Mostly Ducks (And A Few Geese)

That's what Nebraska waterfowlers will be targeting this month -- and here's where they expect the best action. (December 2007)

Crofton waterfowler John Schuckman took this limit of greenheads from his decoy setup on a backwater off the Missouri River, a popular location for December duck hunters.
Photo courtesy of John Schuckman.

Owing mainly to improved water conditions over much of the Cornhusker State, Nebraska's duck and goose hunters are this year enjoying a season that's a bit better than what they've been dealt for some time now.

December typically offers gunners good hunting for mallards and Canada geese along the Platte, Republican, Loup and Missouri rivers. Wildlife managers polled before this year's seasons opened were optimistic.

"Water conditions are much improved in south-central Nebraska," said Bob Meduna, district wildlife manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at Kearney. "The Rainwater Basin marshes and the flows in the Platte and Republican rivers are the best I have seen this time of the year in the 30 years I have worked in this area. Harlan County Reservoir is 10 feet higher than it was last year, so I expect the waterfowl hunting to be better there."

The Rainwater Basin marshes provide the best hunting and most public hunting opportunities in south-central Nebraska. However, these shallow marshes can freeze up anywhere from mid-October to mid-December. When that happens, most of the puddlers move south, while the mallards may head south or move to the Platte and Republican rivers, including Harlan County Reservoir.

There's usually some early-December hunting opportunity on the larger Rainwater Basin areas such as Harvard, Massie, Mallard Haven, Peterson, Gleason, Prairie Dog and Sacramento. Even if frozen over, some of the areas can serve up hunting opportunity for those who are willing to break a little skim ice.

"It's hard to index just where the birds go when the ice gets thick," Meduna said. "I think some of the mallards move south, while others just move to open water."

According to Meduna, hunters will likely find the best December and January public hunting at Harlan County Reservoir, as well as East Odessa and Martin's Reach wildlife management areas along the Platte River. Private land adjoining the Platte and the warmwater sloughs along it also serves up a lot of hunting opportunity.

Waterfowl hunters must have a current small-game hunting permit, the Nebraska and federal duck stamps, and the Nebraska Habitat Stamp in possession while hunting. They're also required to register for the free Migratory Bird Harvest Information Program (call 1-888-403-2473 toll-free).

December and January waterfowl hunting is usually best in southwestern Nebraska, where hunters set up on the Platte, South Platte and North Platte Rivers as well as the reservoirs on those streams.

Dedicated duck hunter Richard Nelson is wildlife supervisor for the NGPC at North Platte. "The Clear Creek Refuge and WMA on the North Platte River west of Lake McConaughy as well as the lake itself offer good mallard and goose hunting in December and January," he said. "Sutherland, Enders, Swanson, Red Willow and Medicine Creek reservoirs also hold birds, as do the Platte rivers.

"I hunt a warmwater slough along the South Platte, and my hunting is always good, with some years better than others. The sloughs offer the best mallard hunting after the reservoirs start to ice up. The reservoir hunters are usually successful -- but it's a tough, cold hunt."

The mallard migration into the southwest usually peaks in early November, and the birds begin to stage at areas such as McConaughy, Sutherland, Clear Creek and the Garden County Refuge, where they most often offer hunting along the North and South Platte rivers until the end of the season.

A poll of hunters showed that an estimated 15,400 hunted ducks and 15,600 hunted geese during the 2005-06 season. They bagged an estimated 158,000 ducks (89,000 mallards) and 97,500 Canada geese.

The NGPC's Clear Creek Wildlife Management Area offers the only staffed public hunting area for Canada geese in the state. Normally there are 10 blinds available, some on a first-come, first-served basis, others by a drawing. The fee is $5 per gun. Details are available by calling (308) 535-8025.

Nebraska's Sandhills country has hundreds of shallow lakes and marshes. However, the smaller ones usually are iced up in late November or early December. They offer great duck action, as well as some Canada goose hunting, until the ice forces the birds to open water.

Open water in the hill country is fairly limited this time of year. Calamus Reservoir and the Loup rivers, as well as Merritt Reservoir and the Snake River above it, serve up most of the December and January hunting -- weather permitting

Biologist Ben Rutten, of Bassett, calls the shots in wildlife management in that area. In his view the water situation has improved greatly.

"Water conditions in the Sandhills are near normal or slightly above," he reported. "If things don't freeze up by early December, I would look to lakes such as Willow and Twin for some good mallard and Canada goose hunting. If they do, I would hunt Calamus Reservoir as well as the Calamus and Loup rivers along with Merritt Reservoir and the Snake River above it -- as well as Sherman Reservoir, if it isn't locked up with ice.

"Last year, late waterfowl hunting was only fair. The birds were late coming down, and then things froze up, so the reservoirs and rivers above them provided most of the action."

In northeastern Nebraska, the cold-weather hunters should find hunting on the rivers such as the Missouri, Platte, Elkhorn, Niobrara and Loup, as well as on the adjoining sloughs and oxbows, fair to good -- so said district wildlife manager Tom Welstead at Norfolk.

"Normally the late mallard and green-winged teal migration starts to show up about mid-November," he explained. "They'll use open water where they find it, but by the second week in December, most ducks and geese are concentrated on the larger reservoirs and warmwater sloughs along the Missouri, Platte, Elkhorn and Cedar rivers.

"Last year we had good hunting early, but the late migration went through pretty fast. This push of waterfowl is significant, but if the weather is really cold the birds can move through in a hurry. If the hunter isn't in the blind when these birds are coming through, he may miss the best part of the season


"As far as public hunting areas are concerned, for late November and December hunting I would suggest the Bazile Creek WMA and the Santee area above Lewis and Clark Lake, Willow Creek Reservoir, Wood Duck WMA, Wilkinson WMA and Goose Lake WMA. If we get a real shot of cold weather, the areas likely to hold birds would be the Missouri River in the Bazile Creek and Santee areas. There is also a lot of good late hunting on private land along the rivers, especially the warm-water sloughs along the Platte, Elkhorn, Cedar and Missouri."

In the southeast, Pat Molini is the wildlife manager working out of the Lincoln office. "We had plenty of rain this past spring and it improved a lot of our marshes and wetlands," he said. "Our hunting success last fall was only fair -- the water tables were down a little. The push of ducks was good at the beginning of the season, but mallard hunting was tough. The late push of ducks was fair."

Molini's picks for late-season hunting in the southeast are Branched Oak and Pawnee reservoirs and Schilling and Kansas Bend WMAs along the Missouri. Some private-land field hunting for local Canada geese, which use the park ponds in Lincoln as well as Branched Oak Reservoir and the refuge on Twin Lakes, is available.

Mark Vrtiska, the waterfowl program manager for the NGPC in Lincoln, stated that water conditions statewide are much better than they have been for the past three to five years. As support for his assertion he cited a poll of hunters showing that an estimated 15,400 hunted ducks and 15,600 hunted geese during the 2005-06 season. They bagged an estimated 158,000 ducks (89,000 mallards) and 97,500 Canada geese. Hunter numbers were down from an estimated 20,000 for ducks and 16,000 for Canada's during the 2004-05 season, when scattergunners took 167,000 ducks and 62,000 Canadas.

Details on the seasons are available from the Lincoln office of the NGPC at 1-402-471-0641, or on the Web at

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