Ohio's Finest December Waterfowl Hunts

Ohio's Finest December Waterfowl Hunts

Don't put your guns and decoys on the shelf yet. Plenty of good duck and goose shooting awaits hunters in northeast Ohio this month. Our expert has the story. (December 2005)

Photo by Marc Murrell

By December, most Ohio waterfowlers have put away their gear for the season. There's the feeling that going afield in December won't be worth the trouble.


Are they missing out on some great shooting? You bet they are!

Unless the winter weather has been severe, there will still be plenty of Canada geese throughout the region, and on many public lands there will be bonus mallards, black ducks and other late-season species.


Geese will be spending a lot of time on farm fields feeding on grains dropped or trampled during the fall harvest. Corn and wheat fields provide areas with easy flight access and wide-open spaces with little cover for predators, two factors that are especially attractive to geese this time of the year.


"Two factors attract over-wintering and migrating waterfowl to northeastern Ohio," said Dan Huss, an Ohio Division of Wildlife District Three waterfowl biologist. "These include open water and bottomland cornfields that have been harvested. The colder the weather, the better the hunting."

According to Huss, cold weather causes higher energy demands and heavier feeding to maintain body heat. Early in the morning, geese fly out to the fields where they'll spend the day feeding. In the evening, they will fly back to roosting areas, which involve open pockets of water whenever ice-free water is available."

Hunters setting up between the water and surrounding fields are almost guaranteed good shooting opportunities. If you've done your homework, you'll be right where you need to be.

Statewide, goose numbers are down a little, according to Geoff Westerfield, a wildlife biologist with the ODOW's District Three office.

"Last year was the first time we saw a decline in numbers. We can't judge a trend by one year, but numbers may be lower again this year."

Still, the biologist isn't worried.

"We'll always have geese," said Westerfield.

A little pre-season scouting for flight patterns, daylight feeding locations and nighttime roosts can make all the difference in the world in bagged birds at the end of the day. The bottom line is there are still plenty of December geese to be taken if you're willing to look for them.

Here's a look at our best bets for winter waterfowl this season in northeastern Ohio:

MOSQUITO CREEK WILDLIFE AREA

At 3,156 acres, Mosquito Creek dwarfs the rest of northeast Ohio's inland waters. If waterfowl are pushed south of the Lake Erie marshes, this is a likely stopover.

A top pick for biologist Westerfield, Mosquito Creek WA is a top destination when the weather is cooperating.

Mosquito Creek reservoir is normally wide open and can be one of the last to freeze up in the region.

"The lake starts freezing up in mid-December," said Terry Ebberling, a District Three wildlife technician. "Mallards are the main bag, and in the late season we start getting divers. The mallards work nearby crop fields just like the geese do."

ODOW food plots scattered throughout the wildlife area offer wheat, corn and buckwheat. Sharecroppers plant corn and soybeans, all of which draw birds.

When the water does freeze over, an old trick that works is sweeping off the ice to simulate open water. Hunters using this technique to attract geese say it fools the birds every time.

Geese and ducks roost in open water on the reservoir, and the fewer areas of open water there are, the more concentrated the birds will be. It's not uncommon to see 100 Canadas floating on a pocket of open water when surrounding waters are frozen solid.

The northern part of the reservoir is a waterfowl refuge where no trespassing is allowed. The rest of the lake is open to hunting.

A drawing is held on the third Saturday in August every year for hunters who want to construct blinds. If the blind isn't put up in the designated unit within 45 days, the unit is passed along to another hunter.

Mosquito Creek reservoir is part of Mosquito Creek State Park and borders the Mosquito Creek Lake Wildlife Area's thousand acres of public hunting lands.

Check with the state park office to get up-to-date information on ice thickness and the availability of open water. If the lake hasn't frozen over, small boats may be launched from the ramp on township Road 240. Walk-in lake hunting is available along the shoreline between Cortland and the buoy line.

Access to Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area is off state routes 46 and 87.

The area is 45 miles from Cleveland and 70 miles from Akron in Trumbull County.

A map and more information may be obtained by contacting the Mosquito Creek Wildlife Area at (440) 685-4776 and the Mosquito Creek State Park at (330) 637-2856.

SHENANGO WILDLIFE AREA

"Usually late season is good," said Ken Davis, the Shenango Wildlife Area coordinator.

Davis pointed out that waterfowlers tend to fade out as deer season comes in and that they're missing out on some good hunting.

Along with Canadas, late-season mallards and divers round out the shooting opportunities. In general, the more flooded the Pymatuning River is, the better the shooting will be. An inch of rain can make a big difference when the ground is frozen, said Davis. When the water backs up into the trees, the geese aren't far behind.

The Pymatuning has moving water late into the winter. Float trips hold good potential for Canadas, and the higher the water, the better. Some obstructions, such as logjams, dot the shoreline but won't be much of a problem in flooded conditions.

Black ducks and mallards keep duck hunters happy during the first part of the month.

"On the Pymatuning north of state Route 87 is one of the better areas for ducks," said Davis. "There are some hunters who know that if they get back in there, they'll have

the whole place to themselves. They get some real good late-season shooting."

The remote areas are only accessible by canoe, which limits the number of hunters targeting them, especially on cold December days.

The Shenango Wildlife Area follows Pymatuning Creek from Orangeville almost to the Ashtabula County line. Hundreds of acres of marsh, open fields and woods are interspersed throughout the area, with nearby farmlands for daytime feeding areas.

The Shenango WA is 22 miles north of Youngstown and bordered by state Route 7 on the west and the Orangeville-Kinsman Road on the east. Access also can be gained from state routes 87, 88 and 252.

For a map and more information, contact the Shenango Wildlife Area office at (440) 685-4776.

HIGHLANDTOWN WILDLIFE AREA

The real draw for geese at Highlandtown is the surrounding farm fields and grasslands. The 170-acre lake could freeze up in severe weather but may easily stay open into mid-December.

"There's not a large number of geese wintering here, but when the water is still open, we can get mallards, buffleheads, woodies and geese, though ducks will leave when the lake freezes over," said Jeff Janosik, area manager.

Highlandtown offers good shooting when conditions are right, Janosik added.

"There isn't a resident flock, and during the late season the ducks and geese may be gone. Some geese will come through late, and hunters can jump-shoot the stream," he said. "Pre-season scouting is the biggest thing. Hunters need to come down and look around."

ODOW food plots on the area contain winter wheat, sunflowers, millet, buckwheat and sorghum, all of which is left standing. Surrounding farmland provides good forage of waste corn.

Open-water shooting is available at the lake during milder winter weather, and there are walk-in opportunities on area ponds, Little Yellow Creek and nearby crop fields.

The Highlandtown WA covers 2,265 acres in Columbiana County and is three miles northeast of Salineville on state Route 39. The area is 37 miles from Canton, 60 miles from Akron and about 90 miles from Cleveland.

Additional information and a map are available by contacting the wildlife area office at (330) 679-2201.

KILLBUCK MARSH WILDLIFE AREA

Killbuck Marsh has it all. Canadas, divers and a variety of migrating species use the area throughout the winter.

But, according to Geoff Westerfield, a District Three wildlife biologist, hunting can be tough in December.

"It depends on where the water is open. One spot is usually where Killbuck Creek runs through. Field hunting is easier at this time of year rather than depending on open water, and Killbuck Marsh has that, too."

Killbuck Marsh is the Buckeye State's largest inland marsh, and it covers 5,492 acres. The ODOW provides food plots to attract geese, as do the grasslands and open fields.


Hunters setting up between the water and surrounding fields are almost guaranteed good shooting opportunities.
 

The wildlife area has controlled waterfowl habitat designed to increase the number of ducks available to hunters. A refuge is provided where waterfowl can rest and be unpressured, which encourages them to stay in the area longer. No hunting is allowed in the refuge portion, which is marked on the area map.

Access to the river is from both banks and by boat. This provides landlocked hunters the opportunity to jump-shoot birds, and this allows boaters a chance to cover a lot of water.

A 350-acre diked marsh known as Wright's Marsh is off state Route 226. When flooded, this is one of the area's hotspots. The ODOW and Ducks Unlimited combined efforts to establish this and other prime waterfowl habitat on the area.

No hunting is allowed in the refuge that is bordered on the north by Force Road and on the south by the Wayne-Holmes county line.

The Killbuck Marsh runs north from Holmesville to about three miles south of Wooster. Access is from state Route 83 on the east and state Route 226 on the west. Plenty of secondary roads enter the area as well.

Killbuck Marsh is 35 miles from Akron and Mansfield and 55 miles from Cleveland. It covers parts of Wayne and Holmes counties.

Contact the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area at (330) 567-3390 for additional information.

LOWER KILLBUCK WILDLIFE AREA

A few years ago the ODOW purchased 151 acres a stone's throw from the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area. This smaller area can be a real hotspot for geese.

Killbuck Creek meanders through the area and provides good jump-shooting when the surrounding fields are frozen. At times there won't be a goose on the creek, and at other times they seem to be everywhere, so pre-hunt scouting is recommended.

This out-of-the-way stopover is one of Westerfield's picks for hunters who want to try a smaller area where there's less chance of bumping elbows with other hunters.

High water levels and managed flooding invites Canadas in to spend the night before flying out in the morning to feed in nearby corn and wheat fields.

The Lower Killbuck Wildlife Area offers about a half-mile of riverfront shooting in Holmes County. Access is from U.S. Route 62 or state Route 520, which intersects U.S. Route 62 north of the area. Killbuck Creek borders the area on the east.

The area is 45 miles from Akron and 70 miles outside of Cleveland.

For more information, contact the Killbuck Marsh Wildlife Area office at (330) 567-3390.

WEST BRANCH STATE PARK WILDLIFE AREA

"Until opening day, the geese haven't been disturbed much, and hunters can expect some good shooting," said Damon Greer, a District Three wildlife biologist. "After that, the resident birds figure out what's going on and begin flying out before daylight and come back in after dark. They'll avoid fields where they're heavily hunted, so try to find out where they're loafing and feeding and be there only at those times."

West Branch is a good candidate to experiment with flagging. Used in conjunction with a large decoy spread, this technique simulates Canadas touching down to feed in open fields and should be used when a flight is about a half-mile out.

When the geese approach, lower the flags and move them up and down a foot

or two off the ground to imitate the stretching and folding of wings. Put the flags away as soon as the flock turns, and don't overdo it. Just get their attention and then get ready!

West Branch State Park is open for hunting except for the northeastern section bordered by Rock Spring Road and on the beach, the park office, the campground, the day-use areas and the East Boat Ramp. Hunting is also prohibited within a 400-foot safety zone from any park facility.

The West Branch State Park Wildlife Area in Portage County is about five miles east of Ravenna on state Route 5. The area is 15 miles from Alliance, 25 miles from Akron and 35 miles outside of Cleveland.

West Branch Reservoir covers 2,650 acres at full pool. About 4,000 acres of public hunting lands are available.

For a map that shows the no-hunting area or for more information, contact the Berlin Wildlife Area office at (330) 654-2392, or call the state park office at (330) 296-3239.

GRAND RIVER WILDLIFE AREA

The Grand River Wildlife Area is another of biologist Westerfield's top December picks.

"The Grand River runs through this area and is one of the few rivers in the region with open water in December," said Westerfield.

The 6,993-acre wildlife area can be a goldmine for waterfowlers. Geese will be attracted to the grasslands, brush, marshes and ponds or the Grand River proper, which usually provides open water into December. A number of beaver ponds and flowages enhance the natural waterfowl habitat.

"Watch for feeding patterns and then try to intercept the birds on their way out to feed or when they come back in to roost," Westerfield said.

Cold fronts can drive birds into the area from the north or push them out and to the south. A day's pre-season scouting can save a lot of wasted time during the hunt. The real benefit of an oncoming cold front is that geese will feed heavily just before the weather change arrives.

"If you've never hunted an area before, try to get there a day early to pattern the birds," said Greer.

The Grand River Wildlife Area is on state Route 534 near Farmington.

For additional information and a map, contact the wildlife office at (330) 889-3280.

Hunters should make it a habit to check with the areas they plan to hunt for updated information on blind drawings and other site-specific details.

For more information, contact the ODOW's Wildlife District Three office at (330) 644-2283, or visit the ODOW's Web site at

www.dnr.state.oh.us/wildlife.

Wildlife area maps are also available online.

Trip-planning assistance is available by contacting the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism at (800) 282-5393.

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