Here's your guide to great waterfowling for mallards and more from one end of Nebraska to the other.
by Gene Hornbeck
Nebraska's three historic Platte rivers - the South Platte, North Platte and Platte - have long been known as some of the best duck and goose hunting areas in the nation.
The South Platte enters the state from Colorado just a few miles west of Big Springs, Neb. The North Platte comes in from Wyoming - a stone's throw west of the small Nebraska farming/ranching community of Henry.
The two meet at North Platte to form the Platte, which makes its way past such cities as Lexington, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus and Fremont before entering the Missouri River at Plattsmouth. That course includes well over 500 miles of shallow, meandered channels that attract thousands of ducks and geese during both the spring and fall migrations.
The North Platte Valley has long been known for its duck and goose hunting. The valley from Henry down to Lewellen and Lake McConaughy is laced with numerous small streams - creeks such as Nine Mile, Sheep, Stuckenhole, Wildhorse, Red Willow and Winter's - that feed the river and offer open water to waterfowl even after the Platte begins to run ice.
There is some early hunting in October along the river for ducks such as teal, gadwalls, widgeon and pintails, but the mallard is No. 1 on the duck scene, and the birds normally begin to show up in numbers along the valley by the first week in November. Numbers often depend on the weather. A storm that covers up feed and freezes over the small lakes, ponds and marshes in the Dakotas will push thousands of ducks and geese into the valley.
It was late last season that Wymore waterfowler Kevin Hennecke and his Lab Buster got these mallards along a stretch of the Platte west of Paxton. Photo courtesy of Kevin Hennecke
"We usually see a peak in the numbers of ducks and geese during the latter part of the season - December to early January," said Gary Schlichtemeier, district wildlife manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at Alliance.
"Basically, the birds will concentrate anywhere along the river and spring-fed creeks where they aren't disturbed a lot," said the biologist. "The major concentrations are found at the North Platte National Wildlife Refuge near the town on Minatare. It includes lakes Minatare, Alice and Winter's Creek. The other major staging area in the district is the state's Garden County Refuge. The refuge includes all of the river in Garden County, which lies just west of Lake McConaughy."
Almost all of the hunting along the valley is on private land and it occurs from blinds on the river as well as field setups where the birds feed.
There are only a couple public hunting areas that offer limited waterfowl action between Henry and Lewellen - the Kiowa Wildlife Management Area south of Morrill and the Bridgeport State Recreation Area near Bridgeport.
The North Platte, which of course is still well known for its great mallard and Canada goose hunting, has been famous for same for over a century. Perhaps the best-known area is that around Lisco. National attention focused on the hunting when Art Storz, an Omaha brewer, purchased a strip of land along the river and built Duck Lore Lodge in 1938. Its famed duck and goose hunting brought such notables as movie actors Robert Taylor and Wallace Beery, military leaders such as General Curtis May and numerous political leaders to enjoy the camaraderie of the lodge and its hunting. Storz sold the property in 1958 to the Rush Creek Land and Livestock Company of Lisco, which still owns and manages it.
There are pay-to-hunt areas that come and go along the North Platte. For information on current setups, contact the local conservation officer. At Scottsbluff it's Scott Brandt, (308) 635-1277; Gering - James Zimmerman, (308) 436-7561; Bridgeport - Raymond Still, (308) 262-1075; and at Oshkosh - Dan Evasco, (308) 772-3091.
The hunting is also good at times along the South Platte. However, it doesn't carry the water flows that the North Platte does, says Richard Nelson, district wildlife manager for the NGPC at North Platte. His district includes the South Platte, the North Platte from Lewellen to North Platte, and the Platte from North Platte to Cozad.
"The mallards begin to concentrate along these rivers and warm-water sloughs about mid-November," he said. "The numbers peak when things freeze up in the Dakotas, and that can be from Thanksgiving until mid-December.
"The major concentrations of birds can be found at the Clear Creek and Garden County refuges as well as on Lake McConaughy and Sutherland Reservoir. There are also some smaller concentrations using the private sandpit lakes along the river valleys as well as the spring-fed creeks and sloughs.
"Access to the rivers is very limited unless you know someone," acknowledged the biologist. But there are other hunting options. "There is some fair to good hunting on Canadas at the Clear Creek Wildlife Management Area east of Lewellen, and hunters take a few mallards there from the goose pits. Lake McConaughy can be good for both ducks and geese at times for those hunters who know how to hunt the big reservoir.
"Sutherland also offers hunting on both ducks and geese and there is lesser success on the other southwest reservoirs such as Enders, Red Willow, Swanson, Medicine Creek and Elwood," Nelson said.
Nelson says he's addicted to hunting greenheads and has a "secret" spot on the South Platte, which has been very kind to him and his hunting partners.
Access to the rivers themselves is pretty much limited to leasing land for a blind or knowing someone who owns property you can hunt. There are also a few hunters along the river who take in day-hunters for a fee.
Kevin Hennecke of Wymore is one of the guides who run a pay-to-hunt setup just north of big Lake McConaughy. He says most of his action is on Canadas.
"I have three pits in a field setup, and of course most of shooting comes on Canadas, but we do take some mallards," he said. "I've hunted the North Platte from Lisco to Lake Ogallala and have had some great hunts on both greenheads and Canadas."
Hennecke can be reached by phone at (402) 645-8223 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
Another person who caters to hunters is Tim Holzfaster of Paxton. He owns and operates a historic watering hole and steak house in Paxton - Ole's Big Game Bar. Holzfaster bought the business and over 200 trophy animals that Ole Herstedt collected over the years
and displayed in the bar. It became one of the most unusual farm-town taverns in America and attracted quite a few notable people, like the boxer Jack Dempsey who came to hunt and swap stories with Herstedt. Actors such as Robert Duvall and Amanda Blake (Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty) were among those who stopped to see the unusual bar and the man behind it.
Holzfaster bought the bar from Ole in 1988, and it continues to be the town's No. 1 tourist attraction. The new owner also enjoys hunting and fishing and has a motel and hunting lodge as well as the bar.
"We offer duck and goose hunting on the South and North Platte rivers," he said. "We also have two licensed, controlled shooting areas for pheasants and offer hunts for wild birds as well."
Holzfaster's hunting lodge and operation is called Ole's Prairie Ridge. For details, check the Web site - olesprairieridge.com, or call (308) 239-4719; e-mail email@example.com.
Many of the hunters along the rivers have hunted the same area for years and many have been in the family for two or three generations, says Daylan Figgs, district wildlife supervisor for the NGPC at Kearney.
"The Platte in my district runs from Cozad to about Central City, and like elsewhere along the river the birds will concentrate on the refuges, private ponds and sloughs where hunting isn't allowed or is very limited by the landowner," Figgs said.
There are three or four major areas in the district where the bird numbers get fairly high. There is usually a big buildup of Canada geese in the Kearney area at a sand pit lake called Grandpas, which is closed to hunting by the owner. Duck and goose numbers also build up on the Lillian Annette Rowe Wildlife Sanctuary south of Kearney and the Crane Meadows Nature Center near Grand Island.
Figgs said there are a few public hunting areas along the river that can serve up some action. "The Cozad, Blue Hole, East Odessa and Martin's Reach areas all have river access, but I suggest hunting them during the middle of the week because of the hunting pressure. Be prepared to haul gear fairly long distances."
Jim Hurt of Kearney, who retired as a district representative of Ducks Unlimited four years ago, has hunted the Platte and North Platte for over 30 years. He says it usually offers good hunting, but last year was different.
"I hunt the Platte not far from town and have for years," he said. "Normally we have good hunting, but it was a bummer last year. We normally bag anywhere from 100 to 200 greenheads a season and last year we got something like 25 - the birds just didn't come into the area like they usually do."
Public access to the river in central Nebraska can be difficult if you don't have an "in" with someone. "You basically have to own the land, lease it, marry into it or have a good friend who will invite you on a few hunts," Hurt said. "It used to be that you could lease a hunting spot for a couple hundred dollars, but like everything else the price has gone up."
Hunting the Platte and maintaining a blind or pit can take a lot of time and effort. It involves hauling blind-building material to the river, often across a channel or two. Most hunters use anywhere from 50 to 200 duck decoys as well as two or three dozen (or more) Canadas. Some use floaters as well as full-bodied field decoys.
Wading the river can be tricky, especially if the water is high. Chest waders are considered a must. The river's bottom is loose sand and can move quickly underfoot at times. It's not unusual for the novice to get a "bit" of the Platte in his waders a time or two before he learns how to navigate the river.
Todd Chinn, 33, who lives and works in Lincoln, spends his free time on the Platte just west of Columbus with his dad Randy. He's hunted the river all his life. His first mallard was bagged when he was 9 or 10 years of age.
"We have two blinds on the river and I usually hunt one with my hunting buddies and Dad hunts the other with his," Todd said. "Last year the hunting was pretty good, but I missed a lot of good flights because I just hunt on the weekends.
"The birds usually show up in mid-November in any numbers, and the hunting stays pretty good until the river starts running ice. That can be in early December, or in given years, by the middle of the month.
"The birds we shoot are either migrants, those that stay a day or two along the river on their way south, or those staged on Lake Babcock and on a couple of private sand pit lakes in the area."
The younger Chinn said his dad and three hunting partners had their best day last fall on the 25th of October when they bagged 18 greenheads, two small Canadas and two whitefronts. "That's a bit unusual because we usually see the best flights in November and early December - but that all depends on the weather," he said.
Jeff Hoffman, the district wildlife manager for the NGPC in Lincoln, said the major hunting areas for mallards and Canadas along the Platte in the southeast are those around Columbus, Schuyler Valley and Venice.
Hoffman said mallard concentrations could peak anywhere from Thanksgiving and the first week in December to Christmas. He said the pay-to-hunt areas are similar to those elsewhere in the state - they come and go. The Nebraska Department of Agriculture puts out a list of them each year entitled "Sporting Nebraska." It is available by calling (402) 471-4876 or 1-800-422-6692.
"There are quite a few small concentrations of birds on the privately owned, warm-water sloughs and sand pit lakes along the river," Hoffman said. "The Dodge-Saunders County Refuge also holds birds that help make the hunting in Butler, Colfax, Douglas and Cass counties."
The hunting prospects for this fall, as mentioned earlier, aren't as bright as they have been over the past four or five years. Drought cut into production as well as the amount of water available to migrating birds. However, there should be some decent flights of ducks, and the goose numbers will likely be on a par with past years, provided there is water in and around their historic refuges and staging areas.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION The seasons and bag limits in force this fall are the results of surveys and studies done on the part of state and federal waterfowl managers.
Last year the duck seasons in the state's three duck management units varied. They opened in the Low Plains, Early and High Plains on Sept. 29, closing in the High Plains on Jan. 6. The daily bag of six ducks could include no more than five mallards, of which no more than two could be hens. There were also restrictions on pintails, scaup, wood ducks, redheads and canvasbacks, among other species. Season dates and bag limits for this season should be similar, but be sure to check before you head out to hunt.
For details on the seasons, b
ag limits, permits and public hunting areas, call the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission at (402) 471-0641.
On the district level, check with Gary Schlichtemeier at Alliance, (308) 763-2940; Richard Nelson at North Platte, (308) 535-8025; Daylan Figgs at Kearney, (308) 865-5329; Jeff Hoffmann in Lincoln, (402) 471-5415.
Other conservation officers along the river that may be of help include: Dan Zuehlke, Ogallala, (308) 284-4815; Dennis Thompson, Ogallala, (308) 284-6450; Roger Thompson, North Platte, (308) 535-8025; Jack Henderson, Gothenburg, (308) 537-7483; Dale Johnson, Kearney, (308) 237-1079; Terry Brentzel, Grand Island, (308) 384-8296; Steve Oberg, Columbus, (402) 564-5937, Dan Roberts, Fremont (402) 721-7852; Mike Luben, Colon, (402) 443-4278 and Levi Krause, Louisville, (402) 234-2212.
Clear Creek is the only pay-to-hunt area that the NGPC operates. It is basically a Canada goose hunting area. Information on that hunting is available from the agency's North Platte office.
Waterfowl hunters must have a current small game hunting permit, the annual habitat stamp, a federal duck stamp and must register with the Harvest Information Program (HIP). The latter is free and anyone can register by calling 1-888-403-2473. The line is open 24 hours a day.
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