Missouri's Big-City Waterfowl

Missouri's Big-City Waterfowl

If you live in the Kansas City or St. Louis metropolitan areas, you don't have far to go to enjoy outstanding waterfowling. Just follow the advice of our expert to get in the middle of the action.

Photo by Keith Sutton

By Gerald J. Scott

How far would you be willing to drive to shoot a duck or a goose? Yeah? Me, too. (But I wouldn't say so out loud. For that matter, if your spouse doesn't hunt, you shouldn't either.) Happily, a majority of Missouri's potential waterfowlers - which is to say those who live in either the Kansas City or the St. Louis metro areas - don't have to travel beyond easy day-trip distance to enjoy hunting ducks, geese or both.

Am I saying that the sky just beyond the horizon of Missouri's biggest cities is always in a state of "waterfowl gridlock"? Of course not. Waterfowl hunting is waterfowl hunting everywhere from the Arctic Circle to the Gulf Coast, and that goes double for the Midwest. Staying up to date on weather conditions all along the flyway is an important part of the game, and keeping abreast of weather, water conditions and both current and anticipated waterfowl numbers in the area you intend to hunt is vital.

Don't make the mistake of thinking that what I just wrote is an attempt to hedge my bet, because it's anything but that. The plain truth is that the closer to home you hunt, the easier it is to respond to the information you've garnered quickly enough to be the guy who gets to say, "You should have been there when we were."

But where, you might well ask, is "there"? For the benefit of those among you who've dropped out of waterfowling's ranks over the past four decades - and there are a lot of you - duck hunting isn't what it used to be. On the plus side, fewer Missourians hunt waterfowl than pursue any other type of small game, despite the fact that overall duck and goose numbers are higher than they've been for too many years to count. On the flip side, while it's possible to find a flock of ducks or a gaggle of geese just about anywhere there's waterfowl habitat, modern management practices have induced an overwhelming majority of the state's waterfowl to cram themselves into less than two dozen state conservation areas and federal fish and wildlife refuges.

To put the situation as simply as possible, waterfowl hunters have two distinct options. They can be stubborn and continue to hunt public reservoirs or private ponds and fields, realizing that they've traded maximum shooting opportunities for the right to say they did it their way. Conversely, they can visit one of the areas specially managed for waterfowl, with the realization they've paid for their ducks by waiting in line for a chance at a semi-artificial "hunt."

To be honest, I much prefer the first option. On the other hand, it's getting late in the season. Do I really want to drive down to Truman and hope to scratch down a bird or two from the three bunches of ducks I'll pull into my decoys-if, that is, I'm lucky. Or do I want to go someplace where the ducks are packed beak-to-butt into a refuge they have to fly out of every day to find food? All right, already. Principle is one thing, but plucking a late-season limit out of a sky filled with ducks is an exercise in plain common sense.

Having thus convinced myself that ignoring managed waterfowl hunting is a mistake, I'm going to give Kansas City hunters some tips on managed CAs to their south and east and St. Louis hunters information on CA's north and west of their metro area. In separate articles in next month's issue, St. Louis hunters will head south to the Bootheel for mixed duck and goose hunting while Kansas City hunters head north for geese.

But before we get down to specifics, a few words about how managed waterfowl hunting works are in order. In the 16 areas owned or managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation, a predetermined number of hunters (or, in some areas, hunting parties) are allowed to hunt waterfowl. Whether the area has permanent blinds, wade and shoot pools or both, half of each day's participants were allocated in a drawing held last September. The other half of each day's potential hunters must arrive at the area prior to two hours before legal shooting time and take a place in the "poor man's line." A drawing is then held to determine which of these hunters/parties will be allowed to hunt that day.

Final decisions on hunter numbers had not been reached at press time, but the information will be readily available by the time you read this. The same is true for shooting hours. All of the areas allow morning shooting, but some close at midday.

A few of the managed areas also have "open" sections where hunters are free to come and go as they please within the statewide regulations. A couple of the managers I talked to in connection with this article admitted that the open sections were so designated because, as a rule, they attracted fewer waterfowl than did the restricted areas. Even so, open portions are well worth a look-see late in the season when waterfowl have grown wary of the "better" but more dangerous habitats.

Well, enough about that. After all, you can - and should - familiarize yourself with every regulation governing the area you plan to hunt before you leave home. Let's take a look at some of your best options.

Schell Osage Conservation Area. Six miles west of El Dorado Springs on Highway 54 to Route AA; take AA north 12 miles to RA and follow RA one mile east.

Once one of the state's best-known waterfowl hotspots, Schell Osage CA saw its famed green-timber pools unfortunately destroyed by high-water episodes in 1993 and 1995. But though some of the bloom has been knocked off Schell's rose, the area's rootstock - that is, its complement of artificial ponds and sloughs - is in fine shape.

There are 22 blinds, two of which are handicapped-accessible. Check with the area manager regarding wade-and-shoot, because this style of waterfowling is dependent upon water levels in the pools without blinds. The area has almost 1,800 acres of cropland, so field shooting for both geese and ducks is a possibility, especially late in the season.

Various species of puddle ducks are the most common waterfowl at Schell Osage, but every year sees an increase in the number of giant Canada geese trading up and down the adjacent Osage River. Schell Osage isn't a prime location for light geese, but - as anyone who's hunted these birds will attest - snows and blues may drop in anywhere there's crop residue.

Four Rivers Conservation Area (includes the 5,900-acre August A. Busch Jr. Memorial Wetlands). Go 15 miles north of Nevada on Highway 71, a mile east on Route TT, and then two and a half miles south on a gravel road marked with signs.

The waterfowl refuge portion of the Four Rivers CA often holds astounding numbers of ducks and geese. Managed hunting with a daily draw grants lucky hunters access to the portion of the wetlands outside of the refuge boundaries. Although dry access to the general area to which a hunter has been assigned can usually be gained via gravel roads or walk-in levees, getting to the best spot to set up will require wading or a small boat, depending on water levels.

It's more than fair to say that Four Rivers, which is still under development, gets better every year. It's also fair to say that it's being discovered by more hunters every year; the poor man's line can get mighty long on Saturday morning. It's not exactly short during the week either, but the weekday hunter's odds of drawing out are dramatically better.

Puddle ducks and Canada geese are the predominant waterfowl at Four Rivers, so come prepared for both. (Hint: Ducks will come to goose decoys, but geese will seldom respond to fake ducks.) Four Rivers also includes 1,200 acres of cropland and 1,100 acres of grassland, which lie outside of the managed hunting zone. Field-shooting for light geese can be very good here.

Settles Ford Conservation Area. Four miles west of Creighton on Route B and a mile south on Index Road, this area lies on both banks of the South Grand River and encompasses portions of five other permanent streams. Water-control structures are in place to provide 2,500 acres of wetland in 15 pools.

Now for the good part. Waterfowl hunting here is conducted under statewide regulations. In other words, there are no reservations or poor man's lines. If you want to hunt here, you just pull on your waders and go.

Puddle ducks and plenty of Canada geese are the standard bill of fare. Light geese are also a good possibility, especially in the area's 1,000 acres of cropland.

The Big Muddy National Fish and Wildlife Refuge - actually six "units" along the Missouri River in Jackson, Ray, Lafayette, Saline, Howard, Cooper and Osage counties. Some units and/or portions of units are accessible only from the Missouri River. From a waterfowler's perspective, all of them are best accessed from the river.

As of now, Big Muddy is almost completely undeveloped. What's more, future developments beyond boundary signs and a few parking lots will be kept to a minimum in order to return the habitat to its pre-channelization state.

Canada geese use the river throughout the year, and puddle ducks become more numerous if prolonged cold weather freezes shallow ponds and wetlands. Diver ducks, especially scaup, use the river during their migration. This portion of the Missouri River isn't a top location for light geese, but getting a shot or two is certainly possible.

The B. K. Leach Memorial Conservation Area consists of three tracts, the largest of which is reached by going three miles south of Elsberry on Highway 79 and then three miles east on Route M.

This is by far the smallest CA in terms of wetland acreage discussed in this article. It's a managed area with only seven blinds, so only a small number of hunters can use it on any given day. That's bad news for the folks who don't draw out, of course, but it can mean a high quality hunt for those who do. I should emphasize the word "can," because the number of ducks using Leach CA is tied directly to migration flights down the Mississippi River corridor. Pay attention to what the ducks are doing, so you can be at Leach at just the right time (even if it means being too sick to go to work).

Puddle ducks and Canada geese are the main attraction here. However, late in the season, scaup and snow geese begin using the area as well.

Ted Shanks Conservation Area. Drive 17 miles south of Hannibal on Highway 79 and then east on Route TT. The area includes 2,700 acres of wetland, 500 acres of lakes and ponds, almost seven miles of Mississippi River frontage and 3 1/2 miles of Salt River frontage. Field-shooters have 800 acres of cropland to enjoy.

This is a managed-hunting CA. There are 21 blinds to be allocated. Check with the area manager regarding if and how many wade-and-shoot hunters will be allowed on the area.

Ted Shanks CA is a popular destination for St. Louis-area hunters. That means long poor man's lines during the week and very long ones on weekends. On the other hand, hunters here have a far above average chance to have "bragging rights" outings.

During the course of the season, members of almost every species of waterfowl that passes through Missouri will visit Ted Shanks. By December, expect to find large numbers of mallards and gadwalls if the weather has remained relatively warm. On the other hand, if you've already had to move the brass monkey indoors for the winter, diver ducks will be buzzing the marshes and stream corridors. Migratory geese are here today and gone tomorrow, but that's the case everywhere.

The Upper Mississippi River CA. This is actually a 12,500-acre composite of 87 separate tracts lying between Melvin Price Lock and La Grange. This is federal land, but its wildlife is managed under permit by the MDC.

Waterfowler management operates under a different system on this CA. In its restricted portions, 99 blinds sites are allocated by drawing and then registered to up to four individuals for a two-year period. The next drawing will be held in 2004.

On the allotted site, the lucky winner(s) must build a permanent blind meeting standards set by the MDC. During the waterfowl season, the build "belongs" to the registrant(s) until 6:00 a.m., after which time it is open to the public on a first-come, first-served basis. No other waterfowl hunting is allowed in the restricted zones.

The remainder of the CA is considered to be an "open waterfowl hunting area." Blinds may be built without site restrictions, but they may not be locked. After 6:00 a.m., these blinds are open to the public.

To be perfectly frank, I can't see why you'd even bother to buy a duck stamp if the Upper Mississippi CA doesn't make your heart race. Even if you spend the first hour of daylight cruising the side channels and sloughs looking for an open blind in one of the restricted zones, doing so sure beats standing in line for two hours. What's more, in the open zones, you can launch your boat when it's barely light enough to see and be set up in a spot you select all by yourself by shooting time.

Puddle ducks are present here to be sure, but the Upper Mississippi's stellar attraction is the scaup migration. Hit it right just once, and your buddies will be begging you not to tell the story "just one more time."

Alas, nothing's perfect, and that includes the Upper Mississippi CA. There are numerous public boat ramps to get your boat onto the Mississippi River, the trick is to get it - and you - back off at the end of your hunt. This would be big water even if it weren't moving - which it most definitely is. Further

, the river's surface can turn from millpond smooth to Surf City in minutes.

Wide-beamed, flat-bottomed 18-foot boats with high sideboards powered by no less than 50 hp outboards are the minimum requirement. Carry foul weather gear and basic survival equipment in waterproof bags if your hunting day starts out balmy and is forecast to remain so.

What with the holidays and all, that should be enough waterfowling to keep you busy until next month. Take a day or two to rest up, because, come January, we're going to get to the really good stuff.

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