December Ducks

Nebraska waterfowlers eager to sample some late-season action would do well to heed this advice from some of the state's most dedicated duck hunters. (Dec 2006)

December is a prime month for taking Canada geese in Nebraska -- and it can also be gangbusters for greenheads. So says Dr. Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln.

"Duck hunting success depends on where you're hunting," said Vrtiska. "Most years the small lakes and ponds are frozen, but if you go to open water, hunting can be excellent."

If the small waters freeze over, the birds will move to the streams and large reservoirs in the state. The Platte, North Platte, South Platte, Missouri, Republican, Loup, Cedar, Calamus and Blue rivers can offer some satisfying action. Reservoirs such as McConaughy, Harlan County, Enders, Sutherland, Elwood, Sherman and Lewis and Clark all host mallards as well as Canadas in December as well as January.

According to Vrtiska, a tally of Nebraska waterfowl hunters during the 2004-05 season showed an estimated total of 21,000 duck hunters, while 16,000 reported hunting Canadas. The hunters reported bagging an estimated 167,000 ducks and 62,000 Canadas.

Snow goose hunting success during the regular season has dropped off significantly over the past 15 years. Thousands of birds once staged along the Missouri Valley at sanctuaries such as the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge, east of Blair, and at the Schilling Wildlife Management Area, near Plattsmouth. Today snow goose use at Schilling is almost nil, and numbers are way down at DeSoto.

The snows are staying longer in Canada and the Dakotas, Vrtiska reported, and when weather does push them south, most fly past Nebraska.

No story on Nebraska waterfowl hunting would be complete without a word from 88-year-old Ralph Kohler. The Tekamah waterfowler has hunted the Missouri River Valley since boyhood, and he plans on hosting hunters this fall in the pits he built around a small lake not far from the river.

"Last year our duck hunting was fair in November, but there just weren't many around in December." Kohler said. "The snow geese are overflying us, but we are shooting good numbers of big Canadas.

Not many of the hundreds of duck and goose hunters that Kohler has hosted over the years know that he and his wife, Dorothy, 87, were named to the Sports Afield All-American Trap Team. Indeed, Kohler's expertise at waterfowling and scattergunning has impressed a lot of people -- so much so that he was inducted into the Legends of the Outdoors Hall of Fame last August, joining luminaries like Bass Pro Shops' Johnny Morris, Kansas City TV personality Harold Ensley, boat builder Forrest Wood, B.A.S.S. founder Ray Scott, and many others.

Lincoln resident Mike Cunningham, who grew up in Tekamah, today runs his own commercial hunting operation, the County Line Hunt Club -- (402) 328-8553 -- between Dwight and Bee. "As I grew up, I hunted with Ralph as often as I could," he recalled. "Once I started hunting on my own, I found I was a Kohler disciple. My waterfowling efforts today are a mirror image of what I learned from him -- because his teachings work.

"We just didn't have any birds (ducks) around in November, but the Canada goose hunting got pretty good in December and early January. I hosted five or six hunters a day in the latter part of the season and we averaged about 10 geese a day."

Cunningham varies his spread of decoys to fit the weather and the migration. "I've hunted over as few as 10 big-foot decoys and as many as 600 to 800 duck and goose decoys," he offered. "In calling the birds, I follow the teachings of Ralph. I asked him years ago what his secret was to calling ducks and geese. He replied, 'Watch the birds; they will tell you when to call.'"

If the farm ponds and small watershed lakes freeze over by December, Jeff Hoffman, assistant game division manager for the NGPC in Lincoln, looks for flowing water at areas such as the creek running through the Jack Sinn WMA near Ceresco, or at sites along the Missouri River like William Gilmour, Langdon, Hamburg, and Kansas bends. "I don't hunt geese very much," he stated, "but there is some pretty good hunting around Lincoln on the resident flocks of Canadas."

The Rainwater Basin area in south-central Nebraska is prime duck country before freeze-up. It offers scores of public hunting areas managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the NGPC.

Brad Seitz, a game biologist with the NGPC who lives near Alexandria, hunts the basin marshes regularly. "The small marshes usually begin to freeze up in late October," he explained. "The larger ones may stay open as late as December, but even if they freeze up there are guys who set out decoys on the ice and do well -- especially on geese.

"Once the majority of the marshes in the southeastern basin country freeze over, the birds, particularly mallards, will begin using the creeks and rivers in the Fairbury area such as the Big Blue, Little Blue and Sandy Creek. Access to these streams is basically all on private land, so the hunters must get permission to hunt them from the landowners."

Bob Meduna, the NGPC's wildlife manager at Kearney, thinks that the month's best hunting will be found along the Platte Valley in his district. "There are a number of wildlife management areas along the river that offer waterfowl hunting opportunity," he said. "They include Martin's Reach, Bassway Strip, East Odessa, Blue Hole, Dogwood, Darr Strip and Cozad.

"Last year our duck hunting was not very good, with the exception of a few days in the middle of December, when the mallards piled in and stayed for just a short time. The Canada goose hunting was quite exceptional in January along the Platte. The weather turned mild, and the birds that overflew us earlier came back north and stayed quite awhile along the river."

Sargent's Shawn Bickford manages Comstock Lodge, headquarters for the Nebraska Wildlife Ranch Company -- (308) 527-4199 -- a hunting preserve along the Calamus River a few miles north of that small town. The preserve encompasses about 40,000 acres, and in addition to waterfowl offers other game such as elk, deer, buffalo, prairie grouse and pheasants.

"We do offer waterfowl hunting on the Calamus River as well some sloughs along it," he said. "Most of the birds we see are mallards and Canadas that stage on Calamus Reservoir a few miles east of us. December offers good hunting on the river and sloughs."

Ben Rutten, district wildlife manager for the NGPC at Bassett, said that the Calamus River and reservoir, the North Loup and

Cedar rivers, and Sherman Reservoir offer some December waterfowl action in his district, adding that some field hunting for geese can be found along the Niobrara south of Valentine and the fields in and around Ainsworth, Purdum and Ord.

Richard Nelson, district wildlife manager at North Platte, hunts the South Platte River west of town. "Our hunting last fall was OK," he reported, "but mild weather made duck hunting difficult. We killed about 60 mallards from my blind and did get a couple geese. I'm not a goose hunter.

"Lincoln County likely winters more ducks and geese than any other county in Nebraska. Over the years we have recorded as many as 60,000 geese and 100,000 mallards wintering in the county. Last year our surveys showed an estimated 40,000 mallards along with about 10,000 Canadas. That's about average on ducks, and a little low on geese."

Sutherland Reservoir and Lake McConaughy attract thousands of ducks and geese in December; both provide public hunting areas. Clear Creek WMA, on the west end of McConaughy, is the state's only regularly staffed public hunting area for Canadas. Usually, 10 blinds are available daily on the area; the fee to hunt them is $5 per gun. Call (308) 535-8025 for details.

December waterfowl hunting in the Panhandle centers on the North Platte Valley west of Lake McConaughy. Both ducks and geese stage at the Garden County Refuge, as well as on Lake Minatare. Those birds, along with flights coming off Clear Creek and Lake McConaughy, offer highly serviceable hunting on private land all the way to the Wyoming border.

For more information and a guide to public hunting lands, call NGPC headquarters at (402) 471-0641.

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