"Duck Soup for the Soul"
by Matt Conner, Park Ranger White River NWR
Have you ever experienced a moment that changed the way you viewed the very nature of something or someone? I remember the first time I experienced this and was shocked to find that I had been way off in forming my impression of someone.
When I was in my early teens, I went to visit my grandma one Saturday afternoon at her house. When I walked into her home, I noticed a carving of a pintail hen sitting on her coffee table. Until this moment I had not thought of grandma as the outdoors type and I knew that neither of my parents hunted either. A family friend had taken me hunting when I was 13 years old and I have been hooked ever since, but I never knew that my family had a tradition of hunting as well.
Grandma told me she bought the decoy as a reminder of her father who was an avid duck hunter. She then told me about the first time my mom went duck hunting with my great-grandfather when she was only 11 years old. Apparently my mother’s grandfather was coming to pick her up in the morning to go hunting and he had told her to be ready to go when he arrived. Mom asked grandma how many ducks she was allowed to shoot and was told four. So my mother ran down to the basement and grabbed four shells. It never occurred to this young girl that you could miss a duck!
That day she returned from hunting with four ducks and one shell. On her first shot she hit a double and took two more birds with a single shot each after that.
Until that day I never knew my family had a tradition of hunting. I spent many weekends listening to my mom and grandma telling stories of my great grandfather and his passion for the outdoors. Many of these stories included the lake and hunting club that he owned named Topper Lake, named after his beloved American Water Spaniel “Topper.”
Part of my job at White River National Wildlife Refuge is to ensure that stories like these will continue to be told as public lands serve as an oasis for outdoor recreation for this and future generations. The refuge achieves this by providing and managing habitat for wildlife. Some of this land is open to the public while other sections are closed to provide a sanctuary for wildlife.
One of the areas managed for wildlife and open to the public is the waterfowl area in the South Unit of the refuge. This land borders the Arkansas River Canal and is equipped with head gates and irrigation canals that are capable of flooding three thousand four hundred acres in just a matter of days.
This water control system was part of mitigation with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when the Arkansas Canal was built. The canal had to pass over refuge property so as a compromise, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built the water control system so the Refuge would have the ability to flood this area every year.
When my great grandfather went hunting, he had to rely on seasonal rains or the level of the river to depict what type of hunting he would have. At White River, we have the ability to control the water level on these thousands of acres by adjusting the flow rate and levels of the area.
The refuge waits until the trees have gone dormant for the year before flooding the area with water. As with any green tree reservoir, the water cannot be put in before the trees are dormant and must be removed before spring leaf out to ensure the trees survival. Trees need to aerate when they are in photosynthesis and if the roots are under water the tree basically looses the ability to “breath” through the roots.
Another benefit to controlling the level is that we can raise it slowly to offer the most food for waterfowl over a longer period of time. After their long trip south, waterfowl gorge themselves on acorns, wild millet, and other foods like smart weed. White River NWR is known for having the largest concentration of wintering mallards in the United States. Managing for these ducks means keeping the water level for feeding as close to 18” in depth as this is the optimal level for mallards and other dabbler ducks to feed. By not flooding the unit to the maximum depth, we are able to slowly raise the level always keeping food for ducks in the 18” depth as the water slowly fills this proverbial soup bowl. As the ducks eat most of the vegetation in the center of the unit, we raise the water to the next level that offers new vegetation at 18” deep as the center of this “soup bowl” gets deeper.
After the ducks feed on the vegetation and acorns to gain back their energy, they then focus on getting protein. Protein is essential in producing new feathers and for the hens to produce eggs. As the woods flood, tiny fresh water invertebrates begin to hatch and multiply in the water. These tiny creatures explode in population and when the water is the right depth, ducks feast on these ensuring good health and reproduction rates. Through this type of management, the refuge produces a “duck soup” containing many types of food for waterfowl.
The rest of the refuge floods in a more traditional sense using some water control structures to hold water back while other areas are left to flood entirely by natural processes. When the gauge level of the White River reads 28 feet at Clarendon, we know that close to 75,000 acres of prime waterfowl habitat are available. During years of low water we may have just the south unit with the controlled 3,400 acres available for waterfowl habitat.
Although it is a guess from one year to the next how much acreage will be flooded for duck season, some things are for certain. Many avid hunters will return and perfect their calling and setting of their decoy spreads, while a new hunter may take their first shot at a greenhead flying over head. This will be another season for the avid hunters to remember and for the new hunter; hopefully it will be the beginning of many more seasons to come.
The Topper Hunt Club my great grandfather owned has since been sold off and I will never be able to take my children there to hunt. However, I don’t have to worry about losing places like White River National Wildlife Refuge as a family hunting destination. I will never have to worry about my children not having a place on the water along side our American Water Spaniel that we have named Topper in remembrance of my family hunting tradition and my great grandfather’s great hunting dog!