WOODRUFF COUNTY, Ark. – Duck hunting is a coveted tradition in Arkansas that has seen people pour into the state, but for the past few years, the mallards highly sought after by hunters seem to be searching for somewhere else to land.
Hunters like Max Sharp say it is the wake on the water as ducks drop in that keeps them coming back to the Natural State year after year.
Sharp, the owner of Strait Lake Lodge in Woodruff County, credits the flooded timber areas for attracting huge crowds of hunters to small Arkansas towns.
“Just McCrory here in Woodruff County turns from a town of 2,000 people to 10,000 people in the wintertime,” he said.
As thousands of hunters flock to the state and lodges like Sharp’s, the question remains – are the ducks coming, too?
Trey Reid with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said recent numbers show not as many are landing in Natural State waters.
“Mallard numbers are down, heading into our duck season in Arkansas,” Reid explained. “Down considerably from last year and a little below the long-term average.”
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Waterfowl Population Status 2022 Report, duck population estimates in Spring 2022 declined 12% from the last survey in 2019. Mallard populations saw a large decline, dropping to 7.2 million birds, which is down 23% from 2019.
Many factors are contributing to those numbers, including what’s happening in Canada and the Dakotas, or what Reid calls the Prairie Pothole region.
“When you’ve got water and good habitat there, it supports the production of ducks, and when there is less water there it does not support the production of as many ducks,” he explained.
Sharp added that weather can also keep ducks away, saying that a mild winter can lead to ducks staying more in Missouri and other more northern states.
While conditions in other locations and the weather may be factors outside the control of Arkansas hunters, there are things that can be done locally to help increase the population.
“In Arkansas, it’s our job to receive these ducks out of Canada and the Dakotas and send them back healthy so that they can breed to produce more ducks,” Sharp said.
Sharp added that one of the keys to getting mallards to return to the state and properties like his is all in the science, which is why he has biologist Jacob Bethell on staff.
“Maximize the amount of food, whether that be through managing your natural wetlands. If it’s not suitable to plant crops, you can plant certain foods like rice,” Bethell advised.
He also noted the importance of managing pressure on the property.
“Ducks are smart, and they are very sensitive to disturbance,” Bethell said.
That’s why visitors at Strait Lake won’t see people riding around on ATVs all day or firing guns off when they aren’t pointed at ducks.
Sharp believes that keeping mallards coming back is all in the control of Arkansas hunters and landowners.
“We try to tie what we are doing from an agricultural purpose with the science to keep these ducks and return them back to Canada so that they can breed,” he said.