AGFC approves changes to fishing regulations

By RANDY ZELLERS/Arkansas Game and Fish Commission

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission unanimously voted at today’s regularly scheduled meeting to approve new changes to Arkansas’s regulations on recreational fishing, commercial fishing and aquaculture.

The recreational sportfishing regulations changes were announced to the Commission during its March meeting and were circulated in a public comment survey on the AGFC’s website beginning in March. The responses from that survey were then presented with official proposals during the Commission’s August Commission meeting.

Ben Batten, chief of the agency’s Fisheries Division, said 80 percent of the 46 regulations changes were clarifications, simplifications or reductions in current regulations. The other 20 percent were changes backed by scientific evidence or public input aimed at improving sportfish populations and angler experience.

A few notable changes include:

  • Requiring boaters to remove drain plugs from vessels while being trailered to and from water bodies;
  • Requiring trotlines and limblines to be checked every 48 hours or removed when not in use;
  • Standardizing the number of free-fishing devices and yo-yos being used to 25 of each per person;
  • Increasing the possession limit on fish from two daily limits to three daily limits.
  • Removing rough fish gigging season dates an allow rough fish harvest by gig year-round;
  • Removing the requirement to possess an alligator gar permit to fish for alligator gar (a Trophy Alligator Gar Tag is still required to keep alligator gar longer than 36 inches);
  • Adding a 10-inch minimum length limit on crappie for Lake Dardanelle;
  • Allowing 10 additional spotted bass to the daily limits for Ouachita, DeGray and Greeson lakes;
  • Allowing twice the statewide limit of channel catfish on the Arkansas River, regardless of size, and
  • Allowing unlimited recreational harvest of channel catfish on Lake Erling.

Changes to Arkansas’s commercial fishing and aquaculture regulations also were passed today. Surveys were sent to licensed commercial anglers for their comments to proposals presented to the Commission at its March meeting as well. While most regulations proposals remained unchanged, a proposal to eliminate commercial fishing on the entirety of the Strawberry River was modified to allow it only on the 13-mile stretch of the river from its mouth to Arkansas Highway 25.

Additionally, the Commission unanimously voted to approve the proposed reworking of Arkansas’s aquaculture codes to benefit the integrity of Arkansas’s aquaculture industry while protecting our natural resources. Staff worked with aquaculture producers in focus groups as well as online surveys before their official proposal to the Commission in August.

A complete list of changes is available at agfc.com/en/education/calendar/commission-meetings/monthly-commission-meeting-2020-10. All regulations will go into effect beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

Commissioners also heard the first reading of a proposed update to the Commission’s captive wildlife code to add 889 species of reptiles and amphibians to the unrestricted list and 49 species of reptiles and amphibians to the permitted list. The lists are available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jFh9oLlHpqLhImiPzTnFNCWC3v1LynJ5/view?usp=sharing and https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jIBlo8t0HiHWKgao3PJNHgoK-jc01cA8/view?usp=sharing.

In other business, the Commission:

  • Recognized Danielle Havens, Stacey Clark and Cpl. Shannon “Mac” Davis as recipients of this year’s annual Campbell Awards for their dedicated service to conservation and their communities.
  • Recognized Mike Harris with the AGFC’s George H. Dunklin Jr. Award for his work in conserving and promoting wetlands conservation and waterfowl management in Arkansas.
  • Recognized Noah Wyatt with the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative’s Firebird Award for his work in promoting northern bobwhite habitat on Arkansas’s landscape.
  • Recognized 18 employees representing 360 years of service to the natural resources of Arkansas.
  • Heard from Jeremy Wood, the AGFC’s Turkey Program Coordinator, with an update on the state’s turkey population and the 2020 turkey brood survey.
  • Granted a confiscated firearm to the Arkansas State Crime Laboratory to be used in ballistics tests for their forensics analysis needs.
  • Approved the removal of outdated and obsolete inventory with a total original cost of $38,422 and a net book value of $9,428.
  • Approved a budget increase of $1,000,000 to the AGFC’s fleet budget for capital vehicle purchases to replace vehicles necessary for conservation and enforcement work throughout the state.
  • Approved a budget increase of $300,000 to the AGFC’s capital equipment budget to replace heavy equipment needed for conservation and habitat work throughout the state.
  • Sold a surplus boat and trailer to Columbia County Rural Development Authority at fair market value to be used in the control of giant salvinia and other fisheries management concerns in Lake Columbia.
  • Granted three surplus vehicles to the University of Georgia to be used in research contracted with the AGFC on chronic wasting disease.
  • Revised a section to the AGFC’s vehicle policy to require any employee determined at fault of a vehicle accident in a Commission-owned vehicle to take a mandatory defensive driving class, regardless of the value of the damage caused in the accident.

A video of the meeting is available at https://www.youtube.com/user/ArkansasGameandFish.

Alligator harvest sets state mark

Image courtesy of Travis Bearden via TMZ.com

By JIM HARRIS/Managing Editor Arkansas Wildlife Magazine

MONTICELLO – Arkansas hunters harvested more alligators than ever before in the 2020 alligator season, which was held the third and fourth weekends in September in three hunting zones in the lower half of the state. Included in that harvest was the longest alligator taken since the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began setting an annual alligator hunting season.

Collectively, 170 alligators were taken in the state on both public and private land. The previous record for alligator harvest was the 98 taken in the 2017 season, according to Mark Barbee, an AGFC wildlife regional supervisor in southeast Arkansas and coordinator of the alligator hunt.

“This has been our first season going to a quota system for our private land hunting and it went great,” Barbee said. “People followed the protocol. Everybody did what was asked to make it a successful hunt. You couldn’t have asked for better weekends to hunt either with the weather. The nights were cool and the days did not get too hot. So, the season went great and the weather was perfect for it as well.”

Image courtesy of Travis Bearden via TMZ.com

An alligator believed to be the longest ever harvested in Arkansas – and definitely the longest since the state has had an alligator season – was taken on Merrisach Lake near Arkansas Post last weekend. The AGFC does not maintain an official state record on alligators but has recorded data on length since beginning the annual alligator harvest in 2007.

Travis Bearden, Gary Bearden, Cody Bearden and Tommy Kelley took an alligator that measured a half-inch shy of 14 feet and weighed 800 pounds. The length and weight were verified by AGFC personnel. The Bearden clan – Travis with his dad and one of his brothers – and Kelley were hunting from a boat and spotted the gator in the water of one of Merrisach’s coves.

Travis Bearden said, “We had gone there the week before. I went with my other brother and some other friends but we didn’t get one. I don’t know if the cold front had messed with them or what. My other brother had gone back to Florida. I had invited them all back, but going out two weekends in a row with everybody having family is tough for folks. They were definitely bummed they couldn’t make it again.”

Kelley was back, though, along with Travis’ dad and another brother. “Our expectations weren’t real high. But we were only out there two hours before we saw him and were able to get close enough to harpoon him. We had no idea how big it was. You can see their eyes but you can’t see their whole body under the water.”

Then, the fun really began. The alligator “was pulling us around like we had a motor on the boat. We didn’t get it to the boat until 11 o’clock before we could shoot it.”

Bearden had been on a hunt with friend John Spradlin to take an alligator that was 10 feet, 2 inches in 2015. He said, “Once you get one, all the wait is worth it. It can be grueling waiting it out, though.

“Just having them, my dad and brother, with me was special,” he said. “It was my dad’s first alligator. We camped at Merrisach and a lot of bowhunters were there. My dad was walking around telling story after story to stranger after stranger. When another person came up, he’d tell them about it.”

Alligator hunting is by permit only in Arkansas. The AGFC issued 38 public hunting permits, with hunting allowed only on designated areas of the Dr. Lester Sitzes III Bois D’Arc WMA, Sulphur River WMA, Little River below Millwood Lake, Millwood Lake, Lake Erling and the Lower Arkansas River Wetland Complex. All other public areas are closed to alligator hunting.

The AGFC created more opportunity for hunters pursuing alligators on private land this year. Hunters who own or had permission to hunt on private lands within the three Alligator Management Zones were able to hunt through a quota-based system similar to private land elk hunting and bear hunting in Arkansas. They were required to obtain a permit through the AGFC’s online licensing system. Harvested gators had to be reported as soon as possible to the AGFC.

“We don’t want to go over the quota, but with the call-in system, it is like with the bears,” Barbee said. “People called in each day to see it was open, they were told the zones were still open for that day and they went out hunting. To  my knowledge, there were no violations of the harvest.”

In Management Zone 1, in southwestern Arkansas, 72 total alligators were harvested. Eight were taken on public land and 64 were harvested on private land. In Zone 2 in the middle south portion of the state (there are no public permits issued), three alligators were taken. In Management Zone 3, which includes Merrisach Lake and all of southeast Arkansas, 95 total alligators were harvested, with nine of those being taken on public land. The harvest on private land was six more total than the planned quota for the zones. 

“We had planned on a total harvest limit of 164 gators for public and private land,” Barbee said. “We harvested 170. So we’re looking at six animals over. That’s acceptable.”
Zone 3 reached its quota on Saturday night of the first weekend. Zone 1’s quota was not reached until Saturday of the second weekend.

He added, “I’ve talked to a lot of hunters this year, and all were supportive of the quota system. It worked out well for everybody.”

Rabbits, squirrels offer last-chance hunting opportunity

February 5, 2020

By RANDY ZELLERS/AGFC ASSISTANT CHIEF OF COMMUNICATIONS

LITTLE ROCK – Duck season is over, and turkey season is still months away, but hunters looking for one more way to stay in the woods still can find plenty of excitement in small game hunting. Both rabbit and squirrel seasons remain open until 30 minutes after sunset, Feb. 29.

Squirrels and rabbits are still abundant throughout most of Arkansas, and February hunting can prove some of the most predictable for the hunter who goes it alone or with a friend. Nearly all of the leaves and vines have dropped to the ground, making it easier for the hunter to find his target.

Squirrel hunter

Hunters after squirrels should keep an eye on both the ground and the treetops, as most bushytails will be busy seeking the acorns and hickory nuts they stashed during fall. Contrary to popular opinion, squirrels don’t necessarily remember the exact locations they buried their foodstuffs. Instead, they tend to stick to a few areas where they bury or hide their treasure. During winter, they use their keen sense of smell to find acorns and nuts that they and other squirrels have hidden. This frantic scratching and searching gives hunters the ability to hear and see the motion long before the squirrels see them.

Instead of focusing on a few hickory or acorn trees and sitting, late-season hunters are better off staying on the move, quietly slipping through the woods until they cross paths with a squirrel. An accurate .22 rimfire rifle will anchor the animal from long distances as long as the shooter is up to the task.

Rabbit  hunter

Finding rabbits at the tail-end of the season is a bit different. Rabbits will stay put in whatever brushy cover they can find along the edges of fields and ditches. Ditch banks are traditionally a place for rabbit seeking, and here there is a chance for swamp rabbits as well as cottontails. Swampers tend to be a good bit larger than the more numerous cottontails.

With most of the tall grasses dead and trampled down, fewer patches of dense cover will be left for the rabbit to hide. Hunters should walk from brush pile to brush pile, giving each a good kick to flush out any cottontails or swamp rabbits lurking underneath. The shot will come quickly, so hunters should get ready before each brushpile and watch in all directions for the little brown dart that may streak to the next available cover at any given moment. A 12- or 20-gauge shotgun with 6 shot and an improved cylinder choke offers plenty of power to punch through light brush, but still has a wide enough pattern to give the hunter a little leeway when his or her shot is slightly off.

Nearly all Arkansas Game and Fish Commission wildlife management areas are open for rabbit and squirrel hunting, and so are some of the national wildlife refuges in the state. Visit www.agfc.com/wheretohunt to locate a WMA near you and begin your search for the last game of this hunting season.

AGFC hears 2019 elk, bear harvest reports

January 17, 2020

By RANDY ZELLERS/AGFC Assistant Chief of Communications

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas’s bear and elk harvests showed slight declines during the 2019 season, but biologists with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission said much of the decrease could be attributed to last year’s extremely productive hard mast crop during presentations to Commissioners at today’s regularly scheduled meeting.

According to Myron Means, the AGFC Large Carnivore Program biologist, hunters harvested 432 black bears in Arkansas during 2019.

“Considering the mast crop that we had available across the state, it was actually a pretty good harvest for bears,” Means said. “I didn’t expect it to be quite that high.”

Baited sites and food plots do not have the same appeal to deer, bear, elk and other game species when acorns and other natural foods are abundant in the woods. Animals can find all the food they need without moving long distances, making them much more challenging to hunt. Last year’s bumper crop is likely responsible for decreases in harvest for many species.

The majority, 293 bears total, were harvested with archery equipment, while 57 bears were harvested with muzzleloaders and 82 bears were taken using modern guns.

“That’s nothing new,” Means said. “Most of our bears are taken over bait on private land, and archery hunters get those bears on bait while they are still in pre-hibernation.”

Means says Arkansas bears are still at a stable to slowly expanding population and recommendations going into the 2020 regulations cycle will be to increase the quota of bears allowed in Bear Zone 1 to 500 animals.

Commissioner J.D. Neeley of Camden asked when hunters could expect to see an open bear zone in southwest and south-central Arkansas. Each year more hunters in those areas are reporting bears on their deer leases. Means explained that a current study at the University of Arkansas at Monticello is in its last year of field research to establish a population baseline on bears in those regions of the state and regulations would be based on those findings. The UAM study is being funded by a Wildlife Restoration Program grant through taxes placed on firearms and ammunition sales. 

“They hope to have us a final report in 2021,” Means said. “2022 would be the next regulations cycle to set season dates and quotas.”

Means stressed that if the zones were opened, it would start with a very conservative quota to protect the population from overharvest.

Wes Wright, the AGFC Elk Program coordinator, also gave a summary of the Arkansas elk season. According to Wright, hunters checked 47 elk during two managed hunts in north Arkansas in 2019. The harvest showed a substantial decline in harvest from the 2018 season, specifically in the private land portion of the hunt.

“Last year we had a record harvest of 67 elk, but we had just started a new method for the private land permit system that increased participation on that end,” Wright said. “This year was more in line with historic harvest numbers.”

Despite talk from some hunters about seeing relatively few elk on public land last year, public land harvest numbers remained steady. The total public land harvest actually increased 12 percent, and the overall public land hunter success rate was 63 percent, which is in line with most seasons.

“Again, the heavy mast crop likely dispersed elk and kept them closer to the woods where they are harder to find and harder to hunt,” Wright said.

Wright said only one of the 47 animals harvested was positive for chronic wasting disease, and it was the only CWD-positive elk from the last 114 taken by hunters. A handful of elk that were removed from the herd outside of the season have shown up positive for the disease, but overall only 22 elk have been found that were positive for the disease since it was first spotted in Arkansas in 2016.

“We have had less than 1 percent incidence rate of hunters taking an elk and it being positive for CWD over the past 2 years,” Wright said.

Wright said he plans to propose a slight reduction in the harvest goals next year to compensate for the previous three years of record harvest and additional mortality from CWD sampling to increase numbers of elk on available habitat in north Arkansas.

The Commission voted to continue granting one elk tag each to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and Arkansas Wildlife Federation to help those organizations’ efforts in raising funding for and awareness of elk conservation in Arkansas. According to Mark Hutchings, AGFC assistant chief of wildlife management, the permits have garnered more than $750,000 for elk management in Arkansas since these grants began.

In other business, the Commission:

  • Approved a funds advance for a cooperative federal grant awarded to the AGFC and Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission totaling $967,590 to the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission to add 1,108 acres to Longview Saline Natural Area Wildlife Management Area for protection of three endangered species.
  • Approved AGFC Director Pat Fitts to disclaim interest over a 10-acre parcel of land near Petit Jean WMA to which the AGFC holds no title.
  • Recognized AGFC Cpl. Ryan Nast of Batesville as Arkansas’s 2019 National Wild Turkey Federation Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.
  • Recognized Matt Horton, AGFC fisheries habitat biologist from the Mayflower Office, as the 2019 Mike Freeze Fisheries Biologist of the Year.
  • Recognized Jordan Lindaman from the Rogers Field Office as the 2019 Fisheries Division Technical Employee of the Year.
  • Recognized 13 employees representing 280 years of service to the natural resources of Arkansas.
  • Approved the removal of outdated and obsolete inventory with a total original cost of $262,404 and a net book value of $15,944.

AGFC to hold public meeting on CWD at Batesville

January 22, 2020

By RANDY ZELLERS/ AGFC Assistant Chief of Communications

BATESVILLE — The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission will hold a public meeting to discuss the recent discovery of chronic wasting disease in Independence County at the University of Arkansas Community College, Room 902 of the Nursing and Allied Health Building in Batesville at 6 p.m. Jan. 30. The college is at 2005 White Drive.  

One CWD-positive deer sample has been detected so far in Independence County during the 2019-20 deer season. The deer was illegally harvested and confiscated during an AGFC investigation. Samples were submitted through the AGFC’s normal testing protocol, and positive results were confirmed by two laboratories.

Cory Gray, chief of the AGFC’s Research, Evaluation and Compliance Division, says the meeting is part of the agency’s overall CWD plan to keep the public informed about the disease and give local landowners and hunters an additional chance to have one-on-one communication with the wildlife veterinarian, wildlife health biologist, wildlife biologists and other staff about the disease.

“Hunters are our greatest ally in helping manage this disease, and we want to walk this path with them and discuss concerns they may have about CWD,” Gray said. “With the recent positive case of CWD found in Independence County, we hope this meeting will gather support for additional sampling opportunities to further our knowledge of this disease.”