Sooner State Waterfowling

Sooner State Waterfowling

With duck and goose seasons set to start any day now, here's what you can expect when you hit the fields and waterways across Oklahoma.

Photo by Gary Clancy

Whenever someone asks whether I think we're going to have a good waterfowl season in Oklahoma, my first thought is always to check the rainfall total for the year.

That's because rainfall and lake levels play such a huge part in determining what kind of duck and goose seasons we're going to have here.

Sure, we watch for the bulletins published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Ducks Unlimited, those reports on the numbers of breeding pairs of various species, and the evaluations of nesting conditions up in the prairie pothole regions of central Canada and the northern United States. But the local water levels always seem to be a much better indicator of whether we'll have lots of good hunting or almost none.

When Oklahoma's lakes, ponds and streams are at normal levels or above, we almost always get lots of ducks to stop and spend a few days with us. If our bodies of water are slightly below normal, we have to work much harder at finding any numbers of ducks. The ones that do stop here during their southward migration rarely stay for more than a night, and then they move on toward the Gulf Coast. If our lakes are significantly below normal, the duck hunting's scarcely worth bothering with.

Even if breeding numbers are down a little, we'll see ducks in Oklahoma if we have plenty of water; even if the breeding numbers are peaking, we'll have a tough time here if we don't have lots of wetlands to catch the eye of those passing flights of mallards and others. Water level is perhaps the most important factor in determining how good our waterfowl season will be in Oklahoma.

The timing and amounts of rainfall throughout spring and summer months also play a part in preparing habitat that's attractive to migrating waterfowl. Too, the manipulation of water levels at reservoirs plays a part as well.

For example: If we have a really wet spring that keeps the lakes above normal levels, and the water stays high through mid to late summer, there's little in the way of exposed shoreline or shallows where the aquatic and emergent plants can grow. So when the ducks arrive, there's not much in the way of food around the lake to hold them.

On the other hand, if the rains in the spring and early summer are normal or less, and the lakes drop down to normal levels or slightly below, there are lots of natural plants that can grow on the shores and in the shallows to provide duck food. Also, wildlife managers can seed the muddy shorelines of big reservoirs with millet that will ripen by the time duck season arrives. Private landowners or leaseholders can just as easily seed the shorelines of their ponds or lakes with millet or milo to provide food for waterfowl.

That's enough about rainfall and habitat, though. Let's talk about hunting ducks and geese.

Our first crack at waterfowl in Oklahoma each fall comes in September. There are two short seasons -- usually about nine or 10 days in the middle of the month -- during which teal and Canada geese can be hunted. At this writing, the exact dates of those hunts have not been announced, but they will be listed in the Oklahoma Hunting Regulations booklets available from license vendors, and they can be seen online at the ODWC's Web site,

www.wildlifedepartment.com.

Teal might be found just about anywhere that water flows or pools, but the most successful teal hunters I know hunt either on or very near big rivers like the Arkansas and its major tributaries. I love teal; I can't hit 'em, but I love 'em. The small, fast-flying birds can appear and disappear in the blink of an eye. Many times I've heard the telltale squeaking whistle of a flight of teal rocketing over my head, and almost as many times I've been too slow on the uptake, so the teal were out of range before I could raise my gun and fire.

The early Canada goose seasons are meant to give hunters an early crack at our resident Canada goose populations. Though covered by the same hunting regulations as the Canadas that migrate, these aren't migratory birds; they typically don't leave their home areas. They may fly a few miles back and forth among area streams and ponds and food sources, but they stay all year in the same general vicinity.

Belonging to the race maxima, Oklahoma's resident Canadas were once believed extinct, but are now prolific and widespread. Most of the geese in city parks and around neighborhood ponds throughout the Midwest and Great Plains states are descendants of the remnant population of "giant" Canada geese found living on bluffs along the Missouri River in northern Missouri several decades ago.

Oklahoma started releasing Canada geese of the maxima race in 1980. More than 15,000 -- most obtained from Wisconsin and Minnesota -- were eventually released. Huntable populations of resident birds developed within just a few years.

Taxonomists say there are at least 11 recognized races of Canada geese distinguished by size, body mass, coloration and geographic distribution. Usually, at least three of the races, transit through Oklahoma, adding temporarily to the resident birds.

These big birds have been passing through this area for many thousands of years, and they've been a food source for maybe as long as there has been a human population. Trash piles around prehistoric encampments contain bones of Canada geese. And those hunters didn't have 3 1/2-inch Magnum shotguns and high-brass shells with which to kill their geese. More likely, they captured geese in midsummer during the molting process, when the flight feathers fall out and geese are briefly ground-bound. It would be illegal now, of course, but native hunters took advantage of the molting season and "herded" flightless geese into traps to capture them.

Hunters looking for some early-season action might also consider birds that aren't exactly waterfowl, but are found near the water. Rail and gallinule seasons usually open Sept. 1 and remain open into early November. The snipe season typically opens Oct. 1 and remains open for three months or more.

If you've never hunted shorebirds, get a copy of the hunting regulations booklet and study the seasons, bag limits and other rules. You might be surprised at how many of these birds are around, and how tasty their meat can be.

I know some hunters who worked for the Wildlife Department and regularly hunted snipe, rails and another migratory bird, the woodcock, each fall. They kept their hotspots a closely guarded secret, b

ut I can tell you that all of their best places were on public land near Eastern Oklahoma reservoirs.

Limits on these shorebirds are very liberal. Again, I would urge you to get a copy of the 2005-06 waterfowl hunting regulations and check the details before you hunt. But the limits and rules haven't changed much in a long time. Last year the daily bag limit on rails was 25. The limit on gallinules was 15 and the limit on snipe was 8 per day.

Since these birds are migratory, make sure you have your Migratory Bird Hunting Information Program (HIP) permit before you go. That permit can be obtained on line at the ODWC's Web site or from license vendors.

Yet another migratory bird that's not exactly a shorebird but is often found around wetlands is the above-mentioned woodcock. Woodcock season usually doesn't open until November in Oklahoma. My son and his friends found several woodcock last year in a place in which they hunted ducks; he reported that the woodcock stayed around long after the season closed. Woodcock are often found in upland habitat, but because they probe moist soils for food, they do tend to frequent marginal wetland areas, too.

Let's talk about places for hunting ducks and geese in Oklahoma.

Some ducks are killed in Oklahoma by hunters in feed fields. However, that type of hunting isn't nearly as common here as it is in other areas, as most Sooner State hunters hunt over water. The biggest decision to make is big water or small?

Hunting big water takes preparation. A good shallow-draft boat is almost a necessity. Three dozen or more decoys come in handy. If you plan to hunt on one of the more popular reservoirs, you may even want to take part in the annual drawings for waterfowl hunting blind sites. That drawing, which takes place each fall on National Hunting and Fishing Day weekend in late September, allows hunters to lay first claim to a choice blind site. The drawings for blinds at Eufaula, Fort Gibson and Webbers Falls lakes -- three of the most popular duck-hunting reservoirs in northeastern Oklahoma -- are held each year at the ODWC's northeast regional headquarters on U.S. Highway 69 between Wagoner and Muskogee.


More famed for its geese, Salt Plains always attracts clouds of mallards and other ducks.
 

There are not drawings for all Oklahoma lakes. At many, it's first-come, first-served.

If you hunt smaller waters, you can often get by with far less equipment. Twelve to 18 decoys, a canoe or johnboat, a camouflaged float-tube or even just a pair of waders or hip boots often can be enough.

Small lakes and ponds, old oxbows, marshes, creeks and beaver-dammed wetlands offer duck hunting opportunities throughout Oklahoma.

I'm fortunate enough to have a friend who is a dedicated waterfowler and who hunts big water most of the time. I accompany him on occasion, often enough to get a taste of big-water hunting. He has a great boat, enough decoys to fill my pickup truck, and all the accessories. He hunts a couple of big lakes almost exclusively, launching his boat in the wee, dark hours of the morning, navigating by GPS and setting out big spreads of decoys augmented by a motorized "winged" decoy that sometimes pulls ducks from far away.

I enjoy hunting with him, not just because we kill ducks, but also because I like watching a master at work. One of the best benefits of writing about hunting and fishing and related outdoor pursuits is that I've met and gotten to go afield with people who are outstanding at their chosen hobbies.

Hunting with my publicity-shy buddy is like going to duck-hunting school. He might tell you I'm not one of his most apt pupils, but that's beside the point.

I really like hunting small waters. Standing knee-deep in water in a pecan grove flooded by beavers and watching mallards maneuver to land in a hole in the canopy, is a great way to spend a chilly winter morning. I had one such hunt a few years ago within sight of Tulsa's taller downtown buildings. We listened to the buzz of morning commuter traffic as we shot mallards that morning.

My teenage son and his friends kill both ducks and Canada geese after school by hunting in a small marshy area near Tulsa. Sometimes they don't even need decoys because the area, not far from the Arkansas River, is the most attractive waterfowl habitat around.

Since Oklahoma's beaver population rebounded so abundantly in the 1970s and '80s, wetlands created by beaver dams have become commonplace. You need only drive the highways and the back roads of most counties to see marshy or flooded bottomlands where beavers have created wonderful waterfowl habitat. The state agriculture department keeps a handful of animal damage control officers (what we used to call "government trappers") on the payroll, trapping beavers and coyotes year 'round. But they can't keep up with the demand, so there are always new beaver dams being built.

I guess that's bad if you're a farmer whose crops are getting flooded, or a rancher whose pastures are growing smartweed and water-willow instead of good bluestem grass. But if you're a duck hunter, it's a welcome development. Beavers are destructive little critters, but they're good for duck habitat.

If you divide the map of Oklahoma in half vertically, it's easy to see that most of the state's water is in the eastern side. We have dozens of large reservoirs measuring from a few thousand acres up to 102,000. So those of us who live over in the eastern counties often think we've got the best duck-hunting spots around.

However, an awful lot of ducks migrate through the western half of our state as well. And even though there aren't nearly as many big lakes out west, there are plenty of smaller lakes and plenty of farm ponds to attract the birds. I'm amazed nearly every year at how many ducks sometimes use those tiny impoundments out in the semi-arid western parts of the state. I've seen ponds less than a quarter-acre in size covered with several dozen ducks at a time.

When I was going to college at Alva, out in Woods County, my dorm buddies and I shot a lot of ducks in the vicinity of the Great Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge. More famed for its geese, Salt Plains always attracts clouds of mallards and other ducks. I don't believe we ever hunted on any of the refuge property itself, but we probed ponds and creeks that were within a few miles of the refuge, and we often got our limits quickly.

Evidence of how many ducks migrate through our western counties can be seen at the Hackberry Flat WMA in Tillman County, southeast of Frederick. Hackberry Flat was a historical wetland that had been drained in the early 20th century by area farmers to provide more land for crops and grazing. In the 1990s it was restored as a wetland. The ODWC built 35 miles of dikes, plus water distribution systems, and returned 3,700 acres of the 7,100-acre property into we

tlands.

It was the wildlife equivalent of Field of Dreams: It was built, and they came. As soon as Hackberry was created, ducks began stopping there on their way through Western Oklahoma, which, although it doesn't get visited by a lot of geese, does sometimes attract sandhill cranes.

Most sandhill crane hunting in Oklahoma is done in the Panhandle, but there are other places in our western counties where they can be hunted. Remember: If you hunt cranes, you need a federal sandhill crane permit as well as a hunting license and HIP survey. The crane permits are $3 and can be purchased from any license dealer. While holders of Oklahoma lifetime hunting licenses are exempt from some permit requirements, they are not exempt from the HIP survey or crane permit requirements, and so must obtain the proper permits before hunting.

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