Missouri's Gateway to Waterfowl Action

Missouri's Gateway to Waterfowl Action

St. Louis isn't just the Gateway to the West -- it also gives access to some of the country's finest waterfowling. Just try these hotspots and you'll know why.

"Waterfowling" - the word rings like music in the ears of men and women across our state. Simply to speak it evokes a certain sort of passion that unites followers almost like a cult. Although Missouri has its share of hunters, it seems that none are quite as zealous as those who bury themselves in the marsh, ever-vigilant eyes trained on the horizon, scanning for any sign of incoming ducks and geese.

The popularity of waterfowling has not gone unnoticed. In recent years the Missouri Department of Conservation has made plenty of advances in waterfowl management practices, thus affording the avid waterfowler plenty of places to go. The Show Me State's high-quality duck and goose hunting and the MDC's attention to creating waterfowl habitat have combined to spur interest among hunters from every corner of Missouri.

With the days of low duck numbers and limited access to hunting now a thing of the past, people who want to pursue waterfowl can be found everywhere. The stereotype of hunters as rural folk doesn't reflect reality; plenty of city dwellers fancy outdoor sports, a sizeable percentage of the state's hunters hailing from metropolitan areas. It's those urbanites - more specifically, residents of the eastern portions of the state in and around the St. Louis area - and their interest in duck and goose hunting that will be the focus of this piece. Several worthwhile hunting venues lie reasonably close to these population centers, giving both dyed-in-the-wool waterfowlers and newcomers easy access to some great action.

St. Louis, which has the distinction of being the original jumping-off place for migrants to the Old West, is sited at the confluence of two of the nation's great rivers - the Missouri and the Mississippi. By default, this puts the entire metropolitan area smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway. That alone should be enough to get any waterfowler worked up about the opportunities at nearby public areas - and it should just add to the excitement when you take into consideration exactly how close those opportunities can be found. Within easy reach of the metro area are three hot hotspots, all of them MDC-managed wetlands designed with duck hunters in mind.

* * *
B.K. Leach has the distinct advantage of being only a stone's throw from the Mississippi River; all that separates it from the river, actually, is a levee. Just 30 miles north of St. Louis on Highway 79 in Lincoln County, it's a relatively small area, although expansion is planned for the next few years.

David Stroppel, a wildlife biologist for the area, has plenty to talk about when it comes to the CA, its future and what hunters can expect when they arrive this year.

"As it stands," he observed, "the area holds about 300 acres of water at full pool. During waterfowl season, we hunt six blinds out of nine total spots, seven days a week. Participants go through the daily drawing in order to get a spot. Opening weekend is usually filled to the brim with people vying for spots; that holds true for any holidays as well. During the week, when everybody is at work, the lines disappear and people get better chances to hunt."

Photo by Jim Spencer

Hunters winning the drawing can look forward to choosing among six different zones. These zones can't really be defined as "pools," since the area's terrain is slightly different from that of most marsh-type CAs. "We've got a mixture of wade-and-shoot areas and hunting blinds," said Stroppel. "We also have a handicap hunting blind. There are johnboats provided for blinds, but most often it can be handled with chest waders. And for those who choose wade-and-shoot there are accesses to put in layouts or other small boats."

B.K. Leach's proximity to the river gives it unique characteristics. "It's a pretty diverse area with many different types of native vegetation," Stroppel commented. "Some areas are quite low and wet, and right next to it there is high ground that doesn't get flooded. Mixed through the terrain there are a lot of old sloughs that hold water, and then a few decent fields that can be flooded.

"We do try to put a lot of crops out; this year we have quite a bit of corn out. In the past we haven't been able to put quite so much corn out, since we have restrictions on time because of flooding. There are also a number of other crops that got planted such as beans, milo and millet."

People familiar with B.K. Leach will know that the duck hunting is not overwhelmingly fabulous, but don't let that discourage you. The CA functions just like the rest of the CAs in the state: When the migrations are in progress the hunting gets good.

"Really, duck populations at Leach are not that high," Stroppel offered. "The hunting has been fair in the past, but when duck populations break 3,000 ducks on the area, the shooting really picks up. The hunting for wood ducks is really good here, but our mallard populations don't compare to some of the other CAs."

The area is an older one, and has a bit of a reputation for dilapidation. "That's something that we're fixing year by year," remarked Stroppel. And, in fact, there's good news on the horizon for eastern duck hunters. "Our area is about 1,400 acres right now," the biologist continued. "Last year we acquired an addition of 3,000 acres. It will take a little while before we're able to hunt all of that, but it's in the works. The first part to be developed will be about 900 acres. We're working on developing that portion this year so it will be ready to hunt in 2003. The remaining large chunk of 2,000 acres will go under development in 2003 and have a planned opening for the 2004 season."

Given this significant annexation - opening new expanses in which hunters can find plenty of ducks - the future of B.K. Leach looks very promising. For additional information, contact the MDC, 653 Clinic Road, Hannibal, MO 63401; (573)-248-2530.

Possibly the most distinctive of the eastern waterfowl CAs is Marais Temps Clair. An oasis of duck hunting in a huge, intensively farmed flood plain entirely surrounded by a metropolitan area, it's a relatively small area that offers urban hunters the prospect of chasing ducks almost without leaving the city.

No one knows the CA better than Tom Liefield, the area manager, does. According to him, the entire area is the remnant of an old oxbow wetland in St. Charles County. "It's out in the middle of the flood plain between the Missouri and Mississippi rivers," Liefield said. "The MDC owns a part of

that old oxbow, and the other part is owned by a private duck club. The CA is about 935 acres, and when everything is flooded up to full pool, there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 acres of water.

"There are 10 wetland pools. About half of the area is set aside as a refuge, and the other half is hunted through the state's managed hunting program. We only hunt on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. The other days are to let the waterfowl rest."

Like the rest of the CAs, Marais Temps Clair conducts a daily drawing every morning. "At the start of the season we typically put out six parties of up to four people per day," Liefield explained. "We issue three reservations a day. The rest is through the 'poor-boy line,' as it's commonly known. Usually during the season, as we're bringing the water up into the pools a little farther, we'll get some more parties out - maybe up to eight or nine a day, but that's unpredictable, since it depends on the weather of that year.

"It's a wade-and-shoot area where the hunting ends at 1 p.m. There are three pools where we put hunters at the start of the season, and later that will grow to five pools. At the start of the season we'll put out two parties per pool and designate zones within each pool. There are blinds in the middle of the pool, but hunters can choose to hunt away from that. Layout boats are not popular, since there is no good access to the water. That makes it difficult to get a boat in. Sometimes it can also be difficult to use a dog. There are hunters who do use dogs and boats, but it takes extra effort."

To attract fowl, staffers at Marais Temps Clair do their best to plant food sources and keep the area generally attractive to birds, but they encounter difficulties related to the natural landscape of the area. "Because it's an old oxbow wetland, it's difficult to dry out in the summer and do the manipulations that you typically think of other managed wetlands around the state," Liefield said. "It can make it tough to grow corn and other food crops. We have fights with perennial vegetation like emergent smartweeds and the bulrushes.

"We are always trying to provide the area with wetland food plants. Some years are better than others. There is one pool that can produce a corn crop, but it's rare in the other parts of the CA. We always try and create openings in what is there, and if we don't do anything else, we try and make mowed openings and disturb the soil. There are natural smartweed and millets and sedges there for food."

When you take into account all of the special circumstances at Marais Temps Clair - proximity to urban areas, small size - you might wonder how it fares when it comes to hunting. Although it's not a booming CA, you can still get into ducks. "The waterfowl populations don't tend to be real high," Liefield remarked, "and the hunter success tends to be spotty. We get good flashes during and after migrations, and then it drops off. The last couple of years, when bigger wetland areas are averaging two to three birds per person, our averages are a little less. When the hunting is good, the ducks usually number at 5,000 or so.

"An important thing to keep in mind is that we are a small area where a small number of hunters are permitted. It's right in the heart of a metropolitan area, so it's fairly competitive, and it's not uncommon for 15 parties to draw for four available spots. It doesn't take very many people to make a big crowd."

For local information, contact the MDC's St. Louis Regional Office, 2360 Highway D, St. Charles, MO 63304; (636) 441-4554.

The largest of the three areas near St. Louis is Ted Shanks. It boasts an approximate size of 6,700 acres. It sits at the confluence of the Mississippi and Salt River and consists primarily of wetlands-type terrain. To describe that more precisely, the area has 1,364 acres of marsh, 1,264 acres of mixed emergent wetland and 575 acres of oxbow lakes and sloughs; in addition, there are 1,930 acres of bottomland hardwood timber, 800 acres of row crops and 722 acres of old fields, levees and roads.v Ted Shanks boasts both wade-and-shoot hunting and blind hunting. John Poppe, a wildlife technician for the area, is quite familiar with the CA and its various opportunities. "On the upper end are several pools that are individually controlled by levees and a water control pumping station," he offered. "On the lower end are the hunting units. Horseshoe blind unit is approximately 2,000 acres by itself. There are 20 blinds there and a disabled access blind. The blinds are constructed of CCA lumber and set on poles in the ground. This year the blinds are covered in cord grass, and that works well to match the surroundings.

"There are four major pools that are wade-and-shoot. Those are divided into two sections each to accommodate two parties. Most of our wade-and-shoot pools are former agriculture units with moist soil. Some might remember that our wade-and-shoot pools were once primarily filled with pin oak timber. That ended when they were killed in the flood of 1993. Until last year we had some regeneration from acorns, but the floods of last spring damaged those as well. Luckily, this spring was dry enough to pull off a good planting."

But that's about as far as the good news goes. Shortly thereafter, the spring rains set in and raised the river enough to engulf some of the burgeoning crops. "What is left is in pretty poor condition," Poppe acknowledged, "although we expect our food sources to be better this year as compared to last year. To compensate, most of our other pools will be comprised of natural vegetation such as millet and smartweed. The ducks will really use it heavy later in the fall."

The setting for Ted Shanks makes it an appropriate site for a waterfowl hotspot. The confluence of rivers creates marshy habitat that migrating ducks are attracted to as a natural stopover, and Missouri hunters who frequent the CA can take advantage of that. During an influx of new ducks, the action's apt to pick up slightly - it's fairly obvious that the hunting's best when there are a lot of birds - and it takes between 10,000 and 15,000 birds for it to get into that really good stage.

"Mallards are our main duck," Poppe noted. "Our hunters also harvest quite a few wood ducks. Widgeons and gadwalls are high on the list and often fill in between mallards. Since the area is in close proximity to the river, there are offhand chances at shooting the occasional diver duck, too."

Ted Shanks is a good-sized area, and thus makes correspondingly more accommodations for hunters; resources suffice to host 28 parties, who are greeted with plenty of choices. The CA provides boats for the blinds and some wade-and-shoot pools. If you choose to bring your own boat, be it a johnboat or a layout, there are ramps to facilitate its use.

Ted Shanks CA is 17 miles south of Hannibal, or 60 miles north of St. Louis on Highway 79 and east on Route TT. For more information, contact Ted Shanks CA, 3643 Pike 145, Ashburn, MO 63433.

* * *
These three areas give eastern duck hunters a chance to get into some worthwhile waterfowling without having to drive great distances across the state. All three of the

CAs have the potential to host rewarding hunts and that can truly convey what Missouri waterfowling can be all about. So don't let the prospect of driving long distances and standing in long lines - after all of which you might not get drawn - keep you from going after the ducks this year. Check out these options that offer metro residents both easy access and outstanding opportunities.

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