5 Prime Picks For Indiana Ducks & Geese

5 Prime Picks For Indiana Ducks & Geese

Will waterfowlers be rewarded with another long season this year? Read on for the latest on ducks and geese, including where to go right now!

By Mike Graves

Good waterfowl hunting requires a lot of ducks and geese. This may seem like an overly simplistic statement, but there is not much a waterfowl hunter can (or should) complain about when the skies are full of ducks and geese during the season. However, when the skies are devoid of waterfowl, rising at 3 a.m. and spending six hours in a blind can be grounds for all kinds of complaints. On the other hand, filling your limit by 9 a.m. will keep you smiling and coming back for more.

There are many factors that influence how many ducks will be in Indiana during the waterfowl season. One of the most important of these is the availability of water in those areas where ducks reproduce in the springtime.

"Indiana isn't a productive state for ducks, and Indiana duck hunters are very dependent on how well the productive states and Canada do," said Kristen Chodachek, who is the Division of Fish and Wildlife's (DFW) new waterfowl research biologist.

Wetlands, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, marshes and prairie potholes are needed in order for waterfowl to reproduce at high levels. Without abundant places to reproduce in the spring, there will usually be a corresponding decrease in the number of ducks in the fall.

Unfortunately, most of the areas "up north," where the ducks and geese that migrate south through Indiana reproduce, were experiencing drought conditions last year.

"Indiana is in the Mississippi Flyway and most of our waterfowl come from Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan," Chodachek said.

Check the latest regulations to see how long the season is, along with bag limits on ducks and geese, in your zone. Photo by Soc Clay

The prairie-pothole regions of the Dakotas also produce a lot of ducks in the spring, but according to Chodachek, Dakota ducks are pretty rare in Indiana. "I'm sure we have a few stragglers that come from the borders of North and South Dakota, but there aren't very many," she said.

The information in a very detailed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) waterfowl population report for last year indicates there was a water deficit in the traditional breeding locations (i.e., the breeding areas up north) going into the spring. This happened because there was less rain and snow during the winter.

Every year, the USFWS, through statistical extrapolations and estimates, compiles a waterfowl population report with data from surveys that are conducted in the spring to evaluate waterfowl habitat conditions and to determine the size of breeding (duck) populations. It is done this way because it is simply impossible to count every single duck.

The surveys are done from the air, and they cover a sampling area that consists of the main breeding areas of North America, which - astonishingly - covers over 2 million square miles.

A few years ago, when the nesting areas weren't in drought, the skies were full of ducks where I hunted in Indiana. I remember one morning in particular that stresses the importance of having a lot of water during the spring in order to have a good duck-hunting season in the fall.

On this particular morning as my hunting partner, Ed Lewandowksi, and I headed out to our blind at a duck-hunting club (located near the Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area in Starke County), we saw a sight that was both memorable and remarkable.

To get to our blind, we had to walk in a northerly direction for about one-fourth mile on a road/dike that separated two very large flooded corn fields. Our blind was in another flooded corn field at the north end of the property. Between the flooded corn field, where our blind was located, and the flooded corn field immediately south of it, was a brush and tree line (strip) that ran toward the east for about one-fourth mile. All along the length of this brush and tree line there were ducks, thousands of ducks.

The sun was just beginning to crest the horizon, and we could see their silhouettes on the water and in the sky. Seeing so many ducks meant there was no reason for us to worry about whether we were going to get off some shots.

By 9 a.m., we had our limits and a day to be remembered. Looking back on this very successful duck hunting trip, there were three ingredients that made the ducks choose to "check in" to this waterfowl hotel for the night: water, food and a flooded tree line that gave them cover.

Remove any of these critical ingredients and the hunting situation would have been completely different. I hunted out of the very same blind two years later when the fields had been planted in beans, and the result was zero ducks harvested.

Planting the fields that were to be flooded for duck hunting in beans instead of corn was bad enough, but there was another more significant factor that made for such poor hunting. Drought conditions were prevalent proceeding and during this particular hunting season. If the springtime drought wasn't bad enough, dry conditions had also prevailed through the fall and early winter, thereby exacerbating an already tough season.

Although genetic coding guides ducks and geese on ancient migration routes, a drought can have a big effect on where waterfowl will fly in the fall. Waterfowl biologist Chodachek said that when wetlands, marshes and ponds dry up or evaporate to low levels, ducks that are headed south have to find other resources to sustain them on their journey. Locating these resources could somewhat bias their migration routes.

For hunters, this means waterfowl will be even more concentrated where there is a lot of water during drought conditions. On the downside, these conditions could alter the waterfowl's behavior enough to keep them away from where you'll hunt this fall, especially if it's near or on wetlands, marshes or small ponds that have been affected by a drought.

During drought conditions in the fall, migrating waterfowl can be less numerous away from the central point of the Mississippi Flyway. For this reason, Hoosierland waterfowl hunters should hope for a normal or above amount of precipitation both in Indiana and up north. Last spring and early summer brought lots of rain, so that was a good start.

Besides the issue of rainfall amounts, there are other weather conditions that have a significant impact on the waterfowl season as well. Last year, for example, a cold snap around Thanksgiving helped to shorten the waterfowl season at the Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area to just 30 days.

The drought conditions also influenced how property manager Glenn McCormick could flood his property on the Kankakee FWA. A nearby power plant was concerned about having enough cooling water because the Kankakee River was so low. This meant that any flooding McCormick did had to be coordinated with the power plant.

Indiana is divided into four waterfowl management zones: the North, SJBP, South and Ohio River zones. The SJBP Zone applies for goose hunting only, and won't be covered in this article.

In the North Zone, the Kankakee FWA is one of the best places to hunt ducks. This FWA attracts a lot of hunters and there is a draw every day of the season.

The Kankakee FWA is located where part of the Grand Kankakee Marsh used to be, and the ducks that migrate through here are the descendants of ducks that once came to the Grand Marsh by the millions. Ed Lewandowski hunted on the Kankakee FWA property when he was a boy before it became state owned, and his memory of it is still very vivid.

"It was like a thunder of wings and quacks that shook you in your boots," Lewandowski said of the sound and physical vibrations made by the thousands of ducks that would take flight and fill the sky when they were startled.

Lewandowski, now 63, is still an avid waterfowl hunter, and he says the memory of the good old days when the sound of ducks taking flight "was deafening" will never be forgotten. "I'll go to my grave remembering those hunts," he said.

The ducks are not as numerous as they used to be in this area, but good hunts are still the norm at the Kankakee FWA. "Last year," said property manager Glenn McCormick, "we didn't have any large buildups of ducks, but we did have new birds coming in all the time." McCormick said this was fine because it kept a steady stream of birds coming onto the property.

"We also had five good days at the end of the season," McCormick added. These five days of good hunting were attributed to several thousand ducks that were "ice-locked" and sought out open water at a nearby power plant's cooling ponds. The ice-bound ducks would fly over to the Kankakee FWA from the power plant on their daily feeding runs. "Some hunters opened the ice here and had some pretty good shooting," McCormick said.

The contact number for Kankakee FWA is (574) 896-3522. As mentioned, a draw system is used. Please call for additional details.

It would be hard not to mention Willow Slough FWA, which is also located in Indiana's North Zone, when reviewing Indiana waterfowl-hunting hotspots. But this year the waterfowl hunting at Willow Slough will be limited because of renovations being done on J.C. Murphey Lake.

"We're still going to have duck hunting, but it will be limited," said Willow Slough's assistant property manager Mike Schoonveld. Willow Slough usually operates about 35 blinds during the waterfowl season, and does quite well on geese, but this season it will be cut back to about 15 blinds.

"We're going to attempt to impound as much water as possible for the spots we can hunt from, but a lot of it depends on the rainfall we'll get. If we have a wet fall with normal or above-normal rainfall, we can impound hundreds of acres; if we have below normal, it will be less," Schoonveld said.

If everything goes smoothly, the renovation work on J.C. Murphey Lake should be completed by the fall of 2004. Willow Slough is located in Newton County. For additional details, call Willow Slough FWA at (219) 285-2704.

The partners in the Grand Kankakee Marsh Restoration Project finished the impoundment work at Aukiki last year. Aukiki is one of the project's main sites and it is an 840-acre public property that should offer some good waterfowl hunting this season. Aukiki is located in the North Zone and is on the northern edge of Jasper County at the Kankakee River just east of the start of Route 49.

Nestled between the Kankakee River on the north, and a power plant to the east, this property has a lot of potential to draw the ducks in, especially in the late season when open water is scarce. Aukiki is managed from the Jasper-Pulaski FWA and there are drawings held for hunting spots. The contact number for Jasper-Pulaski FWA is (219) 843-4841.

In the South Zone, Monroe Reservoir's Stillwater/Northfork Marsh should provide some excellent waterfowl hunting this season. Reservoir wildlife specialist Rex Watters said that 500 to 600 ducks were harvested from the Stillwater/Northfork Marsh last year.

"What we try do at Stillwater is provide the highest quality hunting experience, and at the same time, provide a very good feeding and resting area for ducks," Watters said. Some very interesting and good waterfowl hunting management techniques are implemented at Stillwater/ Northfork to make this happen.

"We hunt every third day, and we mostly hunt in the afternoons," Watters said of how much time his management technique allows for resting and feeding. Watters also said there is a shotgun shell limit at Stillwater/ Northfork, and that this rule is necessary to keep hunters from "sky blasting at the birds." The limit is 15 shells and hunters could be checked to make sure they are adhering to the rule.

"Some of the best policing of this rule is from fellow hunters. You'd be surprised at how well the guys in the blinds are paying attention to what their neighbors are doing," Watters said.

In the spring, Stillwater Marsh is drained and planted with food plots that will provide excellent food resources for migrating ducks in the fall. Stillwater/Northfork Marsh is located near the north end of Monroe Lake in Monroe County. The contact number for Stillwater/Northfork Marsh is (812) 837-9546.

In the Ohio River Zone, Hovey Lake should offer some great waterfowl hunting. "This year should be pretty comparable to last year," said Hovey Lake FWA assistant property manager Brad Feaster. Last year Feaster said hunters harvested about 2,400 ducks. Hovey Lake FWA is located in Posey County, and is only a stone's throw away from the Ohio River.

"We have about 27 blinds for ducks that are pretty close to the Ohio River," Feaster said. Hovey Lake conducts a draw every day, but Feaster noted that reserved waterfowl hunts are also held at Hovey Lake FWA. "Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays are the days we have our reserved hunts. These hunts start around Dec. 10," Feaster said.

On Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays Feaster said they also hold "no-show" drawings to fill the spots for persons who were picked in the reserved waterfowl hunts but didn't show up. This gives waterfowl hunters who didn't get picked in the reserved hunts a chance to hunt on the designated reserved hunt days.

Unlike the dove, pheasant and turkey reserved hunts, which have application forms in the Indiana Hunting and Fishing Guide, reserved waterfowl hunting applications must be picked up or acquired through the mail. "Starti

ng in October, guys can stop by the (participating) fish and wildlife areas in the South Zone and pick them up, or they can call a number and request to have one mailed," Feaster noted.

In the North Zone the reserved waterfowl hunting applications can be picked up at participating FWAs in September. The Division of Fish and Wildlife phone number to call is (317) 232-4080. For further details on Hovey Lake, call (812) 838-2927.

Licensed waterfowl hunters are reminded to register with the Harvest Information Program (HIP) before hunting waterfowl or other types of migratory birds this year. Hunters must call toll-free at 1-800-WETLAND and provide the necessary information.

Getting your HIP number is pretty painless and on average takes less than five minutes. After all of the questions are answered, the automated system will give you your HIP number, which must be printed on your hunting license in the space provided.

Earlier this year, the breeding areas up north received plenty of rain in the spring. So, if Indiana isn't experiencing a drought during the fall, this season could shape up to be a good one.

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