If you're luckless on draw hunts at conservation areas, don't give up -- some of Missouri's best December duck hunting takes place on rivers, streams and tributaries nearby. Our expert explains. (December 2007)
Photo by Brian Strickland.
The wind was a living thing that morning . . . a hungry living thing. It nibbled at our coat collars and tried to eat our hunting caps as we stood in the dark on a concrete ramp on the bank of the Missouri River not far from downtown Kansas City, clumsily trying to unfasten the boat's tie-down straps without removing our heavy gloves.
The wind was a cold living thing that morning, too. The temperature, an overly cheerful early-morning DJ had informed us just before we got out of the warm truck, was 11 degrees. Coupled with a northwest wind that was steady at 10 and gusting to 20 miles per hour, the result was a wind-chill factor several degrees on the wrong side of zero.
In other words, it was colder on that boat ramp than it was inside our deep freezers at home. Even so, the three of us were grinning like mules eating saw briers. December duck hunting is obviously not the province of rational people!
A half-hour later and three unbelievably cold miles upstream, we guided the boat out of the choppy river channel and into the lee of a large wing dam that stuck 8 or 10 feet out of the river. The rock dike not only broke the current but also (we hoped) would provide us a little shelter from the wind.
We made quick work of throwing out a couple of dozen oversized mallard decoys fitted with 20-foot cords and half-pound weights. While Jerry took the boat 100 yards down the dike toward the riverbank and covered it with a camouflage tarp, Pete and I deployed boat cushions, decoy bags and life jackets to provide the most comfortable seating arrangements possible on the cold, hard rockpile.
By the time Jerry had carefully picked his way back along the dike to the decoy spread, the wind had picked up a little more, and only a few minutes remained until legal shooting time. Pete and I had already had three bunches of ducks try to work the decoys, but all of them had flared away downwind when they spotted Jerry walking along the face of the dike.
"We're going to need to make our first shots count," Pete said, watching the third flock of birds rapidly get out of shotgun range.
Jerry had joined us under our makeshift blind (a second camouflage tarp) when the fourth bunch of ducks showed up. Pete gave one short, loud hail call -- and that was all it took to get their attention. They broke around below us and started beating their way upstream along the invisible currents of the wind. As they came, Pete glanced down at his watch.
"It's time, boys," he said. "This bunch is in trouble."
Not in much trouble, though, as it turned out -- at least, not from me. The ducks slowly sculled into range and let their feet down, Pete called the shot, and our three 12 gauges belched in a single roar. Two of the nine birds in the small flock folded, but neither of them was the duck I'd shot at. My bird and the other survivors flared, caught wind in their wings and in half a second they'd put 30 extra yards between us. Two brown ducks floated belly-up in the decoys -- gadwalls: desirable ducks, but a little surprising, considering the lateness of the season and the deep-freeze conditions in which we were hunting.
Leroy, Pete's Chesapeake Bay retriever, made short work of the two retrieves, and he was back under his own cover when the next batch of ducks showed up a few minutes later. I hit my duck this time, and three curly-tailed mallard drakes were on the water when the shooting stopped.
We finished out our six-duck limits in only a little more time than it had taken us to run upriver and put out the decoys.
It was a mixed bag -- mostly mallards and gadwalls, two scaup, a goldeneye, and a redhead drake that now lives on the wall in my office, plus two Canada geese that evidently figured ducks were acceptable company as long as they were in a sheltered spot. I also missed (three times!) the only oldsquaw I'll probably ever have within shotgun range -- a beautiful spike-tailed drake that would no doubt be on the wall beside the redhead if I could have caught up to him with my gun barrel. By 9 a.m. we were at a warm truck stop, drinking coffee, eating lumberjack breakfasts and shaking off the cold.
THE BIG NAMES DRAW THE BIG CROWDS
Missouri hunters have a lot of public hunting opportunity at the state's numerous conservation areas. The best ones are legendary inside Missouri and beyond the state's borders. To knowledgeable waterfowlers, their names are of the household variety: Grand Pass Conservation Area, Schell-Osage CA, Four Rivers CA, Montrose CA, Fountain Grove CA, Eagle Bluffs CA, Nodaway Valley CA and Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge.
But with fame comes footprints, and most of the best known of Missouri's public hunting areas are heavily pressured -- so much so that the Missouri Department of Conservation long ago implemented a limited-permit system for hunting at many of its more popular areas. Hunters may apply in advance for reservations, or simply show up in the pre-dawn hours at the area headquarters and get into the daily drawing for a blind or hunting area. If they get drawn, they often have excellent hunting; if they don't get drawn, they got up very early for nothing.
Because very often there normally more hunters than available daily permits, a good many Missouri waterfowlers find out they did exactly that -- got up very early for nothing. And after missing the draw a couple of times and having to go home without ever getting their boots wet, many hunters get discouraged and give up.
Avid duck and goose hunters, however, don't give up -- they just change their approach to public-land hunting.
CONSERVATION AREA ALTERNATIVES
"Any of the larger tributaries of Missouri's large U.S. Corps of Engineers lakes provide tremendous duck- hunting opportunities," said Larry Dablemont, a native Missourian who has hunted ducks and geese from Manitoba and Saskatchewan to the Louisiana salt marshes. Around his hometown of Houston and his current home near Bolivar, Dablemont has a reputation for killing ducks when other local hunters don't.
"I'm not talking so much about the big lakes themselves," he explained. "I'm talking about the rivers that flow into these lakes. It's no secret that some lakes have a high duck population when conditions are right, but that kind of common knowledge creates the same sort of problems you find on the more popular conservation areas. There's no limited-permit daily draw on some
big lakes, but when the ducks are there, the word gets out, and overcrowding can become a big problem."
Dablemont doesn't think that the central Missouri reservoirs are going to provide very good hunting this year, anyway. "Truman Lake can provide some very good duck hunting when the water rises into the vegetation surrounding the lake, but this year there's not going to be much chance of that," he explained. "Last spring the water got very high and stayed that way; even as late as mid-August the water level was still 6 feet higher than normal. The U.S. (Army) Corps of Engineers usually seeds the flats and the backwater areas with millet and other duck-friendly stuff in spring and early summer as the water recedes from these places.
"The vegetation grows throughout the summer, and usually by August there's a wide rim of green around the lake. When the water comes back up in the fall and winter, it covers the new growth, and the ducks respond to it.
"But this year that didn't happen because the water stayed too high. The only way that any significant amount of shoreline vegetation will flood in Truman Lake this year is if the lake gets really high this fall and winter, well above its normal level."
Whether or not Truman Lake and other Ozark reservoirs have flooded vegetation this winter won't have much effect on Dablemont's duck- hunting tactics. This guy marches to the beat of a different drum. You're more likely to find him floating, paddling or poling along one of the northern Ozarks' smaller tributaries than bumping elbows with the crowd at a conservation area morning draw, or competing with a bunch of other hunters for a decent place to set up on one of the large Corps lakes.
Dablemont goes to the rivers flowing into the various arms of Truman Lake, the Pomme de Terre flowing into Pomme de Terre Lake, the Sac flowing into Stockton Lake, his old hometown water of the Big Piney River above and below his old hometown of Houston. Many others, too,
Dablemont isn't the type to sit around wishing that he knew where there were some huntable duck numbers and few other hunters: He goes out and finds them.
"It's not a big magic trick to find places to hunt where there isn't a lot of pressure," he maintained. "Just about any tributary of the large Missouri reservoirs, including Lake Table Rock on the Arkansas line and Lake Mark Twain in northeast Missouri, can provide some decent hunting when the migration is on. And cold weather just makes the feeder streams even better, because standing water freezes, and that forces the ducks to come to the rivers."
Dablemont looks first for shallow, flooded areas where the streams have backed into adjacent pastures, brushy areas or crop fields. He said this is why he prefers in general to hunt upstream from a big lake instead of on the main stream below the lake, because it's usually more common to find these flooded shallows upstream from a lake than below it. A couple of notable exceptions are the Pomme de Terre River between lakes Pomme de Terre and Truman, and the Sac River between lakes Stockton and Truman, which often have numerous backwater areas.
If backwaters or shallowly flooded flats aren't available, look for sheltered places on a stream, including chutes behind islands, creek mouths, and wide places in bends where the current slows and leaves pockets of slack water.
"I look for the normal places any duck hunter worth his salt knows ducks like to hang out," he said. "If you're a duck hunter you can find these places. If you're not, you won't."
The streams and the Corps lakes of central and west-central Missouri aren't of course the only places in which motivated Missouri waterfowlers can escape the crowds and find ducks of their own.
Jim Ronquest, the current world champion duck caller and two-time U.S. Open Champion, is another Missouri native son who still knows how to find uncrowded duck hunting in his home state.
If backwaters or shallowly flooded flats aren't available, look for sheltered places on a stream, including chutes behind islands, creek mouths, and wide places in bends where the current slows and leaves pockets
of slack water.
"Modern technology is a great tool for anyone wanting to find hidden hotspots," he remarked. "Topographic maps have been around for a long time, of course, and they're still good tools, but Google Earth can give you a duck's-eye view of the river systems that's even better. Whichever you use, look at the smaller river systems that flow into the major streams of Missouri -- the creeks and smaller rivers that flow into the Missouri, the Platte and the Mississippi. Look for backwaters, overflows, bays and wide spots that ducks use for resting and staging. If you can find these places close to wildlife refuges and rest areas, so much the better."
The Missouri River, as demonstrated by the hunt related at the beginning of this piece, is worthy of a hard look if you're searching for uncrowded hunting. Many hunters focus on the Missouri, but the hunting area is so vast that crowding problems rarely crop op.
There's good hunting on the Missouri from where it flows into the state's extreme northwest corner to where it flows into the Mississippi north of St. Louis.
Numerous CAs abut the river, many of them in the "most popular" category and so requiring hunters either to apply for reservations or to take their chances in the daily draw. However, the long stretches of the river between those CAs also provide good hunting for a wide variety of species when the weather is right -- and December is prime time for Missouri River waterfowling in most years.
THE BIG MUDDY
Hunting The Big Muddy requires caution, river savvy and a boat big enough to keep you safe. Once those requirements are met, though, it's open to anyone, with a good selection of boat access points from one side of the state to the other.
On portions of the river, the MDC holds an every-other-year drawing and issues permits for hunters to build blinds at specified locations on the Missouri. These blinds are reserved for their builders, but only if the builders occupy them by 6 a.m. -- after that, it's first come, first served.
However, the blinds aren't the only good hunting places on the river. Look for islands that tail out into broad sandbars, flooded willow thickets, shallow bays and tributary mouths.
The Mississippi River also provides some excellent waterfowling opportunities, and the potential hunting area is so huge it's daunting to even try to describe it. Rewarding and blissfully uncrowded duck hunting may be found all along the river, and not just inside the designated conservation areas like Upper Mississippi and Ted Shanks.
Check out the lower reaches of any tributaries flowing into the Mississippi. There aren't many of these, but they can yield bonanza duck hunts because they often serve as staging area
s for huge numbers of migrating birds.
The Des Moines River on the Missouri-Iowa line is one of the larger such tributaries, but smaller streams like the Fox, Wyaconda, Fabius and Salt, as well as numerous small creeks and sloughs, also provide good freelance hunting opportunities.
Hunting on the Mississippi and its bays and backwaters can be exceptionally good at times in the southeastern part of the state, particularly above and below New Madrid. Ducks headquartering on Reelfoot Lake and Reelfoot NWR in western Tennessee fly over this portion of the river on their feeding forays, and hunters with good decoy spreads in the nooks and bays along this stretch of river can find action like they had back in the "good old days."
Missouri waterfowl hunters don't have it too bad. The MDC has put a lot of effort into providing good habitat for waterfowl at its conservation areas, leased lands and cooperative areas, and has done a great deal to provide hunter access to those areas.
The draw and reservation system at the more popular CAs is the fairest way to distribute hunting opportunity among the public. But these managed areas aren't the only places at which Missourians can find top-quality public hunting. Tap into the MDC's wealth of information sources (get started at www.mdc.mo.gov), do both your homework and your legwork, and start putting together your own list of "secret" public hotspots.