Photo by Kenny Bahr.
Hoosier duck hunters can expect an excellent season this year. When it comes down to it, Indiana’s duck hunting depends more on the right mix of weather conditions than anything else, but as far as duck population trends go, things are looking up.
According to W. Adam Phelps, the Waterfowl Research biologist for the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW), duck numbers are expected to be at least as high as last year.
“I’d say good weather should mean some very good hunting this fall,” Phelps said.
Overall, the duck harvest has held fairly steady over the last seven years, maybe even increased slightly, Phelps said. The mallard harvest has been steady over the last three years, with the last available figures showing that 76,000 birds were taken in 2005. The wood duck harvest rebounded in 2005 to about 17,000 birds with the high probability that last year’s harvest was even better.
Phelps doesn’t have specific numbers for other species, but is willing to wager on the fact that gadwalls, northern shovelers, canvasbacks, pintails and both species of teal are going up. Scaup, black ducks and widgeons are on a downward spiral but will still be available.
Here’s where to look for some great shooting this fall.
PIGEON RIVER FWA
“We usually have a pretty good time around here during the duck season,” said Jason Wade, the Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) property manager.
The area draws early-season wood ducks and then a little bit of everything shows up, according to Wade. Mallards, ringnecks, gadwalls and teal are all in the bag at one time or another during the season.
The top spot for duck hunters within the Pigeon River FWA is what the locals call the Buckwheat Patch. This section of the area is flooded every year when the winter and spring rains have been kind and the storage system has enough water.
The four zones in the Buckwheat Patch are subject to the draw. The field is within the Waterfowl Rest Area where hunting isn’t otherwise permitted. These stakes are the locals’ first choice.
The Mongo Mill Pond is located behind the office and comes in as a close second to the Buckwheat Patch, followed by several other lakes and ponds. A boat will be needed to effectively tackle the Ontario, Narby and Mongo ponds, while hunters can easily walk into the smaller ponds that are scattered throughout the FWA for some jump-shooting. The Troxel, Stayner and Beaver Dam lakes also require a canoe or johnboat.
Other particularly productive spots include the J-2 or J-4 marsh areas, according to Wade. These areas are off county Road 200 in LaGrange County and can be walked into or boated, depending on conditions.
Other than these hotspots, hunters just need to move around in their stake choices because that’s what the ducks are doing. The shooting can be intense or fizzle out to nothing, all depending on the notoriously fickle fall weather.
There is a draw at the office every morning at 5:30 a.m. Hunters who are drawn can choose the stake they want for a party of three. All hunters are required to check in at the station before starting their hunt. If you change your mind about your location, go back to the office and see which stakes are up for grabs and you’re back in business. Counting spots that the goose hunters prefer, about 100 stakes are available.
The biggest crowd last season totaled right around 35 parties, Wade said, but during the weekdays, three or four parties show up for the draw and sometimes 10 or so parties participate on the weekends. Duck hunting stops at noon until sometime in November. Goose hunting continues until sunset on the goose stakes. Sometime in November, the area switches to all-day duck hunts as well.
The Pigeon River FWA covers 11,605 acres of land, has 529 acres of lakes and impoundments and 17 miles of rivers. The area is in Steuben and LaGrange counties near Mongo.
For more information, contact the area manager at (260) 367-2164 or the DFW’s District 3 at (260) 367-2186. A map is available on the DFW’s Web site.
CEDAR SWAMP WETLAND CONSERVATION AREA (WCA)
“On Cedar Swamp, I’ve had a lot of good hunts and I’ve had some bad hunts, which is the way it is everywhere,” Assistant Property Manager Mike Holcomb said.
“The hunting can be very good, but scouting here is very important. You’ve got to know where these birds are going to be.”
Decoys and waders are the equipment to bring, Holcomb said, along with the tenacity to target birds that will probably stay right where they are all day long. Ducks find conditions perfect on Cedar Swamp and they don’t have the need to fly out to other areas to feed. Emergent and submerged vegetation, along with shoreline seed plants, ring the dinner bell for migrating ducks.
Cedar Swamp WCA is made up of wetlands and marsh all the way through. Imagine the picture-perfect duck habitat and that’s what you’ll find here. Waders are a prerequisite for walking into the interior areas where birds will congregate. It won’t hurt to carry a pair of binoculars.
Early in the season, woodies, teal and mallards come in along with geese. Late-season hunters will have opportunities for pintails, gadwalls and the occasional diver.
According to Holcomb, the locals report that the third week of November is often the best time of the season. The weather usually cooperates, Holcomb said, and oddly enough, there is some truth to the claim.
A draw for the opening day and weekends allows hunters to sign up for the zone they want based on the order they are drawn. Up to a party of three can use each zone and the hunt is good until noon. The rest of the time, the area is available on a first-come, first-served basis for all-day hunts.
The Cedar Swamp WCA covers 900 acres in Steuben County near Fremont. For additional information and an area map, contact the Pigeon River FWA at (260) 367-2164 or the DFW’s District 3 at (260) 367-2186.
MARSH LAKE WCA
“Marsh Lake is a wetland conservation area where the lake is deep and the hunting is all open-water hunting done from a boat,” Holcomb said. “A hunter migh
t walk the shoreline and jump-shoot if so inclined, but it’s not really very practical.”
Using a boat with a camouflage paint job is a good idea since migrant ducks can easily be spooked, especially after being shot at. The lake has an electric motor-only restriction.
Hunters like duck expert Al Zeman develop their own duck sets over time. These setups can range from simple to complex.
“The opening day set for me isn’t fancy at all,” Zeman said. “I’ll set out two or three dozen mallards, three geese and a dozen or so teal decoys. The teal go in front of my camouflage-colored boat; the mallards are set loose with lots of room for passing birds to land. The geese are set off to one side. That’s a pretty standard set for a couple of weeks.”
Crane Pond is a wetland located within the Marsh Lake WCA that can offer up the best shooting on the property. Holcomb hasn’t hunted this particular spot himself, but knows hunters who have and who have liked it. This swampy section can be hunted with a pair of waders and decoys. There’s about a 75-yard hike to reach the wetlands, which is a challenge when hunters are lugging equipment. It is the main reason many hunters pass it up.
According to Holcomb, the mallards, teal and woodies move in for the opener on Marsh Lake and the gadwalls, pintails and divers start rolling in later on in the season. The area is particularly well known for its woodies.
A pre-season draw for opening day and the weekends throughout the season gives hunters who are drawn first dibs on the sections they want to hunt. The draw hunts run until noon and then hunting shuts down in an effort to keep the birds on the area. Monday through Friday hunting during the rest of the season is all day long. Hunters can set up wherever the shooting looks good.
The Marsh Lake WCA covers about 800 acres. It’s located in Steuben County five miles north of Angola. From state Route 127, take county Road 50 West, then east on Feather Valley Road.
A map of Marsh Lake is available by calling the Pigeon River FWA at the numbers listed previously.
HOVEY LAKE FWA
“Duck hunting migrations have changed a little over the last few years and a lot of ducks now go west and down through Missouri and western Illinois; but we still have good hunting, especially in the early part of the season,” said Manager Mark Pochon, who hunts Hovey Lake as well.
Hovey Lake is the centerpiece of this 7,000-acre wildlife area in Posey County. There aren’t many spots in the southwestern corner of Indiana that are first-rate duck destinations, but Hovey Lake is one of them.
Between 1,500 and 1,600 ducks were harvested on Hovey Lake FWA last fall, most of which were mallards, Pochon said.
Hunters can walk right up to the water’s edge, but a boat or canoe is definitely the easiest way to work the lake. A retriever can shine for the open-water hunting and make getting the ducks into the boat much easier.
Hovey Lake is like numerous other public-hunting areas. After the opener, many of the birds will move out of the area in response to being shot at. When another wave of migrants move in, they’ll bolster the numbers of remaining ducks with fresh, unspooked birds.
Most of the FWA is regulated by a daily draw. A pre-season draw reserves zones for hunters for certain days of the waterfowl season, but most of the days are subject to the daily drawing, which is held at 4:30 a.m., every morning.
The open lake is divided into four zones that are the top picks of those who make the draw, according to Pochon. A boat is definitely a requirement on the water, but several marshes on the property are also productive for those hunters sans boats. Of these, only Rail Marsh is deep enough for a canoe or a small johnboat. Field blinds are set up for hopeful hunters to draw as well.
On the open hunting days, a hunter can sign himself in for a spot on an open field that isn’t subject to a draw. For the most part, every hunter should be able to find a place to hunt if he shows up and is willing to walk.
The flooding across parts of the FWA is great for ducks but tough on humans, Pochon said. At times, the flooding can get out of hand.
“We’re right between two rivers, so when it floods, a lot of our acreage is under water,” he said. “One year, we even had 4 feet of water in the office.”
Hovey Lake FWA covers about 7,000 acres. State Route 69 ends at the property’s entrance. For more information, contact the Hovey Lake FWA at (812) 838-2927 or the DFW’s District 15 at (812) 789-2724.
WILBUR WRIGHT FWA/PROVINCE POND WCA
“Waterfowl hunting in the upper Blue River Watershed can be relatively productive and enjoyable if you have access to property under the right weather conditions,” biologist Kent Hanauer said.
Much of the hunting in the valley centers around the picked crop fields that ducks visit on a regular basis, and setting up to intercept the flights is key. The area has several small privately owned lakes that help hold decent numbers of birds throughout the fall and winter. The birds will fly around between lakes, crop fields and the Blue River.
Some of the duck habitat was lost when the river was channelized, but there are opportunities along the banks where hunters can set up for jump-shooting. Ducks show up unpredictably during the first weeks of the season, so checking the area before committing to a day’s hunt is a good idea.
Hanauer pointed out that the duck hunting is completely dependent on the weather. Wet weather makes the area hospitable, especially to wood ducks and mallards. As the weather gets nastier and colder, duck movements seem to become more predictable. They’ll use the water as a rest area and fly out to surrounding fields. As the season progresses, there are regular influxes of migrant birds to replenish the bird numbers.
October is usually good for a few days of wood duck hunting on Wilbur Wright along with the chance for some mallards, other puddle ducks and Canada geese. From the end of November through December, especially if the weather gets exceptionally ugly, a hunter who is willing to spend time patterning birds will find some excellent shooting.
Wilbur Wright covers 1,200 acres along the Blue River in Henry County. When the water is up, the floodplain becomes a series of overflow backwaters and ponds that ducks are drawn to.
The Province Pond Wetland Conservation Area is nearby and can pull in plenty of birds that may pass up Wilbur Wright. Province Pond is only about 10 years old and is a 60-acre depression that has become excellent duck habitat with the help of a levee. The remaining 140 acres provide great walk-in opportunities and a chance to sneak up on some good jump-shooting.
“Last year, hunters took about 100 birds throughout the season,” Property Manager Cary Schuyler said. “Most of the birds taken were mallards along with 22 wood ducks, a handful of divers and a few teal.”
The wetlands are shallow and the edges can be waded without a problem, Schuyler said. Warm-weather grasses have been established and add great shoreline cover.
Before trying Province Pond, contact the Wilbur Wright FWA for the status of any zone draws. For most of the season, the area is open to public hunting with no special regulations in effect.
Province Pond is small but a great place to keep in mind if you live close by, Schuyler said. Only electric motors are allowed.
Province Pond WCA is located a mile west of Mount Summit on state Route 36. Turn south off U.S. Route 36 onto county Road 125 West to reach the parking lot and registration booth. The boat ramp is near the parking lot along county Road 125. It lies northwest of New Castle in Henry County in the South Zone.
For additional information, contact the Wilbur Wright FWA at (812) 526-2051 or DFW’s District 8 at (765) 529-9581.