Lack of water control affecting duck season on St. Francis

Tuesday, December 2, 2014
The ideal water level for duck hunting would be at the 12 mark on this water level gauge near Oak Donnick Access, which is about midway up the gauge. (DT Photo/Corey Clairday)

In years past, duck hunting thrived in the St. Francis Sunken Lands State Wildlife Management Area. The Oak Donnick Access on the St. Francis River was once home to the Oak Donnick Outing Association, which had a two floor hunting lodge. Even in more recent years, the boat ramp at Oak Donnick Access, situated about halfway between Trumann and Payneway, boasted a parking lot so full of trucks during duck season that hunters had to park along both sides of the road. But this year's opening day of duck season was a sad sight for hunters using the St. Francis River.

Saturday morning, Nov. 22, the river was seven feet below where it needed to be for duck hunting. House boats and boathouses sat crookedly on the banks, barely in the water. And the parking lot at Oak Donnick Access was barely filled, with only six boat trailers in the lot that morning.

The low river level is being caused by a washout on a road between a dam on ditch 60 and a ditch known as Deadend Ditch. The washout is about two miles south of the Oak Donnick Access and is resulting in a lack of control of the WMA's water level. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has made efforts to patch the road where the washout has occurred, but the erosion of the road has gotten worse over time and is having a draining effect on the WMA. The St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA is the largest body of water in Poinsett and Craighead Counties, but recreation on the WMA is being affected by the water control problems.

One hunter said this was the lowest he had seen the river in 50 years, and it was the first time in all those years he was not out duck hunting because the water was so low he cannot get his boat out of the boathouse.

Many hunters coming off the water at noon Saturday agreed the water levels were not good for hunting. Several said they had seen thousands of ducks flying by overhead, but few of the ducks were actually landing in the St. Francis as they had in years past because there was nowhere good to land. One hunter brought an airboat because that was the only way he could navigate the shallow water.

Another hunter, Justin Smith, said the water level was a shame. "The older people can't get out and hunt anymore," Smith said. "That's the biggest shame."

Other hunters said they were so frustrated with the water levels that they would not be back for the second day of duck season. And several vehicles turned up to check the water level and left when they saw it so low. "Just looking at the parking lot, you can tell how bad it is," said hunter Jimmy Mauldin.

The St. Francis Lake Association (SFLA) is trying to save the river, and a major part of saving it may involve getting the WMA reclassified.

According to Neal Vickers with the SFLA, the Army Corp of Engineers' goals for the St. Francis Sunken Lands WMA include flood control and drainage, but he would like to see those goals broadened to include recreation. Vickers compared it to Lake Norfolk, another Army Corps of Engineers project, which includes all three goals. "Most of those guys are all around hunters," Vickers said. "They want this resource preserved and protected, and right now they need it repaired."

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