Find open water now that's near feeding areas and you're likely to intercept your share of ducks and geese. These five picks should be just right for doing just that!
Photo by John N. Felsher
By Mike Graves
Aldo Leopold was the founding father of America's conservation movement, and very significantly, Leopold was a hunter. Leopold's "first" duck was a black duck, and he wrote about it in the essay "Red Legs Kicking." In this essay from his book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold related how he waited all afternoon in the cold, and at sunset a lone black duck set wings and came within shooting distance. Leopold shot the duck and after hitting the ground with a thud it laid there, belly up, red legs kicking; hence, the name of the essay.
During the 2003 season, Indiana waterfowlers could relate to Leopold's first duck story on a couple of levels: one bad and one good. To begin with, black ducks harvested in Indiana dropped from 3,338 birds in 2002 to only 856 in 2003. Although the essence of Leopold's story "Red Legs Kicking" is to highlight the experience of killing one's first duck, the fact that Leopold took only one duck that day relates cheerlessly to Indiana waterfowlers who bagged only 856 black ducks for the entire season.
On another level, though, many waterfowl hunters can relate to the conservation efforts made by Leopold and the many conservation groups that are working hard in modern times to improve waterfowl population levels. Groups like Ducks Unlimited and Waterfowl U.S.A. are well noted for their waterfowl-conservation efforts. Without the efforts of these groups, the waterfowl-hunting picture would have changed for the worse all across the country.
Nevertheless, even with the combined efforts of these conservation groups, ducks harvested in Indiana fell from 137,900 in 2002 to 125,100 in 2003. On the bright side, though, there were 72,100 geese harvested in 2003 compared to 59,700 in 2002.
Kristen Chodachek is the Division of Fish and Wildlife (DFW) waterfowl biologist for Indiana. She noted that even with the decrease in harvested ducks in general, last year was still a normal one for waterfowl hunting.
"It all varies depending on where people were in the state. I would say from the people I talked with that it was 50/50. I heard from some hunters who said it (the season) was wonderful, but others who said there weren't any ducks around. I would say that overall it was average," Chodachek said.
Chodachek also said that a waterfowler's success rate "depends on how much time he spends in the blind." Truer words were never spoken!
Indiana's duck-hunting season generally lasts 60 days, and this is considered a liberal season length. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service sets the season lengths based on data that includes the success of the breeding season, habitat conditions and Harvest Information Program (HIP) response statistics.
For Indiana, there are four waterfowl-hunting zones: North, South, Ohio River and the South James Bay Population (SJBP).
Please note the SJBP Zone applies for goose hunting only and it is limited to Lagrange, Steuben, Starke, Elkhart, Jasper, LaPorte counties and the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA).
Each one of the aforementioned waterfowl-hunting zones is specific to a geographical area within the state, and each has its own dates for hunting. These dates progress chronologically through the zones from north to south to match the usual migration patterns of ducks and geese.
Typically, and 2003 was typical, waterfowl hunting usually doesn't get better as the season progresses, which is to say winter waterfowl hunting can be pretty tough. For example, green-winged teal represent a type of duck that has substantial harvest numbers in Indiana, and accordingly 9,070 green-winged teal were taken in 2003. But as you probably already know, green-winged teal can only be taken early in the season (typically Sept. 1-9).
Additionally, there were 71,842 Canada geese taken in 2003, and a very significant number of these were killed during the so-called nuisance goose season, which takes place very early in the season. The point here is to recognize the fact that as the season wears on, the waterfowl-hunting harvest typically decreases.
Chodachek notes that bad weather held off last year long enough to give late-season waterfowlers a decent chance at harvesting ducks. Last season's winter was a fairly mild one and ice-up came around January. This meant that any stragglers that got a late start had open water, and waterfowl hunters who braved the cold probably picked up some of these ducks.
The primary factor that affects when ducks and geese will head south is the existing weather condition at the waterfowl's migration starting point. For example, if the weather turns nasty early up north, the ducks will head south pronto, and hunting will be better in the early part of the season. Should the bad weather hold off, the migratory pattern of the waterfowl will be altered and the hunting will be better later in the season.
"Although," said longtime waterfowl hunter Ed Lewandowski of Valparaiso, "the thing that can really nix duck hunting is ice-up. In a way, it doesn't matter what happens to trigger the fall migration because if we get ice-up, the birds will bypass us and keep heading south."
A very significant factor that affects how successful Hoosier waterfowl hunters will be is the breeding season and habitat conditions prior to the fall migration. According to the latest report (as of this writing) from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the breeding population and habitat area survey states the total duck population was estimated to be approximately 32 million birds. Of course, not all of those birds will be headed for Indiana, but we'll get a fair share of them passing through; this number represents a good breeding season.
Chodachek noted that Indiana's ducks come from several places. "For the most part, our ducks come from around the Great Lakes Region. You go a little bit farther north of there and you'll have the traditional breeding grounds within Ontario and parts of Quebec, and parts of eastern Manitoba. The rest of our waterfowl will come from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota," Chodachek said.
Surprisingly, Chodachek also reports that Indiana is producing ducks as well. "Within Indiana we produce waterfowl. We have some production in the southwest, and even in the northeast we have an abundance of wetlands that produce mallards."
Indiana, like other states in the Midwest, is also generating a lot of Canada geese. On many lakes in northwest I
ndiana, where I live, it is common to see ever-increasing numbers of resident geese. In fact, not too many years ago, Rogers Lake Wood Park in Valparaiso had so many resident geese that it was creating a problem. Several hundred of the geese were netted and taken away.
With weather patterns changing (i.e., less severe winters), these geese never migrate south. The Division of Fish and Wildlife has enacted the nuisance-goose season to help alleviate some of the overpopulation that takes place when these flocks continue to grow unchecked. Many of these flocks have no natural predators around to keep them in check, and their numbers get out of hand rather quickly.
A good tip for Canada goose hunters is to scout public areas where waterfowl hunting is permitted, and that are adjacent or near areas that hold resident geese where hunting is not allowed. Good places to start looking are wetland conservation areas that may be located close by.
Another tip is to check the regulations that govern waterfowl hunting on or near public lakes. In some cases, like Bass Lake in Starke County and Wolf Lake in Cook County, Illinois (at the Illinois/Indiana border), waterfowl hunting is allowed as provided by local regulations. Please check the rulings pertaining to these areas very carefully, and talk with a Department of Natural Resources law enforcement officer before you decide to hunt one of these areas.
I didn't know about wetland conservation areas until a few years ago, but am I glad that my partner Ed Lewandowski introduced me to one of these public-land facilities. I was actually on an ice-fishing trip when I had my first initiation to a wetland conservation area - and what a nice initiation it was. We ice-fished at Round Lake Wetland Conservation Area (WCA); I have since found out that this gem of an outdoor public-accessible area offers more than fishing. It holds upland birds, and it can hold waterfowl as well.
A good tip for getting acquainted with these areas is to get an atlas of Indiana. You'll want an atlas that includes GPS grids and topo maps of the entire state. There is an atlas of Indiana that includes 47 quadrangular maps available at the big retail stores (check at the sporting goods section). This atlas contains a grid system and an index is used to help users easily locate places. Icons are used to indicate hunting and fishing spots. In my opinion, an atlas of this type is a must-have for all outdoorsmen. Let's move on now and take a look at some properties that can get you "on" waterfowl in the late season.
MALLARD ROOST WCA
At 760 acres in size, Mallard Roost is a large WCA. This WCA is located in Noble County near Ligonier in the northeast part of the state where, coincidentally, Chodachek said natural duck production is taking place. Tri-County Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) manages Mallard Roost. For more information, call (574) 834-4461.
In terms of blinds at Mallard Roost WCA, there are none. "There are no blinds for waterfowl hunting, deer hunting or anything else," said Randy Milar, assistant property manager of Tri-County FWA. Like most WCAs, Mallard Roost is a bring-your-own type of situation. "Hunters have to use portable equipment or fashion something from what is available," Milar said. "With all of the equipment that is available nowadays, using portable gear should not be an issue. All of the big-name outdoors stores carry everything from ground blinds to camouflage netting for the stealthy hunter."
Milar notes that the potential for good waterfowl hunting at Mallard Roost is highly dependent upon the rain that occurs during the season. "In years of low water, all you have is the river channel, but when there's rain, there are several hundred acres of cattails," Milar said.
There is no check-in at Mallard Roost, and at peak times this WCA can attract a lot of waterfowl hunters. Millard noted that the main ducks at Mallard Roost are mallards. But he also added that a good number of wood ducks are also regulars at the property.
Remember that when hunting waterfowl in the late season to be careful of hypothermia. Falling into icy-cold waters in December or January can be an experience you'd rather not have.
Please note that Mallard Roost WCA and the majority of the WCAs in the state are located in the northern-tier counties, which puts them in the North Zone for waterfowl hunting. By the time you read this, hunting in the North Zone may be closed. However, there are two WCAs that will be open, and they are Barnes-Seng WCA (Dubois County) and Little Pigeon Creek WCA (Warrick County). Both of these are typical of other WCAs located in the state.
Atterbury FWA is located near Edinburgh in Johnson County. At 6,400 acres in size, it is a relatively large FWA. Atterbury has an attribute that waterfowl hunters like, and that is it contains several lakes and marsh areas.
Cary Schuyler is the property manager, and he said that hunters do get some pass-shooting near the lakes, but it can be hit or miss depending on which lakes the duck are using.
Like many FWAs that aren't set up to highlight waterfowl hunting, Atterbury is a "bring-your-own" blind affair. But as mentioned earlier, with all of the high-tech, blind-type devices available, this shouldn't be a problem.
A good tip for hunting Atterbury or the other FWA properties mentioned in this article is to get on the Internet at www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/stuff/ and print out maps of the properties.
You can reach Atterbury FWA by calling (812) 526-2051.
At 2,800 acres, Chinook FWA is relatively small, but it does contain some spots for waterfowl hunting. Approximately 80 acres of the property consists of strip-pit lakes, and these have the potential to attract late-season ducks. There are no blinds at Chinook FWA, and again hunters must bring their own or make do with the cover that is available.
Chinook, like Atterbury and the rest of the properties that will be mentioned, is located in the South Zone; therefore, hunters will be able to get out until mid-January. Chinook FWA is managed by Minnehaha FWA and like Minnehaha it is the strip pits that provide the greatest odds for taking waterfowl; hunt around these and you have a chance to do good. The number for Chinook FWA is (812) 268-5640. Chinook FWA is in Clay County near Terre Haute.
We'll take a look at these two FWAs together because they are close to each other, and like Chinook FWA, Minnehaha FWA personnel manage Hillenbrand. Located in Sullivan County, Minnehaha has some pretty good possibilities for harvesting late-season waterfowl. Because of its location in the South Zone, there should be open water into the late season - and this is what late-season migrating ducks are looking for!
Minnehaha property manager Ron Ronk advised that waterfowl hunters scout Minnehaha to see where the ducks are located. "We have
26 lakes that range in size from two acres to 100 acres, and waterfowl hunters need to look around before they go hunting."
Hillenbrand FWA is in Green County and it contains enough water to entice late-season ducks and geese, as well. The 27-acre Horseshoe Lake should be a good bet in the late season, if the water is open.
The number for Minnehaha and Hillenbrand is (812) 268-5640. Good hunting during the late season!
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