Zoning In On Hoosier State Ducks & Geese

Zoning In On Hoosier State Ducks & Geese

Here's a close-up look at several top places to seek late-season mallards, canvasbacks and Canada geese right now in our state. (December 2007)

Photo by Brian Strickland

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. That old maxim perfectly describes late-season mallards as well as the hardy waterfowlers who relish the extra challenge of seeking ducks in harsh weather conditions.

So, what's a "late-season mallard," anyway? Aren't mallard ducks simply mallard ducks? These green-headed drakes and noisy, drab hens are the largest of the wild dabbler ducks. Found from the east coast to the west, mallards are the most common of all North American waterfowl. Aren't those all definitions of mallards?

Head to any marsh in Indiana on the opening day of the season and you'll find some mallards in the mix of species available. They probably won't outnumber the wood ducks and teal in the sky. Perhaps a shoveler, a yet-to-spike pintail and some widgeons might join the fun. But there will be mallards -- early-season mallards -- with migration habits more like teal and woodies than their tough brethren, which stick it out in the northern staging areas until the going gets so tough they have to migrate, freeze to death or starve.

These tail-end migrants are the "late-season mallards." The last remnants of an annual flight of 5 million birds that pour out of the prairie potholes and other northern areas where they breed to offer Hoosier waterfowlers a blessed last chance for a full limit of opportunity on lakes, rivers and reservoirs around the state.

It's no place for sissies. Expect below-freezing temperatures in the pre-dawn hours. Don't expect much relief after sunrise, either. When you are huddled in a duck blind after breaking skim ice for an hour to make a hole in front to load up with decoys, don't mention global warming to your hunting partners. That's not a proper topic. Don't mention being cold either, because there's no reason to feel the chill down to your bones if you've covered yourself with the proper attention and attire.

A friend of mine stationed in Alaska when he was in the Army told me they were taught to think "cold" to stay warm in temperatures of 40 to 60 below zero. That doesn't mean to just think about the cold, but think of the letters: C, O, L and D. It is an acronym reminding them of four aspects of dressing for extreme low temperatures.

C is for clean. Clean clothes are warmer. Dirt, oil and grime contaminate the fibers in cloth and lower its insulation effectiveness. Freshly laundered garments have more "loft" to them, as well. The fibers are springy, light and those minuscule air pockets are what make the cloth warm. Even if the clothes are not dirty, they may be compressed. Is your duck-hunting garb laundered regularly -- or is it stowed in the truck or trunk from one weekend to the next?

O is to remind people not to overdress. There's no surer way to get cold outdoors than to be overheated initially. Don't bundle up until you look like the Michelin Man, and for sure, don't bundle up at home and then hop into a heated car to travel to the boat ramp or check station to start your hunt. The body doesn't adapt well from going from its shedding heat mode to its conserving heat mode.

Ever had almost painfully cold feet and you were almost sweating while boating to your blind or sitting in the blind waiting for shooting time? That's a sign you were overdressed to begin with and your body's heat regulating mechanism is conflicted.

The key to comfort in frigid weather is the L. L stands for layers. Remove layers of clothing when you are traveling or active. Add layers when you stop or begin to feel the chill. Each layer adds another thickness of insulation and the air between each layer conserves heat, too.

The D in cold stands for dry. Nothing chills human skin more than moisture. Wet feet will do it, so wear waterproof footgear, even if you don't need waders or hip boots. Wet hands will do it, so avoid getting your gloves wet. Take dry gloves along and switch to rubber gloves or quality waterproof cloth gloves for handling decoys, wet ducks and dogs. Most important is to keep your inner garments dry from the normal sweat and moisture that comes through the skin.

Avoid cotton, as it absorbs water like a sponge and requires heat to dry out. Instead, choose a synthetic material such as polypropylene as a foundation layer. Moisture easily passes through this material into the outer layers where it can escape to the atmosphere.

When you go on your next late- season duck hunt, stay warm. Think C.O.L.D!

PLACES TO GO

Setting the waterfowl season in Indiana begins with a framework from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which outlines several parameters that Indiana biologists have to follow. If the predicted duck numbers don't match up to population goals, expect shorter limits and seasons. If things look good, expect limits that are more liberal and longer seasons -- such as we have had the past several years. When the "season setters" have 60 days to allocate, it's easy to pick enough early dates to satisfy the fair-weather hunters, dates that coincide with the peak of the migration and provide enough late days to satisfy the late-season hunters, too.

If the predicted duck numbers don't match up to population goals, expect shorter limits and seasons. If things look good, expect limits that are more liberal and longer seasons -- such as we have had the past several years.

It wasn't always so easy. When faced with 35- and 45-day seasons several years ago because of short duck numbers, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would hold a series of public meetings across the state to get opinions from avid waterfowlers about which dates would suit them best. There was always a strong showing at these meetings from the late-season hunting fraternity arguing to set the season as late as possible.

The point of this isn't to determine if their showing and opinionating got them the seasons they preferred, but rather to note the areas these tough-guy hunters singled out as late-season hotspots. Those are the areas (or at least the kind of places to seek out) if you want a crack at your own flock of late-season ducks.

Most of these guys hunt big rivers, big lakes or a few other areas where open water remains long after smaller lakes and streams are coated with ice. Find the open water and you can find the ducks. Then you have to devise a strategy to get close to them. Here are some likely spots in each of Indiana's waterfowl zones:

Kankakee Fish And Wildlife Area (FWA)

The Kankakee FWA normally le

ads the state in waterfowl harvest. Unlike most properties, Kankakee is managed primarily for ducks and geese. Deer, upland game and other species are secondary offerings at best. The original Kankakee FWA was the land between the Yellow and Kankakee rivers from where they merge, upstream to state Route (SR) 39. Several years ago, the DNR was able to acquire roughly an additional 1,000 acres south of the rivers, which used to be a working farm in the spring, summer and early fall and a pay-to-play duck-hunting club come November.

The new acquisition, called the Gumz Unit after the previous owner's name, is a prime location for waterfowlers most of the season. Corn and other crops are grown during the summer. The tenant farmer harvests his share and the land is then flooded, allowing access for the ducks to glean the remaining grain. These elements make for prime hunting until the cold weather comes, turning the flooded fields into ice-bound stubble.

That's when the "old" Kankakee blinds start to shine. Gravity and ingenuity does the work. The K and Y blinds (designated to show whether they are accessed off the levee along the Kankakee or Yellow River) are flooded by an inlet structure leading off the Yellow River. The water can be lowered in this unit by letting the water out at the western end into the Kankakee River.

At freeze-up, however, by regulating the amount of water coming in and balancing that with the water going out at the downstream side, a portion of the Yellow River's flow diverts through the K and Y blind units and the current keeps open water available adjacent to many of these blinds.

Hunting opportunities are allocated by a daily drawing held at 4:30 a.m. (central time) each day. Call (574) 896-3522 for additional information.

Avoid cotton, as it absorbs water like a sponge and requires heat to dry out. Instead, choose a synthetic material such as polypropylene as a foundation layer. Moisture easily passes through this material into the outer layers where it can escape to the atmosphere.

When you go on your next late- season duck hunt, stay warm. Think C.O.L.D!

PLACES TO GO

Setting the waterfowl season in Indiana begins with a framework from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which outlines several parameters that Indiana biologists have to follow. If the predicted duck numbers don't match up to population goals, expect shorter limits and seasons. If things look good, expect limits that are more liberal and longer seasons -- such as we have had the past several years. When the "season setters" have 60 days to allocate, it's easy to pick enough early dates to satisfy the fair-weather hunters, dates that coincide with the peak of the migration and provide enough late days to satisfy the late-season hunters, too.

If the predicted duck numbers don't match up to population goals, expect shorter limits and seasons. If things look good, expect limits that are more liberal and longer seasons -- such as we have had the past several years.

It wasn't always so easy. When faced with 35- and 45-day seasons several years ago because of short duck numbers, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) would hold a series of public meetings across the state to get opinions from avid waterfowlers about which dates would suit them best. There was always a strong showing at these meetings from the late-season hunting fraternity arguing to set the season as late as possible.

The point of this isn't to determine if their showing and opinionating got them the seasons they preferred, but rather to note the areas these tough-guy hunters singled out as late-season hotspots. Those are the areas (or at least the kind of places to seek out) if you want a crack at your own flock of late-season ducks.

Most of these guys hunt big rivers, big lakes or a few other areas where open water remains long after smaller lakes and streams are coated with ice. Find the open water and you can find the ducks. Then you have to devise a strategy to get close to them. Here are some likely spots in each of Indiana's waterfowl zones:

Kankakee Fish And Wildlife Area (FWA)

The Kankakee FWA normally leads the state in waterfowl harvest. Unlike most properties, Kankakee is managed primarily for ducks and geese. Deer, upland game and other species are secondary offerings at best. The original Kankakee FWA was the land between the Yellow and Kankakee rivers from where they merge, upstream to state Route (SR) 39. Several years ago, the DNR was able to acquire roughly an additional 1,000 acres south of the rivers, which used to be a working farm in the spring, summer and early fall and a pay-to-play duck-hunting club come November.

The new acquisition, called the Gumz Unit after the previous owner's name, is a prime location for waterfowlers most of the season. Corn and other crops are grown during the summer. The tenant farmer harvests his share and the land is then flooded, allowing access for the ducks to glean the remaining grain. These elements make for prime hunting until the cold weather comes, turning the flooded fields into ice-bound stubble.

That's when the "old" Kankakee blinds start to shine. Gravity and ingenuity does the work. The K and Y blinds (designated to show whether they are accessed off the levee along the Kankakee or Yellow River) are flooded by an inlet structure leading off the Yellow River. The water can be lowered in this unit by letting the water out at the western end into the Kankakee River.

At freeze-up, however, by regulating the amount of water coming in and balancing that with the water going out at the downstream side, a portion of the Yellow River's flow diverts through the K and Y blind units and the current keeps open water available adjacent to many of these blinds.

Hunting opportunities are allocated by a daily drawing held at 4:30 a.m. (central time) each day. Call (574) 896-3522 for additional information.

Upper Wabash Reservoirs

When Indiana's waterfowl zones were originally set up, SR 18, which bisects the state with roughly one-third to the north and two-thirds to the south, was chosen as the dividing line between the North and South zones. That places the upper Wabash reservoirs, Salamonie, Mississinewa and Huntington (now Rousch Lake) in the north zone.

Back when the DNR's waterfowl meetings were an almost annual event, you could count on a strong contingent of hunters to show up to lobby for plenty of late-season dates. Most of the other waterfowl areas in the North Zone consisted of shallow marshes and sluggish streams subject to early freeze-up. North Zone seasons were often set to coincide with average freeze-up dates, but the hunting on the large reservoirs would peak only after the shallow marshes north of them had frozen solid.

The problem was solved a few years ago when the USFWS allowed the state to adjust the zone boundaries. At Peru, now, the North Zone boundary bumps north to U.S. Route 24, putting all three reservoirs into the South Zone (with later season dates) and giving the hunters on these reservoirs a firm chance each season

at their beloved late-season mallards.

Hunting on these reservoirs is strictly freelance, meaning you don't have to show up in the wee hours and count on chance to put you in a good spot or pre-prepared blind. There are no prepared blinds or specific assigned spots to hunt. Just show up and go.

Most hunters outfit large, flat-bottomed boats with camouflaged superstructures. Inside is room for several dozen decoys, guns, people and dogs. The best late-season opportunities come from setting up on points of land jutting out into the lake. It gives the decoys the best visibility to passing ducks and plenty of room to work them over open water.

Contact Salamonie at (260) 468-2125, Mississinewa at (765) 473-6528 or Rousch Lake at (260) 468-2165 for maps and other information.

Hovey Lake FWA

Hovey Lake is in what some Hoosiers jokingly refer to as Indiana's "Banana Belt." Located at the far southwest tip of the state, spitting distance from the confluence of the Ohio and Wabash rivers, it does have a climate much different from the rest of the state. I once left Hovey after an almost shirtsleeve weather late-season hunt with temperatures in the 50s only to step out of my pickup truck at home in northern Indiana with zero degrees showing on the thermometer.

Most hunters outfit large,flat-bottomed boats with camouflaged superstructures. Inside is room for several dozen decoys, guns, people and dogs.

Couple the warm climate with the major rivers serving as migration corridors and it's no secret Hovey Lake is a late-season mallard mecca. It also used to be a Canada goose mecca. Back some years ago, when thousands of Canada geese showed up on the property, waterfowlers from all over the state showed up.

If that's your remembrance of Hovey Lake -- long lines of disgruntled hunters vying for a scant few primo spots -- that's now changed. First, the geese no longer come to the property in mass numbers. Migration patterns have shifted and other changes have cooled the property as a goose-hunting spot. Once the geese left, so did a large number of the hunters.

For the past few years, management of the waterfowlers on the lake has changed as well. Though Hovey still manages a portion of the property as a moist soil area interspersed with flooded, cultivated crops (corn and milo) where permanent blinds are located, the remaining portion of the lake has been divided into sections with no permanent blinds. A few groups of hunters are assigned to each section and are allowed to freelance within each unit.

There are some opportunities for guys with boats to rig up temporary hides along shorelines, but most of the hunters come with boats rigged with boat-blinds. They launch, make their way to favored locations and either tie up to a convenient flooded tree or anchor up adjacent to their decoy spread.

Contact Hovey Lake for additional details at (812) 838-2927.

BOAT SAFETY

Sure, there are walk-in and wade-in opportunities in a few locations, but for the most part, getting to the top hunting spots involves accessing them by boat. Boating safety is something every person should have in mind anytime they are afloat, but when boating in winter conditions, safe boating takes on a completely new meaning.

Cold water can and will kill you quickly. Even water just a few degrees below swimming pool temperatures can cause hypothermia; when the water temperature hovers just above the freezing mark, it's absolutely treacherous.

Experts recommend wearing a personal flotation device (PFD) or lifejacket anytime a person is near the water. At this time of the year, it's doubly important. There are dozens of models from which to choose, so pick one that will fit you and can be accommodating to your garment layering strategy. Inflatable models might be just the ticket, but wearable vests and coats can add a measure of warmth when you are in the boat. If the unthinkable should happen, they'll add to a person's survival time in the water by insulating the body more so than an inflatable will.

Most waterfowling boat accidents occur from overloading and cutting corners to try to speed things along. Piling everyone and everything into a small boat might save time, but it's not the safe way to do it. Allow extra time, keep equipment at a minimum, take two boats, or make additional trips to transport gear to and from the hunting spot.

DO-IT-YOURSELF DETAILS

You have probably detected a common theme throughout this article. Much of the late-season hunting in Indiana is available only to those guys who are reading this who can go at a moment's notice. That's because late-season hunting can be a fleeting opportunity at best.

The DNR can't build special blinds and offer special hunts for late-season ducks. It would be too expensive and destined for failure most years due to the unpredictability of the weather. But the guys who do gear up, learn their areas, do the scouting and watch the weather patterns are annually rewarded with hunts to remember.

Find more about Indiana fishing and hunting at: IndianaGameandFish.com

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.