Indiana's river systems, other open-water areas and grain fields attract their share of ducks and geese each year, especially in the dead of winter. Here's where you should try right now! (December 2009)
Hoosierland waterfowlers will find good shooting this late season and should come prepared for the same. Grain fields and open water are the golden combination to look for as the winter winds set in and the temperatures begin dropping.
Guide Kyle Williams of Critt'r Gitt'r Outfitters spends a good deal of his time on late-season birds.
"Late December and January are usually our best hunting months," said Williams. "We usually get a solid freeze in December on the ponds and flooded areas, so we start checking for ducks and geese on the dry fields and the rivers. This is my favorite part of the season."
Williams checks outgoing flights to find the fields being utilized and sets up accordingly. In late December or early January, there will usually be a thaw and some rain. Fields flood and the ponds and marshes on Indiana's public-hunting areas usually open up at about the same time. It can be a tough call to pick the best spots when there are so many to choose from.
Scouting is the name of the game, said Williams. When the birds are concentrated on the open sections of rivers, they're easy to find. Once a thaw sets in, they can be just about anywhere, and it will take some extra effort to pinpoint the roosting areas and crop fields.
Here's a look at five hotspots that will take some of the guesswork out of where you should be spending your time this winter.
KINGSBURY FISH & WILDLIFE AREA (FWA)
Most of the waterfowlers at Kingsbury FWA look to the marsh and overlook what can be some exceptional river hunting. According to area manager Mac Carlisle, Kingsbury is overshadowed by some of state's larger waterfowl hunting spots but yields a lot of harvested birds every year.
"Last year wasn't the best with just 281 ducks taken, but on a good year, we'll harvest 600 birds," said Carlisle.
Goose hunting is fair, but the mallards take center stage. The record year for ducks of all species put 674 birds in the bag. It isn't always that way and there's no predicting if this year will see that level of success or not.
Mallards are the draw in December but earlier in the season plenty of pintails and gadwalls went into the bag as well. Goose hunting is more hit and miss with only 36 honkers being bagged last season.
There's a good chance of getting in on the daily draw, but you may not get your choice of spots to hunt, said Carlisle. There are a varying number of blinds provided from year to year. There are regular blinds and a couple of walk-in areas, and a "free" spot where there is no particular place that hunters have to sit. All hunts end at 1 p.m.
The Kankakee River borders the property on the east and waterfowlers floating downstream will have the river pretty much to themselves. The problem is that if a duck goes down to the west onto private property, access is a problem. Shooters will have to do their best to place birds in the water or down on state land.
A little jewel that most hunters don't know about isn't connected to Kingsbury, but the hunting there is handled as a Kingsbury unit in the daily draw. The St. Joseph County Parks Department owns the Plate Trail Marsh and allows limited, draw-only hunting. Those drawn at Kingsbury can pick a spot on the 300-acre marsh if they wish with a limit of three parties daily. Hunting can be excellent but is only allowed on Sundays and Wednesdays.
Check-in is mandatory. One ramp offers access to the river. A pre-season draw accommodates several hunters and access to the draw for next year can be found on the DFW Web site.
The Kingsbury FWA covers 7,120 acres south of LaPorte. For more information, contact the office at (219) 393-3612.
PIGEON RIVER FWA
About one-third of the waterfowl hunting on Pigeon River FWA is related directly to the river. The rest of the hunting is either pass-shooting or at various impoundments on the property. There are a lot of locations to hunt up and down the river, but for the most part, the river itself isn't open to float-hunting since hunters have to stay within their assigned zones.
Hunters normally have to be drawn for a spot on the property, but weekdays or frozen conditions lessen the competition considerably. Hunting locations are sometimes given on a first-come, first-served basis when that happens and that makes for some confusion but usually works out well, according to property manager Steve Roth. Saturdays and Sundays will usually have a morning draw at 5:30 a.m. Parties of two and three are first and singles are last drawn. Occasionally singles can pick up what's left over.
"Come prepared," said Roth. "Bring hip boots, chest waders and a small boat so you have different options. You'd hate to get a good draw only to have to give it up because you left your waders at home."
During the 2008 season harvest, numbers included 332 ducks and 188 honkers, compared with 340 ducks and 178 geese the year before. Roth points out that normally the harvest numbers are right around 500 ducks and 250 geese.
In the early part of the season, the area draws wood ducks, and then a little bit of everything shows up. Mallards are the most common ducks, but teal, ringnecks and gadwalls show up at one time or another also. Goldeneyes, hooded mergansers and buffleheads start arriving around freeze-up. Redheads, canvasbacks, and scaup are rarely seen, but occasionally a few are bagged.
The Buckwheat Patch, which lies inside of the Waterfowl Rest Area, is the top waterfowl area to hunt, followed by the Mongo Mill Pond. A boat will be needed to effectively tackle the Ontario, Narby and Mongo ponds if they're not frozen over, and hunters can easily walk into the smaller ponds that are scattered throughout the FWA for some jump-shooting. The Troxel, Stayner and Beaver Dam lakes also require a canoe or johnboat. All of the millponds have boat ramp access. To reach the small jump-shooting locations, you'll have to be willing to walk.
A particularly productive spot during open water is the J2 or J4 Marsh areas. This area is off county Route 200N in LaGrange County and can be walked into or boated, depending on conditions.
The morning draw is at 5:30 a.m., at the office; check-in is required. Hunters drawn can choose the stake they want for a party of three. If you change your mind about your location, go back to the of
fice and see which stakes are up for grabs and you're back in business. About 100 stakes are available and a big crowd can number from 30 to 40 parties.
The Pigeon River FWA covers 11,605 acres of land, has 529 acres of lakes and impoundments, and 17 river miles. The area is located in Steuben and LaGrange counties near Mongo.
For more information, contact the area manager at (260) 367-2164 or the DFW's District 3 at (260) 367-2186.
The Kankakee FWA is certainly no secret. Local and visiting waterfowlers both do well here and the area can be busy. On a good year, about 5,000 ducks will be taken home, though most years' harvests will total somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 birds.
During the flight migrations, there might be thousands of waterfowl on Kankakee on any given day. The area crops are seasonally flooded to tip the hat in favor of the ducks and geese choosing this area over others. When the water is open on the Kankakee and Yellow rivers, the lowland marshy sections at the rivers' confluence can be dynamite.
A few geese will join the ranks of residents here this month, but it's the mallards that take center stage. Mallards start showing up in earnest in November and a lot of them stick around through December. About a thousand acres of corn are flattened and left lying in the fields for the birds to take advantage of. When it's time to roost, they'll usually head for any open spots on the river.
Though geese are surprisingly far and few between, a good decoy set on a field might draw in a few honkers. They're spooky by this time of the year, and the slightest hint of trouble will send them on their way.
The daily draw is a disappointment to some hunters. The number of drawn blinds can range as high as 40, but that still means a lot of hunters are turned away. It's best to have a back-up plan.
Statistically, 2,964 hunters were on the area in 2008, down well over 500 wingshooters that participated in the hunts the year before. Less than a hundred honkers were harvested. Though far shy of the number of ducks taken in 2007, the next season's take-home birds were off the chart at 2,626 birds. That's good shooting in anyone's book.
The bottomland between the Kankakee and Yellow rivers is a floodplain that holds birds throughout the late fall and into the winter.
Kankakee covers 4,095 acres and is located east of La Crosse on state Route 8 in Starke County. Check-in is at the Area L-4 parking lot.
Contact the office at (574) 896-3522 for information on the daily draws.
WILBUR WRIGHT FWA
The numbers of birds taken at Wilbur Wright FWA aren't particularly impressive, but the shooting can be good when the weather is right. Cold fronts will push birds onto the area, and if hunters are set up when the birds are there, it's possible to limit out.
Forty-nine ducks were taken home in 2008, down from 85 the year before. The goose harvest was higher and 27 birds were bagged, up 10 from the previous year. The number of hunters using Wilbur Wright totaled well over 400 in 2007 and dropped to just 230 in 2008. If the trend continues, setting up here means plenty of elbowroom and less competition than in the more popular FWAs.
"Waterfowl hunting in the upper Blue River Watershed can be relatively productive and enjoyable if you have access to property under the right weather conditions," said biologist Kent Hanauer.
The vicinity's crop fields are a major temptation for both ducks and geese, though the birds will bounce around between the fields, any open lakes, and the Blue River. The river has been channelized for quicker flow, but jump-shooting along the banks can still be productive. Once again, success is closely related to the amount of hunting you're willing to do.
The wetter the conditions, the better the wood ducks and mallards like it. As the weather gets nastier and colder, the ducks' pattern of roosting on the water and then flying out to the fields to feed becomes more predictable.
From the end of November through December, especially if the weather is exceptionally ugly, a hunter that is willing to spend time patterning ducks and Canadas can harvest birds. Most of the duck hunting will be for mallards and other puddle ducks. As the season progresses, regular influxes of birds replenish the birds that have been harvested or moved on.
The Wilbur Wright FWA covers 1,200 acres along the Blue River in Henry County. Flooding is common and waterfowlers should come prepared to hunt under any conditions.
Contact the Wilbur Wright office for the status of the zone draws. For most of the season, the area is open to public hunting with no special regulations in effect.
For additional information, contact the Wilbur Wright FWA at (812) 526-2051 or District 8 at (765) 529-9581.
The seven miles of the Muscatatuck River that flows through Crosley FWA can offer good hunting, all dependent on the ever-changing weather. Statistically, not a lot of birds are taken here and it's a toss-up between whether the birds aren't using the area at any given time or there aren't a lot of shotgun hunters out to get them.
Compared with the more popular waterfowling hotspots this time of the year, Crosley is a breath of fresh air for those who prefer a little peace and quiet when they're hunting.
But it is a hit-or-miss proposition, according to assistant property manager Steve Mund.
"Mallards use the river but not in large numbers," said Mund. "We also have 10 ponds and four marshes, all of which are open throughout the season and that's the best spot to hit the geese."
The best opportunities for late-season geese go to those who spend a little time scouting, said Mund. The resident birds will roost on some of the ponds; it takes some footwork to find out which ponds they're on.
A float trip can produce some good shooting, but boat handling is important. Blasting down the river will scatter birds and they might keep on moving. Take your time, try a few decoys in slack areas, and come ready to relax. It's a great spot to lower your blood pressure and there's always the chance for some excellent shooting. It's woodies in October and mallards in December.
This is the time of year where Kyle Williams prefers to do more aggressive calling. A lot of duck hunters call infrequently all season long, most likely because of a lack of confidence in their ability or because they think that aggressive calling is a little too loud. Aggressive calling doesn't have to be loud, said Williams.
The ponds range from 1 or 2 acres up to 14 acres in size. Eight of the ponds have ramps, and only electric mo
tors are allowed. A daily hunt permit card can be picked up before the hunt and then dropped off in a drop box before leaving.
The quiet Muscatatuck River will draw in waterfowl that go virtually unnoticed. The river provides equally good or better hunting throughout Jennings and Scott counties where a float trip is the best way to go.
The Crosley FWA covers 4,228 acres in Jennings County. For additional information, call (812) 346-5596 or District 14 at (812) 346-6888.
For additional information, contact the Division of Fish and Wildlife at (812) 334-1137, or visit the Web site at www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild.