It was cold, face-hurting cold. The kind of cold that doesn’t require a number to describe it. The frozen willows, ice-encased shores and heavy, smoky-gray breath was evidence enough.
In fact, about 150,000 ducks winter in this region annually, making it a must-stop for eager hunters.
Photo by Brian K. Strickland.
After tossing in a half-dozen blocks, all I could do was pull my head deeper into my collar and hunker into the riverbank to escape the stiff northwest wind. But it was really no use. My only warmth was the java-filled Thermos lying beside me.
It can be a waiting game on these river ducks. Then again, on miserably cold and windy December days, you can have steady action and get your limit. This morning was no different.
Just after the sun cleared the horizon, a pair of late-season greenheads buzzed my spread. A quick single slapped the water’s surface. That set the pace for the next few hours. It wasn’t fast and furious, but the singles and doubles came in regularly.
I left those icy shores with a bigger smile than usual. The ducks had done what they were supposed to do, and I had, too. Although these public-water morning forays don’t always end like this, when they do, I savor the event all the more.
COLD WEATHER HOTSPOTS
Colorado straddles both the Central and Pacific flyways. That gives quack-heads generous opportunities at migrating ducks. The latest survey compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates the total duck population across North America is nearly 38 million, with more than half of them calling the Central and Pacific flyways their migrating turf.
Greg Kernohan, regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited, said the Prairie Pothole Region of southern Alberta, southwest Saskatchewan and the high plains of the Dakotas received fantastic levels of moisture for the most part, and hunters should see the results of that this season.
When nesting cover is in good shape, duck production increases, and that is exactly what we have this year. This northern region harbors Colorado’s migrating duck population.
Colorado’s waterfowl season started in early October. At that time of year, resident duck opportunities are typically your best bet in the inter-mountain region. However, now that the early season has passed, and Old Man Winter is laying a lid of ice on this marshy habitat, it’s time to head to the river bottoms and potholes of the Colorado’s eastern plains.
During November and December, cold arctic air pushes millions of migrating ducks through this region. As they stream through, nearly 300,000 take up winter refuge in the South Platte and Arkansas river drainages.
Prime time for hitting the banks of these rivers is when there is early winter flooding during a hard freeze. When an abundance of water spills into the bottomlands, ducks, and especially greenheads, pile in to take advantage of fresh food. No question “misery loves company,” and it also means some of the best public-river duck action of the season.
As the cold settles in, the fair-weathered masses stay home, and you’ll have the sheltered banks of the rivers nearly all to yourself.
SOUTH PLATTE DRAINAGE
The South Platte River is not only known for plump trout, but farther east, duck hunting is king.
As the river snakes its way east through six northeastern counties, it offers 71,000 acres of wetland habitat. According to Kernohan of DU, this stretch of river is critical wetland habitat and is perhaps the most significant wintering habitat Colorado has to offer for migrating ducks.
Although most of the river is privately owned, there are more than 20 state wildlife areas that offer more than 32,000 acres of public access, and many of those areas have prime waterfowl habitat.
The most popular is without a doubt the Tamarack Ranch State Wildlife Area. It offers more than 10,600 acres of access and straddles the river for nearly 15 miles. It is managed to provide a quality duck-hunting experience.
Hunters who are willing to take the time, as well as a number, usually reap feathered rewards. Hunters visiting Tamarack are assigned a specific area to hunt, which distributes hunting pressure throughout the season.
The Elliott SWA has been one of my favorite stops on my duck-hunting jaunts. It offers nearly 2,000 acres of river bottom and is neatly divided into three tracts, North, Union and Elliott. It has it all — sloughs, ponds, marshes and extensive wetland improvement projects that attract excellent numbers of ducks.
Some areas are closed during the season to be waterfowl sanctuaries. On several occasions, I have come away from the Elliott tract with a smile and a fist full of greenheads.
The Sedgwick Bar SWA also offers above-average duck hunting with nearly 900 acres of access. It is farther east and because of this it receives less pressure, which makes it an attractive spot if you have time to drive. Its brush-choked islands and backwater sloughs can provide a quality hunting experience.
Other prime South Platte SWAs to consider are Brush Prairie Ponds, Dodd Bridge, Prewitt Reservoir, Atwood and the newest addition to the SWAs along the river, Overland Trail. Since the ducking-hunting opportunities tend not to be quite as good in these areas, they typically receive less pressure, which can make for an excellent experience.
The Arkansas River below Pueblo Reservoir stretches about 150 miles before it dumps into the Sunflower State. As it heads east, it crosses five southwestern counties, and offers numerous public hotspots.
It doesn’t have the duck-hunting reputation its cousin to the north enjoys. But it’s farther away from the populated Front Range, and it’s visited by fewer camo-clad hunters.
In fact, according to Jim Gammonley, waterfowl biologist for the CDOW, hunter success is just as good on the Arkansas as it is on the South Platte. He attributes this to the lighter hunting pressure. This alone should get you thinking about heading to Colorado’s southeas
This region holds numerous lakes that are magnets for winter ducks.
On cold windy days, many of these ducks seek refuge along the river. When a cold front is forecast, it’s time to start loading up the blocks and the steel shot.
Compared with the South Platte, however, the Arkansas has far fewer SWAs. But don’t let that sway your decision. Many offer some superior duck hunting.
A top pick is the 3,600-acre Granada SWA. It straddles the river, and because of it proximity to the Queens Reservoirs, action can be hot.
The Rocky Ford SWA is another hotspot. It has 1,200 acres of bottomland access that is mixed with cottonwoods and willows along the two-mile stretch of river. There is also a small pond that hosts its share of ducks.
The Holly SWA and Arkansas SWA combined have only about 150 acres, but their main purpose is duck hunting. They are located close to the Kansas line and can be good spots if you’re looking for solitude and ducks.
Even though I’m pointing you toward the Arkansas River, I would be doing you an injustice if I didn’t mention the Queens SWA and John Martin Reservoir SWA. These reservoirs are loaded with migrating ducks and are great locations to get a mixed-bag limit.