Holy Waters

Arkansas' Flooded Timber

For hunting drama, few settings can rival dawn in Arkansas' flooded timber. The mist rises from the inundated bottoms, and Spanish moss hangs in long streams from dark limbs. Unseen mallards constantly gabble, calling to find flocks feeding on floating drifts of acorns.

Finally, the moment arrives: Wings hiss overhead, and you fill the air with high-pitched greetings, feeding chatter, and contented quacks. All at once mallards are raining down through the treetops, wings flapping, orange feet reaching for the knee-deep water where the decoys float.

Such hunting doesn't get any better than at the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge on the Arkansas-Louisiana border. At 65,000 acres, it's the world's largest "greentree reservoir"-a living hardwood forest that is flooded seasonally. The huge wetland complex surrounds the confluence of the Saline and Ouachita Rivers on the western edge of the lower Mississippi delta near Crossett, Arkansas.

Here's why ducks are drawn to the refuge: As managers raise the height of the Felsenthal Dam spillway from mid-November through December, the vast low-lying hardwood forests behind the dam fill up. The carpet of seeds and acorns that covered the forest floor rises to the surface, where wind pushes the debris into long, floating drifts of high-energy food.

The feast begins in November and just gets bigger as cold weather up north sends wave after wave of ducks down the Mississippi Flyway. While mallards are usually the targeted species, Felsenthal also loads up with plenty of wigeon, pintails, gadwall, shovelers, wood ducks, black ducks, and greenwing teal.

Tactics are simple. Run a heavy-duty aluminum johnboat through the trees until a big flock of ducks flushes off the water. Stop and throw out a couple of dozen decoys, hide the boat, and start calling. In a few minutes the birds will come back, searching for others on the feed. Depending upon the water depth, you might shoot from the hidden boat, or if it's shallow enough, you can wade out and lean up against a tree trunk.

For all the opportunity it offers, Felsenthal is relatively unknown to outsiders who think that Arkansas' flooded timber hunting begins and ends in the Stuttgart area. Locals claim that "Stuttgart gets the publicity, but Felsenthal gets the ducks."

The guide who showed me Felsenthal's incredible mallard shooting is Mike Morton (870-943-3474) of Huttig, Arkansas. He lives in a houseboat right on the edge of the refuge and knows where the ducks want to be. For more maps of the area and boat launching sites, contact the Felsenthal NWR, 870-364-3167; felsenthal.fws.gov.