Public Land Waterfowling Picks

Some Conservation Areas are expected to be red hot with ducks and geese. But some old standards won't measure up this year because of flooding and construction. (November 2007)

Tony Vandemore of Kirksville took this greenhead duck near Grand Pass Conservation Area.
Photo by Mike Marsh.

Waterfowl habitat conditions vary each year. They even change while hunting season is in progress.

With this in mind, there is only one way a hunter can score consistently: Go where the birds find food. Here is the rundown on this season's good and not-so-good public areas.

Tony Vandemore is one of the most dedicated waterfowl hunters in Missouri. He travels extensively in his occupation as a commercial insurance representative. Like the waterfowl he hunts with such a passion, he is always on the move.

"Whenever I can get a cell phone signal, I'm talking to someone in the office or to a client or to another waterfowl hunter to find out where the birds are concentrated," Vandemore said. "I love hunting ducks and geese and I go wherever they are. That's what you have to do if you want to have the best hunts."

Vandemore is an Avery pro-staff member and field-tests the company's products, including decoys specifically suited to Missouri's public areas. His core hunting area includes the Missouri River and all the Missouri Department of Conservation areas along the river.

Vandemore said there is usually good hunting at Grand Pass Conservation Area and Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

"The public areas can get crowded. However, there's always some good hunting on them. Hunting near them along the river system is also a good way of hunting," he said.

Vandemore cautioned hunters to be careful along the rivers. The water levels can change overnight and the bottoms are rocky. If you're hunting the areas for the first time, go with someone who knows the river.

David Graber, waterfowl biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, said there are several Conservation Areas that will not host good waterfowl numbers this season. That's an important fact for hunters who may have had spectacular hunting on those areas in the past. One of the poorer areas will be one of Vandemore's usual favorites, Fountain Grove just above Swan Lake in north-central Missouri.

"Fountain Grove Conservation Area will be under construction this year," Graber said. "We are reworking the levees and other infrastructure to improve Fountain Grove's water management capabilities in the future."

There may be a little bit of hunting there this season, but not very much, he said. A morning draw is expected.

"A few reservations may be put in the system for that area, but it won't be very many," he said.

FLOOD FACTOR

Summer flooding also hit other high-profile Conservation Areas. Followed by drought conditions, nature's ways left little food for waterfowl.

"This year we've had some flooding and had some drought conditions after that, and it's going to affect conditions in west-central Missouri," Graber said.

Four Rivers and Schell-Osage conservation areas had summertime flooding, so it has probably affected the food supply for waterfowl on those areas, he said. There were also some levee breaches in areas where flooding was especially severe.

"We have moist-soils management and some crops on most of our waterfowl units," he said. "When environmental conditions diminish the food supply on these units, they won't attract many ducks and geese for waterfowl hunters."

BOB BROWN CONSERVATION AREA (CA)

Northwestern Missouri also saw drought and then flooding. Nevertheless, the popular Bob Brown CA weathered the tough growing conditions well.

Bob Brown CA is 3,300 acres. It offers walk-in hunting opportunities and has a disabled sportsman's blind. There are also advance reservations for the area. Apply next summer for the 2008-09 season.

Bob Brown CA isn't as good in the late season as other areas because it's in the north zone and freezes earlier. It can freeze over anytime from mid-December on. But it's along the Missouri River, so it has a good potential to attract many waterfowl. The waterfowl units are planted on rotation, like on most of the state Conservation Areas.

"We plant a crop one year and that attracts waterfowl," Graber said. "But it's mainly done to disturb the soil."

Rotating between planting and leaving the fields fallow increases the production of native moist soil plants and these are the main attraction for waterfowl on most of our Conservation Areas, he said.

Bob Brown CA can accommodate 20 parties of hunters with a maximum of four hunters per party, which is the maximum size on all MDC Conservation Areas. On average, only half of the hunters who are successfully drawn in the lottery ever show up for reservations on any of the Conservation Area waterfowl hunts. About half the openings are designated for reservations and about half are left open for walk-in hunters. That usually leaves three-fourths of the slots open for hunting parties who could draw for the openings on any given morning for any of the Conservation Areas. However, some are more popular than others.

Check for recent waterfowl harvest information on the MDC Web site. Waterfowl numbers and hunter harvests are updated weekly for each Conservation Area during the hunting season. The Conservation Areas are open for hunting seven days a week and the controlled-access waterfowl units have a specified closure of 1 p.m., when hunters must unload their guns and start leaving the area.

"Bob Brown is similar to most of our other waterfowl areas," Graber said. "The water distribution areas, the canals and ditches, are also service areas for hunters."

Hunters use boats with motors to access the flooded units. Some use push-poles to get around. You can hunt along the edges where there's some cover. Many hunters use layout boats and portable blinds. You can't run motors in the flooded units because they are typically only flooded to a depth of a foot or so, as that's the preferred feeding depth for dabbling ducks.

You can wade most areas safely because when they are dry during the summer, the soil consolidates. You still have to be careful where you put your feet after it's flooded, as t

here could be soft spots, Graber said.

"It's a good idea to use a boat or a wading staff so you have something to hold onto if your feet get stuck," he said.

The shallow water makes Bob Brown and many other Conservation Area waterfowl hunting units attractive to ducks, Canada geese and snow geese. But ducks are the biggest draw.

Hunters can expect to see plenty of mallards. But there will be other ducks, including pintails, gadwalls, teal, shovelers and widgeons. At times, white geese will utilize the Bob Brown CA. That's because Squaw Creek NWR holds good numbers of white geese and is located just 10 miles away.

GRAND PASS CA

In Northwest Missouri, the popular Nodaway Valley CA will have poor food availability. Hunters who normally hunt there will want to go to another area. However, Grand Pass CA will likely continue to be a hotspot, especially concerning mallards.

"Grand Pass Conservation Area didn't get hit by the floods," Graber said. "It's one of the larger areas and next to a larger river that doesn't freeze, so it typically holds many ducks.

"You can apply for reservations there and we fill half the spots with reservations," he said.

There's a drawing for the rest of the spots each morning. Grand Pass has 5,000 acres, so it can accommodate a large number of hunters.

Most of Grand Pass CA is a walk-in area. Some hunters hunt by sitting on plastic five-gallon buckets in the corn fields, while others use layout boats or boat blinds. It is also hunted like most of the other Conservation Areas, with hunters poling or motoring along the water service sections and poling or pushing their watercraft once in the shallow-water hunting units.

Grand Pass CA also has excellent potential for attracting Canada geese because it's only 25 miles from Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

"We don't have as much Canada goose hunting as we once had," Graber said. "I think it's a nationwide trend. The geese are more disbursed these days. It may be because the geese arrive later and the shallow-water areas are frozen, so they head for the fields outside the Conservation Areas."

The hunting units have some corn. But the biggest food source is native moist-soils vegetation like smartweed and millet. Hunters should therefore not always look for standing corn for the best place to find waterfowl.

To hunt Grand Pass or any of the other Conservation Areas, hunters depend on the on-site staff for scouting reports. They know day to day what the harvests have been and where the waterfowl are concentrated. They use aerial photos to see where they may have the best luck.

"We don't allow scouting because you have to have a permit to enter the area," Graber said. "Hunters entering the area outside the hunting dates and times would disturb the waterfowl and the hunters, so hunters should depend on our staff and their own prior experience when hunting at Grand Pass or any other Conservation Area."

Graber said one-fourth to one-half of Grand Pass, and the other Conservation Areas, is designated as refuge. This keeps them productive all season long, except for freezing conditions.

TED SHANKS CA

Ted Shanks CA is 6,700 acres and is located along the upper Mississippi River in Pike County. It's similar to Bob Brown and Grand Pass in management, but is a bit different in terrain.

"It's a different feel because the Mississippi hills are not far away," Graber said. "The Mississippi River is a funnel to other migration areas and all major duck species come down the Mississippi Flyway."

Occasionally, there are some Canada geese on Ted Shanks. However, hunters shouldn't depend on it.

DUCK CREEK CA

In southeast Missouri, Duck Creek CA is adjacent to the Mingo NWR and is one of the state's oldest Conservation Areas. It's one of the old traditional waterfowl hunting areas that still have permanent blinds in place, as well as some green-tree timber hunting.

"In the timber, it can be outstanding duck hunting when there's a good acorn year," Graber said. "When there's a poor acorn crop, the moist-soils units are better for ducks. There is some good goose hunting there at times, with both Canada geese and white geese."

There is a unit on Mingo NWR that allows MDC's Duck Creek CA to administer hunting opportunities as well. The Duck Creek CA is 6,200 acres, with the addition of the Mingo NWR unit making it larger.

"If you draw for a blind, you hunt that blind," Graber said. "The unit is restricted to hunting those blinds only so there are no issues with crowding. We maintain the blinds."

There are about 40 blinds on Duck Creek. There are none in Mingo because it's a green-tree reservoir.

OTTER SLOUGH CA

Otter Slough CA is located in southeast Missouri, south of Duck Creek CA. Its 4,900 acres are more open than Duck Creek, and it has the best opportunity for snow goose hunting of all the public areas in Missouri. It also offers earlier hunting than Duck Creek because of the moist-soils management as opposed to the flooded acorns.

Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area in southeast Missouri is the only public waterfowl hunting area in the South Zone, so it freezes last.

"Otter Slough Conservation Area has 10 blinds," Graber said. "It can have up to 20 parties of hunters per day. It's wide open and has some crops, and snow geese tend to use Otter Slough and surrounding areas."

You just have to be at the right place at the right time to get any snow goose action. But if you hunt during the conservation order, during the first warm fronts in February, you can have good hunting, said Graber.

Snow goose hunting is better during the warm, mild spells. In mild winters, snow stays all winter.

TEN MILE POND CA

Ten Mile Pond CA in southeast Missouri is 3,700 acres. Since it's closer to the Mississippi River, it provides late-season hunting. It's the only public waterfowl hunting area in the South Zone, so it freezes last.

"Ten Mile Pond is within flight range of the river systems," Graber said. "It has some upland goose hunting opportunities as well as some field hunting for Canada geese or snow geese, making it a little different from some of the other CAs."

The units are a little smaller than at places like Grand Pass. However, Ten Mile Pond can accommodate up to 15 or 18 parties per day. It's also open all day.

EAGLE BLUFFS, OTHERS

Eagle Bluffs CA in central Missouri is 4,400 acres along the Missouri River. It's a moist-soils management area and has

the capacity for 16 parties a day if the river levels are normal. It attracts ducks, Canada geese and snow geese.

Columbia Bottoms CA in northern Missouri has 4,300 acres located at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The area has been the site of several hundred acres of new wetlands development last year. It's a relatively new area in the Conservation Area system. B.K. Leach CA is in the same region along the Mississippi River and can hold 15 hunting parties.

There are other places for hunters who don't want to take a chance with a drawing, including Coon Island CA in southeast Missouri, Suttle's Ford CA in west-central Missouri and Ralph and Martha Perry CA in central Missouri. These are bottomland areas with water-holding capabilities but no water-pumping facilities. Since rainfall provides water for flooding these areas, they are not as predictable. But they are open for hunting all day without quotas or permits.

MORE INFORMATION

For information on CA waterfowl hunting opportunities, including weekly reports and applying for advance reservations, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation Web site at mdc.mo.gov/hunt/wtrfowl or make applications for waterfowl hunts by calling (800) 829-2956.

Advance reservations are not open to non-residents, but daily on-site drawings are.

For information on hunting Swan Lake NWR, visit the refuge Web site at www.fws.gov/midwest/SwanLake/waterfowl_hunting.html.

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