December Waterfowling Heats Up

December Waterfowling Heats Up

Missouri waterfowlers can count on great shooting at these hotspots across the state. After all, our hunting heats up as the temperatures drop! (December 2009)

Scouting put Frank Cox and Ron Kochauwicz in exactly the right spot to take these Canadas when they returned to a field near Smithville Lake.

Photo by Billie R. Cooper.

Late-season hunters are the hard-core guys of the waterfowling world. The likelihood of warm, sunshiny days has migrated south with September teal. Those hardy souls left to the cold, north winds welcome the harshest of winter conditions. Ice, sleet, snow and freezing temperatures add to eternal hopes that the flights will soon arrive on frosted horizons.

"Weather is everything to a waterfowl hunter's success, especially late in the season," said Dave Graber, a research scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, who is largely responsible for management of waterfowl populations residing in and migrating through the Show Me State. "Cells of cold, nasty weather push both ducks and geese from areas to the north. Watching weather patterns is a key to success for both duck and goose hunters."

Last year brought record flood levels on many of the MDC-managed wetland areas. Damage occurred to water structures at several areas and food crop plantings fell well behind schedule.

"In spite of all the problems our area mangers experienced in 2008, hunters still enjoyed the second largest duck harvest on record," Graber explained. "That came as a surprise because of the poor food production on the areas. Regardless, duck hunters harvested 613,000 ducks."

As if asking forgiveness from both managers and waterfowl hunters, Mother Nature dished out perfect weather at key times to push birds down into Missouri. "A major ice storm up north, in early November, forced birds south," Graber said. "And, luckily for us, another storm occurred in December, bringing even more flights. The real icing on the cake came when the birds hung up and stayed around for a while."

Graber noted that the floods of 2009 have not been as bad as those of 2008. "Schell-Osage and Fountain Grove both had a lot of water, but elsewhere it has not been too bad thus far. However, floods in August can be real killers. Natural moist-soil plants need at least 60 days to mature."

Duck numbers were down slightly in 2008, and they will be down again in 2009, according to Graber. "We saw poor recruitment in last year's duck counts, so there will be fewer young ducks in the population this year."

Goose hunters can expect fewer birds in 2009 as well. "Nesting conditions for the Eastern Prairie Population have been the worst in 30 years," Graber reported. "In late spring, there was still snow in the Hudson Bay Area, which makes for poor nesting conditions."

On the flip side of the coin, the local giant Canada goose population is in good shape. An estimated 80 percent of the annual goose harvest in Missouri is made up of giant Canadas. "Giant Canadas nest over such a large area in Missouri that their numbers remain good," Graber said.

In late June, I spoke with wildlife biologists at several of the major MDC-managed waterfowl areas. All experienced another very wet spring and early summer. However, all were optimistic that food production would be good on each of their respective areas. Naturally, that depends on the mood of Mother Nature.

Let's take a look at those areas and what they have in store for us this season.

TED SHANKS CA

Ted Shanks CA consists of 6,700 acres in Pike County. It's not far above St. Louis, thus it is a major drawing card for St. Louis area waterfowlers. Here the nearby Mississippi River acts as a funnel for birds traveling the Mississippi Flyway Thousands annually stop off to feed, loaf and rest at Shanks before continuing their arduous journey south.

Shanks CA radiates a different feel than most waterfowl areas that are surrounded by lowlands. At Shanks, the Ozark hills, not far away, create a cozy, closed-in feeling.

Mike Flaspohler is the MDC wildlife biologist who manages Shanks. "We can flood up to 4,400 acres of the area," he said. "There are about 500 acres of natural water in the form of old oxbows and sloughs on the south part of the area. Those become connected with some of our pools when we flood them."

Early in the season, Flaspohler accommodates 14 to 22 parties depending on food and water availability. "That number may reach 28 parties by the end of the season," he stated. "We gradually flood more areas as the season progresses to make more food available to ducks. That in turn gives us more area for hunters to use."

Hopeful hunters face the morning draw at Shanks, as they do at most MDC-managed areas. Hunting ceases at 1 p.m. in designated areas. Check the latest regulations at headquarters before going out.

"We have six primary wade-and-shoot pools," Flaspohler continued. "We see lots of low-profile and layout boats on the area. However, some guys come very prepared. They not only bring a layout boat, but they also tow a bigger boat, just in case they don't get drawn, for one of the nearby, easy-to-get-to wade-and-shoot spots. Some of our more remote spots require a maximum three-mile boat ride. Bigger boats and motors are handy for that situation."

Flaspohler has tentative plans for eight new blinds on the area for this season. "Weather can be a factor, but if all goes as planned, we will have the pit blinds ready for use this season. Each concrete blind will have 6-feet by 12-feet inside dimensions and be buried in a long linear mound of dirt tied to some type of cove so hunters can hide their boats. Too, the blinds will be designed so that hunters can shoot in any direction and not have to worry about hoping to draw a blind that fits the wind direction."

Most blinds will have some type of food plots near them. A few will have corn, while plots of Japanese millet, buckwheat or winter wheat will surround others.

Ted Shanks CA is in the north zone and usually closes down around Christmas. Mallards begin to pour into the area around Thanksgiving. "The last two years we have had hard freeze-ups around the first of December," Flaspohler said. "Most of our ducks left. However, the hardcore guys still found some success, but they had to work at it."

Flashpohler noted a bonus for waterfowl hunters visiting the area. "The last couple of years we have had a push of late-season green-winged teal. They often serve as bonus ducks for guys who have their mallards."

A few Canada geese are harvested on the area each season. "There are a lot of geese in the vicinity of Shanks, but not a lot of them use the CA," Flaspohler said. "Goose hunters are better off to concentrate their efforts farther south on the river near Calumet Creek or even on the Illinois side of the river."

In closing, Flaspohler noted that he will have 42 to 45 hunting spots by the end of the season with 10 blind sites. Natural foods looked great in June; crews had worked hard fighting the mud to get crops in. He offered a final tip as well. "Duck numbers go up as the weather gets bad. And duck hunter numbers often go down. That greatly improves your odds in the morning draw."

FREEZE-UP ALTERNATIVES

When the shallow pools of Ted Shanks freeze up, and they have by the first of December the last two years, hardy hunters can shift their attention to the Mississippi River. Access can become a problem, according to Flaspohler. It seems the Mississippi can freeze in one night as well. However, there are pockets of water that stay open. Look to the Conservation Atlas to find areas in the Upper Mississippi Conservation Area south of the Ted Shanks area. Islands, chutes and slack water areas may be found there. For more information about Ted Shanks and the surrounding area, call (573) 248-2530.

Another possibility lies across the state to the west. Snow geese often use Smithville Lake. And surrounding farms provide a source of food for Canada geese in the form of waste grain. Don't wait until the last minute to line up a place to hunt. Asking permission early may be productive.

EAGLE BLUFFS CA

Eagle Bluffs CA in central Missouri's Boone County consists of 4,274 acres adjacent to the Missouri River southwest of Columbia on Route K. Wildlife manager Tim James' moist-soils management plan attracts a variety of ducks and geese to this Middle Zone waterfowl area.

"Our food sources are in better shape than last year," James reported. "Floods kept us at bay, therefore, our corn crop was planted later than last year, but barring more floods, we should be in good shape."

James said he and his crew can flood up to 1,100 acres creating 17 pools. "We normally top out at 17 parties, but may reach 19 this year since we added two new pools."

Eagle Bluffs is a wade-and-shoot-only area. There are two handicapped accessible blinds available. James pointed out that half the slots at Eagle Bluffs are allocated on the reservation system.

"Hunters should not be discouraged," said James. "Half of those holding reservations will not show up, so that improves an individual's chances in the morning draw.

"Mallards peak here in late November and early December. We will still have widgeons and gadwalls, too."

Although geese do use Eagle Bluffs, they are not common, according to James. "Most of the geese in the area utilize golf courses and parks. We will have a couple of dozen taken here each year, incidental to duck hunting."

Occasionally, snow geese will drop in as well, on their annual migrations north and south.

James is anxious to see the waterfowlers on the area. "We do our best to give visiting hunters a good experience," he stated.

For further information, call James at (573) 882-8388.

FREEZE-UP ALTERNATIVES

When the water freezes over at Eagle Bluffs, and it will, hunters should turn their attention and efforts to the nearby Missouri River. Those unfortunates who do not make the morning draw often come prepared to go to the river. Providence Access is at the end of the Old Plank Road. There is a boat ramp on Perche Creek, which joins the Missouri River 1.25 miles downstream.

Other nearby CAs that border the river, both up and downstream from Eagle Bluffs, also have waterfowling opportunities. They include Marion Bottoms, Plowboy Bend, Overton Bottoms and Franklin Island.

OTTER SLOUGH CA

Also in the Middle Zone, the 4,866-acre Otter Slough CA still holds remnants of the once vast cypress swamps that used to cover the Delta Region of southeast Missouri.

"The majority of the area in Otter Slough is under moist-soil management," stated biologist Tommy Marshall, charged with managing the area. "Our hydrology management of the area is intended to imitate what nature does on its own. The results just happen to make good waterfowl habitat."

Up to 2,500 acres of the area may be flooded, according to Marshall. Flooding is accomplished gradually to ensure available food sources for migrating birds as the season progresses. "We also maintain about 500 acres of green browse to attract geese," Marshall noted. "We normally plant 150 to 200 acres of corn as well."

A point Marshall made about the corn plantings will aid hunters. He said that water does not have to be up to the ears of corn for ducks to use it.

"They will knock it down by bumping into the stalks and jumping and grabbing the ears," he said. "If we put too much water depth on corn, the ears become saturated and fall to the bottom, making them useless to birds. Optimum feeding depth for a duck is 8 inches or less."

By this point in the season, Otter Slough can handle about 32 parties of four hunters each. James noted that parties average about three hunters. Those looking for hunting buddies should hang around the morning draw and introduce themselves and may get included in a short party.

Twelve blinds are available at Otter Slough. Seven of those blinds are located in the old lake. Marshall stated that the blinds are made for 16-foot boats. "Anything longer will leave part of the boat exposed," he explained.

Hunters in the shallow-water areas most often use layout boats or drag small johnboats. There are boat lanes running into the pools, but water outside the lanes is seldom over 2 feet deep. Bringing a stool or bucket to sit on in the pools is a good idea. Some type of lightweight, portable camo will come in handy, too.

Mike Wilburn of Dexter is this year's Ducks Unlimited chairman for the local chapter. He's also an avid duck hunter and has hunted Otter Slough for 20 years.

"I prefer wade-and-shoot style hunting at Otter Slough," he said. "I often use a layout boat in the flooded fields and crops. If the birds have been hanging around for a while, I use few decoys. If new birds begin coming in, I toss out four- to six-dozen decoys. Hunters should consider coming during the week, because it gets very busy here on weekends when the ducks are here."

If mallards are what you're after, they usually show up around Thanksgiving. But, as Mother Nature often dictates, mallards pretty much passed up Otter Slough last year because of a major freeze in early December. For more information, call (573) 624-5821.

FREEZE-UP ALTERNATIVES

If ice comes to Otter Slough again this year, gunners might look to Wappapello Lake near Popular Bluff. The 8,400-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake is relatively shallow, but attracts large numbers of both puddle and diving ducks. Hunters use large decoy spreads in the open water. The occasional sea duck is also taken there as well. Another possibility is Coon Island CA southeast of Poplar Bluff on the St. Francis River.

TEN MILE POND CA

Located in Mississippi County southeast of East Prairie, Ten Mile is the only MDC-managed waterfowl area in the south zone. Many times, it is our last CA to freeze over.

Open for all-day hunting, if you survive the morning draw, Ten Mile is very close to the Mississippi River and offers hunters a chance at upland hunting for geese, as well as field hunting. And duck hunting can be outstanding well into January. I hunted private property near there last January with Scott Downing of East Prairie and enjoyed one of the best mallard hunts of my life.

Plan to visit Ten Mile during the Conservation Order for light geese. Upward of 150,000 snow geese sometimes utilize the area. For information, call (573) 649-2770.

FREEZE-UP ALTERNATIVES

The Mississippi River is just a stone's throw away and can offer good shooting for both ducks and geese. Look to the Seven Island CA off Highway A near Dorena. The 1,381-acre area borders the river, but has a concrete boat ramp. Corn fields in the interior often hold geese. I killed my first Canada there almost 40 years ago. Check water levels before you go. If the water level is at 43 feet or more at Cairo, regulations only allow waterfowl hunting at Seven Island by boat.

Winters seem to be getting colder and rougher again after a long period of mild ones. So invest in a new suit of good waterfowling gear and prepare for the drop in temperature that is sure to make Show Me waterfowling sizzle for the next few weeks!

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