Best Waterfowling Bets in Southern Missouri

Whether you enjoy crowds or prefer to go it alone, the Show Me State has a waterfowl hotspot for you.

By Bryan Hendricks

As someone who grew up duck hunting in the flooded timber of southeast Arkansas, I was caught off guard by my first trip to Table Rock Lake.

It was November 1987. I wasn't hunting, but simply canoeing the entire length of the lake as part of a yearlong backpacking adventure from Arkansas to Maine. I was still in the upper portion of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake, just north of the Missouri border, on a clear, still, azure afternoon. Up ahead I saw a raft of ducks bobbing in the shallow water off a rocky point. As I got closer, I wondered how close I could get to them before they flushed. I continued my approach, and still the ducks remained unalarmed. Eventually I found myself in the middle not of a raft of ducks but rather of a very large spread of decoys. Then I looked at the bank and noticed a flatbottom boat covered in vache grass. Embarrassed, I apologized to the amused hunter and quickly got out of his way.

Why in the world would anybody hunt ducks out here? I wondered. There's not a bit of shelter, and there's not a duck in sight.

I rounded the point and continued uplake. About 15 minutes later, I heard three shots from a 12 gauge ring out in quick succession. I don't know if the guy killed anything, but it quelled my doubts about the presence of ducks.

Years later, I was in the same general area hunting Canada geese with some friends. Again, our only cover was some small bushes exposed by the low water levels of the fall drawdown. At dawn, we heard a large flock of geese honking from somewhere inland. Eventually, they rose and flew directly over us. We killed three, but we saw many others that morning that ignored our decoys.

Between flights of geese, we also saw sizeable numbers of diving ducks, mostly buffleheads. They soared in just out of range and landed in the deep water. Other ducks joined them, and others departed. They often came in pairs, or in small groups of three to five - none of the big flocks of mallards that fill the pages of duck-hunting lore, though I did see mallards elsewhere on the lake at other times. Still, I deduced that big lakes such as Table Rock draw and hold enough diving ducks to make hunting at least potentially interesting. I've seen the same thing at Lake of the Ozarks, Pomme de Terre, Truman and Stockton. If you were rigged for that kind of hunting, you could have a lot of fun.

Evidently, a lot of other hunters have noticed the same thing, because southern Missouri is a quiet hotspot among waterfowlers in the region. Best of all, you can hunt in almost any kind of environment you desire. From the flooded sloughs and green timber of the Bootheel to ponds and small rivers, to big reservoirs, southern Missouri has a little bit of everything for everybody.

For the sake of offering the most opportunities over the greatest area, let's define southern Missouri as the part of our state that lies south of I-70. That takes in part of the Missouri River, most of our biggest lakes and some of our best wetland areas. Here's where to find your own little slice of waterfowl heaven.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

MANAGED WETLANDS

The Missouri Department of Conservation owns and manages a number of wetland areas that offer some of the state's best public land hunting. In fact, these areas account for about 20 percent of the statewide waterfowl harvest. Not surprisingly, these areas are very popular, and competition for space can be intense. To provide the best experience, the MDC requires hunters at these areas to participate in a daily drawing for the limited number of available spots. At some areas, limited walk-in access is available. To improve your chances of getting drawn, it's best to visit during the week, when competition will be light. Here's what southern Missouri has to offer in that department.

Otter Slough CA

Located in Stoddard County, near Dexter, Otter Slough Conservation Area covers about 4,700 acres of prime waterfowl habitat. Its central features include a cypress-tupelo swamp, open marsh and green tree timber. Crop fields planted with rice, corn and milo provide food for visiting waterfowl.

In terms of overall duck harvest, Otter Slough CA was our best public hunting area last year. Hunters there killed 12,528 ducks in 2003, or about 2.7 per hunt. That was the area's high-water mark in terms of harvest. In 2002, hunters there took 9,003 ducks. In 2001, they took 8,151. The 2000 season yielded 9,189 ducks, and 1999 was almost identical, with 9,169. In 1998, it produced a harvest of 9,568. Overall, harvests rose steadily on the area since from 1995-97. They have been consistent from 1998 to the present.

Mallards, green-winged teal and gadwalls are the most common ducks at Otter Slough, but the area also attracts large numbers of Canada geese and light geese.

Duck Creek CA

Covering nearly 6,200 acres in southern Bollinger County, Duck Creek sits just northeast of Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, and is thus perfectly situated to attract ducks and geese migrating down the Mississippi Flyway. The area contains 2,400 acres of open marshes, but it's most famous for its 1,500 acres of bottomland hardwoods, which provide excellent green-timber hunting. Another 800 acres are planted in crops, portions of which are left in the field for wildlife.

Last year, hunters killed 7,375 ducks at Duck Creek CA, or about 1.5 ducks per hunt. Like Otter Slough, it is very consistent in terms of harvest. It yielded 5,504 ducks in 2002, preceded by 4,856 in 2001, 4,267 in 2000, 5,150 in 1999 and 4,923 in 1998, and 9,057 in 1997. Similar harvest levels were recorded all the way back to 1970.

Mallards are the primary species at Duck Creek, but the area also attracts wood ducks, gadwalls and teal, as well as Canada geese and light geese.

Ten Mile Pond CA

Another area in southeast Missouri that's somewhat underrated is Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area. It's in Mississippi County, near East Prairie. Covering 3,755 acres, Ten Mile Pond CA was once part of a lowland hardwood forest that was intermingled with cypress-tupelo swamps. It now consists of open marsh that is flooded seasonally to attract migrating waterfowl.

In 2003, hunters at Ten Mile Pond CA killed 3,944 ducks, or about 1.9 ducks per hunt. It yielded 3,635 ducks in 2002, 4,449 ducks in 2001, 3,102 in 2000 and 4,396 in 1999. With the exception of some down years in 1995 and 1997, it has been a consistent producer as well.

Four Rivers CA

One of Missouri's best public waterfowling areas is Four Rivers Conservation Area. It sprawls across nearly 14,000 acres in Bates and Vernon counties. It's an intensively managed wetland area that draws about 100,000 ducks annually. Most of those are mallards, as well as teal, widgeon, gadwall and pintails, just to name a few. It also attracts huge numbers of Canada geese and light geese.

During the extended light goose season in 2001, a fellow I know bagged 34 snow geese with five shots. He was hiding at the edge of a cornfield when a giant flock of snows landed. More geese arrived by the minute, many landing less than 60 feet from my friend. He racked off five shots of 3 1/2-inch waterfowl loads through though an open bore across the tops of their heads, and then spent the next several hours hauling geese back to his truck.

Last year, hunters at Four Rivers CA killed 9,900 ducks, or about 2.1 per hunt. In 2002, they took 4,996, preceded by 7,409 in 2001 and 4,931 in 2000 and 6,528 in 1999.

Four Rivers CA is mostly open bottomland that's flooded seasonally. It contains more than 21 miles of stream frontage on the Marmaton, Osage, Little Osage and Marais des Cygnes rivers. The area is divided into 20 different pools that are managed with a variety of moist soil techniques. The area also contains some crop fields, such as the one in which my friend ambushed the snow geese.

To reach Four Rivers CA, take Highway 71 north from Nevada 16 miles to County Road TT. Turn east on TT, and travel 1.2 miles to the second gravel road on the south. Take the gravel road south for 1.9 miles to the area headquarters.

Schell-Osage CA

Another great waterfowl hunting area in southern Missouri. Not far from Four Rivers, Schell-Osage CA covers about 8,600 acres in St. Clair and Vernon counties, just northeast of Nevada.

Half of this area is bottomland along the Osage River. It contains oak, hickory and pecan woodlands, as well as oxbow sloughs off the Osage River. It also features large expanses of open marsh. The other half is rolling hills overlooking the river.

In addition to the marshes and sloughs, Schell-Osage also has a number of ponds, but waterfowl hunting is not allowed on those. To hunt in the designated areas, hunters must draw for one of 22 blinds, or for up to 32 positions in the wade-in access.

In 2003, hunters bagged 5,901 ducks at Schell-Osage, with an average of about two ducks per trip, compared to 4,968 (1.73 ducks per trip) in 2002. In 2001, Schell-Osage yielded 4,876 ducks, 4,350 in 2000, 5,002 in 1999, 4,025 in 1998 and 3,946 in 1997.

To reach Schell-Osage CA, travel east on U.S. 54 from the junction of U.S. 71 and 54 in Nevada. Take 54 east 14.4 miles to County Road AA. Turn north on AA, and drive 11 miles to County Road RA. Travel east on RA, and continue 1.5 miles to the area headquarters.

Eagle Bluffs CA

One of the most popular duck hunting destinations for hunters in the Columbia and Jefferson City areas is Eagle Bluffs CA.

Located in Boone County, about six miles southwest of Columbia, Eagle Bluffs CA covers 4,290 acres on a thin peninsula between Perche Creek and the Missouri River. Waterfowl habitat is in the form of 13 shallow pools. These pools allow the flooding of about 800 acres of seasonal marshes, and 450 acres of emergent marshes.

The area gets most of its water from the city of Columbia's wastewater treatment facilities under a unique cooperative agreement that provides a permanent water supply to the area's wetlands. When the area needs more than the city can provide, the staff at Eagle Bluffs pumps water from the Missouri River.

In 2003, hunters killed 5,758 ducks at Eagle Bluffs, with an average of about 2.1 ducks per trip, compared to 4,788 (1.77 ducks per trip) in 2002. In 2001, the tally was 2,654, preceded by 4,733 in 2000, 3,669 in 1999, 3,810 in 1998 and 3,111 in 1997.

Along with the guaranteed water supply, the main thing that draws ducks to Eagle Bluffs is an ample food supply. Half of the area consists of moist-soil fields; other areas are planted with corn and soybeans.

BIG RESERVOIRS

In addition to Table Rock Lake, Missouri has several other large Corps impoundments that attract substantial numbers of waterfowl. Large sections of these lakes provide excellent opportunities for waterfowl hunters (one exception being privately-owned Lake of the Ozarks, which attracts a lot of ducks and geese, but offers no public hunting access along the shoreline).

Perhaps the best reservoir for waterfowl hunting in southern Missouri is Truman Lake. With a surface area of more than 50,000 acres, Truman boasts nearly 260 miles of shoreline. That number increases during high-water periods, when the surface area swells to more than 200,000 acres. Duck hunters welcome high water because it floods new vegetation, providing food that ordinarily isn't available to waterfowl during low water or normal pool.

A nice thing about Truman is that its tributaries are defined by long, shallow coves protected by the wind. These are perfect for offering a nice landing zone among a generous spread of decoys. You can work the coves either by setting up blinds along the shore or by hunting from a duck boat.

Although Truman hosts a lot of diving ducks, it brings large numbers of mallards and gadwalls, too.

Lakes Pomme de Terre and Stockton don't draw as many ducks as Truman does, but they don't draw as many hunters, either. They're considerably smaller than Truman, too, but they still have enough coves and inlets to provide a generous assortment of hunting spots.

If you don't live close enough to these lakes to make day trips, you might consider taking a few days off and camping. Missouri's Corps reservoirs have wonderful campgrounds that provide access to all parts of the lakes. Before you go this route, check ahead to learn regulations for possessing firearms at Corps facilities.

UPLAND CONSERVATION AREAS

The Missouri Department of Conservation owns many conservation areas in southern Missouri that are known chiefly for deer and turkey hunting. However, most have ponds and streams that attract fair numbers of ducks, and some of these areas are surprisingly good. For example, during the 2000 deer season, I was walking a remote section of Saline Valley CA near Tuscumbia when I noticed movement in the distance through the woods. I looked closer and saw water covered with mallards. I quickly left, but returned at a later date without waders, decoys or dog. I just sat against a big oak tree near the bank and waited.

Just after sunrise, I heard a rush of wings overhead. I chuckled softly on my call, and a large flock of mallards and gadwalls dropped right in. I fired three times and got one greenhead and a gadwall. The ducks hastily departed, but soon returned. I

fired three more times and got another greenhead and gadwall. With no way to retrieve them, I had to throw rocks and sticks at them to get them to shore.

I went to work and breathlessly told a co-worker about this wonderful spot. We went there together a few days later, trudged through frozen grass and fought through greenbrier to claim a spot among the oaks before sunrise. He even brought his retriever. We greeted a beautiful morning that blossomed without so much as a whiff of a duck. It's a chance you take, but I'll bet my buddy never went back there again. I, on the other hand, have returned several times.

I have little spots like that all over my home range. I wouldn't put money on finding ducks at any one of these places, but I wouldn't bet against it, either. I see just enough to keep me coming back. Wherever you live in southern Missouri, you can find spots like that, too. Half the fun is in the looking.



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