and activism.
Despite the short-term struggles and negative perceptions, it is important to do what is right for the sport.