Head South For Iowa Waterfowl

Head South For Iowa Waterfowl

Riverton WMA and Lake Odessa, close to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, respectively, serve up first-rate duck and goose hunting in the southern half of the state. Let's take a closer look.

Photo by Ken Archer

Late-season waterfowling in southern Iowa can be rewarding for those hunters who take the time to learn how, when and where.

As is always the case, much depends upon the weather. Even if the weather doesn't cooperate, though, there'll be some respectable hunting available, asserts Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Guy Zenner.

Zenner pointed out that duck hunting in the southern half of Iowa centers around the two rivers that bracket the state. Along the western edge is the Missouri River; to the east is the Mississippi.

Weather patterns and production issues have caused problems in the past. These issues aren't likely to go away, but things are looking better. Water levels are generally improving, and production seems to be on the rebound. Both will help Iowa waterfowlers. More water will attract more ducks, and more ducks will stabilize flight patterns.

The water issue is obvious: Ducks don't land on bare, dry ground if they have any other choice. The production issue is more complicated. It isn't just that low production lowers the number of ducks available. Lower numbers also make the ducks that are around harder to kill.

Young ducks have less life experience and are the easiest to trick with decoys and calls. That makes them easy to kill -- or, at least, easier. As the average age of the birds in the flights increases, waterfowling gets harder. The ducks learn our tricks quite quickly.

Keeping all this in mind, savvy hunters move their blinds, use different decoys and learn to think outside the box. Waterfowling has changed, and hunters must change also.

Starting from that background, let's take a look at a couple of the better places to hunt waterfowl in the southern half of the state.

RIVERTON WMA

One of the hottest areas is Riverton Wildlife Management Area, which is in Fremont County approximately two miles north of Riverton. At around 2,700 acres, it's not the biggest management area by any means, but don't let that fool you -- the habitat is great. It's just north of the confluence of the West Nishnabotna and East Nishnabotna rivers and within 10 miles of the Missouri River.

Roughly half its acreage is marsh. The other half is mostly upland timber. The north end of the management area includes cropland, and the crops offer migrating ducks plenty of forage. Riverton is flooded in the spring after the northern migration, allowed to dry during the summer and then flooded again around the middle of August.

According to serious hunter and conservationist Stu Mass, the area is rapidly becoming the place to hunt waterfowl in Iowa because of its wide variety of hunting habitat and a reasonable population of migrating ducks. "It's a great spot. It has just about everything," he said.

And while Riverton offers great habitat, so does the surrounding land. A number of public hunting areas can be found in the vicinity, as can several productive wetlands and Mass' personal favorite project, Flightpath Bottoms.

Flightpath Bottoms is a wetlands project that sits about nine miles south of Riverton WMA. It offers habitat for ducks as well as quail, pheasant and any number of other critters. Although not a part of the Riverton area, it offers professionally managed wetlands that help attract ducks to the general area. All in all, it's an important asset to southern Iowa waterfowling.

Walk-in hunting is especially popular at Riverton. In years when there's plenty of water, the opportunities are virtually limitless. Most of the area is made up of open land, but some upland stands of willows and cottonwoods are available.

Unit manager John Ross -- (712) 387-2791 -- noted that some of the better walk-in opportunities are within the Jensen and Riverton units.

The Jensen Unit is sited along the south edge of the town of Riverton. To find the best access areas to this unit, Ross recommended, scout the area well before a hunting trip. "Depending upon the weather and other things we don't always get everything opened up. Sometimes the hunters will need to make their own paths and open up their own spots," he said.

This unit is noted for excellent stands of willow and cottonwood trees. They provide hunters with fine spots from which to shoot in November and December. The trees offer plenty of natural cover for walk-ins, help muffle the sound of gunfire and aid in hiding movement otherwise easily visible from above.

On the west side of the management area lies the Riverton Unit. While it generally supports fewer trees than does the Jensen Unit, the opportunities are still superb. The exception to this area lacking timber is the Johnson Tract, located within the Riverton Unit. There are several good stands of willows and cottonwoods.

Within those stands are plenty of spots for hunters to hide in. In fact, it's possible to be protected from view on three sides if you pick your spot carefully. This is an advantage for walk-in hunters, who need protection from the prying eyes of wary ducks. The trees also offer protection from high winds and extreme cold. At times, even the ducks make use of them.

There's an old access road around the unit; use it if you're a walk-in hunter. There are trees all along the west side of this road; Ross recommends hunting around them. "The trees can be good on heavy flight days," he said.

Given the terrain, walk-in hunters can expect to encounter more dabblers than divers. Mallards, the species most commonly encountered, aren't hard to identify, their bright green, almost fluorescent heads contrasting sharply with the darker waters and frost-damaged vegetation. Smaller blue-winged teal, along with pintails, gadwalls, widgeon, shovelers and wood ducks, will also visit from time to time. Hunters who are extra observant might even identify a black duck or two over the course of the season.

That's not to say, however, that canvasbacks, redheads, goldeneyes and other divers aren't around -- they are. It's just that they're fewer than the others, and tend to stay out in deeper, more open water.

For those whose preferred style involves hunting from a blind or a boat, plenty of opportunities are present at Riverton. Three boat ramps are always open: a concrete ramp on the main

hunting unit, another on the East Nishnabotna River, near the south edge of the management area, and the third, a serviceable gravel type, just south of the town of Riverton.

Regardless of your hunting preferences, Ross strongly recommends that you do your homework early, well before your scheduled hunt. Flight paths have changed over the years, access points have been moved or improved, and many of the roads in the management area are not marked. All these things point to the need for preparation.

At Riverton, pressure can be a serious issue on opening days, weekends and on heavy flight days. Even on slow days, when the ducks are few and far between, they'll be several hunters around.

One way to avoid some of the pressure is to not put your shotgun away when duck season closes; instead, use it to hunt snow geese. Considered to rank among the preeminent snow goose destinations in the state, Riverton's at its very best in the spring, when the birds are flying north. On heavy migration days, as many as 100,000 snow geese may land in this management area. Even on a slow day the numbers will push 50,000.

If you've never been snow goose hunting, give it a try. Most trips offer pleasant spring weather and fast action. Plus, the season extends late into spring, long after other seasons have closed. It's an opportunity to continue hunting.

There's access all around the area. On the south end, try 250th Street; from the east go with 330th Avenue. For all the other points around the compass, use the IDNR road that encircles the property. Some of it is paved and some of it is gravel, but it's all serviceable.

You can find the ramps, roads, units and tracts from an excellent aerial map that's available. To get your copy contact Carl Priebe, IDNR wildlife biologist for southwest Iowa, at (712) 374-3133 or John Ross, unit manager, (712) 387-2791. You can also pick one up from the box at the Riverton headquarters. A decent map is available from the IDNR Web site.

LAKE ODESSA

Another great spot in southern Iowa is across the state, along the Mississippi River. Lake Odessa is a backwater slough off Pool Number 18 that's surrounded by vast acreages of marsh, wetlands and upland timber.

The Odessa wetland complex covers nearly 7,000 acres, but only a little more than half is open for duck and goose hunting. Roughly 3,000 acres are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as part of the Mark Twain Wildlife Refuge Complex; no public access is permitted on that section during the fall. The remaining 4,000 acres is managed by the IDNR as Odessa WMA.

Refuge manager Tom Cox said that while the immediate past has not been kind to the area, dry weather and low water levels having caused ducks to alter their flight paths, he's very positive about Lake Odessa's prospects both immediate and long-term.

Early indications suggest that the area is on the upswing. Improvements might be seen as early as this year. Plenty of water was available this spring, and good stability in early summer.

No solid population numbers were available when this issue went to press. Still, the numbers "up north" suggested that 2005 would be as good as or better than past years. That should put more young, naïve ducks into the mix and make hunting a little easier. That's good news for those of us who need all the help we can get.

The long-term prospects look even better. A program that would allow a drawdown of the Mississippi to expose thousands of acres of flooded land to the drying effects of summer weather is currently being explored. This would allow forage to grow naturally along the banks of the river in areas that historically have remained under water.

What a difference this program would make: thousands of acres of new forage -- stuff none of the ducks have ever seen!

Bill Ohde, IDNR wildlife biologist and manager of Odessa WMA, generally agrees that the future looks bright for Odessa. He is especially positive about this year. "If water levels in the Mississippi stay low over the summer things should be pretty good," he said in discussing waterfowling prospects for 2005-06.

He recommended that walk-in hunters take a hard look at the south end of the lake, noting, "That's where some of the best walk-in opportunities are."

According to Ohde, most of the better access points are located along the Tollesboro Road access way. There are two high-quality improved ramps and one gravel ramp. The improved ramps are located at Schaffer's and Sand Run landings respectively. Both offer immediate access to prime boat hunting areas. The gravel ramp can be found near the Tollesboro Outlet area. It offers direct access to both the lake and the main river.

There's a good amount of timber in this area -- mostly willows, but also a few cottonwoods -- and plenty of potholes for hunters to hide in to call the ducks down into shooting range. Barring the ravages of a severe drought, there should be plenty of water in the marshlands and wetlands for decoy spreads.

Blind boats are popular on Odessa, and for good reason: an abundance of open water for setting decoy spreads and hiding a boat. At least three ramps remain open, regardless of water levels in the river or lake.

No matter how you hunt Odessa, bitter-cold north or northwest winds will be your friends, as they'll bring the ducks with them and make their flight paths predictable. Dress warm and tough it out. It'll be worth it in the long run.

Area A of the wildlife management, encompassing roughly a quarter of the area open to hunting -- and some of the best habitat -- is set up as a draw-hunt area. There's a fee of $5 per party, which may be increased this year. Numbers are drawn about 90 minutes before the hunt, and hunters who get drawn are assigned permits to hunt one of 51 sites in the special area. The draw hunt applies only during the main segment of the duck season.

The remainder of the WMA, including a portion local hunters still call "Area B" because of separate special regulations that used to be in place, is open to the public without the added control of a draw; it falls under general regulations for wildlife management areas.

Excellent maps, as well as complete information about the Lake Odessa Wildlife Management Area, are available from the IDNR web site at

www.iowadnr.com. Check both the "Hunting" and "Fishing" sections for complete coverage. Call (319) 523-8319 for complete information.

GET A GOOSE

Finally, don't forget about Canada geese, which are abundant and widespread. The population is large, and hunting opportunities are numerous throughout the southern part of the state. Canada geese live most of the year near private ponds, farm fields and municipal public lands. As the weather turns cold, however, they'll move toward open-water areas that have yet to freeze, and many of those are on public

hunting lands.

The best late-season strategy is to find a spot near your home and set up shop. Geese can be successfully hunted from the jump or from blinds and stationary shooting stations. As a practical matter, one public hunting area is about as good as another, as tons of geese are out there. In fact, Canada geese are so numerous that they're becoming a nuisance is some locales.

Check the IDNR Web site -- look under "Hunting Information" -- for season dates and harvest limits.

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