Nov 15, 2022
By Brent Birch, contributing editor
Preparation served with a heavy dose of anticipation leads to one of the epic days afield as the Arkansas duck season opener is days away. After three lackluster seasons by Arkansas standards, there is a subtle confidence that the 2022-2023 waterfowling season has some upside. Better breeding conditions this spring and summer have the makings to improve the fall flight. That alone has waterfowlers excited about the upcoming opportunity.
Like a lot of the country, Arkansas and all of our neighboring states are extremely dry. Recent rains have marginally helped, but milder weather has prevented much in the way of flooding. But as a glass half full type thinker, the winter storm in the Dakotas a week before the season and below average temperatures currently, the southern states could see a nice push of fresh birds to start the season.
The ducks ability to stop short of Arkansas will be limited. Even though they primarily feed on dry fields in the northern states, they still need water to loaf and roost. With that in limited supply, Arkansas may be the first place waterfowl can find adequate water. No other state artificially floods duck habitat like Arkansas. Sure there are pockets of managed reservoirs in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Tennessee, but only in limited amounts.
I recently returned from a fantastic pheasant hunt in South Dakota and noted most of their small wetlands and creeks had dried. These were full of water during the breeding season, but without measurable rain since mid-summer they’ve dried and some even had cracked ground. From the air, I was able to see southern Missouri and there wasn’t just a ton of water on the agricultural landscape. Our flight path also took us over eastern Arkansas and the famed Grand Prairie region. The amount of water pumped from irrigation ditches, reservoirs, and underground wells was noteworthy. All ready to attract and hold the soon to be arriving migrating mallards.
More than the Hunt
But in Arkansas, duck season isn’t just about the hunt. There is an entire industry built around the sport. Rice farming, which serves as a major food source for wintering waterfowl, is a significant contributor to the state’s economy. Arkansas produces over 40% of the country’s rice–that equates to around 9 billion, that’s billion with a b, pounds of rice each year. The entire eastern side of the state produces rice. Although Arkansas is mostly known for its famed green timber duck hunting, without the rice, there is little chance eastern Arkansas would be such a desired location for not only ducks, but waterfowlers.
The tourism component also brings economic viability to the region. Hunters travel from far and wide to experience the Duck Hunting Capital of the World in and around Stuttgart, as well as the equally productive northeast Arkansas region. Estimates put the economic impact of the Arkansas duck season at just under $1,000,000 a day. There’s no mistaking the significance of duck season as a valued injection into an otherwise economically dormant part of the state during farming’s off season.
Opening day in Arkansas is followed by the famed Wings Over the Prairie Festival in Stuttgart with events taking place throughout the week of Thanksgiving. What started as the Rice Carnival celebrating the farming community in and around Stuttgart has become a full-fledged party. Notable events include the Queen Mallard beauty pageant, the World’s Duck Calling Championship, and the legendary World Championship Duck Gumbo Cookoff. The Cookoff guarantees a good time and has been known to draw a few celebrities.
Make the Trip
If you consider yourself a duck hunter and have never made the pilgrimage to Arkansas, you are missing out on the richest history the sport has to offer and often fantastic waterfowling over diverse habitats. From the famed green timber to flooded fields to river bottoms to buckbrush, Arkansas has a variety. A trip to the Natural State should be on the bucket list of every duck hunter along with the Canadian prairies, Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, and California’s Sacramento Valley.
For those that have been before, I hope the experience was everything you anticipated and if not, give it another try. The good, bad, and decent trip often depends on the right weather and the right outfitter (if you aren’t trying the world class public hunting opportunities we have). Do your homework and research. Look for longevity in the industry, track records over decades (not days), and references. And be sure to keep in mind there are controllables, like a great lodge, comfortable sleeping accommodations, and tasty food. The ducks are indeed wild animals and not quite as dependable, so make the most of the entire adventure and not just the hunt.