Bootheel Ducks

Look to Missouri's Bootheel for some of the state's very best last-minute duck and goose shooting.

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.

SEASON DATES

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.

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.

DUCK CREEK CA

Duck Creek is located in Stoddard, Bollinger and Wayne counties. Headquarters is nine miles north of Puxico, on Highway 51. The MDC-managed area consists of 2,400 acres of wetlands and offers 1,800 acres of lakes and ponds. It boasts 40 blinds and four goose pits. The area also has five walk-in areas. All hunts are on the draw system. Some parts of Duck Creek close hunting at 1 p.m.

A late-season waterfowler hides in natural cover and calls to circling ducks. Photo by Steve Felgenhauer.

TEN MILE POND CA

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area is located in Mississippi County, east of East Prairie on Highway 80, then five miles south on Highway 102. To reach area headquarters, from Highway 102 turn

east on the gravel county road 518, continue 2.5 miles and turn north on Highway VV. Go 2.5 miles north on VV to the headquarters on the west side of the road. Statewide shooting hours are in effect. Ten Mile Pond is closed on Christmas Day.

GOING HOME

After other work commitments and deer season ended, Cooper headed to the Bootheel, his birthplace and where he was raised. Though he now resides in St. James, he continues to make the trip south to hunt late-season ducks.

Cooper was booked to hunt flooded rice fields, but found his boyhood stomping grounds frozen solid.

Making the best of a tough situation Cooper ended up hunting the 3,755-acre Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area. Expecting the worst, he discovered few hunters actually had showed up for the draw, probably because of the extremely cold weather. Much to his surprise, water was being pumped into eight locations by the MDC to raise the water levels and to introduce new food sources for the dabbling ducks.

These small pockets of open water, most an acre in size but only 6 inches deep, were drawing mallards like a magnet. Though Cooper says the water can range from 6 inches to 2 feet deep, ditches or depressions can be deeper than that.

SWITCHING TACTICS

The number of drawings for hunting spots due to the low attendance had been reduced and Cooper didn't draw well. Not familiar with the area he got, Cooper did his best to get to the flooded fields pointed out by MDC personnel during the drawing process. As he got closer to the open water, the ice around the edge he was trudging through gave way. Concerned he would tip off the hundreds of ducks and geese he could hear ahead of him in the darkness, he decided to stop his assault and set up in the standing corn and try pass-shooting.

As daylight approached and legal shooting hours neared, the ducks with other plans began taking to the air. That was fortunate for Cooper who managed to bag several greenheads.

Cooper used the down time to scout the area and discovered the vast majority of the ducks were roosting on one particular area. He found open water in that area and was able to sneak in and put out a small spread of decoys. As shooting hours approached, the whistling of wings and the crescendo of the mallards calling gave away their presence. Cooper and his hunting partners were kept busy shucking shells into their shotguns and doing their best to imitate the calls of feeding mallards.

"Most of the ducks that I got were stragglers, as the majority of the flock seemed to disappear from the area five minutes before shooting hours," says Cooper.

"I lucked into this scenario. A lot of hunters gave up going out because it was too cold, I stuck it out and hunted three days and saw action every day.

"You don't always have to get into a spot before daylight. Some of the local guys would draw in to hunt Ten Mile Pond but wouldn't come in until late in the afternoon. We did that one afternoon and had a great hunt an hour or so before dark"

AN ADDED BONUS

Another tactic Cooper advises is hunting fields for snow geese, especially in the South Zone. On Cooper's fourth day in the Bootheel, he and his hunting partners put on a snow goose hunt. "We drove around looking for snow geese. We found a bunch of them in a field, got permission to hunt them and put a sneak on them. We took 20 snow geese."

Cooper says there were some snows on Ten Mile Pond, but they were pretty wary. "You're better off putting the sneak on them down in that part of the country."

Aside from the snow geese and mallards, Cooper says you can to expect to see widgeon, shovelers, pintails, bluebills, and an occasional redhead. "You get most of the waterfowl that you'll see in Missouri, but that late in the season it's mostly mallards."

NO BOAT, NO WORRY

Cooper hunted the Ted Shanks Conservation Area last year. Although he had his boat in tow he was able to hook up with another waterfowler who hunted the area often.

"I met this other hunter while we were drawing blinds and he invited me to hunt with him from his canoe," said Cooper. "Since he was more familiar with the area, I chose to hunt with him and was glad I did."

Cooper claims many of the hunters are helpful and more than willing to help out others.

PLANNING FOR SUCCESS (SURVIVAL)

Ask any duck or goose hunter what the key to success is and without hesitation the answer will be "weather." Weather is needed not only to get the birds flying, but also to get them paying attention to what is happening or will be happening.

"This time of the year one thing you need to be concerned with is extreme weather," said Cooper. "Temperatures can drop rapidly. You need to be prepared for the elements.

"Look at the Weather Channel before you take off. You've got to be careful. If you are walking across some of the deep-water areas and fall through the ice, you are in trouble"

If you want to be successful, Cooper suggests that before you head out, check to see how many ducks are sitting on the national wildlife refuges. "When I was hunting at Ted Shanks CA, Clarence Cannon NWR was holding some 130,000 mallards. That really got my attention and was worth checking out."

Many of the NWR area Web sites will post the information in real time. The MDC Web site posts the mallard migration and harvest reports of each of the MDC areas.

Cooper also suggests contacting the MDC biologists to see when the main flight days for mallards peak. That information can be obtained on a year-to-year basis, or historically over a set period of time. It's not unlike timing the rut during deer season.

Last-minute duck hunting doesn't mean missing out. With a little planning and preparation, a trip to the Bootheel can be just the ticket for taking late-season waterfowl.

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