Iowa duck hunting doesn't have to be all about mallards. Whether the target is blue-winged or green-winged teal, pintails, ring-necks or wood ducks, Iowa has a hunt for you. (November 2008).
Despite their popularity among duck hunters, mallards share their habitat with a number of other species, including teal, goldeneye, scaup, ringnecks, pintails, gadwalls, ruddy ducks and widgeon. Photo by Robert Sloan.
No one can predict with much certainty where ducks will be at any given time. They hit the Hawkeye State on cue every fall, but exactly when and where depends on the prevailing temperatures, wind and other natural conditions.
Generally speaking, things start hopping at the end of August or the beginning of September, when the blue-winged teal home in on the marshes and lakes, followed by migrating woodies and mallards. Late October usually ushers in pintails, widgeon, ringnecks and a host of other species. November is the month that ruddy ducks and others join ranks with the birds already in the state, and the shooting can be excellent.
Here's a look at some of these "other" ducks, and at the places in which to find them.
Wood ducks are near the top of most waterfowlers' lists, but they're not always in the areas that most shooters set up in. Natural lakes and ponds are classic duck habitat, but wooded marshes are real magnets for the woodie.
"A few of the WMAs in the Rathbun Unit in southern Iowa are managed for waterfowl," said Jeff Telleen, the Iowa Department of Natural Resources' area wildlife biologist. "The Rathbun and Colyn wildlife areas hold shallow marsh areas and open lakes, and as a result, we get the whole array of waterfowl species, including wood ducks."
The timing depends a lot on the weather, and wood ducks make up most of the bag from September through October with good numbers remaining through November.
Woodies fly in small flocks, heads held high and bills pointed down at a slight angle. The telltale swishing of their wings and their white bellies, shorter necks and blocky tails help shooters identify them in flight.
Rathbun Wildlife Management Area includes a huge expanse of open water and plenty of room for both shooters and ducks to spread out in. The woodies appreciate the woodlands on the public area and will look for the quieter stretches of wood-and-water combinations. The WMA covers 15,970 acres in Appanoose, Lucas, Monroe and Wayne counties. Access is about six miles north of Plano on state Route 142 and six miles south of Russell on county Route S56. The lake covers 11,000 of those acres.
The Colyn State Wildlife Area covers 770 acres of marsh and woods just over four miles south of Russell on Route S56. The area isn't as dependable for hunting as is Rathbun. For additional information, contact the IDNR's Rathbun Unit at (641) 774-4918.
Among the divers, the most common bird in northwestern Iowa is the goldeneye.
According to IDNR technician T.J. Herrick, just about everything that quacks and swims shows up here at one time or another. Arrival dates are just generalizations, and can vary from year to year, but when things are on schedule at Trumbull, Lost Island and Elk lakes, goldeneyes should make their appearance during mid-to-late November.
These ducks love open water. They're looking for insects, fish, crayfish and other submerged bite-sized creatures and will generally be found on large bodies of water and on slower rivers.
Goldeneyes are midsized, fly in small groups and move high and fast. They're often called "whistlers" because of the sound made by their wings. When in flight, the drakes can be recognized by the round spot between their eyes and bill and gold-colored eyes. They have a green head, black back, white belly and short, dark bill.
Slightly oversized decoys work well on goldeneyes. A way to make them even more attractive is to rig up a few of the decoys with a line that you can pull to cause them to bob up and down and ripple the water. Moving decoys look a lot more alive to the ducks checking them out from overhead. Goldeneyes can be called, but experienced hunters will tell you that it's a challenge.
Take the time to scout Trumbull and Elk lakes in Clay County and Lost Island Lake in Palo Alto County. Goldeneyes are a great change of pace. For more information, contact the IDNR's Ruthven Wildlife Unit at (712) 330-2563.
According to southern Iowa wildlife biologist Chad Paup, who works the IDNR's Mt. Ayr Unit, migrating ringnecks will make a stopover on area lakes in southwestern Iowa -- but only a brief one.
"You better be there the days ducks are flying in on a northwest wind, because they'll just stop for a drink and some rest," he said. "Our lakes just don't hold those birds for long."
The IDNR's Bays Branch Unit lies just to the north and gets its share of ringnecks as well.
Ringneck numbers pick up after other migrants have already arrived. Pintails, widgeon, teal, gadwalls and shovelers have spread out across this part of the state before the ringnecks, scaup and redheads fly in sometime during November.
"The arrival of birds, including ringnecks, is highly dependant on the timing of the weather on the flyway," said wildlife biologist Ron Munkel. "The unit's wetlands that see waterfowl are the Dunbar Slough complex, Goose Lake in Green County, the Snake Creek Marsh, McCord Pond, Lakin Slough and Bays Branch. Vegetation and water levels dictate where you'll find the birds. And don't overlook the rivers and oxbows."
But when the birds are there, the shooting can be excellent.
Ring-necked ducks prefers shallow ponds and backwaters but will frequent reservoirs and big lakes as well. They'll be foraging for small insects, clams, snails and plants. Flight identification can be tricky: Look for the gray wing stripes and black backs of these fairly large birds as they travel in small groups. When they land, they'll often swoop in rather than circling.
For more information, contact the Bays Branch Unit at (641) 332-2019.
The lesser scaup -- Aythya affinis to those with a degree in wildlife biology -- is common in the fall. Shooters usually see scaup in fairly tight flights of up to 50 birds. The white belly and darker-colored body can be a giveaway. White markings on the back of the wings should remove
There's no replacement for scouting, as scaup will use one likely-looking lake and completely ignore another. When looking around at various potential hunting sites, keep an eye out for other hunters doing the same. It won't hurt to have a backup or two in mind in the event several hunters show up on that hotspot you had picked out.
Scaup make an appearance on lakes like Icaria and Three Mile in October and will stick around for a while.
The Three Mile Lake area covers a total of 3,260 acres, 880 of which are open water. The lake is in Union County less than four miles north of Afton on county Route P53. The lake has three ramps and 23 miles of shoreline. Icaria Lake covers 665 acres in Adams County and lies four miles north of Corning. Call the Mt. Ayr Unit for more information at (641) 464-2220.
Blue-winged teal arrive in the southeastern region as early as Aug. 10, and sometimes the major push has already gone through by Sept. 15. Those birds remaining in the area will be joined by green-winged teal in November.
According to wildlife biologist Tim Thompson, waterfowlers had the opportunity to bag teal throughout the regular season at Hawkeye WMA last year. Fortunately for the teal, most shooters were setting their sights on larger ducks.
Teal are a mainstay in the fertile marshes of northwestern Iowa. Spots like Dewey's Pasture Wetlands Complex, Lost Island Marsh and Rush Lake in Palo Alto County are at the top of the list.
Bluewings prefer shallow, quiet water where they can feed quietly. A light blue patch on the wing is the key to identifying these birds in flight. They're quick, and able to fly around trees and other ground cover with an exceptional degree of coordination.
Green-winged teal look for seeds, grain and aquatic creatures that inhabit ponds and shallow marshes. They fly fast and would rival any choreographed aeronautical display with dives, twists and turns in mid-flight that make hunting them a real challenge. Drakes have a white belly that can be seen in flight (if anything can be seen at all).
Calling isn't what counts with teal -- an effective decoy set is the important thing. Mimic the natural formation of feeding birds by creating an opening at the end of the set facing downwind. This will direct the overhead birds as they consider landing.
Hawkeye WMA covers 13,511 acres in Johnson County. To reach it, go two miles north of North Liberty on state Route 965, a mile and a half west on Swan Lake Road, and then three-quarters of a mile east. For more information, contact the Coralville Unit at (319) 354-8343.
Puddle ducks serious about living up to their name, gadwalls primarily haunt marshes and ponds, but will occasionally be seen on larger waters.
"Gadwall usually start to arrive at the Riverton WMA in late October or during the first part of November," said wildlife biologist Carl Priebe. "There will usually be good numbers of gadwall for two or three weeks before they move on."
The Riverton WMA in Fremont County gets its fair share of gadwalls every year, along with good numbers of other divers and puddle ducks. The Riverton WMA is the site of waterfowl counts that give the IDNR an excellent indication of what's going on in the region. Hunting the area can be done with a boat on the marsh; realistic decoys and good calling are pretty much mandatory.
Gadwalls can weigh in at about 2 pounds and be 21 inches in length. Aquatic plants form the core of their diet, so you'll be hunting them in the shallows.
In flight, gadwalls will hold a relatively straight line, and look like big groups of mallard hens. The birds sport a white wing patch; the males are distinguishable by a black rump.
Willow Slough in Mills County and Forney Lake in Fremont County aren't as large, and conditions at both are less dependable than at Riverton, but the birds do use them. Spring rains helped conditions this fall, and if the water's up, these areas might be prove to be sleepers. Dry weather and low Mississippi River water levels over the last few years have resulted in poor hunting at these otherwise good locations.
For additional information, call the IDNR's Riverton Unit at (712) 374-3133. For the latest waterfowl counts at Riverton, call the wildlife area office at (712) 387-2032.
The ruddy duck shows up in Iowa about Nov. 1. A somewhat common diver, it spends most of its time on the water rather than in the air.
This feisty little diver is quick on the wing and even quicker on the water. While other ducks will take flight at the first sign of danger, the ruddy will dive or swim into emergent vegetation.
Ponds, lakes, marshes and swamps all draw this omnivorous bird as it searches for seeds, submerged vegetation and small insects.
"The Maquoketa Unit has a wide variety of ducks that pass through each fall," said wildlife biologist Jeff Glaw. "We get some ruddy ducks as well as ringnecks, buffleheads, greater and lesser scaup and redhead ducks. As far as puddle ducks go, we'll see pintail, widgeon, gadwall, blue- and green-winged teal, shoveler and wood ducks."
The Muskrat Slough WMA is a mixed-bag spot if ever there was one. Ruddy and other puddle ducks are fairly abundant, and can be called in with competent calling and a decoy spread. The divers usually start showing up in the second and third weeks of October, with the peak migration occurring at some point from the last week of October through the middle of November. The slough covers 365 acres of marsh in Jones County. It's a half-mile south of Olin on state Route 38 and then west for a bit on 35th Street.
With its roughly 1,000 acres of marshland, Goose Lake in Clinton County is another spot promising for bagging ruddy ducks. Contact the IDNR's Maquoketa Unit at (563) 652-3132 for more information.
The Sedan Bottoms WMA in south-central Iowa is a worthwhile place to set up for a few widgeon. These birds are among the numerous ducks to pass through the region, and among the toughest to get a shot at. Convincing camouflage is essential to keep from spooking them. These popular ducks are also the most nervous birds of the lot: A too-quick movement or a bad call can spur an instant takeoff, so treat them with kid gloves. If there's a lot of hunting pressure, they won't stay around for long.
Widgeon tend to arrive sometime this month in the greatest numbers, along with scaup, redheads and mergansers. They like the cover of emergent plants and will root for submerged vegetation while afloat or nibble along on the shoreline.
The Sedan Bottoms WMA in Appanoose County rates a thumbs-up from wildlife biologist Jeff Telleen. The bottoms cover several thous
and acres of marsh five miles southeast of Centerville. The area can get some pressure, so consider a weekday hunt to avoid the crowds.
Shooters can identify widgeon by both their flight and appearance. Flocks will veer and turn in unison in fairly quick speeds. The tail is pointed with a white underbelly on a darker body.
Owing to flooding earlier this year, the aquatic food may be in short supply and affect where widgeon will choose to spend their time. Part of any scouting trip should involve looking for submerged vegetation that may concentrate the birds later on.
For more info, contact the IDNR's Rathbun Unit at (641) 774-4918.
In wildlife biologist Jeff Telleen's neck of the woods in south-central Iowa's Rathbun Unit, pintails make their appearance in early November.
Birds of the open wetlands, pintails rest through much of the day and do the majority of their feeding in the evening or at night. They're seed-lovers and favor marshy areas, ponds and, on occasion, small-grain fields in agricultural areas.
Pintails can measure up to 26 inches and weigh in at more than 2 pounds. They're a favorite among waterfowlers who appreciate field-hunting and dry feet. The drakes have a white breast, long, pointed black and gray-and-white feathers, and a neck with a white marking. While flying, pintails exhibit greenish-black-colored feathers on their wings.
Most of the unit's marshes and bodies of water can see some pintail action, especially on the larger areas like Rathbun, Sedan Bottoms and Colyn. In southeast Iowa, the Cone Marsh gets good numbers of pintails, according to wildlife biologist Bill Ohde. The pintails arrive this month and can be abundant.
Cone Marsh covers 701 acres in Louisa County. It lies three miles north on 220th Street and then a mile north on V Avenue west of Conesville. For more information, contact the IDNR's Odessa Unit at (319) 523-8319.€‚€‚€‚