Iowa duck hunting in general — the Cedar Rapids variety in particular -- may not be what it was years ago. But that's no reason to stay home. Let's see what our experts have to say.
By Ed Harp
Waterfowling in the Cedar Rapids area may not be quite as good as it once was, but it's still possible for savvy hunters to bring home a full bag. A bit of local knowledge combined with a little planning and preparation will go a long way towards accomplishing that goal.
According to Guy Zenner, waterfowl research biologist for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, waterfowl hunting in Iowa has improved over the last few years. "It's better than it was in the 1960s, 1980s and the 1990s, but not as good as it was in the 1970s," he said.
He cautions hunters that rating the Cedar Rapids area is largely a matter of perception: If you concentrate on the "good old days" of the '70s, you may be disappointed; otherwise, the hunting's pretty good. It's a matter of the glass being half-empty or half-full.
Zenner points out that the state's duck prospects have been affected by poor wetlands in the northern United States. As for eastern Iowa in particular, he observed, "The water's been up, and as a result the habitat has deteriorated along the Mississippi River. This affects their flight paths from the north."
On top of that, the habitat along the Mississippi River has been poor for at least the past decade or more. He notes that the mighty river still attracts diving ducks, such as canvasbacks and bluebills, both quite common across the country. Unfortunately, the numbers of dabbling ducks have been down. This is due primarily to silting along the backwater areas.
Despite these adverse conditions there are areas along the river that afford hunters an opportunity for a quality hunt. The trick, according to Zenner, is to avoid hunting in the same old areas you've been hunting over the years. The changing river and wetland conditions have caused changes in duck behavior. They aren't in the same old places.
He strongly recommends that hunters search for new spots before they set out on their hunt. If that's not possible, then at least spend some time watching flight patterns, even if it's during the season. If you need to move, do so — you can't shoot them if they aren't there.
Matt Schrantz, avid hunter and manager of the Fin & Feather — (319) 364-4396 — in Cedar Rapids, suggests hunters look towards the Coralville Reservoir for their waterfowl hunting this fall.
This 5,000-acre lake, formed by a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment on the Iowa River, is located along the eastern edge of a principal migration route of the Mississippi Flyway. Sitting south of Cedar Rapids and a little north of Iowa City, in Johnson County, it's within easy driving distance of most southeastern Hawkeye hunters.
Popular with both birders and hunters, Coralville offers a wide variety of habitat and hunting opportunities. The reservoir provides both hunters and their prey areas of open water, small shallow pools, marshes, ditches and creeks. The surrounding area consists primarily of flooded river bottoms of the Iowa and Cedar rivers. (The Cedar empties into the Iowa downstream from the reservoir. The Iowa flows to the Mississippi in the extreme southeastern corner of the state.)
The surrounding area is farmed heavily, most years in corn, so there is always plenty for the ducks to eat. (That is, if the raccoons, deer and turkeys don't get to it first!)
The hunting has been pretty good at Coralville for the last few years, Schrantz opines. "In a normal year it offers something for everyone," he said. There is enough marsh, vegetation and shallow water for walk-ins as well as enough open water for plate boats and blind boats.
Schrantz warns hunters heading to Coralville that, at times, the water can get crowded. The hunting is open, and so the reservoir receives a lot of pressure. "It's first-come, first-served, so the good spots get a lot of pressure, especially on weekends," he said. For those lucky enough to be able to hunt during the week, it's much better.
Schrantz advises hunters to check the weather carefully before departing, and not just for safety. "The worse the weather, the better the hunting. A 10- to 20-knot northeast wind is perfect; the colder the better," he said. Such a wind signals the arrival of a cold front that gets the ducks moving. "It doesn't blow them off course or anything. It starts them flying, migrating — great for hunting,"
As the season goes along, he suggests, hunters should load their 12-gauge shotguns with 3 1/2-inch shells. A fair number of geese will move in, and you'll need the extra power to bring them down.
Schrantz's friend and fellow sportsman Jeff Johnson (www.hunterspec. com) is also a well-known manufacturer of hunting accessories. He agrees that Coralville is a fine spot but believes that, as he put it, "pressure is its downfall." He does admit, however, that flight days can be good, despite the heavy hunting pressure, especially for plat- boat hunters when the vegetation is high. The vegetation offers cover and protection for the hunters.
When the vegetation is low you don't need a boat to be successful. Hunters faced with such conditions should, he advises, "pack a dozen decoys on their backs" and find a good spot.
Besides Coralville, Johnson also points hunters towards the Cedar River just north of the Cedar Rapids city limits. According to Johnson, hunters expecting to be successful on the Cedar River should look carefully at the sandy points and sandbars in the river. He emphasizes that hunters should leave their boats at home, or at least dock them well away from these areas. The boats are hard to camouflage around the sand. "Boats stick out pretty bad on it," he said.
Instead of hunkering down boats, Johnson suggests, hunters can hide in blinds built with local materials. "That way it'll blend in fairly well," he said. For those who have never done this, it isn't all that hard. The best advice is to get to your spot early and go to work. Make certain you have an open shooting lane before you settle down, because when the ducks start flying in it's too late to remove an obstruction.
For those who feel they just can't hunt without their boats, Johnson has an alternative: Dock them along the undercut banks of the river. Certain places contain enough cover and brush to hide the boat. When hunting the points and sandbars, hunter
s should put out both stander and floater decoys. A combination of the two usually works best.
When asked for his sleeper pick, Johnson chose — without a moments hesitation — Pleasant Creek State Park, located 15 miles northwest of Cedar Rapids. Within its boundaries is a 450-acre lake that, in Johnson's opinion, is one of the best in the area. It holds fine populations of both diving and dabbling varieties over the course of a season.
Pleasant Creek is especially productive late in the season, when other waters are snow-covered and frozen. Its waters remain open much longer than do those in surrounding areas of the state. As a consequence, the ducks remain there, more than willing to interrupt their migratory path south.
Both an avid duck hunter and a conservationist and hunting advocate, Tom Tandeski — (563) 570-7632 — is well versed in southeastern Iowa waterfowling. And well he might be, because Lord willing, he hunts every day of the season. That's right: every day — no matter the weather, the conditions or his prospects for success. That's dedication. It's also how he acquires knowledge of the sport.
His pick for the Cedar Rapids area is Lake Odessa. Odessa is a backwater slough off the Mississippi River, Pool No. 18, in the extreme southeast corner of the state. When the water is up it may cover as much as 3,000 acres; at normal water levels, 2,000 acres is a little closer to reality. Either way, the waters cover flooded bottomland in the Mark Twain Wildlife Refuge of west-central Louisa County.
Even during high-water conditions Odessa is shallow — not much more than 6 feet or 8 feet deep in most places. It's stump-filled, and its shoreline is strewn with laydowns. There are hundreds of acres of marshland surrounding the water. It's a popular stopover for both divers and dabblers.
Tandeski agrees with biologist Zenner that the Mississippi River and the river basin itself have had their share of problems over the years. "It isn't what it used to be," he said. He attributes many of the problems to Mother Nature and some plain old bad luck. The flyway has been plagued with a Canadian drought, poor wetlands, poor food and floods.
"We had two 'floods of the century' during the 1990s — one in 1993 and another in 1997. These floods were devastating to the Mississippi Flyway and the Mississippi River basin. They were not normal in any sense of the word. Not only was the water high, it stayed that way for a long time — weeks — and didn't come back down like it does in normal years," said the hunter.
According to Tandeski, those floods destroyed thousands upon thousands of acres of wetland habitat. "It killed lots of hardwood trees and deposited tons of silt in lowland areas. That altered the flight path of migrating ducks," he pointed out.
These problems notwithstanding, Tandeski says, there's still good hunting along the lower stretch of the Mississippi, specifically Lake Odessa. The slough is divided into two areas or zones for hunting purposes. One allows open hunting; the other is a draw hunt.
On the open half it's a simple matter of who arrives first. Early hunters can claim the best spots once the season opens. It's common for hunters to line up at midnight on opening day and rush to their chosen spot. It can get a little wild at times, with high numbers of boats running at high speeds across the water. On the other hand, if you're willing to sacrifice sleep and are brave, you can usually get a good spot.
The draw process is somewhat more civilized. Hunters' names are drawn by lottery. The numbers are controlled. And while such a system may be frustrating to the hunters whose names are not drawn, it offers a more-controlled environment. The draw also helps with safety issues — fewer hunters equal less confusion.
Tandeski's passion is to hunt ducks from his blind boat. He speaks with pride of the long and storied Iowa tradition of building the best and fanciest blind boats in the country. (Hunters from other states may dispute this!)
His blind boat sports a 30,000 BTU heater along with the "usual" stove and refrigerator. Of course, it's built to break the wind. It resists rain, sleet and snow. It offers just about everything you need for a day in the wild. "They're the thing," he said.
Tandeski offers this tip to his fellow Odessa hunters: Invest in decoys — lots and lots of decoys. On this body of water, successful waterfowlers put out as many as 500 in a spread, and almost never less than 300. That's a lot of decoys, but Tandeski strongly suggests — indeed, insists — that such numbers are necessary. "I don't know why, but big spreads do the job here. Maybe not everywhere, but here they attract the ducks," he said.
If you hunt Odessa, don't be surprised if you bag a variety of species of ducks. You will encounter a wide mix in this area. Some say this is because of the Mississippi Flyway; others attribute it to the diverse habitat. No matter the reason, they're there.
Early-season birds mix with ringnecks, gadwalls and widgeon before the mallards arrive later in the season. Tandeski's personal record is eight varieties in one outing, although he admits that that was years ago and probably won't ever happen again.
The one thing Tandeski does complain about is the lack of snow geese. "Years ago we used to see them all the time, thousands of them. Now you hardly ever see a one. I don't know what happened to them — wish they would come back," he lamented.
CALLING ALL WATERFOWL
When asked about duck and geese calls, Johnson — not surprisingly — had some firm opinions. For ducks, he recommends hunters consider a new call, the Bill Collector. "It's inexpensive and, for the money, is one of the best on the market," he opined. This call comes in both single- and double-reed models. For novices, he recommends the double reed version. "It's a little easier to use, especially for beginners," he said.
For geese, he recommends the Slammer Short Reed. He freely admits that it takes a little more skill to use, but believes that it's well worth the effort and time it takes to become proficient with it. "It produces multiple sounds, gives good realism and is an all around good call," he said.
(Either of these calls can be purchased from the Fin & Feather store in Cedar Rapids.)
Tandeski and others are working hard to make the waterfowl hunting better in Iowa. A couple of years ago he, along with Internet friend Rick Ault, formed the Waterfowl Association of Iowa, Inc., a state organization fighting to protect, preserve and improve the sport of waterfowling in Iowa.
WAI has member
s in Florida, California and New England as well as throughout the Midwest. Tandeski emphasizes that the WAI is not simply a conservation organization. As he said, "If they outlawed duck hunting tomorrow, the other national duck and conservation organizations would continue on with their work. They would buy land, preserve wetlands and do all the other things they do. That's fine, but someone has to protect ducks and duck hunting for the future right here in Iowa. I want someone hunting ducks on Odessa after I'm gone. There's more to it than conservation."
WAI works with the IDNR, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state legislators to make waterfowling in Iowa better. They employ a part-time lobbyist at the capitol to monitor hunting issues in general and waterfowl hunting issues in particular.
A huge part of their efforts is directed towards education. They recognize that it's easy to be a "ramp biologist." It's another matter to make informed and effective decisions that benefit large numbers of hunters.
"A lot of the problems and hard feeling between hunters and the IDNR disappear when hunters know how and why decisions are being made. And the IDNR can do a better job when they know how we feel and what we want," said one active member.
If you'd like more information on their activities or on waterfowling in Iowa check out their Web site at www.iowawaterfowl.com.
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