December 17, 2019
By M.D. Johnson
This was teal hunting like teal hunting was meant to be. Translation: fast, furious, hot, humid and buggy. But, the four of us agreed, what were a few skeeters when the air was alive with blue-wings and our stacked barrels were warm to the touch, eh? Limits done, and it was back to the rig to regroup, replenish our supply of steel No. 7s, pack our vests with additional water bottles, and we’re off in search of sora rails. Rails, you say? That’s a story best for another time.
Move the clock ahead two months. It’s cooler now. Only the bravest mosquitoes remain, and truthfully, not enough of them to justify bug dope or a ThermaCELL. The leaves around this portion of north-central Missouri are a painter’s palette of color—a wonderful three-dimensional kaleidoscope offering an exemplary backdrop to some of the finest waterfowl hunting available in North America. Mallards, gray ducks, pintails, widgeon, green-wings—and let’s not forget the break-of-day wood ducks. They’re all there.
For me, it’s a side-by-side kind of day, a Winchester Model 24 16-gauge, if you want to be specific. The pace is perfect. The sky cloaked in gray, the clouds promising rain but not divulging when. Birds come and go, small knots that make the morning last as it should. Thermoses empty, we unanimously vote to close up shop. Head back. Nap. And think about what tomorrow might bring.
A WATERFOWL WONDERLAND
For years, northern Missouri was all about trophy whitetails and hard-gobbling eastern longbeards. The Drury brothers—Mark, and Terry—helped showcase the Show-Me State’s fine deer and turkey hunting. No one, generally, viewed the region around the small town of Sumner as a duck hunting destination for ’fowlers coast to coast. And absolutely no one, save the man risking condemnation for the ultimate in sacrilege, would’ve referred to Missouri as the “new Arkansas” in terms of ducks and duck hunting opportunity.
True, the tiny town of Sumner in Chariton County was once known as the Goose Capital of the World, largely due to a burgeoning flock of then-new Canada geese at nearby Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge (NWR)—a flock reaching an estimated population of nearly 200,000 during the 1970s.
Today, Maxie, the giant fiberglass Canada goose, still flies over the park in Sumner. Dark goose populations are strong. Snow goose populations are even stronger during the spring migration. But today, it’s ducks that attract ’fowlers to Missouri’s “Golden Triangle.” Lots and lots of ducks.What is this “Golden Triangle”?
“The north end of The Triangle would be Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge, and then you have Fountain Grove Conservation Area (CA), which provides public hunting but includes a refuge in it as well,” said Sumner resident Tony Vandemore.
As many ’fowlers know, Vandemore, along with his colleagues, Ira and Aaron McCauley and long-time Sumner local Dan Daugherity own and operate Habitat Flats, one of the premier waterfowl hunting destinations in the U.S. Habitat Flats’ story, success and reputation are both no secret and quite well deserved, and why a seat in a blind on one of Vandemore’s timber holes is on many hunters’ bucket lists.
“Swan Lake and Fountain Grove are only about five air-miles apart,” Vandemore continued. “And then to the southwest, you have Grand Pass Conservation Area and the Missouri River, Grand Pass (probably) being one of the better public waterfowling locations in the country. Fountain Grove, too.”
CRAFTING A DUCK PARADISE
Why has duck hunting in “The Triangle” gotten so much better over the four decades since Sumner was touted the goose capital of the world? According to Vandemore, much of it is due to good funding and smart land management.
“Beginning in the early 1970s,” he said, “there’s been a one-eighth of one percent sales tax in the state, with that money going to the Missouri Department of Conservation. So, with that money, the department is well funded. And as a result, the habitat is well managed. Public hunting is fantastic in Missouri, and it’s this increased habitat that put the (so-called) Golden Triangle on the map.”
I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t it all the acres of flooded corn on places like Habitat Flats, Swan Lake, Fountain Grove and others that have brought about this tremendous avian transformation?
Vandemore doesn’t think so. Although that’s certainly important, he also points to the “thousands of acres” of the surrounding area’s ground enrolled in the Wetland Reserve Program (WRP), wetlands with lots of moist soil habitat, as well as changing climate patterns. With regard to changing weather, he said much of the nearby water sources commonly used to freeze up the first or second week of December, and that they would get snow fairly regularly.
Now, he said, that doesn’t happen as much, which opens up a lot more water and habitat that wasn’t there before. As a result, some ducks are holding in the area longer.
While it does have corn, Vandemore’s operation also contains many acres of intensely managed moist soil habitat, which is perfect for September teal and early season puddlers. He and his partners have carved incredibly unique timber holes out of the hardwoods, pumped them full and built elaborate blinds along the edges.
“We have the agricultural fields, the moist soil management and the timber holes,” Vandemore said. “Buckbrush sloughs. Dry fields. You name it, and we have it here. You can’t replace the beauty of Arkansas. Getting in a huge expanse of flooded (green) timber is unbelievable, but our timber holes give (hunters) that feel.”
Habitat Flats offers it all, from November and December ducks to Canadas into the early part of February. And then there’s the Spring Conservation Order, aka the spring snow goose season, on which Vandemore is considered a well-respected and well-versed expert. For more information about Habitat Flats, visit the website at habitatflats.com, or contact Vandemore directly, either by phone at 660-973-3805, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PUBLIC OPTIONS ABOUND
Before you start separating yourself from your wallet, it’s not all pay-to-play in the “Golden Triangle.” In fact, many spots that make up “The Triangle” will cost a ’fowler nothing but the requisite state and federal paperwork—licenses and stamps. These are just a sampling of what’s available.
Fountain Grove And Grand Pass Conservation Areas
I hunted the Fountain Grove CA several years ago with Vandemore, Travis Mueller of Avery Outdoors and an Avery pro-staffer named Clint Roby. It was September, the moist soil impoundments were perfect, and the blue-wings—well, they were there by the bazillions. Buggy? Yes. Hot and humid? Absolutely. Two of the best ’fowling days I’ve ever enjoyed? Uh-huh.
Fountain Grove is one of Missouri’s 15 CAs managed intensively for waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. The area’s almost 8,000 acres sit minutes from Sumner to the northwest and just a stone’s throw from the Grand River. Grand Pass in Saline County lies about 30 minutes south of Sumner and in the duck-rich Missouri River bottoms. Like Fountain Grove, Grand Pass’ 5,300 acres are managed largely with waterfowl hunting in mind; however, hunters will find additional opportunities on the area, including turkeys, doves, whitetails, bobwhites and bunnies.
Waterfowl hunting on both Fountain Grove and Grand Pass, as well as the MDC’s other 13 areas managed for waterfowl, is available via a somewhat involved selection process. Hunters can secure a spot, be it blind or walk-in location, in one of three ways: Apply online (Missouri residents only); hunt with a reservation holder; or by way of a morning drawing, aka the “poor line.” Detailed information—strongly suggested reading unless intimately familiar with the processes for reserving a spot on a particular area—can be found in the current MDC waterfowl regulations online on pages 27-28.
Widespread flooding during spring 2019 affected roads, structures, access and the overall landscape on many MDC conservation areas, including Fountain Grove and Grand Pass. It’s strongly advised waterfowlers keep up with conditions on these areas. Obtain info on Fountain Grove by calling 660-938-4124; for Grand Pass information, contact the area manager at 660-595-2444.
Swan Lake NWR
Swan Lake NWR is located just southeast of Sumner and—like the MDC’s 15 conservation areas—affords access to the various hunting units on specific days via an online lottery-style draw. Beginning in early October, the application process continues through early December. Details on the draw can be found on the refuge’s website.