Cornering Missouri Ducks

Show-Me State waterfowlers have options in all four corners of the state this year. Check out these four superb duck hunts for some fast action this season. (November 2008)

Early in the season, waterfowlers can expect a mixed bag, including teal, gadwalls, buffleheads, shovelers and mallards.
Photo courtesy of Billie R. Cooper.

Pete, my yellow Lab, snapped to attention, his dark eyes brightening as he stared to the east. Wet nose twitching, his muscular body rippling with excitement, he was in that posture that could mean only one thing: ducks on the wing.

My eyes followed the direction of Pete's excited gaze. As dark specks quickly grew larger on the eastern horizon, my canine companion groaned nervously.

The birds approached to 100 yards out. I mimicked three soft quacks on my H. S. Strut Bill Collector call -- and a trio of greenheads broke from the flock and lost altitude quickly. One more quack came from my call; I let it slide from my hand.

Cupped wings, green heads and orange feet filled my sight picture as soon as I shouldered my Remington 870 12-gauge. The fat mallards were in the hole at 20 yards. Piece of cake.

Missouri duck hunters are a fortunate lot. Few states offer as many public waterfowling opportunities. The Missouri Department of Conservation owns a statewide network of conservation areas managed specifically for waterfowl. The areas are as diverse as the hunters who visit them. However, the waterfowl areas all have one thing in common: Every CA is managed by a professional wildlife biologist passionate about providing both the best habitat possible for waterfowl and the best hunting opportunities for the sporting public.

Duck hunters would do well to visit one of the following CAs this season. They are among the best in the state, and any duck hunter worth his call should have some luck cornering ducks at these well-managed areas.

FOUR RIVERS CA
Four Rivers Conservation Area's 13,732 acres in Vernon and Bates counties are only a stone's throw from the Schell-Osage CA to the east.

"Four Rivers is one of the most susceptible CAs to flooding," said wildlife management biologist Chris Daniel. "Several creeks and streams run through the property. Heavy rainfall quickly floods the area."

In 2007, flooding remained a problem well into July here, and 2008 hasn't been much better. However, Daniels and his crew managed to attract good numbers of waterfowl with late-season plantings.

Of the total acreage at Four Rivers, 5,300 acres are wetlands management units, so water of various depths will be found on all of that acreage. Daniels normally plants up to 300 acres of crops including corn, buckwheat, Japanese millet and milo. Moist soil units grow smartweed and wild millet. Invertebrates and insects also provide a valuable food source to waterfowl in these areas.

"Duck hunting here is primarily wade-and-shoot," Daniels pointed out. "There are no blinds here, except for the handicapped blind. We do plant some Sudan grass, which makes good hides."

Hunters should consider bringing along camo material to help conceal themselves. Little natural vegetation is available to hide waterfowlers.

"All of the management units contain 2 to 12 inches of water," Daniels said. "The ditches and boat lanes are deeper. Most waterfowlers use small johnboats and pole boats."

I once watched a party use a big rig on the area. They were limited to staying in a boat lane. They tossed their big decoy spread into shallow water. Their lack of cover limited their success, while hunters with smaller boats and decoy sets concealed themselves completely and enjoyed a morning of shooting ducks.

"Hunting pressure at Four Rivers is moderate as compared to Grand Pass or Otter Slough," Daniels noted. "On the other hand, we will turn away half of the crowd at the morning draw on opening day and Thanksgiving. Too, pressure increases once the northern zone closes down for the season."

"We have 23 managed pools," Daniels said. "Seventeen of them are open to hunting. Nine are in the draw and eight are open hunting. Hunters simply have to self register."

Units 1 and 2 are in the draw; Daniels usually allows 20 to 24 parties in those areas. Units 3 and 4 are designated for open hunting, and can get crowded. Unit 4 is the most popular because it is so large.

Hunting hours at Four Rivers follow statewide regulations. Early in the season, hunters can expect to see a smorgasbord of birds including teal, gadwalls, pintails and shovelers. By late season, mallards will make up 80 to 90 percent of the ducks on the area.

"Duck numbers here have remained fairly consistent over the last three years," Daniels said. "In fact, hunters harvested 9,600 ducks in 2007, which was up 1,100 birds from 2006. The high harvest was in 2005 with 9,900 ducks taken by hunters."

Daniels anticipates no new regulations for this year, but hunters should call Four Rivers CA at (417) 395-2341 to resolve any last-minute questions.

TEN MILE POND CA
Located in the Mississippi River Delta of southeast Missouri, Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area consists of 3,755 acres of extremely fertile soils. My father owned a farm in Mississippi County in the 1950s and '60s that lay within a mile of the present-day CA. He often spoke of the tens of thousands of mallards that swarmed into the area.

The heyday of duck hunting in the river delta region may be gone, but Ten Mile Pond gives waterfowlers a glimpse of what duck hunting used to be like in the area.

One cold November morning, my hunting party and I sat in a restaurant in nearby East Prairie after failing in the morning draw at Ten Mile. Around 10 a.m. two duck hunters who'd flown in from New York the day before dropped in. The pair excitedly described the best action of their lives, both having killed limits of mallards. "The sky appeared black with mallards," one of them said.

Duck hunters can rest assured that wildlife management biologist Rob Vinson does everything in his power to maximize the duck-drawing potential of Ten Mile. "We maintain 1,452 acres of floodable units managed for wetland species," he said. "Too, we have 2,300 acres of dry-land crop fields, which include corn, soybeans, milo and sunflowers, as well as native warm season grasses and reforestation projects."

The reforestation projects will eventually produce the mas

t crops sought by several species of ducks. More than 200 acres of food plots are scattered through the area as well, most of the acreage in corn.

"Ten Mile Pond CA is unique," Vinson said. "It is the only intensively managed wetland area in Missouri that is located in the Lower Mississippi River Delta. Too, this is the only waterfowl draw area in the South Waterfowl Zone."

Hunters will be happy to know that the majority of ducks that use Ten Mile are mallards. A few gadwalls show up in the early season. Mallard numbers increase dramatically as the birds begin to migrate through the state.

"This area is managed for wade-and-shoot hunting," Vinson noted. "We do not have blinds available here, primarily because of the frequent flooding from the Mississippi River."

Big boats are not recommended either. However, smaller boats such as pirogues and poke boats will work. Camouflage material for a hide is helpful.

Ten Mile Pond CA is on the "Every Member Draw System." Hunters can expect pressure to become heavy once the North and Middle Zones close. However, mallards are concentrated by that time, and taking a chance in the poor man's line may reap bountiful rewards for those with good numbers.

As Ten Mile Pond CA is a relatively small waterfowl area, the hunting parties allowed there normally average about 14. More parties are allowed as the situation warrants. Eighteen is usually the maximum number of parties permitted to hunt.

Waterfowl numbers have remained fairly constant over the last several years, according to Vinson. The harvest in 2005 totaled 5,425 ducks and 5,686 in 2007, a new record.

No new regulations are expected for this year. To get answers to last minute questions, call (573) 649-2770.

UPPER MISSISSIPPI CA
The Upper Mississippi CA is the place to go for waterfowling adventure. The area is made up of 14,907 acres in 87 tracts and stretches from LaGrange in the north to the southern end of St. Charles County near St. Louis.

Brian Loges is one of three wildlife management biologists responsible for the expanse of waterfowl areas on these sites. "The Upper Mississippi CA is made up of numerous river islands, chutes and river pools," he began. "Waterfowl hunters need to study the area they intend to hunt and know where they are going. Not all river islands are public property."

"There are about 95 blinds in three regulated areas," Loges said. "A draw takes place every two years for these blinds on Pharrs Island near Clarksville, Stag Island near Winfield and Dresser Island near West Alton."

The draw takes place in even-numbered years. The last draw took place in July 2008.

Most of the hunting opportunities in the Upper Mississippi CA are open-water habitat. Little is done in the way of providing food sources. The areas are at the mercy of fluctuating water levels controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

On the other hand, the multitude of islands, chutes and shallow bays provide for some excellent big water duck hunting. Big boats and large decoy spreads are the norm here, according to Loges.

Divers such as scaup and ringnecks make up much of the early-season kill. As the season progresses, more mallards begin to show up. "These areas become hotspots once the shallow-water marsh areas begin to freeze up," Loges said. "Most of the blinds are set in 3 to 4 feet of water that stays open most of the season."

Shooting hours follow the statewide regulations. Loges noted that hunters should be in their blinds by 6 a.m. "If blinds are not occupied by that time, anyone can use the blind for the day. Too, for safety reasons, hunters must stay in their blinds while shooting at waterfowl."

Big water can get rough when the wind picks up. Every boat should have personal floatation devices for each hunter, and they should be worn while the boat is in motion.

Maps of the Upper Mississippi CA can be obtained by contacting the MDC St. Louis Regional Office at 2360 Highway D, St. Charles, MO 63304, (636) 441-4554.

GRAND PASS CA
This 5,096-acre waterfowl management area in Saline County borders the Missouri River. "Grand Pass (Conservation Area) is growing in popularity," said avid Rolla waterfowler John Moltzen. "I have only been going there a short time, but the crowds at the morning draw seem to get larger each time I go. However, there have always been lots of birds there when I have been there. I love the shallow water areas where I can use my poke boat."

Robert Henry is one of the wildlife management biologists at Grand Pass. "At maximum pool we normally have around 3,000-acres of water," he said. "Most of the water is 3 to 18 inches deep, which limits hunters to wade-and-shoot methods."

Agricultural plantings and natural vegetation provide ample cover for blinds in most cases. According to Henry, many hunters use the standing strips of corn for hides.

Moist soils and agricultural plantings provide a plentiful food source for migrating ducks. Around 1,600 acres of corn and soybeans help to hold birds by providing high-energy foods.

Henry recommends that hunters use a small skiff or layout boat. Small johnboats will work in some areas. However, hunters need to be aware of deeper water later in the season. Some sloughs and boat lanes may reach a depth of 5 feet.

The Missouri River determines much of how Grand Pass is managed. High water can easily flood the area. Normally, early in the season, staff will allow 12 to 15 parties of four hunters each on the area. By late season, that number will reach 35 to 40 parties. Still, they all face the morning draw.

Early in the season, hunters can expect to see both blue-winged and green-winged teal, shovelers, pintails, gadwall and a few mallards. As the season progresses, more and more mallards show up in the flights.

Both numbers of migrating birds and harvests by hunters have remained steady at Grand Pass for the last four years. Hunters can reasonably expect a good year there again in 2008.

For further information about Grand Pass, individuals may call the area headquarters at (660) 595-2444.

At the time of this report, no new waterfowl regulations were anticipated. Hunters need to be aware of the non-toxic shot shell rules on all waterfowl management areas. Lead is no longer legal on any of the areas. Too, the waterfowl-hunting digest usually comes out in late August. All season dates and regulations are listed in the publication. The small booklets should be kept with every waterfowl hunter's equipment for reference.

TIPS ON TACTICS
Every waterfowl hunter harbors his own notions about how be

st to fool ducks into locking their wings and drifting slowly down into his decoy set. That's the dream of every duck hunter.

"Making duck hunting dreams come true takes a lot of attention to detail," said Moltzen. "Hunters can go to a lot of work to get ready for a hunt and the greatest laid plans can fall apart because of a simple mistake in calling, layout or concealment.

"Concealment is a given. If you don't hide well and cover up shiny objects, ducks will spot you and flare away. Calling and decoy placement is something that hunters have to learn with experience. And each can change with circumstances. The bottom line is that duck hunters must be flexible to be successful."

Calling is a much-discussed topic among duck hunters. Again, each has preferences, and Jeremy Budgick of Racks and Quacks Custom Calls is no different.

"Every day out hunting ducks is different, and hunters have to call accordingly," Budgick said. "Observing duck behavior and the response they make to your calling is the best indicator of how much to call. If you send a comeback call to a flock of birds and notice a change in their wing beat or speed, you have influenced them.

"One of the best pieces of advice I can give hunters on public areas is to pay close attention to what is going on. It may be that you really have to compete with the other callers nearby. And the comeback call works magic sometimes. I have actually called ducks out of other hunters' sets with the comeback call. On the other hand, there are times when ducks are so call-shy that the best thing you can do is to not call."

One expert caller who's always eager to talk about the topic, Jeremy Budgick can be reached at racksandquacks3@yahoo.com.

A piece of cake? I emptied my shotgun at the three mallards suspended in the hole in my decoy set just 20 yards out; two flew off unscathed. As a waterfowl hunter, you have many opportunities to corner some Show-Me ducks this season. Don't forget to spend some time on the clays range!

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