The waterfowling in the middle of our state may be underappreciated, but it doesn't underachieve.
By Bryan Hendricks
When I first moved to Missouri three years ago, my first outing was a teal hunt with some coworkers at Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area near Columbia.
While I was grateful to be invited, I was a bit dubious about the venue. A lifelong waterfowler, I've lived in several states and have always appreciated just being able to go where I wanted to go without having to deal with crowds and assigned hunting stations. Eagle Bluffs introduced me to the concept of the pre-hunt drawing, in which you draw numbers in hopes of being selected for a hunting spot. If you get drawn, you get to hunt; if you don't, you got up at 3 a.m. for nothing. It's a gamble, but if you want to hunt Missouri's best waterfowl areas, it's a game you have to play.
Let me tell you, it was worth the trouble.
The leader of my group, Mark, sent me to draw for our group because, he said, first-timers always seem to get drawn. Beginner's luck or some such. Sure enough, I drew a low number, allowing us to choose an excellent spot in a flooded marsh next to a big pool. Cliff and I set up on one side of the pool, while Mark and Kevin set up on the other side.
Five minutes before legal shooting time, a pair of bluewings sailed in over the pool and plopped down at the edge of the marsh, about 20 yards away.
"OK," I said with rising excitement, "as soon as it's legal, we'll get these birds up. I'll take the one on the right, and you take the one on the left."
Every minute or so, Cliff checked his watch as our anticipation mounted.
"One more minute," he said, as we instinctively curled our fingers around our triggers.
The author with the results of another rewarding waterfowling expedition in central Missouri. Photo courtesy of Bryan Hendricks
With that, the teal began swiveling their heads and spinning around, the way they do when they get nervous. With seconds to spare, they launched skyward and rocketed away toward the Missouri River.
It didn't matter. A few minutes later, a big flock dropped down and flared over our decoys. I jumped up and popped a single, and then got another single about 15 minutes later. A long dry spell followed, which gave me an opportunity to wade a little deeper into the marsh to raise the water level a bit. That's always guaranteed to bring in ducks, and this time was no exception. A big flock dropped out of the fog and flew, leisurely, right over my head. As soon as they passed, I hotfooted it back to our hiding spot.
The teal were at the back end of the pool, and Cliff was about to unleash a going-away volley.
"Don't shoot!" I said. "They'll turn for at least one pass." Cliff groaned, sure he'd just missed his chance to avoid getting skunked, but sure enough, the birds banked sharply and dropped low over the decoys.
"Take 'em!" I hissed.
Cliff forgot to disengage his safety, so he missed a perfect passing shot while mashing on a locked trigger. I fired three times and bagged a pair, completing my limit. Mark and Kevin both got three. It was a different kind of hunt than any other I'd ever experienced - but what a great introduction to Missouri duck hunting! We have a lot of great places in which to enjoy high-octane waterfowl hunting in mid-Missouri, and not all of it is lottery hunting. Here are a few of our best.
EAGLE BLUFFS CONSERVATION AREA Located in Boone County about six miles southwest of Columbia, Eagle Bluffs CA covers 4,290 acres on a thin peninsula between Perche Creek and the Missouri River. Waterfowl habitat is in the form of 13 shallow pools, one of which is the one that my friends and I hunted. These pools allow the flooding of about 800 acres of seasonal marshes, and 450 acres of emergent marshes.
The area gets most of its water from the city of Columbia's wastewater treatment wetlands under a unique cooperative agreement that provides a constant, permanent water supply. When the area needs more than the city can provide, the staff at Eagle Bluffs will pump water from the Missouri River.
By way of a daily drawing, the Missouri Department of Conservation allows about 22 hunting parties per day. About 100 hunters compete for those spots, said Rich Kelly, resource assistant for the MDC at Eagle Bluffs. In a good year, such as 2001, the area attracts about 50,000 birds. In 2002, hunters averaged about two birds per gun.
"We get mostly mallards and gadwalls, but we also get some pintails early, and also some widgeons and teal," Kelly said. "The main thing that draws them is the fact that, even in dry years, we have guaranteed food for them. Half of the area is moist soil fields, and we also have corn and soybeans. It's a good spot for them to refuel and rest."
Weather in mid-Missouri is always fickle in late fall and early winter, and that governs the flight patterns for ducks and geese. If conditions are right, birds may stay for a week or more, but if a hard cold front blows through, they might be around for only a day. Because of the food and open water, Eagle Bluffs seems to hold them longer than other places. That's why people so eagerly take their chances on the daily drawing.
"The reward is that you can almost always count on a great hunt," Kelly said. "You stand in line for that chance, and if you can get out, you're going to have a good day."
FOUNTAIN GROVE CA Lying in Linn and Livingston counties near Meadville, Fountain Grove CA covers 7,154 acres along the north shore of the Grand River. It consists mainly of seasonal and emergent marshes, making it an important resting area for waterfowl migrating along the Mississippi Flyway.
In the spring, the MDC draws down the marshes to expose the mudflats, at which time the Fountain Grove staff plants corn, milo and Japanese millet, said Doreen Mengel, area manager at Fountain Grove. The area is reflooded in August, when waterfowl begin arriving. Waterfowl numbers usually hit annual highs in November, depending on the weather.
"In a good year, the peak number of ducks will be about 60,000, with close to 10,000 geese," Mengel said. "If you catch a good flight day, it can be great.
"Hunting is best earlier in the season," she added. "We get quite a few pintails and bluewings early. Later, it's mostly mallards. If we get any early freezes, w
e're pretty well done."
Hunters on the west side of Fountain Grove are assigned to one of 26 blinds. The east side is a walk-in hunting area. Hunters must participate in a daily drawing to hunt from the blinds or the walk-in areas. There is also some open walk-in hunting allowed on a limited basis that does not require a drawing.
Through the drawing, Mengel said about 100 hunters use the area daily, with four to a party. Hunting ends at 1 p.m. To reach the blinds, the MDC provides boats and oars to winning hunters. However, it's a long haul out to the blinds, so it's wise to bring a motor.
Reaching the walk-in and open hunting areas requires a long walk (up to about a quarter-mile) through the marsh. Chest waders are necessary, and since there is no cover, you should bring some sort of a post stool or a portable blind.
If you hunt before freezing weather pushes the ducks out, you can enjoy some spectacular hunting. In 2002, a total of 3,741 hunters bagged 6,026 ducks and 44 geese. Discounting the geese, that averages out to about 1.6 birds per gun. That six-tenths of a duck looks absolutely stunning on a wall mount!
GRAND PASS CA As its name implies, Grand Pass CA is considered by many to be Missouri's waterfowl hunting capital. When a big push of ducks comes into these parts, hunters call it a "grand pass." When that happens, needless to say, a great many of those birds visit this 5,296-acre area, which covers a wide bend on the Missouri River in Saline County, about five miles southwest of Miami.
Like most of Missouri's other managed waterfowl areas, Grand Pass CA features mostly open, moist-soil marsh planted with Japanese millet, corn and milo. There is no green timber and no natural cover to conceal hunters. Consequently, most waterfowlers hunt from duck boats, or they carry in portable blinds, said Chris Freeman, a wildlife resource biologist at Grand Pass CA.
Typically, about 150,000 ducks visit Grand Pass, Freeman said, but numbers can be significantly higher if conditions are right. In 2001, for example, the area had a peak of 215,000 ducks. In 2002, a poor flight year, numbers were less than 100,000.
"Early in the season, we have a good mixture of greenwing teal, gadwall, widgeons, shovelers, ringnecks and a few mallards," Freeman said. "It seems like we usually have a good number of pintails early. By late November, it's more than 80 percent mallards.
"Last year, we had a humongous push of mallards in late October," he added. "Typically, we don't have many divers."
Last year, hunters bagged 10,500 ducks and averaged about 2.5 birds per gun. In 2001, they took 13,000 ducks. Mallards comprise at least 65 percent of the annual take, but greenwings are very popular, too.
Like Missouri's other managed waterfowl units, Grand Pass requires those looking to hunt the area to participate in a daily drawing. Also, according to Freeman, Grand Pass is Missouri's most requested area for waterfowl hunting reservations, a pre-season lottery that allows some hunters to reserve a spot and bypass the drawing. Opening day is always the busiest day, he added, as is opening weekend, if the season opens on a weekend. Chances of drawing in are a little better if you hunt during the week.
"Depending on the day, we may put out anywhere from 12 to 20 parties," Freeman said. "It slows down after the first week and a half, but traffic picks up as the migration increases."
Unlike some areas, where you have to stay in the spot you select during the drawing, the rules at Grand Pass allow hunters to move around, if needed. If the wind favors certain areas or if ducks are using certain areas and excluding others, hunters can make adjustments, within reasonable limits.
FOUR RIVERS CA Though it's actually in western Missouri, Four Rivers CA attracts waterfowl hunters from all over the state, including a great number from mid-Missouri. In fact, Jeff City and Columbia hunters are just as likely to go there as to Eagle Bluffs.
Covering nearly 14,000 acres in Bates and Vernon counties, north of Nevada, Four Rivers CA offers excellent waterfowl hunting along the Marmaton, Osage and Marais des Cygnes rivers. Four Rivers CA has undergone extensive renovation over the last few years, making it a showcase for Midwestern waterfowl management. It contains mostly open bottomland marsh, as well as about 15 pools representing nearly 4,000 acres. These pools range in size from 140 acres (Pool 8) to 1,111 acres (Pool 15). The area also contains some large stands of bottomland timber.
The area contains Japanese millet and smartweed, as well as supplemental plantings of corn, milo and soybeans. Winter wheat is also planted for Canada geese.
As at the other areas, access at Four Rivers CA is determined partially by a daily drawing. The choicest areas are in units 1-2, where access is by draw. Units 3-4 are open hunting. Pumps can supply water to Units 1 and 2, but Units 3 and 4 rely on rainfall. In a dry fall, those areas may not have any water, said Doug Ryan, resource technician at Four Rivers CA. He reports that a typical day will see about 20 parties in the field.
There are no established blinds, so hunters use layout boats, portable blinds or stools. Weekends can be pretty busy, Ryan said, but walk-in hunting can be fairly uncrowded during the week.
"It's fairly crowded the first three or four days," Ryan said. "Thanksgiving is the busiest time, because that's when we always seem to get a big push of mallards. We picked up a lot of pintails, shovelers and gadwalls for one week early last year, but they moved on pretty quick. Once we start getting ice, that takes care of it."
Last year, hunters averaged about two birds per gun, but when ducks are plentiful and flying well, Ryan said the experience is unforgettable.
"When the birds are working and migrating, you can't keep them out," he explained. "You'll see whirlwinds with 5,000 birds coming in. It's pretty super. If you're a first-time hunter out here on a day like that, you'll be back - guaranteed."
MISSOURI RIVER Overlooked among Missouri's waterfowl hunting hotspots is the Missouri River. It crosses the breadth of the state and features some outstanding waterfowl habitat. You can hunt almost anywhere, and you don't have to deal with lines and daily drawings.
Because the managed waterfowl areas attract so many birds, hunting the river can be tough early in the season, but as soon as cold weather freezes the still water, the only open water in the state is on the river. When that happens, the hunting can be spectacular.
Sandbars are good places to hunt if you can conceal yourself. For this, you can carry a portable blind, use a blind boat, or build a hide from driftwood and other natural materials. Or
, you can hunt the pools behind the wing dams and melt in among the rocks. The nice thing about hunting on the wing dams is that you're hunting from an elevated position, sometimes 20 feet above the water. If ducks buzz your decoys, they might actually be at eye level, allowing you a straight-on shot.
Hunting the river requires extreme caution. First, make sure your boat is suitable for big water, with a motor big enough to handle heavy current. Don't overload your boat, and always watch out for towboats, which can appear like magic from a fog and run you down before you can get out of the way. Dress warmly, and wear a personal flotation device when underway.
There are a number of access points along the middle of the Missouri River, such as at Hartsburg, Jefferson City, Rocheport and Portland.
In addition to the Missouri River, smaller rivers like the Osage offer some good hunting at times. Success on these waters requires a bit of scouting, some luck, and word of mouth.
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