Missouri has long been known as the home of some of the best waterfowl hunting in the nation.
With two major refuges located in the northern part of the state, known as the Golden Triangle of Missouri, including Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, areas like Grand Pass Conservation Area and Fountain Grove Conservation Area are early season hotspots. The number of migrating waterfowl that sit on these refuges can be quite unbelievable, but that’s early in the season.
Once Old Man Winter finally hits the Show Me State, waterfowling freezes over in the north and much of the middle region, leaving diehard waterfowlers to their own devices.
Missouri’s 35,000 waterfowl hunters have been experiencing unprecedented season lengths. Maintaining habitat and waterfowl populations have much to do with the liberal season length.
“The timing of the seasons, however, is a moving target”, states Andrew Raedeke, Missouri Department of Conservation waterfowl/wetlands resource scientist. “If weather conditions differ, hunter preference will switch.”
Bill Cooper, whose articles often appear on the pages of Missouri Game & Fish magazine, doesn’t just talk or even write about the great waterfowling available to Missouri hunters; he actually gets out and hunts the state from region to region.
“It’s difficult to plan too early or put in for vacation to hunt late season, as all of it depends on the weather,” says Cooper. “Be flexible and watch for systems coming out of Canada. In a few days, the ducks will start coming in, just ahead of the system.”
That can be frustrating for waterfowl hunters who can only hunt weekends and must plan vacations early in the year. Last season’s unusually warm spell kept the ducks sitting tight on the refuges.
Though not set in stone, waterfowl season in the North Zone of the state generally opens the last week of October, the Middle Zone season opener is the first Saturday in November, and the southern zone opens the last week of November. This gives the traveling waterfowler nearly 90 days of waterfowl hunting bliss. Traveling means locating the best spots; the North Zone early, Middle and South Zone in the latter part of the season. For late-season hunting, the southeastern section of the state is second to none — especially those counties that make up the Bootheel.
Folklore sites many stories of how the Bootheel came to be. However, history shows John Hardeman Walker, a landowner and influential citizen of southeast Missouri petitioned Washington after discovering the counties where he owned vast amounts of lowland acreage might fall under Arkansas jurisdiction. Walker preferred the Missouri jurisdiction so he petitioned for it and won approval. On March 6, 1820, when the Territory of Missouri requested admission to the Union, Walker’s modified boundary comprised of the additional 627,000 acres in the southeast corner that makes up the Bootheel was granted.
Why does the Bootheel draw so many waterfowl so late in the year? Aside from being on the Mississippi Flyway, the Bootheel is centered between two national refuges — one on each side of the Mississippi River. On the Missouri side is the 21,592-acre Mingo National Wildlife Refuge where records show some 125,000 mallards migrate or winter there.
A few wing flaps away on the other side of the river is the 10,428-acre Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge where an estimated 400,000 mallards have been recorded to spend their winters. Sandwiched in between lies the Bootheel, with its snaking sloughs laden with bald cypress and water tupelo mixed with lowland hardwood forests. This is truly waterfowl country.
TRAVELING UP THE BOOT
Technically, the counties of Dunklin, New Madrid, and Pemiscot comprise the Bootheel, however, other neighboring counties usually lay claim to its geographical description. In very close proximity to the Bootheel, but not close enough to be in the South Zone, instead it falls in the Middle Zone. The traveling waterfowler needs to try Otter Slough and Duck Creek, keeping in mind these areas are in the Middle Zone and will close by the end of December.
“The mallards start really pounding these areas around Thanksgiving, give or take a week or two,” calims Cooper. “Again, depending on the weather.”
OTTER SLOUGH CONSERVATION AREA
Otter Slough is located in Stoddard County, west of Dexter. It is one of state’s most popular MDC-managed areas to hunt waterfowl. There are 12 blinds available, including one handicapped accessible, as well as walk-in areas. All are assigned through the draw system, so plan to arrive early. The HQ building is located west of Dexter on Highway 60, then 10 miles south on Route ZZ to County Road 675. Turn west on 675 and travel two miles to the area entrance. The area allows waterfowling until 1 p.m. daily.
Changes are coming this fall on Otter Slough and two other MDC-managed areas: Grand Pass (located in the North Zone) and Eagle Bluffs (located in the Middle Zone). A new pilot draw system known as “Quick Draw” will allow hunters the ability to draw for daily waterfowl hunting spots. The system will enable hunters to know before driving to a conservation area whether they were drawn for one of the available hunting spots.
According to the MDC, 20 percent of available spots will continue to be drawn through what is known as the “poor line” in these areas.
Don’t be too surprised if more of the MDC-managed areas don’t switch to this system.
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