Western Missouri Waterfowling Hotspots

Western Missouri Waterfowling Hotspots

We've selected a handful of spots in the western part of the state that hold out enticing prospects for late-season duck hunting. Read on -- and then gather your duck call and decoys! (December 2005)

Photo by Marc Murrell

Late-season waterfowling can be the best time of the year, or it can be a time when you'll need to stop by the grocery store on your way home to pick up something for dinner. Anyone and everyone will tell you it all depends upon the weather. That's frustrating. It's also something we get tired of hearing.

And yet, that doesn't make it any less true. We all know the drill by now: If we're blessed with cold weather up north, along with a few cold spells in our local hunting areas, the ducks will move south in great numbers. They'll start their migration along the Mississippi Flyway and continue moving long into the winter.

On the other hand, if the northern weather stays warm, there'll be plenty of open water and lots of good food. Those conditions will hold the ducks north and make hunting tough, real tough.

Regardless of the weather, however, those who have the fever will want to give Missouri waterfowling a try this year. For the most part, that'll be a good decision, at least for those who do their homework. If flight paths are analyzed, movements remembered and days carefully planned, the best hunters will bag a few ducks even if winter resembles spring.

A number of places on the western side of the state offer respectable duck hunting opportunities. Some of them are big; others are small. Some are well known, even legendary, but others are largely unknown, hunted by only a few locals. Nevertheless, they'll all produce if you give them a fair shot and carefully prepare for your day in the field.

Two of the lesser-known areas are in the southwest portion of the state. That's the Spring River and the Robert T. Talbot Conservation Area. Both are in Lawrence County and offer great hunting opportunities, although they need to be hunted in some rather unconventional ways.

The Spring River flows near Interstate 44, just a little ways southwest of Springfield. Access is available from Mt. Vernon. Some of the best hunting spots are in the immediate area.

The Talbot CA is located 12 miles northwest of Mt. Vernon (Lawrence County) on Highway 96 a mile east of the Highway 97 junction. Created in 1980, with just 450 acres of land, Talbot now covers approximately 4,500 acres.

Despite this rapid growth, the Missouri Department of Conservation has done a fine job of managing the area. As a result of their efforts, Talbot is now considered one of the better conservation areas in southwest Missouri to hunt ducks, especially during December and January.

Waterfowling season dates were not set when this article went to press. Check out the MDC Southwest Regional Office's web sit at

www.conservation.state.mo.us, or call (417) 895-6880 for specific season dates, bag limits and other applicable rules and regulations. They'll be available long before you read this article.

The Spring River runs along the southern portion of the area. It's a pristine area for the most part, meaning that the channel has not been dredged or otherwise "improved." That's good news for duck hunters. As a natural flow, it attracts ducks when conditions are right, without interference from heavy boat traffic, commercial or recreational.

Talbot's lands vary from bottomlands along the river to heavy, rocky upland soils. It's mostly open acreage but has a fair amount of timber, especially along the riverbanks. Almost all the timber is hardwood. Once again, that's good news for duck hunters. Such diversity of habitat helps attract the ducks when they fly over the area.

Because the surrounding land is largely agricultural with many small ponds and a few -- although very few -- marshy areas, it attracts and holds ducks late into the hunting season, so long as the weather is relatively mild. They have everything they need, so why move?

All that changes, however, if the weather turns nasty in December and January. That'll move them over to the river and the conservation area. That's good. It makes them available for harvest by hunters. Bad weather will not only move the resident ducks, but it'll also limit the visible options for migrating ducks.

Biologist Tim Russell is assigned the area as part of his duties as the regional wildlife supervisor. He agrees with that general principle and further pointed out that the Spring River and the Talbot Conservation Area are at their best during a "hard" winter. He said that a cold, nasty winter will cover and destroy most of the forage on the surrounding land and will freeze the smaller bodies of water.

Ducks don't appreciate either one -- not one bit. They need food and open, safe water in order to survive. They die if they can't eat, and they die if a fox can catch and eat them on the ice. As they fly over the area on their way south, they can easily spot the relative safety of the river water and the available food. They'll stop over for both, most years anyway.

Successful hunters in this part of the state will need to do some hiking to get to the best hunting spots. Most of them are off the beaten path but are huntable by most folks with a little effort. Popular techniques include digging pits and building temporary blinds from local materials. Both avoid the need to carry a lot of heavy equipment and supplies into the rough terrain.

In some years, when there has been plenty of rain, there'll be enough water in the Spring River to float a small johnboat, canoe or other watercraft. Veteran hunters work their way toward likely looking spots and then hide their boats along the shoreline or cover them with something they find in the immediate area. If you use a boat or other watercraft, make certain it is well hidden from above.

This is not as obvious as it may sound. Far too many hunters view life from their perspective on the ground rather than from the ducks' perspective, high above. Ducks are especially sensitive to anything out of the ordinary that they see or sense from the air. If they see your boat, they will veer off immediately. Your efforts at getting to a good spot will be for naught.

After that, it's just a matter of calling the ducks down into shooting range, killing your limit and heading home to enjoy a fresh duck dinner and the fireplace. Sounds simple enough, doesn't it?

For more information about the Spring River or the Talbot Conservation Area, conta

ct the MDC at

www.conservation.state.mo.us, or call the Southwest Regional Office at (417) 895-6880.

Russell noted that Stockton Lake is located in the same corner of the state. It's in Dade, Cedar and Polk counties, just north of Springfield. Thirty-three thousand acres of public land surround 25,000 acres of water and 298 miles of shoreline.

It supports at least three marinas that'll offer anything you may need to help make your hunt successful. On top of that, there are at least a dozen places to stay, and there are several restaurants in the immediate area. Hopefully, you won't need a restaurant after your hunt, but you never know.

According to Russell, Stockton can offer good duck hunting at times. Those times are when the water level is up and the lake is flooding lots of lower elevation acreage.

The problem is that there's no way to know when that'll happen until just before the event. That's because the lake is not controlled by the MDC. It's a flood-control lake that's managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And, while the Corps does its best to offer hunting and fishing for everyone, human safety and flood protection for lands and houses must come first.

All that said, when Stockton is right, it's a great place to hunt ducks. The surrounding land is largely cropped by local farmers. Most of it is cash-rented. In some cases, the MDC has arrangements for those farmers to leave some of the crops standing. And, even in those areas where no such agreement exists, there'll be some grain that isn't caught by the combine and is spilled onto the ground.

No matter what the cause, however, the flooded cropland is about as good as it's going to get for Missouri duck hunters. These fields are typically attractive to large numbers of dabblers. Mallards, pintails, gadwalls, widgeons, wood ducks and green- and blue-winged teal are all harvested from these areas.

Popular techniques include hunting from boat blinds and, in some areas, walking in to stationary blinds. If you build a blind, use local materials if at all possible. Stockton ducks can get skittish at times, so there's no reason to give them anything extra to think about. No matter your hunting preference, take along lots of decoys because heavy spreads are considered the norm at this venue. Most hunters like to mix up the species.

Far too many hunters view life from their perspective on the ground rather than from the ducks' perspective, high above.

If you are out on a light-flight day, or if 2005 turns out to be a light-flight year, keep something in mind: Heavy flights usually mean lots of young ducks. On the other hand, light years are mostly caused by poor production of babies up north. That means more experienced ducks.

Young ducks have less life knowledge and are the easiest to trick with decoys and calls. They also spot blinds less efficiently. That makes them easier to kill. As the average age of the birds in the flights increases, waterfowling gets harder -- a lot harder. The ducks learn our tricks. That's why they're getting older instead of being eaten for dinner.

So, if ducks are hard to find, take a little extra effort to hide your boat, cover your blind a little better and, above all, consider hunting in new spots, those that the ducks won't remember from last year.

For complete and detailed up-to-the-minute information, check out the lake complex's web site at

www.stocktonlake.com, or call (417) 276-5161.

A third spot in southwestern Missouri that should be worth a look this year is Fellows Lake. Nestled in Greene County, it's located five miles north of Springfield, near Highway 65 and County AA. Fellows is a water-supply source for Springfield. Russell said the duck hunting on this one has been fair in the past but is getting better every year.

There are eight blinds on the lake, and it is intensively managed. Hunting spots and blinds are assigned by a lottery drawing before each day's hunt. Fellows attracts mostly divers, so canvasbacks, redheads and golden-eyes will make up the bulk of your harvest.

The lake is small and won't support a full day of hunting. That's not always a drawback, however. Consider hunting it when you only have a few hours in the morning. There aren't many spots like that around. If you live in the area, why not take advantage of it?

The MDC, in cooperation with the Springfield City Utilities, manages Fellows Lake. For information about the area, current conditions and applicable hunting rules and regulations call them at (417) 895-6880.

For those who live in the northwestern corner of the state, there's the Bob Brown Conservation Area, which is located in Holt County and borders the Missouri River. Access to its 3,300 acres is from Old Highway 111, about two and a half miles west of Forrest City.

The area supports vast stands of hardwoods. Much of the remaining land is planted in grasses. There's a decent amount of cropland, too. All that makes for attractive duck habitat.

The area also offers hundreds of acres of restored wetlands. Nearly all will produce a few ducks for savvy hunters. Flat-tail Marsh, Sandpiper Flats, Snipe Slough and Pintail Chute are regular producers.

Get sloppy, and things will be very different on your day off work. You won't even see a duck, much less shoot one.

Bob Brown is only five miles from the Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge. It's one of the better birding areas in the country and works like a magnet, pulling ducks into the area. Look for flight paths from the refuge to the wetlands and crop fields on Bob Brown.

Squaw Creek also supports a large population of bald eagles. Pay attention when you are shooting and make sure you don't do something stupid.

Bob Brown is an intensively managed wetland area and offers only wading or walk-in type hunting. There are no permanent blinds, and none are allowed. Additionally, hunter numbers are strictly controlled. No more than 19 groups of hunters are allowed on the land at any one time. Even then, it's a morning hunting opportunity only. The area closes to duck hunters at 1:00 p.m., sharp, every day.

Wading and walk-in hunting are something different for many hunters. It's an experience that can be both rewarding and frustrating. A stealthy approach will likely reap rewards, and if you're careful, you can work your way into the wetlands with little or no disturbance to the wildlife, and consequently to the ducks.

That would be a shame, because this is one of the best-producing areas in the state. The average harvest is over two ducks per hunter, per day. That's a very high number. It speaks well of the MDC and the hunters alike.

Keep in mind that without a blind you'll be especially visible to ducks from above. Wear good camo, and don't forget to take something along to pull over your head. Along with your disguise, pack a few decoys on your back, stuff a high-quality call in your pocket and carry along something to sit on.

Wading and walking in are a great way to learn the sport. It doesn't require a ton of special or expensive equipment and gives less-experienced hunters an excellent chance at success.

For complete information on Bob Brown, check out the MDC's web site at www.conservation.state.mo.us, or call (816) 271-3100.

Well, there you have it: duck hunting hotspots in the western side of the state. Take advantage of the opportunities the MDC has provided. After all, you're paying for them with your tax dollars.

And whatever you do, don't let some of the recent negativity about duck hunting in the country keep you home this winter. There are plenty of opportunities for those who have the right attitude.

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