With any luck — if you’re a waterfowler, that is — this month will be anything but warm across Oklahoma. Because when there’s little red showing on the thermometer prior to jolly old St. Nick’s arrival later this month, a bounty of mallards usually fills the Sooner State sky — a sight guaranteed to warm a cold duck hunter’s heart.
If a limit of greenheads is on your Christmas list this month, consider these three December hotspots.
Without question, Eufaula Lake, sprawling over 102,500 acres near McAlester, has historically been one of the state’s waterfowl hunting hotspots. When conditions are right, the duck hunting there leaves waterfowlers dreaming of flocks of ducks, not sugarplums!
“Eufaula has the potential to raise a lot of natural forage, and if we can get some winter water in the lake that floods those shallow zones, it can be tremendous,” said Alan Stacey, the wetland habitat biologist for the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “Of course, the lake will usually have a lot of duck hunters too, because the hunting can be so good.”
That said, Stacey is the first to admit that drought and low water conditions have put waterfowling a little off the pace recently. “There have been a few successive years down there that haven’t been very good,” Stacey said. “Some of the traditional Eufaula hunters have written it off and gone elsewhere.”
Another reason for Eufaula falling rank as a duck-hunting hotspot: The ducks that have visited the lake often congregate around shallow mudflats that are difficult to access by foot or by boat. However, Stacey noted, the Eastern Oklahoma reservoir could again be good for duck hunting whenever rains return to the Sooner State.
Add cold, snowy weather in the middle and upper portions of the Central Flyway to the scenario of a refilled Eufaula and the hunting could even approach red-hot status!
“Eufaula is a potential hotspot if conditions develop for this particular year,” Stacey said. “The lake has been down and low for a couple of seasons, minimum — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Due to the dynamic nature of a lake being flooded one year and being down the next, it can do some good,” Stacey said. “Take this year and some of the good we’re seeing. Right now, there’s a pretty good zone that’s a couple of feet below the conservation pool level, where we have good, native moist-soil plants growing.
“We also have some of the Japanese millet that we seeded there last year — about 800 acres worth. A lot of that was high and dry throughout the season last year since there was no inflow; this year, we’ve got a good volunteer crop of Japanese millet growing. So combined with some of the good conditions we currently have for moist-soil plants, that lake is looking good.”
The bottom line is this: If the rains come, Oklahoma duck hunters will surely want to keep Eufaula in mind!
Any discussion of December duck hunting hotspots in the Sooner State has to include 17,000-acre Kaw Lake, an Arkansas River impoundment lying near Ponca City and the Oklahoma/Kansas border. Why? Simple: mallards — and lots of them!
“We’ve had a successful Japanese millet seeding program there,” Stacey said. “If you consistently provide a large enough forage base out there, and you do it year in and year out, then you begin to develop (migratory) traditions with the birds.”
When winter weather conditions to the north combine with Oklahoma’s millet seeding program, Kaw Lake’s holiday tradition is nothing less than greenheads galore filling the skies as Christmas Day approaches.
“We can get up to 50,000 mallards up there at Kaw,” Stacey said, adding that hunters should realize that the word is out on Kaw.
“Kaw Lake gets a lot of hunting pressure, but the ducks will hang around if the forage base is there,” he said. “But they will also adjust to the hunting pressure by doing things like feeding in the afternoon and at night when the majority of hunters are out of there.”
What are the keys to hunting at Kaw when the hunting heat is on? Same as with any other public hunting resource, according to Stacey. “Scouting is critical,” he said. “That’s what provides that good quality hunt even on public hunting areas that get a lot of pressure.”
Once you find that good hunting spot, don’t push the snooze button on your hunting-day alarm clock — the early bird gets the worm, or in this case, the spot where mallards want to decoy. “Allow yourself enough time,” Stacey said. “You’ve got to be willing to sacrifice some extra sleep time to get into places you want to hunt.”
If family demands, your work schedule, or your vacation time will allow it this month, try hunting during the week to avoid weekend crowds. And keep a close eye on the weather. When Old Man Winter decides to pay a rude visit to Kansas and points farther north in the Central Flyway, load up the decoys, kennel the retriever, and bring plenty of non-toxic shot shells!
HACKBERRY FLAT WMA
A third December duck hunting hotspot in Oklahoma is 7,120-acre Hackberry Flat WMA, near Frederick.
Unfortunately, this area has suffered the last couple of seasons owing to the double whammy of low water and mild weather conditions farther north. Should both of those problems be resolved by mid-December, however, don’t forget this amazing wetland complex in southwestern Oklahoma — especially if you want a limit of mallards, pintails, and green-winged teal to fill your Christmas stockings.
“Right now, it still looks pretty poor,” said ODWC southwest regional supervisor Rod Smith. “In the places in this part of Oklahoma where it has rained this year, it hasn’t been sufficient for run-off, so the lakes, the pond water, and the wetlands are all suffering. But that can turn around.”
In addition to the lack of water locally, the lack of snow and cold up north has also worked against waterfowlers in southwestern Oklahoma during the past couple of seasons.
“Up in Nebraska and the Dakotas, if they’re open, the birds aren’t going to come down,” Smith said. “They’ve got to be closed down for us to have good hunting. We really need cold weather that will push the birds far enough to get them out of Kansas.
“If we get that kind of weather, they’re probably going to be in southern Oklahoma.”
With up to 3,700 acres of water — when conditions allow — plenty of elbow room’s available at Hackberry. But that doesn’t mean that the WMA is an easy spot to hunt. Hardly!
“It can be a real difficult place to hunt,” Smith said. “It’s a prairie wetland, and that means there is not any flooded timber or anything. And as far as getting out in the water and getting hidden, that can be difficult since the mud can be pretty tight and sticky.”
How does a December duck hunter take advantage of the hunting to be found there?
Simple: by scouting the WMA thoroughly enough to locate the ducks’ preferred flyways, feeding areas, and loafing areas — anecessary chore made easy enough by the road system that exists at Hackberry, an adequate resource that generally allows hunters to get within half a mile of where they want to hunt, says Smith.
“The whole wetland basin is open to hunting, so I’d suggest that you come out the day before your hunt and scout the areas where you think you might want to be,” he said. “Then come back the next day and hunt during the morning hours, since afternoon hunting for waterfowl is closed here.”
If successfully hunting Hackberry seems like a lot of hard work, that’s certainly true. “This is not a place for the faint of heart,” Smith said. “There is some work involved to good duck hunting here, which tends to limit hunter numbers to those who are pretty avid and able to get out and do it.”
But before eliminating Hackberry WMA from your December duck hunting plans, consider the payoff, especially when conditions are prime.
“When it is good, it can be really good,” Smith said.
And that’s the best holiday music of all to the ears of a Sooner State waterfowler dreaming of a green Christmas — as in greenheads!