Missouri's January Ducks

Getting up early is well worth the trouble when you see what's in store at these outstanding hunting areas.

Photo by John N. Felsher

By Bryan Hendricks

Sometimes in the middle of winter, it's easy to think that all the ducks have left the state. Often, they haven't; they're just very particular about where they want to go.

Take, for instance, a hunting trip I took with a friend on the Missouri River a couple of years ago, about 10 days before Christmas. We arrived at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area at Columbia well before dawn. Instead of taking part in the pre-hunt drawing, however, we went to the parking lot overlooking the Missouri River and worked up a mighty sweat hauling his aluminum boat down the steep riprap bank to the water. Multiple climbs and descents were required to fetch the outboard motor and gas tank, decoys, guns and other assorted gear. We also had to arrange all that stuff and lash it into the boat.

Finally, with our chests heaving for breath, my friend's mannerly golden retriever daintily stepped into the boat, nestled in among the decoys and looked at us impatiently. She was ready to hunt. We, however, stood there with our coats off mantling like a couple of hawks trying to cool off. This was doubly strange, considering that the boat was already coated in a thick layer of frost.

With a couple of jerks on the cord, my friend's 6-horse purred to life, beginning a long, slow trek up the river to a series of sandbars between Eagle Bluffs and Overton Bottoms conservation areas. A couple of times we ran aground when we veered too far out of the channel, but as day broke, it was hard not to notice all the makeshift duck blinds cobbled together from driftwood and brush on the riverbank. A few were occupied, including the one on the most attractive sandbar of all. It had a couple of motion-wing decoys beckoning ducks to the slack water on the back.

Eventually we came to a big pool behind a notched wing dam. It provided calm water and shelter from the wind, so it seemed an appealing place for ducks. I stepped onto the bank, which was basically an extended mud flat. As soon as my feet bore my weight, I sank to my thighs in the muck. The vacuum that formed around my legs had me firmly trapped. All I could do was loosen the straps on my waders, remove my gloves and double over with my chest on the ground. Clawing at the mud with bare hands, I wriggled out of the waders to freedom, then yanked and tugged until I wrestled them from the goo. Having once again worked up a mighty sweat, this time with a turbocharged surge of adrenalin, I re-deposited myself in the waders, picked up my gun and trudged up the back of the wing dam where I found a comfortable place to sit among the rocks.

After hiding the boat, my friend joined me. He had the good sense to debark on a more solid, rocky part of the bank. Gunfire erupted from various points around us, but we couldn't fathom what they were shooting at. The sky was bereft of winged life.

"Most of the shooting is over where those Robo-Ducks are," my friend said. After a long pause, he added, "Damn those things!"

Some time passed before I spied a lone mallard hen flying up the river. I mouthed my green acrylic duck call and blew every note I'd ever heard a duck utter. She flew upriver and back down again before vanishing. With a wide, sweeping turn, she reappeared. On the return trip, she crisscrossed the river, swooping here and there as she went back upriver. I sucked in another deep breath and launched into the third movement of this plaintive solo.

Finally, she came in over our decoys, dropped low and flared. My friend fired twice and missed, but on his third shot, she crumpled.

And that was the only duck we saw. On the way back downriver, we learned that the guy with the Robo-Ducks had gotten his limit of four mallards and two teal.

After hauling the boat, motor and gear back up the riprap to the truck, we took a short drive to the refuge area at Eagle Bluffs. There was hardly any open water anywhere because the place was a solid raft of mallards, with more arriving by the minute. The air buzzed with hail calls and feeding chuckles from real ducks. No wonder we didn't see any ducks on the river - every duck in mid-Missouri was here!

THE BASICS ON

OUR JANUARY DUCKS

The lesson I learned was that if you can find the right kind of water, with shelter abundant and food nearby, ducks will stay on those areas as long as they're open and free of ice. In the central third of Missouri, those conditions are pretty much limited to the wetland development areas owned and managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation. However, most of those areas, such as Eagle Bluffs, Grand Pass and Fountain Grove conservation areas, lie in the North Zone, where duck season usually ends just before Christmas. Duck season in the Middle Zone ends December 30.

Of course, subscribers to Missouri Game & Fish actually receive their January magazines in mid-December, when those areas are still open - so go now, while you still can. If you want to hunt ducks in Missouri in January, however, you're limited to the South Zone. Don't worry: You're probably not missing out on anything up north anyway, because by January all the water up north is probably frozen.

That leaves the southern part of the state, where you can enjoy some excellent duck hunting until Jan. 20. Although there aren't any wetland development units in that part of the state, a generous selection of lakes, creeks and rivers can provide outstanding hunting for those who are willing to look for it.

While Missouri attracts ducks of all kinds, mallards are the most plentiful species late in the season. You'll still see a few teal here and there, as well as some ringnecks, scaup and gadwalls. If you hunt big lakes, such as Stockton or Table Rock, you'll see diving ducks such as buffleheads. If you've ever seen a bufflehead, they rival a drake wood duck for beauty.

In Missouri, hunters can take a limit of six ducks daily, but only four may be mallards, and only two may be hens. And since mallards are mostly what you'll see in January, you're usually looking at a four-duck limit. Here are a few places to get them.

STOCKTON LAKE

Covering nearly 25,000 acres in Dade and Cedar counties, Stockton Lake is best known for sail boating and walleye fishing during the spring and summer. During the winter, it attracts a fair number of ducks that most people never see. David Neaves of Springfield considers Stockton a well-kept secret for duck hunting during the best of times. In January, it usually has ducks, he said, but seldom does it have many hunters.

"I started hunting at Stockton when I moved up here about eight years ago," Neaves said. I didn't have any place to hunt, but I had fished Stockton earlier in the summer, so I thought it might be a good place to go. I grew up hunting ducks on the big lakes around Charlotte, North Carolina, so I was used to it. I didn't see how it could be any different.

"I won't say it's a great place to hunt day in and day out," he added, "but when it's good, it's really good. When it's not, well, it isn't such a bad place to spend a cold morning if you have time to make the drive."

The best places to hunt on Stockton are in the numerous sheltered coves along the Big Sac and Little Sac arms. The banks along the main channel are rocky and steep, but the coves follow flat shelf rock. The water at the backs of the coves is usually shallow, but Neaves said ducks, including mallards, seem to prefer landing in bigger water.

"The first time I hunted Stockton, I was all set up in the back of this cove on the Little Sac arm with my decoys all spread out real pretty," Neaves said. "The cove came to a perfect point, and I had a nice landing area in the middle of the spread that I could cover with my shotgun. There were a lot of ducks flying that morning, and even though they did give my decoys a good look, they all set down out at the mouth of the cove.

"It was windy and rough out there, but that's where they wanted to be. I guess none of that matters to a duck, anyway. They just bob around in the waves, and wind doesn't seem to bother them much."

Naturally, a handful of live ducks at the mouth of the cove would appear much more attractive than a fleet of plastic ducks at the back of the cove, so every other duck that came over landed in open water.

"It was frustrating as all get-out," Neaves recalled, "but I could see the way things were going. Where I used to hunt on Lake Norman in North Carolina, you'd see that happen, and once the number of ducks reached critical mass, or something, they'd all fly away, and you wouldn't see anything else for the rest of the day."

So Neaves did the only thing he could do: If the game wouldn't come to him, he would simply have to go to the game.

"The banks are wooded and pretty brushy," he explained, "so I figured I could sneak out to the edge of the point if I just took it slow and easy. The way the wind was blowing, I didn't figure there was much chance of them hearing me. If I could just stay out of sight, I might be able to get a shot."

Creeping from tree to tree, Neaves slowly made his way through the woods. In the sunlight, he could see the silver backs and green heads of the drakes flashing like fancy jewelry as they bobbed in the waves.

"I was behind the last big tree on the point before it dropped down a couple of feet to shale and chunk rock," Neaves said. "I just stepped out from behind the tree and stood in the port-arms position. The ducks all got up at once, like in slow motion or something. I picked out two drakes and dumped them with two shots on the rise, and then missed a hen on the third shot. It was an awesome sight with the water spraying off the wings of all those ducks in the sunlight!"

The best part was that Neaves didn't even have to fire up his boat to retrieve his birds. With the wind blowing in, it brought the ducks practically to his feet within about 15 minutes.

"Nothing much else happened for awhile," he said. "I was sitting in my little hideyhole in the cove, drinking a cup of coffee, when some ducks came over, so I put my cup down and picked up my gun. A merganser came down low like a little fighter jet, so I popped him. That was it for that day."

Even though none of those ducks actually landed in the decoys, Neaves thinks that the decoys were instrumental in his success that day. They gave the ducks something to look at and probably encouraged the ducks to land nearby.

"There's a lot of water on Stockton for them to land on," he explained. "A big spread of dekes will at least get their attention. At the time I was wondering why they wouldn't come into the cove, but now I'm convinced they were probably wondering why my decoys wouldn't come out to them. They got them there and got them down. So what if I had to walk a little?"

BULL SHOALS

AND TABLE ROCK

The White River is a minor flyway for ducks and geese in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, so it's no surprise that Table Rock and Bull Shoals attract a fair number of ducks. The weather between south Missouri and middle and north Missouri can be vastly different on any given day, and when a cold front socks the Missouri River basin with ice and snow, it might only be cold and sunny on Table Rock. That's when you can get some pretty impressive flights of ducks to join the resident ducks that live there year 'round.

Like Stockton, Table Rock has a lot of deep coves and fingers, but since it's a much bigger lake, there's a lot more water to disperse a relatively small number of ducks. Agreeing with David Neaves, Sid Warren of Branson says that big decoy spreads are the key to attracting ducks. Over time, he has also noticed that ducks at Table Rock almost always seem to prefer landing in rough, open water. To hunt them, he uses a flatbottom boat with a tent-style blind and just beaches it on the bank. He arranges his decoys in a chevron formation that provides a landing area right in the middle.

"The thing about Table Rock is that the water is shallow right at the bank, but it drops off deep real quick," Warren said. "You need to know exactly how deep it is all the way to the outer edge of your spread and set your lines accordingly. Otherwise, your decoys will either float out to sea, or float in with the rest of your decoys and make a big, jumbled mess that will spook ducks."

Selecting a point to hunt depends on the wind. "I like the wind blowing in," Warren said. "I like them to come in head on and sit down in the middle of that chevron. Sometimes, though, ducks just like a certain point. If the wind is blowing out on that point, that's tough. That's where you've got to be."

In that situation, Warren spreads his decoys in a wide pattern across the face of the point, massing them in sort of a shallow horseshoe pattern that creates a landing zone on the outer edge of the spread. It often requires slightly longer shots, but Warren said having the wind at his back negates any disadvantage that might create.

Hunting at Bull Shoals is similar, but since only a small portion of Bull Shoals lies in Missouri, there are a lot fewer places to hunt on a Missouri hunting license.

In addition to lakes, the South Zone contains many small rivers that provide excellent opportunities for float hunting. If you haven't tried it, you should. A winter float is a great experience. If you get into some ducks while you're at it, it's an unforgettable experience.



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