The Hawkeye State's Western Waterfowl

Western Iowa waterfowlers will find plenty of great hunting this month in their neck of the woods. (November 2007)

Photo by Tom Migdalski.

There will be no shortage of ducks and geese, as tens of thousands of birds will move onto public wildlife areas across the western region of Iowa, but some areas will be better than others.

Here's a look at the finest public-land hunts on the western side of the state.

RUSH LAKE WA

"Rush Lake is actively managed for waterfowl by managing for the water quality and vegetation, and it's a really popular hunting spot," said Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bryan Hellyer. "The reason the area is so good is that there's a lot of vegetation that the birds are looking for. I've hunted it myself and when you can kick birds up and they only go about 50 yards or so before landing again because there's so much vegetation, you're on to something."

Annuals like smartweed, wild millet or barnyard grass, round stem, cattails and river bulrush all produce tiny seeds that birds enjoy throughout the fall and winter months.

Submerged vegetation is just as important, Hellyer said. Ducks and geese can easily forage on Rush Lake WA and are content to stay put until being pushed off by the shooting.

There are plenty of weeds. The pockets of open water can't be seen from the shoreline, so many hunters just turn around and leave. There's plenty of room for several boats to work the area, but motoring is slow.

The average depth of the lake is 2 feet deep. When the water is down, the ground hardens enough to allow shooters to walk out into the productive areas.

The Rush Lake WA covers 522 acres in Palo Alto County. It lies seven miles north of Laurens on N28 and two miles west on B63 Road.

Rush Lake is technically out of Hellyer's unit, but he is currently managing it. For additional information, contact the Ruthven Unit at (712) 262-4177.

THREE MILE LAKE

"Waterfowl hunting isn't a big thing in this area like it is at Riverton, Odessa or the potholes of northwestern Iowa," said Chad Paup, the wildlife biologist for the Mt. Ayr Unit. "But we have three areas where Canada geese gather in good numbers. These are Three Mile Lake, Gren Valley State Park and Sun Valley Lake. If someone wants to do some goose hunting, there are some opportunities for them in the corn fields and pastures in the southern part of Iowa."

Much of the hunting is done in the shallow shoreline areas and both hiking in and boating opportunities are available.

According to Paup, each one of these areas will hold a minimum of 5,000 geese, and in some years, 10,000 geese once December and January roll around. This doesn't include nearby farm ponds where hunting isn't allowed. Scouting the corn fields is key to setting up to intercept the morning and evening flights. Geese will move out early in the day and then return about evening to roost.

Three Mile Lake covers 880 acres in Union County 3 1/2 miles north of Afton on P53 Road. Three boat ramps allow access to the water.

Four-seasons cabins are available in the area. Contact the Union County Conservation office at (641) 782-1755 for more information on the cabins, as well as the area camping.

Contact the Mt. Ayr Wildlife Unit at (641) 464-2220 for more information.

EAGLE FLATS/EAGLE LAKE COMPLEX

"The Eagle Flats and Lake Complex is better known for ducks and is one of our most consistent producers," said wildlife biologist Greg Hanson.

Part of this hotshot waterfowl area is the Eagle Flats WMA and the other section is the Warren E. Fox WMA. A waterfowl production area is located between the two WMAs. A short distance south is 900-acre Eagle Lake WMA bordered on the west by the Eagle Lake State Park.

Decoy spreads on the marsh can draw in plenty of birds. Set up a few Canada decoys for potential bonus birds. Field hunting near the marsh can mean good dry-ground shooting.

The Eagle Flats/Eagle Lake complex is located in Hancock County. It covers 1,265 acres and can be reached a mile south of Forest City on Highway 69, and then four miles west on 320th Street. About a third of the area is marshy wetlands with grassy upland habitat making up the rest of the area.

The Hancock County Conservation Board manages the Eagle Creek State Park on the western side of the lake. Access to the lake is from the north end.

For more information, contact the Rice Lake Management Unit at (641) 324-2431 or the state park at (641) 923-2720.

OWEGO WETLANDS COMPLEX

"The Woodbury County Conservation Board and the DNR have been buying up lands and developing them into wetlands in recent years," said wildlife biologist Ed Weiner. "There are woodies early on and every other kind of duck as they move through the area during the season until the water freezes up."

Tucked alongside the Missouri River, the Owego Wetland Complex includes the Owego Wetlands area's 1,311 acres of marshy ground along with other public properties.

During the last few years, conditions have been less than ideal.

"The Missouri River can be good if we have water," Weiner said. "The river has been highly channelized in my area and a lot of the wetlands have been left high and dry due to the drought we've had over the last seven or eight years. From 1993 through 1998, we had good rains, but then it started to get tough. Over the last few years, birds have been drifting on over to the Platte River and following that river on down instead of using the Missouri River. There are always more ducks in the Riverton area, so we're working on the WRPs in the Sioux City area."

According to Weiner, on a good year, the Missouri River will hold from 60,000 to 80,000 birds, but that hasn't been the case for several years.

The Owego Wetland Complex just might be a sleeper this year since hunters have been looking elsewhere. The spring rain is expected to make the duck habitat a bit more hospitable to migrants. There's a cattail marsh and good road access into the area. Most shooters will wade the area rather than bottom out with a boat. The water, when it's up, is only about 3 feet deep, and it does freeze early.

The Owego Wetland Complex is 15 miles south of Sioux City.

For additional information, contact the Woodbury County Conservation Board at (712) 258-0838 or the Missouri River Unit at (712) 423-2426.

WELCH LAKE COMPLEX

"Dickinson County is fortunate to have a lot of complexes with great waterfowl hunting," said area wildlife biologist Chris La Rue. "One that a lot of people see is the Welch Lake Complex that is nearly 1,000 acres right off Highway 86 or just north of West Lake Okoboji. The area is primarily a walk-in spot with a lot of both smaller and larger potholes."

Just about everything that likes water and flies hits Dickinson County at one time or another during the fall, La Rue said. Welch Lake, along with the Spring Run Wetland Complex, Jemmerson Slough, Swan Lake/ Christopherson Slough Complex and a host of other excellent waterfowling destinations, provide intense action when flights move in. Birds are willing to bounce around the area's waterways and fields and it just takes going afield to find out where they're settling in for the day.

Welch Lake borders a large waterfowl production area and provides a shallow, weedy lake for ducks to feed and roost on. There isn't much boating activity on the lake and there's plenty of room for shooters to move around on foot.

The Welch Lake Complex is located 2 1/2 miles west of Spirit Lake on Highway 9, then two miles north on Highway 86 and a mile and a half east on 130th St.

The Welch Lake Complex is known primarily for ducks, but it's also worth keeping an eye on for geese.

For more information, contact the Big Sioux Unit at (712) 336-3524.

SPRING RUN WETLAND COMPLEX

This waterfowl paradise covers over 3,100 acres in Dickinson County and is well worth a visit.

"Spring Lake Marsh has traditionally been a great area for ducks and has a variety of walking pothole hunting along with boat access on the smaller lakes and larger marshes," La Rue said. "The Lily Lake and Spring Lake marshes have traditionally been great areas for ducks. Early duck hunting anywhere in the Spring Run Complex is generally good, but the late-season hunting may require a little scouting to locate those areas that are being intensively used."

The area primarily holds ducks until the geese arrive later on in the season. Even so, some migrating early geese can be taken on their way through the region.

The complex includes Lily, Pleasant and Prairie lakes with plenty of marshy and upland waterfowl habitat. It's a good area for a retriever if you have one to help find downed birds in the swampy conditions.

The Spring Run Wetland Complex is located three miles east of Spirit Lake on Highway 9 and then 2 1/2 miles south on 280th Avenue.

Call the Big Sioux Unit at (712) 336-3524 for more information.

RIVERTON WA

"Riverton is traditionally one of the primary destinations in the state for snow geese and one of the better ones for ducks," said Natural Resources technician John Ross. "We don't get many Canadas, but we pick up pretty much everything else, and it's a great spot for teal. During the opener, we might have as many as 1,200 ducks harvested by 200 or 300 hunters. Almost all of them will limit out on the first day of the season."

The flight days are the days to be on the area, Ross said. Watch the weather and make sure you're in the field on days when a strong north or northwest wind pushes ducks in. The shooting can be great.

Walk-in opportunities are made easier by the mowed paths leading into the area.

Carl Priebe, the area wildlife biologist, also gives the area high marks. He points out that the main Riverton area, a walk-in 200-acre section immediately west of the main section, and the new Jensen Tract, which lies immediately south of the town of Riverton, all generally have good water conditions and are dependable producers.

Nearby Forney Lake in Fremont County and the Willow Slough in Mills County are also good hunts as long as there's been rain. The spring rains will help conditions this fall and if the water is up, these areas might be good sleeper spots.

For additional information, call the Riverton Unit at (712) 374-3133.

BAYS BRANCH WETLANDS

"This is one of the primary wetlands in Guthrie County and is generally in an open-water condition later on in the season," said wildlife biologist Ron Munkel. "It's a popular spot for mallards and is popular among boat hunters because of the deep water in the fall."

The Canada goose hunting can be nothing short of excellent, Munkel said.

Canadas spend most of their feeding time on wheat, bean or other seed-crop fields. Pre-scouting to see where the birds are feeding can cut down on much of the guesswork when it comes to setting up on the public areas. Canadas will roost on the water and then fly out into the surrounding areas to feed. Early morning and late evening shooting can be intense.

The area covers 842 acres of great goose habitat.

Bays Branch Wetlands is within the Closed Canada Goose Management Zone. The southern part of the area is a refuge.

The area covers 842 acres two miles north of Panora on Highway 4, then 2 1/2 miles east on 190th Street in central Iowa.

For additional information, contact the Bays Branch Unit at (641) 332-2019.D

DUNBAR SLOUGH COMPLEX

"The Dunbar Slough Complex is the largest of the Bays Branch Unit's managed waterfowl areas," Munkel said. "The complex is a combination of state WMAs, federal WPAs, county conservation board and privately owned properties. The private areas are leased and off-limits to hunters, but the rest of it is open to public hunting. There are opportunities for every type of waterfowl hunter and include everything from walk-in to big-boat hunting and early mixed duck to mid- and late-season mallards and Canada geese. When nature cooperates with the management approaches used on the various wetlands in the complex, there can be some outstanding duck and goose hunting opportunities."

Hunters can also boat in with decoy spreads or use laydown blinds on dry ground. For hunters wanting to experiment with different types of hunting, such as flagging, jump-shooting or calling, Dunbar Slough is an ideal place to try them.

Along with the Dunbar Slough complex, Greene County in the central Iowa region presents some of the state's finest waterfowl hunting.

Call the Bays Branch Unit at (641) 332-2019 for additional information.

GOOSE LAKE/FINN POND

These areas aren't far from the Dunbar Slough complex in Greene County but are definitely w

orth mentioning, especially when hunting pressure is moving the ducks and geese around on Dunbar Slough.

"Goose Lake and Finn Pond are great for those hunters who enjoy the prairie marsh hunting experience," Munkel said. "Finn Pond is a small walk-in area and is usually a good early-season spot, but because it's a small area it can't handle a lot of hunters all at once. Goose Lake, on the other hand, is a larger marsh and is best hunted from a boat. Goose Lake is a heavily hunted area because of the easy boat access and due to its longstanding history of being an excellent waterfowl destination."

There are limited walk-in opportunities, but parts of the area can be hunted without a boat.

Water levels can be a problem, Munkel cautioned, and it's good to check ahead before trailering a boat all the way to the area and then finding that the water levels have dropped. Goose Lake can usually handle larger boats without a problem.

Remember the 50-50-50 rule when on the water this fall. The rule is that if the water temperature is 50 degrees and you fall in and have to swim 50 yards, you only have a 50 percent chance of living. Hypothermia is sneaky even on warmer days.

For more information, call the Bays Branch Unit at (641) 332-2019.

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