November 14, 2017
If you have the fortitude, building your own greenhead honey hole duck pond is the way to go.
Not long ago, a retired duck-hunting friend bought a small parcel of land with a lake.
He was going to spend the golden years fishing for monster rock quarry bass, but soon discovered the previous owners had started a piping system to flood adjacent ag fields.
Luckily for us, he wasn't married and he started funneling money into a duck-impoundment project that still has no end in sight.
Just before Thanksgiving we hunted together, and a lone ringneck came into one of his ponds.
I didn't even think about pulling the trigger as he shot the first bird off a piece of property he had worked his butt off some 40-odd years to buy.
The drake ringer is now in the hands of taxidermist Sierra Langbell, so he can remember that day and all the hard work (and hard-earned money) he has put into the place.
Honestly, the flooded corn and millet he owns isn't the duck hunting mecca all of us who get to throw decoys there thought it would be. Not yet.
But that hasn't stopped him from pursuing the dream of creating a mallard paradise. After all, killing ducks is just a small part of it. The memories we will make with friends and family far outweigh straps full of birds.
Much of our waterfowl management stems from a century of conservation initiatives sponsored by groups of forward-thinking hunters. Waterfowl are unique because they represent a shared commodity; if things go wrong in Saskatchewan it affects hunters in Texas.
Migratory birds require special attention. Most of these initiatives are large-scale objectives funded by groups like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl.
Outfitters and corporations have been creating duck havens for years, but you can carve a niche on smaller, private lands.
Taking the time to renovate your property for duck hunting can be a long-term investment that pays high dividends, both financially and in the quality and quantity of birds you harvest.
If you're thinking of building an impoundment I applaud you.
But before breaking ground, take a look at some of the factors involved in creating a landscape that is attractive to birds.
And pay close attention to CRP and WRP enrollments that can help subsidize your new venture and create fine habitat. In some cases, state and federal governments will actually help with grading and building levy systems. It just depends on the agency and funding availability.
The Right Location
Think of your impoundment as a marketing program for waterfowl — you have to give the intended audience what they want.
This will vary based upon location, the surrounding habitat, and species you're trying to woo.
There's also a bit of luck involved. If your property is located next to a large body of water that is public ground, you're in good shape.
The same goes if the farmer next door is growing a couple thousand acres of rice or corn. But even out-of-the-way properties can be attractive to birds, especially in areas where waterfowl traffic and have limited options to rest.
According to Michael Porter of the Samuel Noble Roberts Foundation, the more isolated a pond is, the better the odds it will attract and hold ducks.
"However," says Porter, "ducks can learn to tolerate human activity when an impoundment is not hunted."
In short, more isolated impoundments with minimal human activity will up the odds of success.
Human visitors aren't the only ones that can keep ducks away from your impoundment,
Porter says in an article from Ag News and Views. Livestock can ruin a duck impoundment by eliminating vegetation, increasing turbidity by stirring up mud, and creating steep pond edges that make it more difficult for waterfowl to negotiate the bank.
Generally speaking, cattle are the kiss of death to duck ponds, so choose an area for your impoundment safely away from the chisel-edged hooves of grazing herds. If that's not an option, build a fence to keep bovines at bay.
Some pond builders, particularly those who are accustomed to building fishing ponds, have a tendency to create steep banks. This allows the pond to get deeper faster and limits the amount of aquatic plant growth that can occur near the bank.
That's fine for fishing, but not ideal for waterfowl.
Dabblers like pintails, wigeon, mallards and teal prefer shallow water — usually three feet or less — so if these are your primary targets, you'll need to make sure that a sizeable portion of the impoundment is shallow.
You can incorporate a few trees into your pond as well for even more appeal. Tree-nesting species like wood ducks will use the area during the brooding season and mallards have a well-documented affinity for flooded timber.
The downside of trees is that they are attractive to predators like hawks and raccoons, and the constant dropping of leaves and fruit can increase sedimentation and a more acidic environment, which can alter plant populations.
Tannins, primarily a result of leaves and acorns in the pond, create tea-colored water, and this makes the pond less desirable to ducks because it is more difficult to see forage plants below the surface.
Vegetation is a critical concern when creating a duck impoundment.
Pond plants will serve both as a refuge and a food source for birds, so you want to be certain to have the right blend of both cover and feed to optimize success.
For decades, private-pond owners have been trying to eliminate cattails and other plants from the surface of pond water, but that's not necessary in a duck impoundment.
That ring of cattails not only provides the birds (and hunters) with cover but it is also the veil that stands between birds and predators.
Coyotes, foxes, raccoons, skunks, possums, and the myriad of other beasts that feed on ducks and duck eggs will have a much harder time navigating through a sea of cattails.
"The presence of abundant duck food plants in water is probably the most important criteria for attracting dabbling ducks," says Porter. "Clear, shallow water is generally the best approach to encourage submersed and immersed aquatic duck food plants in permanently flooded impoundments."
One of the most common questions landowners ask is how large they need to make an impoundment to draw in ducks.
Even though larger impoundments are likely to attract more birds, small impoundments can bring in ducks and geese.
The size of your impoundment is, quite obviously, going to be dictated by your available land and budget, but there's some good news: whether you are building the impoundment yourself or hiring an excavator, a shallow pond with gently sloping sides is easier and faster to construct.
Therefore you can often build a two-acre impoundment for about the same cost as a traditional one-acre fishing pond.
Controlling Water Levels
Manipulating water is the key to a quality duck hole.
This can be as simple as a pipe and valve, but it's very important to have the ability to drain the impoundment during the spring and summer months to encourage the growth of native submerged plants like smart weed and sedges, and this should be done in the warmer months leading up to the season so that the water level can be increased to normal depths for hunting.
Some hunters plant corn or rice, but there are also a number of blends like Five Oaks' Golden Millet and Mossy Oak BioLogic's Guide's Choice, which are generally more affordable than traditional agricultural crops.
Having the ability to draw down your impoundment is essential for routine maintenance. That drawdown period during spring/summer allows you to maintain existing structures (primarily cleaning out nest boxes) and add new structure like trees, perches and islands.
A word of warning to the new farmer: a recently drained impoundment is like the La Brea Tar Pits for heavy machines, so if you don't have a four-wheel-drive tractor that's up to the task, you need to be certain that the soil is dry enough to support your machinery.
Finding your expensive tractor and implement hopelessly marooned in the midst of a multi-acre swamp is frustrating, so carefully assess the dirt under your feet before you proceed with planting.
Planting periods depend on latitude as well as the type of plants you plan to grow in your impoundment.
Corn takes a full growing season to reach maturity, so it will need to be planted during the spring.
Millet should be planted so fruiting coincides with the first frost, which requires between two and three months of growth, so expect to plant them mid to late summer depending on where you hunt.
The ability to manipulate water levels in impoundments makes all of this possible, and on that note it's always a good idea to check your dam, valves, pipes, and other mechanicals when the water is low.
It's usually easier and less expensive to fix equipment problems when they are detected early.
Will that first season be epic? That all depends on location and migration, but I'll give you fair warning: This process won't turn your back yard into Stuttgart, but it will up the odds of seeing more ducks and holding those birds.
The best way to flush all that hard work down the water pipe is overhunting. Your small impoundment isn't the only rest stop on the birds' migratory route, and they'd just as soon be huddled on a farm pond a half-mile away where they aren't being shot than dodging pellets at your place.
So save your new spot for premium duck days when everyone else is fighting to launch at the public ramp.
Don't poison your new honey hole by overindulging during the first week of waterfowl season.
Small impoundments should be hunted no more than once a week, says Porter, and you need to be acutely aware of how much waterfowl activity is occurring even when you're not hunting.
This can be a trick because you don't want to chase committed ducks away with excess pressure, so be discreet. If you aren't seeing solid duck numbers then don't start blasting.
Wait until the birds are there, hunt sparingly, and let the water rest a few days between shoots. If you do that you'll have a great hunting spot for years to come.
This is an awful lot of work to kill a few ducks and geese. But more habitat equals more ducks. And as conservationists, we have an obligation to keep populations thriving.
Chances are you'll spend more time maintaining your pond than hunting it, but there's a good chance those hunts will be memorable.
And as someone who has spent most of his life chasing birds on public land, I will tell you, having a little slice you can call your own, where your best friends can come to hunt — and hopefully your son or daughter can kill their first duck — is a commodity you can't put a price tag on.