These Colorado waterfowl hunting locations and tips will help you bag birds across the state this season.
It was cold. Face-hurting cold. The kind of cold that does not require a number to describe.
The frozen willows, icy shores and heavy, smoky-gray breath were evidence enough. After tossing in a couple dozen decoys, all I could do was tuck my head deeper into the collar of my coat and melt further into the river bank in an attempt to escape the stiff northwest wind.
It can sometimes be a waiting game on Colorado’s river ducks, but then again on those miserably cold and windy days, the ducks tend to fly lower trying to escape the wind as well. And you can eke out a limit if you shoot straight.
Shortly after the sun cleared the eastern horizon under a bluebird sky, I was greeted by my first pair of gaddies. A quick single slapping the water’s surface with my Lab, Redd, leaping into motion set the pace for the next couple of hours.
I wouldn’t say it was fast and furious, not by any means, but the singles and doubles were generous, as far as Colorado public river ducks go.
I left those icy shores with a bigger smile than usual. The ducks had done what they were supposed to do, and Redd and I followed suit. Although these morning river forays don’t always end like this, when it occurs on a stretch of Colorado’s public water, I savor the event all the more.
Even though I may be a little biased as a Centennial State resident, waterfowl hunting across Colorado’s public rivers and lakes can be pretty good at times.
That being said, this isn’t Stuttgart, Arkansas, and most waterfowl hunting enthusiasts wouldn’t put Colorado duck hunting at the top of their to-do list; however, goose hunting is a different matter.
To be honest, bugling bull elk and heavy-racked mule deer scattered beneath lofty peaks are what draw the hunting crowds season after season. On the other hand, when you consider that hundreds of thousands of waterfowl pass through Colorado annually, with about 200,000 ending up in someone’s freezer, you can understand why Colorado is also considered to be an overlooked Western duck hunting gem.
What’s unique about Colorado is that it straddles both the Central and Pacific flyways, giving the would-be hunter generous opportunities at migrating ducks.
The latest survey compiled by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service indicates the total duck populations were estimated at 48.4 million breeding ducks in 2016 across the traditional survey area, which is 38 percent above the 1955-2015 long-term average.
With over half of them calling the Central and Pacific flyways their migrating home, Colorado sees its share of waterfowl.
According to Ducks Unlimited regional spring habitat reports this year, the Prairie Pothole Region of southern Alberta, southern Saskatchewan and the High Plains of the Dakotas, which is largely where Colorado’s migrating population comes from, received good to decent winter and spring precipitation across much of the region and was slightly above average in some areas, but below in others.
That being said, the higher moisture soil levels the previous fall provided in areas that received less winter moisture, coupled with the additional spring moisture have put those regions in pretty good shape as well. Studies show when nesting cover is in good shape, duck production increases, so Colorado hunters will no doubt enjoy its share of migrating waterfowl this season.
According to Jim Gammonley, lead waterfowl biologist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, because of the recording numbers of waterfowl across North American in recent years, Colorado hunters could once again see excellent numbers of migratory ducks and geese this season.
“The stage is set for what could be a very good year,” he noted.
Although Colorado waterfowlers have high hopes going into the season — as well they should — it’s hard to predict just how good hunters will have it. Only Mother Nature knows.
Colorado’s waterfowl season is highly dependent upon the weather, noted Gammonley. Although some duck species start heading south regardless of the weather, Colorado’s bread and butter ducks like mallards and Canada geese will stay put until Mother Nature locks everything down farther north and forces them to point south.
Gammonley advises hunters to pay close attention to weather patterns across the Dakotas and southern Alberta and Saskatchewan and plan their hunting opportunities accordingly.
The native duck and goose population is good as well. The inter-mountain regions of North Park, San Luis Valley and the South Park tend to hold the greatest numbers and offer some of the best nesting habitat in Colorado. These regions have numerous lakes, marshes and river systems which offer tens of thousands of acres for the public land hunter to stretch out on.
Historically, Colorado has a breeding population of more than 100,000 ducks, most of which take refuge on the wetlands and reservoirs in these areas. Overall, winter and spring moisture was good to excellent across these regions so nesting cover is in good condition, reported Gammonley.
Early season hunters can take advantage of this with some good research and scouting to locate these birds and strike while the iron is hot the first few weeks of the season. Nevertheless, bear in mind that these regions generally see the first ice-up of the season. Hunting opportunity can be short lived if Old Man Winter lays a lid of ice across these regions.
With about 200,000 ducks and geese being harvested annually, where are the best locations to set up the decoys and coax some ducks and geese into range?
Honestly, it really depends when you plan to hunt. But with Colorado’s unique river system opportunities, as well as some good reservoir action, there really is something for every waterfowl hunter in Colorado.
Here are the regions to look into and some public land areas to consider.
Without question, the aforementioned inter-mountain regions of North Park, San Luis Valley and South Park are where the best public land opportunities are found.
Perhaps the most notable is Russell Lakes SWA. This large section of wetland is located in the San Luis Valley and offers canals, marshes and shallow lakes for hunters to stretch out on. It was specifically designed by the wildlife department to provide nesting habitat, and during the season some areas are off-limits to provide a refuge.
Furthermore, Ducks Unlimited recently enhanced more than 2,000 acres of waterfowl breeding habitat at the Alamosa and Monte Vista national wildlife refuges.
According to Greg Kernohan, DU’s manager of conservation programs for Colorado, these refuges are in one of the most significant waterfowl habitat complexes in the state.
The Alamosa NWR is 12,026 acres and is primarily located within the Rio Grande flood plain, and the artificially created wetlands of the 14,843-acre Monte Vista NWR are intensively managed to provide habitat for a wide variety of waterfowl and also offer excellent hunting opportunities.
Just a short drive from Russell Lakes is the San Luis Lakes SWA. Similar to Russell, it also offers a combination of wetlands and shallow lakes that host excellent numbers of native ducks annually and is a must-stop on any San Luis Valley duck hunt.
Farther north in the South Park region is Spinney Mountain SWA. Although more known for its mammoth trout that seek refuge in the South Platte River, some of the best inter-mountain duck hunting I’ve experienced happened in this area.
In north central Colorado, near the town of Walden, is the Walden Reservoir SWA. This shallow, marsh-like reservoir is the largest body of water in a network of wetlands, and its weedy environment is almost too perfect for the eager duck hunter, and next to it is the Diamond J SWA.
The Illinois and Michigan rivers run through this 3,100-acre parcel, and because the Illinois River flows very close to the reservoir, it can receive its share of ducks.
Located farther west is the 860-acre Yampa River SWA. It offers 10 miles of river access and its often soggy meadows and flooded fields can provide good duck hunting opportunities. Both local and migrating ducks can be found in this rich bottomland.
Colorado’s most notable waterfowl region is the South Platte River system as it cuts across the eastern plains. As the river snakes its way east through six northeastern counties before spilling into Nebraska, it offers over 70,000 acres of wetland habitat.
According to Gammonley, the lower South Platte River is critical wetland habitat and is the most significant wintering habitat Colorado has to offer for migrating ducks and geese.
Additionally, it has historically supported the highest numbers of wintering ducks and highest hunter numbers and duck harvest of any region in Colorado. Annually, roughly 150,000 ducks winter in this region.
Because of hunter demand in this region, as well as others, Colorado Parks and Wildlife has established a Hunting Reservation System in an effort to reduce hunting pressure for a more quality experience.
Currently there are 11 reservation properties in this region, and 9 that are located on the western slope in the Pacific Flyway. Utilizing this system provides a great opportunity for public land hunting opportunities without having to deal with the crowds.
There are more than 25 state wildlife areas along the South Platte that offer over 35,000 acres of public access, and many of those areas have prime waterfowl habitat.
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Some of the more notable locations are the Tamarack, Elliott, Sedgwick Bar, Pony Express, Red Lion, Duck Creek, Bravo, Atwood and Prewitt state wildlife areas.
Generally speaking, because of the South Platte’s proximity to the populated northern Front Range, the farther east you travel the less company you will have. So scouting early and often to find the best locations can pay water fowling dividends.
The Arkansas River drainage 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 in which to setup a good decoy spread.
Although it doesn’t have the duck hunting reputation its cousin to the north enjoys, because it’s farther away from the populated Front Range, it is visited by far fewer hunters.
This region holds numerous lakes that are magnets for winter ducks and geese. It is where I have found some great public land hunting without the crowds.
That being said, in comparison to the South Platte, the Arkansas offers fewer public spots to choose from. Some of the more notable ones are the Melon Valley, Rocky Ford, Oxbow, John Martin Reservoir, Granada, Holly and Arkansas River state wildlife areas.