Best Bets For Southern Missouri Ducks

What should hunters in the southern part of the Show Me State expect this year? Come along as we offer some suggestions, as well as point you towards some promising shooting opportunities.

Photo by Ken Archer

The canoe glided slowly and quietly downriver, slowing even more as it entered the pool.

"Big ducks."

My host's voice from the stern of the canoe alerted me to a flock of ducks resting quietly under a large sycamore tree near the end of the pool. "Look in the top of the tree."

I looked up, following his pointing finger. Perched in the upper branches, watching the ducks, was a mature bald eagle. The ducks were nervous.

My host was a local conservation agent from a southern county. He and I were doing some early-morning survey work. He was looking for hunters out to take migratory ducks that use the river to rest before continuing south to Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana; I joined him to hunt, as Missouri's southern waterfowl season had just opened on this south-flowing Missouri stream.

It was an excuse for me to visit the river in the early morning and, with any luck, to flush a duck or two

"Watch now," my host said as we slowly closed the distance to the flock of ducks. "The eagle's waiting for the birds to flush. Usually there'll be a bird or two in the flock having problems, maybe from being shot on their trip south as they passed through Iowa and northern Missouri."

I was skeptical. As a scientist, I needed more proof than speculation from a local conservation agent, even though he'd spent the better part of the last 20 years observing wildlife in his small outdoor community.

As we neared the flock, I picked my shotgun up from where it rested in front of me and loaded two rounds of No. 4 steel shot. If we floated within 30 yards of the ducks, I'd shoot as the birds flushed. As bad a shot as I am, the odds were all in favor of the birds.

Waterfowl season had been open for several weeks in north Missouri, but had just opened in the southern zone.

The flock of "big ducks," as my host called them, flushed well out of range for me, leaving one bird still on the water. It struggled to get airborne. The eagle dove at it, missing by a few feet, as the duck struggled airborne and followed the flock.

I thought about his words. Even if it was a coincidence, his thoughts about wounded birds made an impression. The ducks had been dodging hunters since early October and November as they flew south from the prairies of northern Canada, North and South Dakota and Minnesota, where they nest and rear broods before flying to wintering grounds in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana.

The odds of waterfowl reaching those destinations in the fall depend on weather cycles during and before the spring, predator numbers and hunting-induced mortality as the birds fly south in the fall.

During the past 10 years, waterfowl hunters in Missouri and elsewhere along the Mississippi River Flyway have experienced near-record waterfowl population levels, a lag effect arising from the wet cycle in the prairies a decade ago that created or revived wetlands in which waterfowl could nest successfully.

Missouri's waterfowl hunting season and the success of hunters depend very strongly on all of those factors and more. To learn about what we might expect in Missouri this year, and especially, what changes could be coming in the length of the season and in the waterfowl hunting zones, I visited with David Graber, resource scientist for the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Graber is responsible for collecting and analyzing the volumes of information gathered annually that ultimately result in setting of the waterfowl season and bag limits. However, the structure of the waterfowl season is much more complicated than just looking at local hunting conditions. Missouri regulations are but one small part of the overall management equation in the Mississippi River Flyway. Regulation oversight comes from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in cooperation with all of the states involved in the flyway, and pursuant to the terms of the migratory bird treaty to which Canada, the United States and Mexico are signatories.

Having known Graber for more than 20 years, I can't imagine that waterfowl management in Missouri could be in better hands. Graber not only lives and breathes waterfowl management, but is one of the most dedicated waterfowl hunters I know as well.

I visited Graber in his Columbia office, where, surrounded by books and study reports, we talked about the upcoming season and what Missouri waterfowl hunters might expect.

I asked what Missouri waterfowl hunters might expect this year, and if the season would be 60 days again or whether we should expect some changes.

"Water conditions in the prairie pothole region are mixed." he responded after a moment's thought. "Manitoba looks pretty good, but Manitoba doesn't have a large wetland area. Southern Saskatchewan looks fairly dry. The further north you go the better conditions look. The further west you go the dryer it gets. So Alberta is fairly dry. Mid to northern Alberta looks better than it has for several years. The Dakotas, North and South, don't look very good, except for extreme northeastern North Dakota, which looks fairly good."

Graber explained that the number of shallow-pothole-type wetlands dictate the amount of habitat for ducks that return to this region to breed each spring. Since the mid-1990s, during a wet cycle in the north, when breeding duck numbers and production hit record highs, there has been a steady decline in the numbers of breeding ducks as wetlands have dried up and habitat has been reduced.

Annual spring breeding duck surveys had not been completed when Graber and I spoke, so he could only speculate as to what we might expect during the fall migration. He could say that the season, set in early August by the MDC, will be based on Adaptive Harvest Management strategy under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan. The strategy uses pond numbers in the Prairie Pothole Region and numbers of Midcontinent breeding mallards in the matrix, which data set includes harvest rates hunters could expect, given those conditions. Based on both the record-low numbers of Canadian ponds over the past three years and the fact that we still had a liberal season last year, it seems likely that we will have a waterfowl season similar to last year's, which was 60 days. The numbers of breeding mallards will approach 7 million, a slight decrease from last year.

Graber explained that last year there were 26 percent fewer ducks in the breeding population than were present five years earlier. "In 1999 we had record duck numbers, close to 43 million. Last fall we had 25 to 26 percent less, or something like 33 million produced."

Graber stressed that drought periods aren't all bad and, in fact, are necessary. "That's the nature of ducks and duck production. If we have constant water, then those wetlands become lakes, and lakes are not very productive for waterfowl.

"What you want are wetlands in different ecological stages," he explained. "When potholes and wetlands dry, they become vegetated. Then, as the water returns, it is the vegetation and the fertility it provides that drives invertebrate abundance and ultimately duck production. After a few years, the vegetation is gone. The wetlands need to dry and re-vegetate to go back into that cycle. We have always had ups and downs in duck numbers. You will not have ups without the downs."

MISSOURI WATERFOWL HUNTING ZONES

Missouri is divided into three waterfowl zones -- north, middle and south. Zones were established to allow seasons to be set for specific geographic areas. "Seasons are earlier in the north and later in the south. Since the zones were established, they have become even increasingly important, because the last five or six years' freeze-up has been less predictable, and last year we didn't have much of a freeze-up, especially in the south.


"We have always had ups and downs in duck numbers. You will not have ups without the downs." David Graber, MDC
 

"If freeze-up was fairly predictable, it would be easy to set the seasons. What we want is to allow hunting opportunity after shallow-water areas freeze up and allow some river and reservoir waterfowl hunting. Birds go from the shallow-water habitat to the rivers and reservoirs, but then they don't stay there very long when it stays cold. They'll sit around a few days to see if the weather gets better. If not, they move south. When the birds move around, it allows waterfowl hunters to take advantage of the movement.

"What we have seen in recent years is that we'll get a cold spell for a couple of days, then it will warm back up. Birds won't ever leave. This has caused a preference for later and later seasons.

"One advantage of having zones is that it allows waterfowl hunters to travel from one zone to another. It extends their season. However, the objective of zones, established by the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1991, was to distribute harvest more evenly. Our objective is to provide the best waterfowl hunting opportunities in specific geographic areas."

Graber explained that when a set of zones is established by a state, those zones must be fixed for five years. The current three waterfowl hunting zones in Missouri were established in 2001 and are to be in effect through at least the 2005 waterfowl season. Graber said that the MDC would be reevaluating the current zone setup beginning in early 2006 with a series of public meetings to allow waterfowl hunters to express their preferences.

For the exact perimeters of the three zones, check out the MDC's Web site or your 2005 code book.

WHERE TO HUNT

I'm going to limit my discussion to late-season waterfowl hunting in Missouri's south zone. This area of Missouri receives relatively light waterfowl hunting pressure. Most hunters target the many opportunities available, both public and private, in the north and middle zones, but hang up their decoys when the hunting season moves south. In doing so, they miss some great waterfowl hunting opportunities.

My hunt, using a canoe to access waterfowl on one of Missouri's southern rivers, was but one example of the many opportunities available to waterfowl hunters in the south zone. I asked Graber where he'd recommend hunting waterfowl in south Missouri.

"Southern zone waterfowl hunters basically have the option of hunting southeast Missouri or southwest Missouri. There is not much hunting that goes on between (the exception being jump-shooting waterfowl on rivers). Southeast Missouri has the most wetlands and predictable duck habitat.

"If it is cold, then reservoirs in southwest Missouri that remain open -- waters like Stockton, Pomme de Terre, Table Rock and Taneycomo -- become very popular with ducks.

"During mild years there are also waterfowl hunting opportunities on the southwest prairie on ponds and irrigation lakes in Jasper, Lawrence, Barton counties, southwest of Springfield.

"In the southeast there is the Mississippi River, St Francis River, and a lot of wetlands in the upper Mississippi River alluvial valley. The most predictable place to hunt is in the southeast.

"The Mississippi River alluvial valley is the historic wintering area for Mississippi River Flyway ducks -- lots of ducks. In this area, when it freezes, ducks move south, but return when it warms; unlike north Missouri, where when it freezes, ducks move south and don't return until spring migration back to breeding grounds."

Southeast Missouri has a bunch of public areas open for waterfowl hunting. In Dunklin County, check out Hornersville Swamp Conservation Area, just south of Caruth on Highway 164. This area has flooded ditches and almost 3,000 acres of hardwood swamp. Also check out Ben Cash Memorial CA on the St Francis River southwest of Kennett, which is another swamp area.

In Mississippi County, check out the Seven Island CA, east of East Prairie. This area has lakes, wetlands, and access to the Mississippi River, which opens up a whole world of waterfowl hunting opportunities.

In New Madrid County, check out Donaldson Point CA east of New Madrid. This area has more than 5,000 acres on the Mississippi River, providing hunting access to the river as well as jump-shooting opportunities.

I'd also suggest that waterfowl hunters in the southern zone check out south-flowing rivers, including the Current, Eleven Point and North Fork of the White, for some great jump-shooting. It takes a bit more work and planning to access waterfowl using the southern rivers, but the end result can be a great waterfowl hunting experience -- and one with little or no competition from other hunters. During my float, we jumped several small flocks of mallards and wood ducks.

FINAL THOUGHTS

According to Graber, there always are some duck hunting opportunities somewhere in Missouri. "Keep in mind that migratory waterfowl are very mobile," he observed. "They go to where conditions are most favorable for them. Mobile hunters are going to be more successful. Keep tuned in to waterfowl hunting information (flight statistics, kill numbers on individual public hunting areas, weather conditions, etc.) available from MDC. We provide information online on MDC's Web page."

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