Winter Season Waterfowl Options In Indiana

From the "new" Goose Pond area to old standbys like Pigeon River and Willow Slough, you'll find excellent duck and goose hunting right now in our state. (Dec 2006)

Here we are again smack-dab in the middle of another waterfowl season! What a great time to be outdoors seeking out fast-flying ducks and geese. It's the late season, and there's no better time than now to fill those game bags.

Our waterfowl season hopefully will be improved this year with a little luck and the right kind of weather. Last year was a little tricky. We got an early freeze almost statewide, which pushed many birds out of the area. Some waterfowl did trickle back into the southern part of the state, but northern hunters were left a little short.

Harvest figures were not available from last season at press time, but data from 2004 shows the duck harvest has been down some from the previous three or four years. However, the goose harvest remained about the same as the year before and was up from the previous years. Much of the goose harvest success is related to our growing population of resident birds.

Resident Canada geese now make up around 85 to 90 percent of the harvest in a given year. Most of these birds are homegrown, but we do see some resident giants from other states when weather conditions are right. We will, at times, get birds from Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and other nearby areas.

We still see a good number of migrant geese in Indiana — at least in the northern part of the state. Migrant flocks and the subsequent harvest in other parts of the state have really been spotty. Warmer temperatures than in the past, lack of snow cover, and more available open water and feeding areas have combined to interrupt migrant birds' southward travel. Many traditionally great goose-hunting areas, such as Hovey Lake, have seen a noticeable decline.

The number of both ducks and geese available for fall migration are looking really good this year. Survey results from the breeding grounds indicate that ducks and migrant geese enjoyed good habitat conditions in many areas.

Duck numbers appear to be up. The overall population shows a 14 percent increase from the 2005 survey. This is 9 percent above the long-term average over the previous 50 years. Some species such as the American widgeon and scaup are still showing signs of decline. Mallards showed an 8 percent increase from 2005. Other species showing a nice increase since 2005 are gadwalls with a 30 percent increase, northern pintails with a 32 percent increase, canvasbacks at 33 percent, and redheads with a whopping 55 percent increase.

Goose numbers were equally good. In fact, the latest population survey showed the breeding population to be at their highest level since 1999.

The late season is a prime time to take advantage of these increased numbers of birds. If weather conditions cooperate, there are numerous places throughout Hoosierland that will provide excellent shooting opportunities.

GOOSE POND FWA

One of the greatest things to happen recently for waterfowl and waterfowl hunters is the ongoing project at Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA). The state bought the land late in 2005 and is presently in the midst of a tremendous wetlands restoration project. When completed, the FWA is expected to become one of the best waterfowl hunting locations in the entire Midwest.

The Goose Pond area was once a thriving wetlands region, but was pumped and drained in the last century. It is a glacial wetland basin and lies within the Ohio River ecosystem. It was once one of the most significant waterfowl use areas in the state due to its size and proximity to other natural areas, as well as being near the White and Wabash rivers.

Goose Pond FWA is located about two miles south of Linton in Greene County. The entire property covers around 8,000 acres with approximately 7,000 of those acres enrolled in the Wetlands Reserve Program (WRP). This land is part of the land retirement program through the USDA and is dedicated as a permanent easement; it is guaranteed as a wetlands area forever.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) are basically rebuilding the wetlands. The hope is to restore it as nearly as possible to its original grandeur. Much has already been done there, but the project will probably continue for at least the next four to five years before reaching completion.

When complete, the area will basically be one huge marsh and open wetlands. There will probably be close to 2,500 acres of moist soil units. The main pool area will encompass some 1,800 to 2,400 acres, which most likely will be divided into two different bodies of water.

Area manager Brad Feaster said the FWA is already great for waterfowl, but it "will be phenomenal when completed." The shallow-water area will be tailor-made for puddle ducks; numerous ducks and geese are already using the area.

In the early part of the season, the FWA usually holds many wood ducks as well as blue-winged and green-winged teal. As the season progresses, mallards often show up in great quantities. By December, many other ducks use the area, including pintails, gadwalls, black ducks, American widgeon and others.

Goose Pond FWA is open for hunting even though the restoration project is not complete. However, there are some specific regulations for the area and they are subject to change due to the ongoing project. Some of the current regulations follow, but hunters should stay well informed of happenings at the FWA and know all up-to-date regulations before going hunting on this "new" property.

Currently, waterfowl hunting is allowed through pre-season and daily drawings. Hunting parties are limited to three persons and all three must be present to participate in the daily drawings. There is a shotshell regulation that limits each hunter to 15 shotgun shells per day while on the property. Trailered watercraft are not permitted, so hunters must hand-carry boats and other watercraft for use at the FWA. Trolling motors are permitted.

Hunting days and shooting times can be a bit confusing. Hunts are conducted in three segments weekly. There is a Monday-Tuesday hunt, a Wednesday-Thursday hunt and a Friday through Sunday hunt. Hunting will be allowed from one-half hour before sunrise until sunset on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. Hunting will be allowed from one-half hour before sunrise until 1 p.m. on all other days.

This area holds tremendous promise for not only this season but also way into the future. There are numerous ducks and geese already using the area and the number and diversity of species is

only expected to increase. The area may, in time, even begin attracting more diving ducks, such as canvasbacks, redheads and scaup. There are numerous resident geese in the area and their numbers are increasing annually. Migrant geese are also expected to begin making Goose Pond FWA a yearly stopover spot as well.

PIGEON RIVER FWA

Another great spot is the Pigeon River FWA in the northeast near Mongo. The three impoundments of Mongo, Nasby and Ontario reservoirs were acquired by the state in 1956, and launched the startup of the FWA. Since then, the state has added further lands along the Pigeon River valley and the area now encompasses just over 11,600 acres in total.

There are five lakes on the property, but one doesn't get hunted much by waterfowlers. There are also around eight or so good-sized marshes, and other smaller marshes are found on the property. This adds up to potentially over 20 different bodies of water or wetland areas on the FWA. Hunting availability and quality in some of these areas is dependent on rainfall and available water. There is one section of the property that does not allow hunting, as it is designated as a waterfowl resting area.

Of course, the bulk of the ducks taken at Pigeon River are mallards, but there can be quite a variety of other ducks taken at times, too. In the early season, there are many wood ducks taken along with blue-winged and green-winged teal. This fades into mostly mallard hunting, with other ducks, such as pintails and gadwalls, arriving later in the season. Divers may also show up in the late season, especially when other areas lock up. Hunters can often take scaup, goldeneyes, buffleheads and both common and hooded mergansers.

Goose hunting can also be good at the area at times. Pigeon River FWA sees a good many resident geese and also attracts migrants as well. The FWA is in the Saint James Bay Population (SJBP) Zone, so hunters should keep those restrictions in mind when planning a hunt. Although not abundant, hunters also get occasional opportunities at passing snow geese.

The area does little in the way of manipulation to enhance the area for waterfowl. With its diverse waters and availability of natural vegetation, little extra enhancement is needed. However, the FWA does use water levels to help manage vegetation and to steer its growth in the direction desired. The water levels can be either raised or lowered depending on what is necessary to control certain plants and grasses.

There is quite a variety of hunting opportunities at the FWA, according to assistant property manager Mike Holcomb. There are walk-in opportunities in the marsh areas as well as dry land pass-shooting locations. Zone hunting accommodates boat hunters.

Hunters must come to the check station before hunting for a daily drawing and assignment of hunting locations. Successfully drawn hunters will choose their hunting locations before leaving the check station. This assures maximum hunting opportunity for everyone and limits conflicts or over-crowding.

Hunters at the dry land locations will be assigned a stake and goose hunters must stay within 10 yards of the assigned location. Both boat hunters and walk-in hunters must also choose hunting locations and be assigned a spot at which they must stay for the duration of their hunts. During the late season, there is a shotshell limit of eight shells per hunter at the goose hunting locations. Even if hunters are primarily targeting ducks at these spots, the shotshell limit still applies.

As this magazine went to press, there was discussion on the possibility of a late goose season at Pigeon River FWA. It would mainly be to target nuisance resident geese in the area and would probably be scheduled for the first two weeks of February. Interested hunters should check current regulations for the possibility of this additional opportunity.

WILLOW SLOUGH FWA

Our third spot for late-season waterfowling is located in Newton County near the Illinois border. Willow Slough FWA totals nearly 10,000 acres and is home to the 1,100-acre J.C. Murphey Lake — although it may be more aptly called wetlands than a lake. It has an average depth of less than 3 feet.

Willow Slough can offer plenty of waterfowl hunting opportunity when weather conditions are right. The FWA does not have a large watershed and is fed by very little run-off. The area is almost totally dependent on rainfall to keep the wetlands areas holding enough water for waterfowl.

Another problem for the area is the amount of sandy soil. In years with a lack of rain, the area has a real tendency to dry out. Last season, the lake dropped some 21 inches by the end of October. However, when there is plenty of water, there are usually plenty of waterfowl.

Two shooting areas on the property that are especially popular with duck hunters are the Rookery and Salisbury. They are hooked up to the lake and divided by a levee. They typically dry out in the spring and are planted in corn and sometimes in sorghum. If there's enough water in the lake in the fall to divert, gates are opened that refill these areas and provide a huge attraction for waterfowl.

The area experienced a little drop-off in visiting waterfowl while the lake was drained for a couple of years to purge rough fish and do some renovations. Now, it's just a matter of waiting for the waterfowl to find the area and get acclimated to coming there again.

During the renovation, FWA personnel were able to work on restoring some of the habitat to make the area more attractive to waterfowl. Much of the prime vegetation, such as willows, smartweed, cattail, rushes and others, grew up during renovation. The waterfowl numbers there are rebounding and should hopefully continue to grow this season.

Many teal already use the area in the early season. Later in the season, the area attracts a number of different puddle ducks with mallards being the most predominant species. Duck hunters also occasionally take a few divers there, including ringnecks and scaup.

There are a fair number of resident geese at and near the area and account for the bulk of the goose harvest. The area doesn't really attract too many interior geese. Most of the migrant geese that pass through the FWA are Mississippi Valley Flyway birds, but there are occasionally a few birds from the SJBP.

There are many hunting options at Willow Slough, but very little is freelance. There is a reservation hunt that must be applied for in advance. Most all other waterfowl hunting is by being selected in a daily drawing, which usually occurs at 4:30 a.m. each day. There is sometimes a second drawing around midday when afternoon hunts are offered, but those are mainly early in the fall during teal season.

Most statewide regulations apply, but there are a few site regulations utilized as well. Hunters are required to check in and out daily and there is a limit of 15 shotshells per hunter per day. Not all areas of the property are hunted every day and shooting hours vary and are adjusted as necessary throughout the season.

There are nine permanent blind hunting

locations on the two aforementioned shooting areas. A variety of hunting options are used on the main lake, but can vary depending on emergent vegetation and water level.

Most hunting is done in either permanent or floating blinds. However, hunters are allowed to bring their own boats. Some of the hunting locations are simply marked by stakes and drawn hunters are required to hunt at their assigned stakes. These stakes are typically located in adequate cover on either dry land or shallow-water areas. Although some people make use of some portable blind materials, most folks just walk or wade in and "hunker down" at the stake in the available natural cover.

There are a number of other great late-season hunting locations in our state. The three detailed above make great starting spots, but others may "get right" as the season progresses and weather conditions dictate. Much of our waterfowl hunting success is weather-dependent, so let's hope for ideal conditions so we can get out there and find those birds!

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