Last Shots At Sooner Ducks
October 05, 2010
Here are some hotspots and hot tips to keep you in the game until the very end of Oklahoma's duck season. (January 2006)
Photo by Mike Gnatkowski
Although duck hunting can be great in Oklahoma throughout the season, my best hunts have always come late.
In fact, one of my most memorable hunts ever was at Fort Cobb Reservoir on New Year's Eve. I had to break ice to put out my decoys, and then watched awestruck as endless waves of mallards rose from the peanut fields around the lake. Those that lit on the lake rafted up in open water off a long point.
My partner and I got a few singles on passing shots over the decoys, but we filled our limits by belly-crawling to the end of the point. When we rose from the tall grass, the mallards launched skyward, and we picked a few out of the flock. With no dog to retrieve our downed birds, we had to wait for the wind to blow them into shallow water.
If you live in northeastern Oklahoma, you have even more opportunities for late-season hunting excitement because of the abundance of water in the region. Within reasonable driving distance you have Keystone Lake, Lake Oologah, the Verdigris River, Sequoyah National Wildlife Refuge and all of Lake Eufaula. You can even enjoy decent duck hunting at times on lakes Tenkiller and Skiatook. Don't forget Kaw Lake, which has become a prominent duck-hunting hotspot in its own right.
One of the great things about late-season duck hunting, especially in the last decade, is that ducks seem to be more plentiful. A long succession of mild winters has allowed ducks to remain in the northern part of the Central Flyway longer than they historically did, and thus the bulk of the mallards have been arriving later. If you can be at the right place at the right time, you can enjoy excellent hunting.
The downside of late-season duck hunting, at least on public areas, is that you'll probably have a lot of company, says Mike O'Meilia, waterfowl biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. Oklahoma's duck hunting isn't a secret anymore, so local hunters now compete for space on public land with a growing number of non-residents. Consequently, crowded public areas are getting even more crowded, especially on weekends.
"We've got some of the best waterfowl hunting in the country, but it's very dynamic," O'Meilia said. "It could be very good in some places and poor in others. As far as public areas go, virtually any of our big federal reservoirs can have good hunting at times."
Because of the increased hunting pressure, waterfowling now ends at 1 p.m. on all waterfowl development units managed by the ODWC. It's a bit inconvenient, but according to O'Meilia, it's necessary, so that ducks aren't hounded out of those areas.
"Some of our lakes where we've had good habitat, we see good concentrations of birds," he said, "but the way information transfers are these days, people post it on the Internet where the ducks are, and that tends to concentrate hunters. Birds in short order will switch to different areas or switch to nocturnal feeding patterns."
Of course, you can avoid those hassles and experience the best duck hunting if you own or have access to private land. The best areas are always going to be along the major waterways in this part of the state.
If you don't have access to private land, you'll have to take your chances on public land. O'Meilia's always reluctant to mention specific areas, because the publicity simply concentrates hunters. However, the best spots are limited in number, and everyone knows where they are.
O'Meilia noted that most of the ODWC's wetland development units are basically open marshes in the upper ends of the big reservoirs or their major tributaries. The ODWC plants them with Japanese millet, which provides a lot of food for ducks if there's sufficient rainfall to bring the crop to fruition.
However, hunting open marshes is much different from hunting in flooded timber, because the lack of cover makes it easier for ducks to detect a ruse. The openness also compresses space, increasing competition among hunters who may actually be a considerable distance away from each other.
Also, hunting the reservoirs depends heavily on water levels. If we have a dry fall, and the lakes remain at conservation pool levels, waterfowl habitat is poor and very limited. If the water comes up significantly, the amount of habitat expands into vegetated areas. That can happen quickly, and that's when hunting gets good.
Micah Holmes, information and education specialist for the ODWC, reports that duck hunters in northeast Oklahoma don't plan their hunts weeks in advance; instead, they constantly check the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Web sites, and when they see that water's rising in the lakes, they take off work to hunt for a few days.
You can maximize your chances of success by hunting during the week, when fewer hunters are out. You can also hunt smarter than everyone else does, which means getting into an area early, skillfully camouflaging yourself and your boat, setting out the most appealing decoy spreads and resisting the temptation to overcall. Those are the few things that you can control. The rest is up to the birds.
Undoubtedly the most popular duck hunting area in Eastern Oklahoma is Lake Eufaula. The Eufaula Wildlife Management Area covers nearly 35,000 acres in Latimer, McIntosh, Pittsburg and Okmulgee counties in east-central Oklahoma. A portion of that acreage is the Gaines Creek Arm. Other major tributaries are the Deep Fork River, the North Canadian River and South Canadian River.
Most of the WMA is on the upper reaches of these tributaries. Bottomlands range from hardwood species, such as pin oaks, to dense river bottoms of willow and cottonwood. In high water, you can enjoy excellent greentree hunting in some areas.
In addition, Eufaula WMA has a number of natural wetland areas and sloughs, as well as about 780 acres of wetland units.
"The Deep Fork arm of Eufaula traditionally has a lot of ducks, but it has extremely high hunting pressure," O'Meilia said. "Lake levels can tell you everything. If the lake is down real low, it's going to limit the number of places that are desirable for ducks. When levels get above conservation pool, it's going to have a higher probability to provide hunting opportunities."
Over the last few years, Kaw Lake has become very popular, said the ODWC's Micah Holmes. That's mostly due to a succession of excellent millet crops. The best hunting is
on the upper end, near the mouth of the Arkansas River. According to Holmes, that area is defined by wide, shallow mudflats. Access and concealment are the main challenges to hunting there, he added, because there's nothing to hide behind. Also, the water is too shallow and too sloppy for any kind of craft other than a shallow-draft johnboat powered, preferably, by a Go-Devil or some similar kind of slop-buster.
"If you don't have the proper equipment, you'll have trouble," Holmes said. "Ducks roost on the open part of lake, and they feed on Japanese millet early and late. It's hard to get to them, but I know guys who motor in there, walk as far as they can and get low in the millet. They'll put out a dozen decoys, and maybe a spinner, and they do real well."
If there's an overlooked hotspot in Eastern Oklahoma, it might be the Canadian River below Eufaula Dam. The area is fairly wide and deep in places, but it has a lot of big sandbars and side channels. If you can find an area the ducks are using, you can set up a portable blind on a sandbar and do well.
Another effective tactic is to launch a canoe below the dam and drift-hunt, or use your canoe to access the sandbars and side channels. I've used this method on the Lower Illinois River below Lake Tenkiller and have been amazed at the number of mallards I've seen loafing in the slack water above the bends. You can often get well within shooting range before they flush.
The upper ends of lakes Keystone and Oologah can harbor excellent hunting, O'Meilia said, but conditions can change overnight, especially at Keystone. You can have excellent habitat one day, and the place can be full of ducks. The water can fall dramatically during the night, and the ducks will leave.
As with any kind of hunting, success depends on preparation and just simply being there. Since there's not much time left in our duck season, don't waste it.