The Place To Be

The Place To Be

You want action with Nebraska ducks and geese this month? Find it here! (December 2005)

Crofton waterfowler John Schuckman took these greenheads from his decoy spread on the Missouri River.
Photo courtesy of John Schuckman

If you're one of the many freelance waterfowl hunters in Nebraska -- those who don't have a permanent blind or pit -- December often makes finding a spot to hunt rather difficult. That quandary can be resolved if you'll take the time to check the public hunting areas in our state to see which ones are holding birds.

Last fall and winter was somewhat dismal for many hunters -- even for those with blinds in places such as the Platte and Republican River valleys. Drought in the central and western parts of the state cut into the water supply on these rivers and the reservoirs on them. Adding to the problem of reduced numbers of waterfowl was an exceptionally mild winter that caused birds to stay in the Dakotas and southern Canada until late in the season.

Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in Lincoln, said a lot of the public hunting areas in south-central Nebraska, the Rainwater Basin, and in the Sandhills were short of water and, thus, short of waterfowl last fall.

Avid waterfowler Keith Brown of Waverly declared last year's hunting disappointing. "I did quite a bit of hunting with buddies Barry Bales of Fairbury and Jim Shaw of Lincoln," he said. "Barry and I hunted the Little Blue River for ducks and had a few good days.

"Jim and I tried to hunt the Rainwater Basin marshes, but the ones that did have some water had so many hunters on them that hunting was poor at best. On a positive note, we did have some pretty good early-season teal hunting.

"The weather in December and early January was too mild," Brown surmised. "We did kill a few ducks and Canada geese around Lincoln in the cut cornfields. These were birds that stage on areas such as Branched Oak, Twin Lakes, and on the small park lakes in the city of Lincoln.

"We did get some fair-to-good rains in the spring, so we are hoping for improved December and January hunting on mallards and Canadas."

Low water cut into hunting success last fall on the storied Platte and North Platte rivers as well. "Both the duck and Canada goose kill was down on the Clear Creek Wildlife Area last fall," said game biologist Lance Hastings of North Platte. "The geese never did show up in normal numbers, because of the mild weather in the Dakotas and Canada. We had a couple of minor pushes of geese and ducks, but we didn't see any major ones."

According to Hastings, the controlled hunting area at the Clear Creek WMA was open from Nov. 6 through Feb. 1 last year. He reports that a total of 390 hunters used the pay-to-hunt blinds, killing 244 Canadas and 184 ducks, 146 of the latter being mallards. That kill was down significantly from the 2003 season, when 479 hunters took 396 Canadas and 406 ducks.

"The waterfowl harvest on the area is really dependent on the weather north of us," Hastings said. "For example, when the Dakotas get a number of short-lived cold fronts and snow, we see the birds move in over a longer period, and the hunting success improves. We are hoping to see that happen this year."

Aaron Schad and his brother Murray, both of North Platte, are two of the hundreds of hunters who hunt private land from permanent blinds or pits. Their blinds are just west of North Platte on the South Platte River.

"We have pretty good hunting on greenheads and do get a few Canadas as well," he said. "The water in the river and sloughs where we hunt has been pretty low the last four or five years due to drought; thus, our hunting hasn't been as good as it can be.

The low-water problems along the Platte appear to be improving, said 61-year-old Dick Prasch, a veteran hunter from Lexington. "I saw more water on the river this past summer than I have seen in four or five years," he said. "I really don't know where it came from, but we did have some good spring and early summer rains. Even the ground-water level was up. I have a blind on a warm-water slough along the river, and we had 4 or 5 inches of water in the blind last spring and summer. I have never seen that before, so we are even getting a recharge in the ground water.

On the good-news side, veteran waterfowler Jim Ernst, a Columbus car dealer, reports that he, his son John, and John's 10-year-old son Tom had a good season. "We hunt on a ranch on the headwaters of Beaver Creek in Boone County," Ernst said. "The creek is spring-fed, and some of the sloughs are fed by springs too, so the water stays open after the lakes in the Sandhills freeze over.

"Our hunting last fall was actually quite good. There is one area on the ranch that serves as a refuge and we get a pretty good buildup of mallards on it. We don't keep track of the kill, but we have good hunting.

The NGPC's Mark Vrtiska was quite sure that kill figures for last season would be down from the 2003-04 statewide kill of 125,000 mallards and 104,000 Canada geese. He also expects to see some increase on ducks and geese coming through Nebraska.

"This of course hinges on the weather," he said. "We had better production on local ducks in the Sandhills this year, and indications are that production will be up a bit in Canada."

The latest duck season (High Plains) is expected to end the second week in January, with the Canada season coming to a close around Feb. 1 in the Niobrara, Panhandle and Platte River management units. However, late-season waterfowl hunting isn't over until it's over: The Light Goose Conservation Action season will open the first week in February and close in mid-April. There are no limits on the white geese -- either daily or possession -- during that season.

The weather in December and January dictates if and where the ducks and geese migrating through Nebraska will stop for a few days or for weeks. Here's a list of some areas expected to hold birds this winter.

Lake Minatare: Water may be low, but it should be hosting both mallards and Canadas.

Garden County Refuge: The refuge supplies birds for hunting along the North Platte River outside its boundaries.

Lake McConaughy: Public hunting is allowed; boat blinds usually best. The lake holds both ducks and geese.

Lake Ogallala: Although public hunting is allowed, most of the geese and ducks ar

e coming off of Lake McConaughy.

"When the Dakotas get a number of short-lived cold fronts and snow, we see the birds move in over a longer period, and the hunting success improves. We are hoping to see that happen this year." -- Lance Hastings, biologist

Enders Reservoir: Public hunting is offered here, but low water has reduced bird numbers. It does hold fair numbers of mallards and Canadas on an area set aside as refuge.

Swanson: Public hunting is allowed. It holds both ducks and geese in limited numbers; it too has been affected by low water.

Medicine Creek Reservoir: Low water prevails, but it does hold both mallards and Canadas under normal conditions.

Harlan County Reservoir: The lake has been affected by low water. When water conditions are normal, the reservoir serves up good decoy, pass- and field-shooting for mallards and Canadas.

Sutherland Reservoir: It holds both mallards and Canadas, and offers fair to good hunting for those with boat blinds. Pass- and field-shooting can also be productive at times.

Calamus Reservoir: Public hunting for both ducks and geese is OK here.

Sherman County Reservoir: Waterfowl use is limited mostly to mallards. Public hunting is allowed.

Dodge County Refuge: All of this is refuge. It holds ducks and geese, which supply shooting for hunters along the Platte River outside Dodge County.

Twin Lakes (Seward County): A waterfowl refuge, this holds mallards and Canadas that supply limited hunting opportunity on nearby fields.

Rainwater Basin: Ducks and geese, including snows, whitefronts and Canadas, use the area, and many use the marshes late in the season if there are enough birds staging on them to keep the water open.

Lewis and Clark Lake: This is a popular waterfowl hunting area with numerous access points, such as Lewis and Clark State Recreation Area and Bazile Creek Wildlife Management Area as well as the Missouri River upstream to the South Dakota border.

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