Oklahoma Hotspots For River Ducks
October 05, 2010
You won't be sorry you tried the hunting at these duck factories winding through our state. Here's where and how you can get in on the waterfowling action now. (December 2005)
Photo by R.E. Ilg
In the minds of many outsiders, Oklahoma hunting brings to mind the images of a semi-arid landscape that is certainly hospitable to white-tailed deer, bobwhite quail, Rio Grande turkeys and mourning doves.
Those same images also bring to mind a state that at first glance would hardly seem to be the place where duck hunting dreams are made.
And that's just fine and dandy for Sooner State duck hunting insiders like Brady Walker. They know better.
Walker, who owns Ducks-n-Bucks Guide Service, has found a duck hunting nirvana in northern Oklahoma, a place that doesn't look all that ducky at first glance.
But duck-rich it is, especially along the East Salt Fork River that he regularly hunts every year in Alfalfa County located in northern Oklahoma about 50 miles to the west of I-35.
"We're a border county to Kansas," Walker said. "In fact, we're only about 12 to 15 miles south of Kansas. We're about as far north in Oklahoma as you can go.
"We get limits of mallards about every time we hunt," he added. He recalled a hunting season about two years ago, and he said, "Out of 120-something guys who hunted with us, only three guys failed to shoot a limit of mallards."
The duck and deer guide admits that such lofty waterfowling statistics have left him a bit spoiled.
"We're definitely not all about big whitetails and bobwhite quail, that's for sure," he commented.
But what's true in his part of northern Oklahoma is also true across most other portions of the Sooner State: Where there's a river system flowing, there are bound to be ducks nearby.
In addition to the East Salt Fork along which Walker has found so much duck shooting success, there are a myriad of other smaller river drainages crisscrossing the Sooner State that can offer big-time duck hunting at certain times of the year. Add in the state's major river systems -- the Canadian, the Arkansas, and the Red -- and there are few corners of Oklahoma that can't produce solid river waterfowl gunning, particularly as it gets later in the duck season.
Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation migratory game bird biologist Mike O'Meilia says that, in fact, one of those major river systems can actually serve as a major migratory corridor through the Sooner State.
Certainly the Arkansas does have plenty of waterfowl movement, according to O'Meilia. "If you talk to the hunters over there, in terms of bird movement, it's pretty obvious that they're following that Arkansas River corridor down through the state. The others (rivers), they use that water in association with crops."
Keep in mind that while ducks can often be found in and around the state's river systems, they can just as easily be invisible, too. In other words, this isn't quite as simple as finding the nearest river, grabbing a bag of decoys and going duck hunting.
"Access is difficult, and the birds can really be distributed up and down them," O'Meilia said of Oklahoma's river systems. "When I fly our surveys, oftentimes, you'll go a long ways and not see any ducks, and then you'll hit a stretch, and there they are."
One key to finding river ducks in Oklahoma is to find the food source that the waterfowl are regularly utilizing. The ODWC biologist says that while peanut production has fallen off the charts in Oklahoma since the peanut quota went out five years ago, other agricultural food sources that come into play include such items as corn, sorghum and even soybeans, although O'Meilia rates the latter on the low end of the duck grocery scale.
"When there is nothing else, they'll use it," he said.
But even soybeans can be an important draw for ducks, since many of the state's prairie river systems are a bit sparse on natural duck food supplies. The exception to that rule is wetlands that are adjacent to these river systems. Where such places exist, if the growing season has been conducive to it, O'Meilia says that there can be an "abundance of natural food."
Brady Walker, a 35-year-old duck-hunting addict, agrees wholeheartedly, noting that ducks will fly several miles if they have to do so to find a preferred food source.
"Like any animal, if it's cold, they've got to have some food," Walker said. "If you've got quality food sources close to a small creek or a river, then the ducks, especially the mallards, will take advantage of any situation they can get."
For instance, take the week of hunting that Walker and his clients enjoyed last season.
"Last year, we shot three limits of mallards three days in a row in a small creek that was probably only 10 feet by 12 feet wide," the duck guide said. "But it was located 300 yards from a bean field. They were using that bean field because it got wet and never got cut, so it was a food source for the whole area. Those ducks figured out that instead of flying eight or nine miles from the lake to the bean field, they could fly just several hundred yards instead.
Do it right, and the hunt that you experience can be off the charts. Don't do it right, and you may bag one or two ducks, if any at all.
"The food was there, the water was there and the ducks were there. It was crazy."
Keep in mind that, crazy or not, finding the ducks' preferred late-season food source near a river is only one of the hurdles that Oklahoma waterfowl hunters must overcome. Because of the state's private land and water laws, gaining landowner permission and hunting access is another huge consideration for a would-be river duck hunter.
Once landowner permission has been secured and the local waterfowl's preferred food source(s) identified, a final key to how good Oklahoma river duck hunting will be is the weather -- in this case, the colder, the better.
"Weather has an impact," O'Meilia said. "Obviously, the population of birds in any stretch of river is certainly going to go up
when we have an extended period of real hard temperatures."
Walker's duck-hunting experience, gained from some decades of chasing greenheads across the Southern Great Plains, certainly falls into line with the ODWC biologist's statement.
"They're more productive during the late winter when things get really cold and some of the lakes and small bodies of water begin to freeze," Walker said. "That's when the ducks converge on the rivers."
Once the birds do begin to converge on a river section that a hunter has access to, Walker has found a number of techniques that will help turn birds in the air into birds destined for the roasting oven.
The first is to avoid the biggest mistake that most would-be river duck hunters make. In fact, he says it might be the biggest mistake that any duck hunter makes.
"I would say that the biggest mistake is not doing the proper scouting," Walker said. "Ninety percent of it is scouting and doing your homework. I've been known to chase ducks 15 miles to find out where they're going. A lot of people will not do that. They'll see a couple of groups of ducks go down onto a pond or a river, they'll get permission and then they'll grab two dozen decoys and hunt."
But, in Walker's mind, that's simply not the right way to scout and hunt.
"Instead of just going and setting up where (you) think the ducks were at, actually go down there -- with permission -- and watch it and get a game plan," Walker said. "Find out things about these ducks, like once they got below tree level, instead of going where (you) thought, they were actually gliding 200 yards down the river to land on a sandbar."
The Ducks-n-Bucks guide says to watch those ducks for 30 minutes to an hour. See what they're doing, see what they're keying on, see where they're going and then show up the next morning to, as he puts it, "hunt them right."
Do it right, and the hunt that you experience can be off the charts. Don't do it right, and you may bag one or two ducks, if any at all.
"Cold-weather duck hunting can be feast or famine on a river, so you've got to do your scouting," Walker said. "If you find a spot in late December or January that is holding ducks, you can have some of the best hunts that you'll ever have. But you just can't go run down and hunt a river and shoot ducks. You've got to scout it, be on top of your game and know where the ducks are."
While looking for such a spot, keep in mind that ducks are generally going to prefer slower-moving currents and shallow water on any river.
"On river systems, ducks really key in on one particular spot, and those spots are usually an eddy break on the backside of an island or a big sandbar, which also breaks up current," Walker said. "Ducks don't like to sit and fight the current. They'll land in the current, but they'll quickly get to that sandbar where they can stand and loaf and get into the slower-moving water on the backside of that island."
If he hasn't already made his point, Walker reiterates that effectively scouting for that one location that ducks want to use is perhaps the most important thing that any duck hunter can do.
"The biggest key for us is to find that exact spot in the river those ducks are using," Walker said. "They'll bypass your spot to go 300 yards up the river to hit that exact spot that they feel comfortable in. We have two miles of river (to hunt), but being 300 or 400 yards off can make all of the difference between shooting a limit and shooting (a few)."
Once a hunter has his hunting spot located, then it's time to put out an effective decoy spread.
How big a spread? That depends, says Walker.
"Do we use a big spread?" the guide asked. "Yes and no; at times, we do use big spreads of 150 to 200 ducks with a 50/50 mix of full-body decoys and magnum floaters. But it goes back to that location, location, location thing. Typically, if you're in the spot they want to be in, you don't have to use as many decoys."
One notable exception is when hunters are targeting vast flocks of ducks that are using sandbars to loaf and find grit upon. Then, bigger is certainly better, according to the duck guide.
"On a sandbar, there could be several thousand ducks using that spot, so the closer to reality that you can get, the better," Walker said.
One decoy trick that can make a big difference is to use plenty of standing full-body decoys.
"We really started using those three years ago, and now 50 to 60 percent of our spread is full-body decoys," Walker said. "It's not the most cost-effective thing in the world, since they're very expensive, but it definitely makes a huge difference in what the spread looks like to the ducks. When you get those things standing on a sandbar or in shallow water that is just 3 or 4 inches deep, it just makes a huge difference."
When the conversation turns to the construction of duck blinds for river duck hunting, Walker says that he does not personally rely on them for the simple fact that hunting rivers is a fluid situation. And, yes, the pun is intended.
Such a state of duck-hunting flux is due in part to the migratory nature of ducks. It is also due to heavy rains -- even those far upstream -- that can cause a river to come up suddenly, the shifting nature of sandbars or a new or used-up food source that can literally change hunting prospects overnight. Any or all those things can alter the duck hunting along any stretch of stream.
"Any time you can get away with (using) natural cover, you do it," Walker said.
In addition to using natural cover and good camo to hide himself and his duck-hunting clients, Walker also relies on another key ally to take a limit of quackers.
"We use the sun to our advantage," Walker said. "We love bright, sunny, bluebird days with a 20 m.p.h. southwest wind. I love those days because you can get in the shadows and shade since a lot of rivers have a lip or a bank that can shield the sun. You can stand up or sit down in those shady spots, and a lot of times, the ducks have no clue that you're there."
How about calling? While Walker admits that power calling may have its place on the Sooner State's bigger river systems and reservoirs, he prefers to call softer and quieter while letting the ducks tell him what to do on any given day.
Keep in mind that while ducks can often be found in and around the state's river systems, they can just as easily be invisible, too. In other words, this isn't quite as simple as finding the
nearest river, grabbing a bag of decoys and going duck hunting.
"I'll concentrate on feed calls and the soft little quacks that a hen makes," Walker said. "I'll also, in any situation where I'm calling, whether it's a river or not, watch the ducks. If the ducks are reacting to two guys calling hard, heavy, fast and aggressive, and if they're coming in and liking it, then keep doing it. But if not, then tone it down. I think less calling is better most times."
Keep in mind that with any of these hunting tactics, don't overuse them by hunting a particular spot too often. Do so, and you risk burning it out and driving the waterfowl away for good.
If all of this sounds like a lot of work, then remember the payoff can be huge, particularly where limits of greenheads are concerned.
Walker was certainly reminded of that fact on the final day of the 2004-2005 duck season.
"We've had some spectacular hunts, just some absolutely spectacular river hunts in the last six years -- too many good ones to really remember -- but the one last year was unbelievable," Walker said. "The river actually froze while we were hunting. At daylight, it was running. By 8 o'clock, it looked like slush. By 10 o'clock, it wasn't moving."
That's when Walker and his big hunting group moved to a small 100-square-foot hole in a river bend that featured slightly deeper water that was not freezing up.
"It was the last day of the season, and between me, the clients and our guides, we had 10 hunters," Walker fondly recalled. "We sat in that hole and took turns one at a time and took greenheads. We shot only one duck at a time and sat there for about 3 1/2 hours and limited out."
Which just goes to show how good a river hunting hotspot can be in Oklahoma when Old Man Winter brings his "A" game. The duck hunting can be off the charts!
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To contact Brady Walker at Ducks-n-Bucks Guide Service, call (620) 326-6462, or check out his Web site at