Southern Missouri's Late-Season Ducks

If you live near St. Louis or in the southern part of the state, a phenomenal variety of duck hunting awaits you this month.

Photo by Steve Carpenteri

By Gerald J. Scott

Any hunting season's opening day has a magic all its own, but in my view, duck hunting not only is no exception to that rule, but also connects the waterfowler to a particularly thrilling variety of that enchantment. Wading into a swamp, taking a seat in a shore blind, cranking up the motor powering a big-water boat blind for the first time in months: Each is truly something special.

On the other hand, it seems as if opening day of Missouri's duck season is marked by fair weather, hordes of hunters - and a paucity of ducks. Some take this situation in stride. A good friend of mine loves being in a duck blind so much that a lack of birds doesn't bother him much, especially if he's comfortable.

But then there are more pragmatic hunters - yours truly, for one - who eagerly await the waning days of the season. Of course, it's true that, by late December, the weather's often "fowl" (sorry: couldn't resist), but that's why coats were invented. It's also true that hunter numbers will have dwindled - but we can cope with having the marshes more or less to ourselves. And as for having to deal with the giant armadas of ducks that descend on southern Missouri when snow and ice cover the northern states, well ...

St. Louis area duck hunters are in an especially good position to take advantage of Missouri's late-season duck bonanza; all they need do is get on I-55 and head south to the Bootheel. Well - maybe that's not quite all a late-season duck hunter needs to know and to do, actually. So here's a short course in successful late-season duck hunting.

GO "NATURAL"
By December, all of the ducks either wintering in or passing through southern Missouri will be battle-hardened veterans of a four-month campaign that began in Canada or the far northern United States. They've seen every brand of decoy and style of decoy spread, heard every sound that can be made on a duck call and, what's more, learned that not every pile of willow cuttings was made by beavers.

Yes, late-season ducks can be as tough to fool as waterfowlers say they are, and hunting them from a permanent blind on a Missouri Department of Conservation conservation area that's held hunters every day of the season doesn't make it any easier. Nevertheless, leaving the marsh with a limit of ducks is far from impossible. The trick is to go natural - beginning with your decoy spread.

There's a place for huge decoy spreads - like, say, the middle of a reservoir - but small spreads look far more natural to ducks that have dispersed across a wetland to feed or to seek security. For mallards and other puddle ducks, a dozen blocks should be plenty; if I'm hiking into an interior unit on a CA, I seldom carry more than six decoys.

Individual decoy placement is more important than the number of decoys used. Undisturbed late-season ducks resting on a marsh don't form up into "J" or "hook" patterns. On the contrary: They tend to scatter themselves haphazardly across the water, so make sure that your decoys do the same thing, letting the outermost blocks mark the edges of your effective shooting range.

Now, I don't mean to offend anyone, but at least 80 percent of opening-day duck hunters would kill more birds if they left their calls at home - and by late December, this number will have passed 90 percent. No, the callers won't have gotten worse: Late-season ducks simply don't do much calling, and they're extremely suspicious of "ducks" that do.

If you absolutely must, respond to calls initiated by birds in a circling flock: It's OK. But keep it soft. And don't call to inbound ducks. And under no circumstances should you so much as breathe into your call after the ducks have committed to an approach.

That's enough of a lecture for one day. So grab your chest waders and whistle for the dog - it's time to find a good place to hunt.

HOTSPOTS WORTH A TRY
Ten Mile Pond CA
The headquarters building is the mandatory first stop for all waterfowl hunters using this CA. To reach it, drive east of East Prairie to Highway 102; then, go south to the CA's south parking lot. From there, drive east on the gravel road to Highway VV and then head north two and a half miles. The CA's headquarters is on the west side of the road.

Waterfowl hunting at Ten Mile Pond CA is closely regulated. Each waterfowl hunter, regardless of age, must have a daily tag. These tags are issued in conjunction with a drawing for specific blinds and/or "units" that's held each morning at the headquarters building. Daily tag holders may hunt waterfowl only from their assigned blinds or designated areas. Finally, hunters must check out immediately after ending their hunts.

Why would any unreconstructed Show Me State rebel - or even a damn Yankee for that matter - put up with that much regulatory guff? The answer began shortly after the end of the last Ice Age, when the land in and around the Ten Mile Pond CA became a mixture of seasonally flooded bottomland timber and swamp. Over the subsequent centuries, countless waterfowl generations became genetically "programmed" to pause here during both the spring and fall migrations.

Unfortunately, the last two centuries have not been kind to wildlife habitat in the Mississippi Valley. Forests were felled and swamps drained so that the land could be put to uses better suited to humans than to ducks. Then, in 1982, the MDC began managing the 3,755 acres now known as the Ten Mile Pond CA for waterfowl. Over 1,200 acres of wetland have been restored to the point that they provide food and cover for visiting waterfowl. In addition, row crops and green browse are grown to attract geese and field-feeding ducks. To say that waterfowl have responded to these efforts would be putting it mildly.

Weather and/or management needs can raise water levels well above the top of chest waders on some parts of the area. A car-topper-sized johnboat or wide-beamed canoe can make the difference in whether or not you'll be able to reach your assigned area and is handy for transporting gear even when water levels are down enough to make having a boat optional.

Otter Slough CA
Like other southeastern Missouri CAs, Otter Slough is a remnant of what was once a much larger wetland complex. Ironically, the destruction wrought by New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 served as one of the chief "architects" of Missouri's waterfowl habitat, causing Otter Slough, Fish Slough, Lick Creek and the Glades Swamp to combine into one expanse of wetland. Most of this has long since been drained and cleared to make way for agriculture, but 4,886-acre Otter Sl

ough CA includes one of the state's few remaining cypress-tupelo swamps, and open marsh, flooded timber and row crops all add to the CA's ability to attract waterfowl.

In fact, saying Otter Slough "attracts" waterfowl is an understatement. As many as 75,000 ducks have been reported on the area, and it hosts an average of 150,000 snow geese per year, with overall goose numbers reaching 250,000 at times.

Waterfowl hunting is closely regulated here, so each hunter's first stop must be at area headquarters. (To reach it, drive west of Dexter on Highway 60 to Highway ZZ and then 10 miles south.) All waterfowl hunters must have a valid daily hunting tag. A daily drawing is held for specific blinds and units during the duck season, and hunters may hunt only from the blind or unit they have been allocated. Hunting ends at 1:00 p.m. on portions of the area, and hunters must check out immediately after they cease hunting.

Keep in mind that the requirement for daily drawings and some other regulations may be eased if geese are the only legal waterfowl and hunter numbers are low.

Duck Creek CA
Although a portion of Duck Creek CA lies in the Ozark foothills, most of its 6,190 acres are located in the former floodplain of the Mississippi River. The MDC purchased this CA in 1950 for the express purpose of providing a public hunting area in conjunction with the adjacent Mingo National Wildlife Refuge.

Water obtained from Pool No. 1 (an artificial reservoir) and several deep wells is used to manipulate water levels on approximately 2,400 acres of open-marsh wetland. In addition, about 1,500 acres of bottomland hardwoods supply acorns to feed dabbling ducks and other wildlife. Finally, 800 acres of cropland are leased to area farmers who must leave a portion of the crop standing in the field.

Duck Creek's headquarters - six miles south of Zalma on Highway 51 - is the mandatory first stop for a waterfowl hunt here. Hunters, each of whom must have a daily tag, will be assigned to specific blinds or units by means of a drawing. Hunters must remain within their assigned areas except to retrieve downed birds or to shoot downed cripples. All hunters must check out and record the number and species of all wildlife taken.

As of press time, the latest available information indicates that goose hunters may fire no more than 10 shells per day. Inquire at the area headquarters to determine if this regulation remains in effect during extended snow goose seasons or when Conservation Orders are in force.

Mingo National Wildlife Refuge
Mingo encompasses 21,676 acres, including 7,730 acres designated as "wilderness." Located in a basin formed by an abandoned Mississippi River channel, it contains the only remaining large tract (15,000 acres) of bottomland forest in Missouri. Of more interest to waterfowl hunters, Mingo provides wintering habitat to more than 150,000 ducks and 75,000 geese.

Administered by the MDC through the Duck Creek CA headquarters, waterfowl hunting at Mingo is limited to Pool No. 8. From March 15 through Nov. 30, a daily entrance fee, Federal Duck Stamp, Mingo Refuge Pass or Golden Passport will be required for each vehicle entering the refuge. Contact the Duck Creek CA headquarters at (573) 222-3337 for information, regulations and permit applications.

The Mississippi River
South of the mouth of the Missouri River, the "Father of Waters" begins to shake off the restraints imposed by locks and dams and becomes a true river. To be more precise: Here the Mississippi becomes a big river.

The boat and the boating skills requisite for waterfowling on a river with ever-present complex currents and the equally present prospect of storm-driven waves higher than those found on the state's largest reservoirs have been discussed in several recent Missouri Game & Fish articles, and I won't restate this information in detail. However, if you're new to big-river boating, seek advice from experts at area marinas and boat shops. Then pay attention to what you're told.

Sandbars, especially those located off the ends of islands, are Canada goose magnets. What's more, a spread of goose decoys on and just off of an island sandbar is more likely to draw attention from passing ducks than are duck decoys.

Knowledgeable big-river duck hunters keep an eye out for backwater sloughs and side channels in which ducks can rest out of the current and out of sight of human traffic on the main channel. The best sloughs and channels aren't always easy to see from the river, so run your boat at a fast idle and stick close to the shoreline to give yourself the best chance of spotting the narrow ditches that can mark the entrance to a much broader slough just behind the bank-side timber.

Reservoirs
The Pomme de Terre, Stockton, Table Rock, Bull Shoals, Clearwater and Wappapello reservoir projects lie in the southernmost duck zones. If that's not enough public water and associated land for your tastes, there are also dozens of MDC impoundments in southern Missouri. Most - but not all - allow waterfowl hunting.

There are some negatives associated with hunting waterfowl on major reservoirs. Chief among these is that wetlands managed for waterfowl by either the MDC or the NFWS siphon off a sometimes overwhelming majority of the available waterfowl. Don't expect the skies over Stockton (probably the best southern reservoir for waterfowl) to be filled with ducks, because that's not likely to be the case. The exception to that general rule is seen when the reservoir in question has recently risen to flood-pool level, submerging shoreline weeds and crops. When that happens, ducks by the thousands appear as if by magic.

On some U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir projects, a certain number of blind sites are allocated by a drawing held in midsummer. Naturally, these sites are located in places that have historically attracted better-than-average numbers of ducks. The chosen hunters are allowed to construct permanent blinds in their assigned locations. These blinds "belong" to the hunters who build them until 6:00 a.m. After that time, the blinds are open to the public on a first-claimed basis.

Portions of some reservoirs are set aside as waterfowl refuges. These areas are clearly marked on Corps-produced maps of the project - a good thing, as boundary markers on the water often range from few to nonexistent. Never forget that it's the hunter's responsibility to make sure of being on the right side of the line.

On the flip side of the coin, there's a lot positive to be said for reservoir duck hunting. The necessity of staying clear of refuges aside, the only legal restrictions are those applicable statewide. There are no daily tags to buy, no lines to stand in and - best of all - no drawings to determine if you're lucky enough to get to hunt where you're told to hunt. Quite the contrary; Waterfowl hunting on public reservoirs and impoundments is an opportunity to test your skills under conditions as natural as they're going to get in the twenty-first c

entury.

The bottom line is that there are always huntable numbers of ducks and geese somewhere on every ice-free reservoir in the state every day during the entire hunting season. More often than not, the birds can be found near the flats and sloughs at the reservoir's upper end, but don't overlook feeder creeks and the lake's main body.

If you can hunt all of the places I've described in this article between now and the end of the season, please see me after class: I'd like to know where you work, so I can apply for a job there. And if you can't visit more than a few of these late-season duck hotspots, don't worry about it - the rest of them will still be hotspots during the 2004-05 duck season.



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