Coots, mergansers, mallards and more are on the agenda for sportsmen who ply the waters of these five prime public-land areas this season. (October 2008)
October waterfowlers have several great destinations to choose from this fall. From what we can tell so far, these areas should be hopping with ducks.
The April habitat report from Ducks Unlimited Canada indicates that conditions across most of Canada were fair to excellent for duck production, though there were some poor ratings in a few important areas, according to W. Adam Phelps, the waterfowl research biologist for Indiana's Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW). Overall, the news was good and last year's good hunting should continue into 2008.
"In 2007, we saw record numbers of canvasbacks, redheads and northern shovelers," Phelps said.
American widgeons rebounded to previous numbers, while scaup and pintail numbers remained steady but still well below their long-term averages.
Here's a look at five great spots to take your limit of Hoosierland ducks this fall.
PIGEON RIVER FWA
According to biologist W. Adam Phelps, the Pigeon River Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) is one of the state's top picks for the opener this year. The FWA encompasses 11,600 acres of great duck habitat and the birds aren't shy about using it.
"Waterfowlers can expect to see mostly wood ducks and a few mallards early on in the season," assistant property manager Michael Holcomb said. "We'll occasionally see a teal or two. The puddle ducks like pintails, widgeons, gadwalls and blacks will follow as the season progresses until close to freeze-up. About that time, the black and white ducks show up, along with golden-eyes, hooded mergansers, buffleheads and others. We get very few redheads, canvasbacks and scaup."
Duck hunters can use whatever tactics they like, Holcomb said. Decoys, jump-shooting, blinds and river zones that are set up for boats all come into play.
Kyle Williams owns the Critt'r Gitt'r Outfitt'rs guide service. Williams volunteers his time as the University Recruitment State Chairman for Indiana Ducks Unlimited and began hunting waterfowl nearly 20 years ago. He's a pro staff member for Southern Game Calls, and has begun competing in "Main Street" style duck-calling contests.
"I love hunting public land, but it can be tough," Williams said. "We all realize that we're in a state where there aren't huge numbers of ducks coming through in the fall. We definitely have huntable numbers, but there are only a handful of really good public waterfowl hunting areas."
Williams has found that a natural-looking spread of decoys with a little added motion is the key to success. He sets out a couple dozen decoys, usually oversized mallards with a few pintails and blacks thrown in. He avoids no-head feeders, butt-up feeders or sleeping decoys. He's using the feeders and sleepers to paint a picture that everything is safe and secure to birds that are passing by.
Attaching a jerk chord to the feeder decoys adds natural motion and avoids the frozen-in-time look. Slick water around motionless birds isn't what passing birds are used to seeing.
"In public hunting situations, you have to be different than the next guy down the line," Williams said. "I think that it sometimes comes down to having your decoys noticed over other sets. If you think about it, we've all driven down a road and looked at a wet hole with ducks on it. We probably noticed the motion on the water and that's what caught our eye. We have to do the same thing with our blocks to draw the attention of ducks. Using the jerk cord gives that motion, while the white on the pintails and the dark color on the blacks gives flying birds a little more help in seeing the decoys."
Wood ducks are all over the property in October. Mallards are going to be in the marshes around the D and J area complexes in the millponds and in the Mongo, Nasby and Ontario areas.
A daily draw for hunting locations can be well attended. The time changes throughout the season as the sunrise times change. The draw starts at 5:30 a.m. during October, but calling ahead for any changes is a good idea.
All of the millponds have boat ramp access. There are several county roads running through the property and over 100 parking spaces to accommodate duck hunters. To reach the small jump-shooting locations, you'll have to be willing to hike a ways.
The Pigeon River FWA is in Steuben and Lagrange counties. For more information, contact the FWA at (260) 367-2164 or the DFW at (260) 367-2186.
GOOSE POND FWA
"If water conditions are right, Goose Pond can be quite good in October, and I've done quite well here," Phelps said.
The pond is one of the up-and-coming waterfowl destinations in the Midwest. What once was a natural waterfowl refuge was drained for agricultural purposes years ago. Now all of that is changing.
The restoration project is about three-quarters done, according to Dennis Workman, the crew leader on the project. Construction will continue over the next couple of years and include raising state Route (SR) 59 South a total of 18 inches and extending the shoulder out 20 feet in both directions. The highway will not only be the main route into Goose Pond but also serve as a levee.
Beehunter Marsh is up and running just fine, Workman said. The Main Pool East and Main Pool West have limited water because of planned draining this fall for construction purposes, but when completed, the main pools will cover about 2,500 acres.
"This will be a great place when we're done," Workman said.
Goose Pond is Workman's favorite spot and he hunts it at every opportunity.
A boat can be used if a hunter can carry it in, but launching is prohibited and no ramps are available. Most of the area is shallow enough to hunt with waders. There are no permanent blinds, but shooters are welcome to use a makeshift blind of available vegetation or just a stand in the cattails. There's plenty of room to hide.
Goose Pond is a draw-only hunt with about 15 spots for parties up to three. The Monday draw is for all day on Monday and until noon on Tuesday in the same location. The Wednesday draw is for the morning only. The Thursday draw includes Friday until noon and Saturday is one day only.
Goose Pond is an excellent example of how Ducks Unlimited has partnered with others in Indiana to create
excellent waterfowling opportunities. The DFW, Indiana Heritage Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North American Wetlands Conservation Act and The Nature Conservancy joined forces with Ducks Unlimited, and the results speak for themselves.
Goose Pond is in Greene and Sullivan counties between Linton and Sanborn and covers 8,064 acres. For more information, contact the office at (812) 659-9901.
WILLOW SLOUGH FWA
"I'd say Willow Slough is one of the top October spots in the North Zone," Phelps said. "The slough typically holds a lot of teal along with locally breeding mallards."
It shouldn't be a surprise. Willow Slough incorporates a variety of habitats that includes 1,500 acres of ponds, marshes and J.C. Murphey Lake. An additional few hundred acres of flooded crop fields, depending on the conditions, offer up incredible opportunities if you're in the right spot at the right time. An added attraction as far as the ducks are concerned is the nearby Pogue Marsh and public waters in Illinois.
"The best way to hunt public land is to go with someone who has hunted it before," said Joe Borders, the Indiana regional (south) director for Ducks Unlimited. "That sounds simplistic, but public lands receive a lot more hunting pressure than private property does. Conservation officers are also good sources of information and will tell you the best spots to hunt. Next to experience and local knowledge, there's no substitute for scouting. Putting in those windshield hours and miles on foot will pay big dividends, especially in places that are out of the way and are the most difficult to get to."
A good topographical map is another tool of the trade, Borders said. A good map can save a lot of trial and error in locating those honeyholes on property you're not familiar with.
Borders agrees with Williams that most hunters just set out their decoys and then hope for the best.
"Nothing beats Mojo decoys in combination with full-body floaters or full-body decoys on motion stakes to lure wary ducks right in, whether used on land or just above water level," Borders said. "A variety of motion rigs in water for cautious birds seems to be the surefire way to get ducks into gun range. Many people these days will over-call birds. The old saying of 'only call at wing tips and tail feathers' is time-tested and proven."
Modern-day equipment has made things a lot easier for the waterfowl hunter. Borders prefers a semi-autoloading shotgun with an extended choke tube and 3-inch No. 4 loads. Every gun has a particular load that patterns best for it and the responsible hunter should know what his own gun could effectively do.
Willow Slough can be accessed by secondary roads west of U.S. Route 41 in Newton County. The area covers a total of 9,756 acres near Morocco.
For additional information, call the Willow Slough office at (219) 285-2704.
HOVEY LAKE FWA
"We've had a few years of excellent duck hunting now, and last year was the best one so far," property manager Mark Pochon said. "We harvested 2,921 ducks. Mallards were the most numerous, but we get a real mix of everything. There were more divers than normal, and we're expecting more of the same this fall."
Pochon attributes the area's hotspot status last year to the drought conditions. Anywhere that had water was good hunting and drew in ducks and migrants. Birds concentrated on the property and there was good shooting clear up into January, which is unusual.
Hovey Lake has a daily draw at 4:30 a.m. About 30 to 35 blinds are available and are hunted on a rotating basis so that not every blind is used every day. This allows the birds that were spooked to feel comfortable enough to return. Hunts last until noon. A second drawing for afternoon hunting takes place at 11 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
According to Pochon, the rest of the area is open to walk-in hunters, but the best spots are in the blind drawing. It's worth showing up for the drawing to get in on these prime picks. Duck hunting can be excellent on the walk-in sites, but they're more hit-and-miss.
The exception to the rule is the Wabash River bottoms section when the area is flooding. Backed-up water moves out over the fields and brings in plenty of ducks and hunters who are in the right place at the right time to enjoy some of the best shooting Hovey has to offer.
Pochon has noticed a new trend in duck activity over the last four or five years. The late-morning hunts have been the best, which isn't the way it used to be. He's not sure of the reason but feels it has something to do with local sources of food and how the birds are reacting to them. The best shooting now can be from 8 to 11 a.m.
Flooded crop fields are magnets for migratory birds, but they can be tough to access. Unless you're boating, getting into the wetter areas will be tricky.
Hovey is near the confluence of the Ohio and Wabash rivers. These two river systems converge on the area and provide natural corridors for birds as they make progress on their annual migration.
For additional information, contact the Hovey Lake office at (812) 838-2927.
PATOKA RIVER NATIONAL WILDLIFE REFUGE
The Patoka River NWR is another of Phelps' top picks for early-season ducks. About 5,587 acres of land and water make for a great day afield.
Aaron Vogler is a dedicated waterfowler with plenty of public-land experience. One of the hunts he enjoys is on the refuge, and what helps make it enjoyable is his calling.
"I use nothing but acrylics and wood calls," Vogler said. "These calls are my preference, but the important thing to remember is that you're calling to the ducks, not to people who want to see how fast you can blow a feed call. Conditions dictate the calling and I think that a lot of hunters forget what a duck sounds like when they're in the field."
Vogler uses a wood to soften his calling when there are trees around or if there isn't any wind or other ambient noise. On the windy days or in open fields, he uses a single reed acrylic to make the call easier to hear by distant ducks. Calling is what a hunter and the ducks he's hunting make of it.
Be versatile, willing to learn and take scouting seriously, Vogler said. Look for water in the sloughs on the old Patoka riverbed, flooded timber and water on fields of milo, corn and beans. These are the spots you'll want to set up on during the opener and on into the week. There isn't any substitute for learning the property and scouting for the locations ducks are using.
Throughout the season, just about every species of duck in the state will make an appearance on the refuge. Both dabblers and divers alike will arrive in good numbers.
The goal is to continue to add acreage to the refuge as ti
me goes on. If all goes well, the refuge will eventually encompass over 22,000 acres of federally-owned national refuge and wildlife management lands. This huge development will stretch for 20 miles along the Patoka River and provide excellent fall waterfowl opportunities.
The Buck Marsh off Snakey Point and the McClure Marsh, located north of SR 64 on Line Road, are top spots for wood ducks. The Snakey Point Marsh northeast of Oakland City on the South Fork of the Patoka River can be a hotspot for several species, but the hunting pressure can be high.
The adjoining Pike State Forest covers over 3,000 acres and offers up additional waterfowling opportunities.
The Patoka River NWR manages two outlying areas. The Cane Ridge WMA covers 463 acres and is likewise a river bottom property worthy of attention. Cane Ridge lies 24 miles west of Oakland City, just northwest of the 3,000-acre Gibson Lake. The White River Bottoms WMA can hand out some excellent duck hunting nine miles north of Oakland City. The area covers 219 acres just to the northwest of Petersburg on the south side of the White River.
The refuge lies in Gibson and Pike counties on SRs 57, 61 and 64.
For a map and more information, contact the Patoka River National Wildlife Refuge office at (812) 749-3199.
Critt'r Gitt'r Outfitt'rs can be reached at (765) 425-0222.
For information on lodging, contact the Division of Tourism at (800) 289-6646.
For additional information, contact the Division of Fish and Wildlife in Bloomington at (812) 334-1137.