Northeast Big-River Ducks

To find the ducks in northeastern Oklahoma this time of year, do just as they do and follow the rivers.

You don't see a lot of ducks in the desert. That should give you a clue about where to look for ducks, as well as where not to.

Water is the key.

Yes, you can find ducks feeding in harvested crop fields or plucking shoots of greenery in parks and streamside vegetation. You might even see a domestic mallard or two rooting around beneath an oak tree in the fall. But ducks are usually out of the water for only brief periods, except when they're nesting. And even their nests are usually built within spittin' distance of a pond, lake, marsh or stream.

Which brings me to the point of this article: If you want to find ducks in Oklahoma, follow the big rivers.

By big rivers, I mean those rivers that drain hundreds or even thousands of square miles. There are "rivers" in some places that are smaller than creeks in other places. I don't know of any quantitative way to differentiate small rivers from big creeks.

The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary at my desk defines rivers as streams of "considerable volume," and creeks as streams that are usually smaller and often tributaries of rivers.

But I've fished and boated on creeks that were much larger than some of the small rivers I've floated - or sometimes waded. This creek and river thing isn't an exact science.

Photo by Bob Bledsoe

In Oklahoma, though, we are blessed with numerous big rivers - the Arkansas, the Canadian(s), the Cimarron, the Verdigris and the Neosho, the Deep Fork and the Washita. Then there's the Red, which we share with Texas. Those are all streams that drain, at a minimum, more than 1,000 square miles of land. The Arkansas, which gathers together all of those rivers except the Washita, drains more than 100,000 square miles in its 1,460-mile length through four states. In Oklahoma alone, its drainage is approximately 47,000 square miles.

Virtually all of the water in Oklahoma flows south and east. That's because streams in the state drain into the Gulf of Mexico, either via the Arkansas River (and then to the Mississippi) or via the Red River, which flows into Louisiana's Atchafalaya Basin.

Yes the streams twist and turn, flowing south and west now and then, and even flowing north for a brief stretch in a few places. But south and east - especially east - is the direction of flow of most of Oklahoma's major rivers.

That means that Central Flyway ducks migrating through Oklahoma see a lot of big streams below them. And most of those big streams are dammed in several places, creating chains of large reservoirs that add tens of thousands of surface-acres of water to attract ducks.

The Neosho River, for example, has Grand Lake, Hudson Lake and Fort Gibson Lake, which respectively hold 46,500 acres, 10,900 acres and 19,900 acres of water. And that's if the lakes are at "normal" level. If we're having a wet fall, those lakes can swell by many more thousands of acres each.

Enough about numbers and statistics. The point is this: If you want to find ducks in Oklahoma, start with the big rivers.

Yes, you can shoot ducks on isolated farm ponds in semi-arid western counties . . . sometimes. There are a couple of Western Oklahoma lakes that aren't on major rivers, but they are the largest bodies of water in the area, and so attract surprisingly large numbers of ducks at times.

If you want to find a lot of ducks as consistently as possible, then stay close to the big waters.

It's no secret that the state's biggest lake - Eufaula, at 102,000 surface-acres - is also the state's most heavily hunted lake. As big as it is, there are days when you can't seem to find a spot on Eufaula that doesn't have many hunters already in place. Of course, most of the hunters seem to prefer the same areas - north of I-40 on the Deep Fork and south of Pierce on the North Canadian. Go to a boat ramp in those areas on a frosty winter morning and you may have to wait behind about six other hunting parties before you can launch your boat. That is, unless you're one of those hunters who arrive at 3:30 a.m. Don't laugh. My friends and I have done it.

I have acquaintances who kill limits of ducks regularly at Eufaula and at other heavily hunted lakes. They do it by staying away from the popular areas in the upper reaches of the lake. They hunt the lower lake, setting up in spots where they may not see as many ducks come by them but where any ducks that do wing by will see only their spread and won't be distracted by four different competing groups of decoys, nor by four different hunters tooting on duck calls.

I've said that migrating ducks like to stick close to the big rivers and that the big rivers usually have big reservoirs. But that doesn't mean you have to hunt the big reservoirs to find ducks along the big rivers.

Some of the best small-lake hunting and pond hunting also takes place on lands near those big rivers.

Probably the best private duck leases in Eastern Oklahoma are those located along the Verdigris and Deep Fork rivers.

The Verdigris has been tamed significantly by channelization for barge navigation, but it still has numerous oxbows and a handful of natural lakes in its valley. There are also several large ponds and lakes built near the river with duck hunting in mind.

The Deep Fork Valley, especially from about Chandler east to Lake Eufaula, contains what is perhaps Oklahoma's best waterfowl habitat. The Deep Fork rises and falls and floods thousands of acres of densely wooded bottomlands almost every year. It has numerous swamps and wetlands and manmade ponds, all of which attract ducks.

As an aside, numerous politicians and conservation officials have made attempts to set aside large tracts of the Deep Fork bottomlands as a natural heritage preserve - which could include public hunting and other public uses. Their efforts have been thwarted repeatedly by shortsighted legislators and landowners who don't want any public lands in their neck of the woods.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has managed in the past decade to create a small refuge in the Deep Fork bottoms near Okmulgee, but thousands of acres upstream are still unprotected. There are some landowners in the area who are excellent stewards of wildlife resources, but unfortunately, there also are some who are not. I hope that someday, before it is too late, much more land

along the Deep Fork can be protected.

But back to duck hunting!

Hunting on small ponds and lakes or creeks is often productive because of the proximity of larger bodies of water, especially big rivers.

A ranch on which I've hunted in Osage County for many years lies on the north side of the Arkansas River. It has several ponds within a mile and a half of the river. Lots of ducks of various species visit those ponds every year. They trade back and forth daily from the river to the ponds.

Duck hunting on ponds in that area is closely related to the flows in the river during hunting season. The flows in that stretch of the Arkansas are affected a little by local rainfall, but chiefly by releases from the Kaw Dam a few miles upstream. When the flows are moderately low and there are exposed sandbars and pools of water here and there, duck numbers build up day by day in that stretch of the river and spill over into the ponds we hunt.

When there is a lot of water being released at Kaw and the river is full and moving, the ducks move out of the area quickly. They may hang out for another day or so on the ponds, but if they don't have the river at a comfortable level, they move on to another spot somewhere downstream.

My point is this: Most of the ducks we see on that ranch's ponds are there because the ponds are near a big river. The same thing applies to a lot of ponds in Oklahoma.

Hunting on the rivers themselves is also an option in places. Hunting big, broad rivers like the Arkansas or the Canadians is a specialized type of waterfowl hunting. It calls for different tactics than hunting still-water ponds and lakes. During winters when the temperatures get really low in the late portion of the duck season, the rivers may be about the only places you can hunt. The moving water keeps areas open and draws big numbers of ducks to small areas.

It doesn't matter whether you're the kind of duck hunter who has a 20-foot johnboat and 100 decoys and buys steel-shot shells by the case, or whether you're the type of hunter who creeps up to shoot ducks over pond dams and buys his duck loads a box at a time. Following Oklahoma's big rivers can help you find duck-hunting success.



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