Pick a hunting spot at any of these Nebraska waterways this month, and you're sure to find yourself in the middle of some rewarding duck and goose shooting.
By Gene Hornbeck
December weather will play an important part in success for the Nebraska waterfowler this year, just as it has for decades. Most veterans on the scene look forward to some great mallard and Canada goose hunting along the Platte, North Platte, and South Platte rivers as well as the Loup, the Republican and the Missouri.
The greenheads and Canadas begin showing up along the Platte River valleys in November, and as the weather begins to seal up the ponds and shallow marshes in the Dakotas and northern Nebraska, bird numbers begin to climb where there is open water.
Water could be a factor in some areas this fall and winter as the extended drought in western Nebraska has cut into the flows on the Platte River as well as the Republican. However, there is still a lot of optimism among the hunters.
"We - my son Matt and I - had a really good season last year," said Dick Prasch of Lexington. "We have a blind on a ground water or warm-water slough along the Platte west of town and it really pulls in the mallards when it gets cold.
"We had good hunting right up until the end of the season on Jan. 4 last year," said the 60-year-old Prasch. "All we shoot are greenheads and we had a plentiful supply of them last year. I've hunted the Platte for years and I think it was just as good last year as it was in the 'old days' despite low water in the river."
Prasch said the mallards concentrate on areas along the river that are closed to hunting. Johnson and Elwood reservoirs also hold birds, as do numerous private sandpit lakes along the river.
"Duck numbers can of course go up and down," he said. "If a snowstorm hits the Dakotas you can bet the ducks will be coming into the Platte Valley."
Over the years, Prasch has used about every kind of shotgun made; most were 12 gauges.
"When we got the blind we have now on the slough I switched to a 3-inch, 20-gauge, over-under and shoot No. 4 steel," he said. "We have enough birds decoying that we shoot most of them at 15 to 20 yards. Sometimes we only take one drake apiece out of a flock - it's that good at times.
Columbus' Todd Chinn, his Lab and a double brace of Canadas bagged on the Platte last December by the waterfowler and his dad, Randy. Photo courtesy of Randy Chinn
"We use about 100 duck decoys early in the season and then cut back to about 50 during the latter part as the ducks tend to get decoy shy," Prasch said.
Bagging some mallards and Canadas on the Missouri east of Yankton is also often dependent on bad weather says Jeff Schuckman of Norfolk. He rated his hunting last fall as average on the big river.
"If the river isn't running flow-ice, we can still take some birds in December, but November hunting is usually best," he said. "Last fall I had a good many 'blue sky' days, but there were days when a front would come through and bring in the mallards and even a few geese."
Over the years, the big river below Gavins Point Dam has always served up spotty duck and goose success. It is one of those areas wherein success does depend on the weather. If a winter storm hits the Dakotas, it pushes the birds south and onto the Missouri. The flocks may stay a day to two, but then move south to refuge and feeding areas such as the DeSoto National Wildlife Refuge just east of Blair.
Waterfowl hunting on the Missouri has gone through many changes. Those changes still continue. The river below Fort Randall Dam in South Dakota flows into Lewis and Clark Lake, which is the result of Gains Point Dam. Siltation has been occurring over the years, and it in turn has created shallow sloughs over the head end of the reservoir. That habitat, bulrush and cattail sloughs, attract a lot of mallards and the hunting stays productive well into December.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers annually allocates about 35 blind sites on the reservoir. However, there is no limit on the number of boat blinds allowed on the lake. For details on the blinds write or call U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Gavins Point Project, Duck Blind Information, P.O. Box 710, Yankton, S.D. 57072; or call (402) 667-7873.
In addition to the Corps managed reservoir the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission has the 4,500-acre, Bazile Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is located along the river two miles east of Niobrara, and it's open to hunting. No permanent blinds are allowed, but the bulrush and cattail sloughs offer plenty of concealment for the hunter who wants to throw out a couple of dozen decoys and play "come hither" on his "duck whistle."
The Corps of Engineers also allocates seasonal blind sites on Harlan County Reservoir. The drawing for blinds is held the first Sunday after Labor Day. For details on that popular area, contact U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at (308) 799-2105
Productive December waterfowling is fairly limited on public land in Nebraska. The Game Commission's Clear Creek Controlled Hunting Area on the west end of Lake McConaughy serves up a good chance at bagging a Canada or two, as well as a few greenheads. That's provided you draw the right blind, says Lance Hastings, the wildlife biologist at North Platte who monitors the area.
"The Clear Creek Area offers 11 blinds and each will hold four hunters," Hastings said. "We open the area when goose numbers become high enough to offer productive hunting, which is usually around the second week in November. Weather and bird numbers permitting we keep it open until the end of the season."
Currently, the daily blind fee at Clear Creek is $5 per gun - $30 for an annual ticket, which is good only Monday through Friday. Most of the geese are taken by pass-shooting. The area has been in operation since 1972. Last year 479 waterfowl hunters hunted 1,208 days and took 396 Canada geese and 406 ducks, 330 of which were mallards.
There is a daily drawing for the blinds, held at the headquarters one hour before shooting time. For an update on the hunting you can call the check station at (308) 778-5486.
There are a number of pay-to-hunt waterfowl setups in Nebraska, however, some come and go on an annual basis. Kevin Hennecke of Wymore, who's been in the business for a number of years, offers early-season hunts in eastern Nebraska as well as duck hunting along the Platte and goose hunting on the North Platte in December. Phone (402) 645-8223 or go to his Web site: henneckehunts.
Ralph Kohler of Tekamah is the patriarch of waterfowling along the Missouri River. He has guided hunters for more than 60 years and hosted more than 50,000 in his pits. He said December hunting was about average on mallards last year and good on Canadas.
"We hunted almost every day in December last year, and even a couple of days in January," Kohler said. "Things have changed here along the river. In years past we shot a lot of snows and blues, and a few Canadas. In recent years we are taking more Canadas than we are the white geese. I think the restoration efforts of various states has had an impact on the Canada numbers. It seems as if every pond and lake, (even those in the cities) have some dark geese on them in the summer and early fall."
Kohler's grasp on the Canadas' increase is mirrored in surveys by the NGPC. The Canada kill on a statewide basis averaged over 70,000 birds between 1992 and 2001 - that represents a six-fold increase from the kill in the 1960s.
Biologists logged an average of 49,000 birds wintering on the North Platte during the 1990s; in 2004 that number was up to 176,000. The numbers on the Central Platte, between North Platte and Central City, showed similar increases. The wintering population in the '60s was counted in the hundreds. The count averaged 25,000 in the 1990s. The average count on Canadas wintering in the state climbed from about 10,000 in the 1960s to an all-time high of 386,000 in 1997. A good share of the increase can be credited to restoration efforts by many of the states in the Central and Mississippi flyways - not just by the conservation agencies, but by private landowners, who also wanted to see the big geese in their area.
Kohler charges $50 a day for a seat in his blind. He supplies the decoys, does the calling, etc. He can be reached at home at (402) 374-2747, or in his blind at (402) 374-2479.
Finding a place to hunt waterfowl in most any state is becoming more difficult every year for the average hunter. The prime lands along the Platte Rivers in Nebraska, for example, are either almost entirely leased, or the landowner simply doesn't allow hunting.
Hunting ducks and geese early in the season gives the average guy a break if he looks to south-central Nebraska. There is something like 100 places to hunt in this area called the Rainwater Basin. While these shallow-water marshes tend to freeze over early, there are a few that stay open well into December. There also are good numbers of Canadas that come off the reservoirs and rivers to feed, especially in Kearney, Gosper and Phelps counties, and they will decoy to a spread set up on the ice.
"We pump water into some of the areas and this helps keep them open," said Gene Mack, Supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Rainwater Basin Waterfowl Production Areas. "Even if it freezes over, the birds, especially the geese, can often be decoyed onto the ice.
"The ones that stay open the longest are of course the ones we pump or the larger ones," Mack continued. "They include among others - Massie, Funk, Johnson, Mallard Haven, Harvard, Eckhardt and Youngsen WPAs."
The NGPC has about 30 Wildlife Management Areas in the Rainwater Basin and they too can offer some December hunting, says Daylan Figgs, district wildlife manager for the NGPC at Kearney.
"The waterfowl hunting in the basin is of course dependent on the water levels," he said. "Spring rains put quite a bit of water in the eastern basins, but water was quite scarce in the western end of the area. Some of the areas that hold promise for late hunting in my mind would be Spikerush, Kissinger, Father Hupp, and South Kirkpatrick WMAs. If areas ice over, those closer to the Platte River or Harlan County Reservoir, where there is open water, would offer the best chance of decoying some birds, particularly geese."
Figgs said the Commission's 3,000-acre Sacramento WMA west of Wilcox offers fair to good duck hunting, along with a few Canadas. Part of the area is refuge, but the remainder is open to public hunting. There are some permanent blinds on the area that are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Hunters can also use natural cover for a blind as long as they stay 200 yards away from the permanent blinds. Details are available by calling (308) 478-5238.
Successful December hunts in the Basin Country come as a result of scouting and getting an idea where the birds are feeding and resting.
Harlan County Reservoir remains one of the better public hunting spots in this area. The water had been low in the lake for the past two or three years, but that doesn't mean it isn't attractive to waterfowl. The low water has allowed vegetation to grow up and this cover in the shallow water at the back of the coves will draw ducks. The geese will usually stage on the main lake and they'll offer some good shooting on those days when your blind is in the right place to intercept them when they come back from feeding. These Canadas often trade back and forth from Harlan to Kansas reservoirs such as Kirwin.
Lynn Stockall, sporting goods store manger for Hogan's Sporting Goods in North Platte, has been hunting waterfowl along the Platte Valley for years. He says the mallards were plentiful last year.
"I hunt an area where the North Platte and South Platte River come together to form the Platte just east of town," he said. "The mallards were plentiful last year and we had a great season. The December hunting was excellent.
"We have a slough just off the river and use an aerator to keep the water open," Stockall said. "It attracts a lot of mallards when things begin to freeze up and we have some really good shooting."
Randy Chinn and his son Todd of Columbus hunt the Loup and Platte rivers a few miles from town. He reported a good year on both ducks and geese.
"We had to hunt the Loup up until early December when we finally got water in the Platte," said the elder Chinn. "The duck hunting was good on the Loup and the Canada goose hunting got hot just before Christmas on the Platte and stayed good for about a month."
"From the information we have it appears that last year's statewide hunter success on mallards and Canadas was average or a little above," said Mark Vrtiska, waterfowl program manager for the Game Commission in Lincoln. "The drought undoubtedly hurt some hunters and probably helped others. We would have had a tremendous duck season across the state last fall if we had had more water.
"We usually have 30,000 to 35,000 waterfowl hunters each year," said the biologist. "While figures aren't complete, we will usually harvest around 100,000 mallards, but the Canada kill can vary between 60,000 and 100,000. A hard freeze and heavy snows up north can bring the birds in, but if it hits here it can also push them out."
The goose seasons and limits are expected to be about the same as last year when the daily limit on Canadas was three with a possession limit of six. Duck limits will likely follow l
ast year's, using the conventional system, which allowed a daily limit of six ducks that could include five mallards, of which no more than two could be hens. It is expected that the seasons and bag limits on pintail, redheads and canvasback will be limited again this fall.
Details on public hunting areas as well as the rules and regulations are available from the NGPC's Lincoln office. Call (402) 471-0641 for details. The Kearney (308-865-5310) and North Platte (308-535-8025) offices can be sources of information on guided hunts as well as a pulse on the migration in and along the Platte Valley.
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