Red River Duck Hunt

Red River Duck Hunt

Here's how the author found a bonanza of peanut-eating mallards on public lands along the southern border of our state. (December 2009)

David Berry shared several successful duck hunts with the author on Gist WMA before the season was over.

Photo by Albert Lavallee.

Oklahoma's southwest corner is not the typical duck hunter's idea of a great waterfowling destination. That part of the state typically is very dry during duck season. In 2008-09, the area was, to put it simply, a desert.

Duck hunting conditions started bad in November and got worse. The legendary Hackberry Flat WMA had only two units flooded -- and by January, one of them was dry. As a duck hunter/photographer I was disappointed but not discouraged. I just had to rethink my duck-hunting strategies.

I live in Lawton, which is bounded by several large lakes, all of them opened to duck hunting. Lake Waurika, to the southeast, was my first choice and proved to hold good hunting on most days. It, like all area lakes, was very low. Hunting was difficult because of deep mud and little cover. Lake Ellsworth to the northeast was in the same shape; I hunted it, but it sure was muddy. I didn't make it to Lake Tom Steed, but I'm sure it was in the same shape. I was not having my best year getting ducks or photographs of my dog retrieving. But a friend made a suggestion that changed my whole season.

"Have you ever thought about duck hunting at Gist WMA?" he asked.

"Gist?" I replied. "I've never heard of it, much less hunted it."

He laughed. "Yes, it's not very well known and it's small, only 200 acres. But it's right on the North Fork of the Red River just west of Tipton. I was dove hunting down there in September and thought the river would be a good place to duck hunt this winter, if it gets dry or all the lakes freeze up."

I was intrigued and started doing research. The first place I looked was on the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Web site, www.wildlifedepartment.com. The site supplied me with all the information I needed. The Web site is a very good place to find information on Oklahoma's wildlife management areas. It has maps, aerial photographs and regulations. Gist is, indeed, a small WMA -- mainly a dove, quail and deer hunting area. Kelvin Schoonover manages this small parcel of land; he also is the manager of Hackberry Flat WMA. He usually plants a few acres of wheat on Gist, but that's about it. Duck hunting is not its main attraction, but the Red River borders the WMA on two sides.

I was ready for a scouting/hunting trip to the North Fork of the Red. (Continued)

On the afternoon of Dec. 21 I made my first trip to Gist WMA. I found it easily enough, but there is only one sign and it's at the small parking lot. The North Fork is about 200 yards to the northwest of the parking area, and I soon learned I had carried too much stuff. But I made it, and put out two-dozen mallard decoys in the middle of a very low, slow-flowing river.

The river was only about 50 feet wide and 12 inches deep in most places. The current is very weak in this flat part of Oklahoma. And I had no problem walking around in it. The gentle current did, however, make my two groups of decoys look like they were swimming, and I thought that looked perfect.

I really liked the spread and the movement in my decoys from the current. I also really liked the fact that I was not contending with thick mud. However, what the river lacks in mud it makes up for in sand -- very fine sand. So don't lay guns or cameras down directly on the riverbank unless you absolutely have to.

My swimming spread may have looked good to me, but apparently the ducks didn't like it at all. There were lots of ducks flying around trying to get to a spot about half a mile east of me. I later learned the ducks were wanting to land on a sandbar to roost and rest. I was not discouraged and decided to try hunting the WMA again the next day.

The next morning was cold, cloudy and windy, and the river had slush all over it. It was flowing downstream like a giant Icy.

That proved to be a blessing because I couldn't place my decoys in the middle of the river; the weights on my decoys were not heavy enough to hold them in the flowing slush. I was forced to place my decoys on or near the bank. Without my realizing it, that is what the mallards were looking for -- a group of resting birds.

I sat there until 8 a.m. without seeing or hearing a duck. I was beginning to get a little discouraged when a lone mallard drake came from across the river. He was flying very low and just cleared some small trees. He breasted right between my two groups and "BOOM" he was mine.

Abby, my yellow Lab, made a wonderful retrieve and I had her do it again several times for photos. She had no problems with the slushy, flowing river.

I was happy. I had a mallard drake and lots of good photographs, but a few more would be good too. It didn't take long. At 8:15, a large group of about 30 mallards flew north of me heading to the sandbar roost that I had watched them fly to the day before. I gave them a couple of quakes and the whole group turned on a dime, heading straight for me.

"BOOM '“ BOOM -- BOOM!"

Three more mallards! Abby and I were having fun now! We had birds down and floating in slush. Abby was retrieving as fast as she could, I was taking photos as fast as I could, and more birds were heading our way!

One more "BOOM" and I had limited out!

I sat there on the bank in my blind I had put together from salt cedars and driftwood and watched several more groups of mallards try to land in my decoys. At 9:30, I gave it up, having seen no other birds except mallards.

While picking up my decoys, I had two more groups of mallards try to come in. Man, what a honeyhole, I thought to myself. I'll be back here soon!

Can you say, "mistake!"

Back at home that afternoon cleaning mallards, I discovered what they were eating in the area around Gist and the North Fork of the Red River. It was peanuts! Made sense to me: Sandy soil, water that's not too deep and flat land adds up to peanut fields.

I called my buddy who first had told me about Gist and asked him if he wanted to go with me the next morning. He agreed and we arrived early and made our way to the same spot I was at the previous day. We saw many

mallards but, you guessed it, they would not come to our decoys. We only got one gadwall drake around 10 a.m.

It took a few more trips to Gist WMA before I figured out how all this worked. When you go to the southwest part of Oklahoma to hunt ducks on the rivers, here are a few things you should keep in mind if you want to have a good day of hunting.

1. Scout. Look for peanut fields near the rivers, ask landowners for permission and/or visit Gist WMA

2. If you hunt on the rivers, put decoys on the sandbars. The ducks are resting on the sandbars.

The sandbars in the middle of the rivers are safe from predators. The ducks will return to the same sandbar as long as it is safe. Hunt a sandbar once and then move to another one.

3. You'll only need six decoys on any sandbar, not two dozen. If you hunt ducks at Gist, you will have to walk at least 200 yards. Trust me, six is enough.

4. Keep watching for other duck species flying the river channel. I missed many green-winged teal because they would be flying like little rockets below the high bank and they'd be on me before I had time to raise my gun.

5. You don't need chest waders at Gist during dry years. The water is so shallow hip boots or even knee boots will work just fine. There are deep holes in the river, but they are easy to see in the clear water.

6. Remember to keep your gun and other equipment off the sandy ground.

I really enjoyed some good duck hunts on the North Fork of the Red River, and I'll return this season to hunt Gist WMA. I especially enjoyed the clear blue water and the lack of thick mud on my Red River duck hunts.

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