I-35 Quackers

I-35 Quackers

These hot waterfowling locations offer you a chance at some exciting duck shooting along the I-35 corridor between Dallas and our state capital.

Photo by Tom Migdalski

Mention Texas waterfowling and most pre-dawn coffee shop conversations quickly turn to the Texas Gulf Coast or the Panhandle.

And for good reason, I might add: Both regions winter clouds of ducks and geese each year, much to the delight of hunters waiting for morning flights over saltwater decoy spreads or a rig of blocks tossed onto a windswept playa lake.

Other savvy waterfowlers across the state think of the bottomland hardwoods of deep East Texas, the sloughs along the Red River Valley, or even semi-arid stock tanks in the Cross Timbers or Rolling Plains region of the Lone Star State.

The guess here, however, is that few if any of these "Java Joe" conversations about the best spots to hunt waterfowl in the state will center on the I-35 corridor, the giant, serpentine asphalt strip that knifes through the heart of Texas from Dallas/Fort Worth to the Austin area and beyond.

Dove hunting in the I-35 corridor -- 100 miles' worth on either side of the freeway? Sure thing, pal. Quail hunting? Go west of I-35, and, you bet. Whitetails and turkeys? Ditto on both accounts to the east and the west of the sprawling superhighway.

But ducks? Better look elsewhere, buddy.

Or maybe not. If you do that, you could be making a serious mistake, according to waterfowl biologists with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

"There is some pretty good duck hunting in there if you find the right spot," said Dave Morrison, waterfowl program leader for the TPWD in Austin.

Corey Mason, the TPWD waterfowl biologist for East Texas, agrees that there's a surprising amount of waterfowl -- not to mention good waterfowl hunting -- to be found in the Post Oak Savannah and the Blackland Prairie ecological regions that lie to the east of I-35.

For proof, Mason points to the midwinter waterfowl surveys that his agency flies each year in cooperation with other Central Flyway states. "A look at duck numbers for the Post Oak Savannah and the Blackland Prairies has typically over 500,000 ducks estimated, which is No. 2 or No. 3 each year in the number of ducks in Texas," he said.

Keep in mind, Mason notes, that those figures represent two ecological regions put together for the annual duck count. Still, it represents an eyebrow-raising number of quackers making use of the regions' surprising amount of liquid resources. "It's got some lakes, some rivers, and a high density of stock tanks or livestock ponds ranging from a half acre to one or two acres in size," the TPWD biologist said.

Of those three sources of waterfowl hunting, the private stock ponds just might represent the I-35 region's best overall waterfowling opportunity. They certainly could represent its most overlooked one.

Why's that? According to Mason, a variety of ducks -- from mallards to gadwalls to teal -- will frequent these diminutive water bodies to feast on varied aquatic vegetation (like pondweed) along with a host of invertebrates. Add in the fact that hunting pressure is virtually nonexistent on most such waters, and it's easy to see why the shooting on a good stock tank can at times rival anything found west of Stuttgart, Ark. And this is particularly true the later in the season it gets.

"As for those stock tanks, in the late winter when the birds are beginning to pair up, we see high utilization of those ponds," Mason said. "They can hold a lot of birds then."

The only problem with all of this, according to Morrison, is being able to access those prime duck waters in the first place. "There are some pretty good duck hunts around Waco, but most of it's on private property," he remarked. "Still, if you can access it, there are a good number of ducks on some of those stock tanks."

How do you gain access to such hunting when it's behind lock and key? For starters, you can politely knock on doors and hope for the best. Or, as is the case with most other forms of hunting across the Lone Star State, pull out your checkbook and prepare to fork over some cold, hard cash in an effort to try and lease up a waterfowl hunting hotspot or two.

Keep in mind that while access is the most significant issue that would-be stock-tank hunters face along the I-35 region, there's another, equally important one as well: Don't overhunt any spot that you do gain access to. Unlike a larger reservoir or river system, small water bodies in North and Central Texas simply can't handle too much gunning pressure since the birds are using such spots primarily for feeding and loafing activities. And with plenty of other such spots a mile or two down the road in the county, ducks on stock tanks will not tolerate overzealous hunters who show up day after day.

"If you put too much pressure on these, you'll run those birds off and they're not going to come back," said Morrison. "On a lot of stock tanks, if you put a lot of pressure on them, the ducks are going to go somewhere where they're not getting busted at."

From personal experience in the northern reaches of the state, I can tell you that most small water bodies (2 acres or less) can generally handle no more than one full-fledged hunt per week. Sometimes, particularly if a severe shot of cold air pushes deep into the heart of Texas, or a prime food source is available, you can bump that number up to two and even three hunts per week, especially if the days are staggered.

The best possible solution to all of this is to have more than one hot location to hunt. "You've got to hunt the birds where they are, but not to the point to where you're shooting at them all of the time," Mason said. "If you have access to two or three different places, then you have two or three places to hunt during the course of a week."

That, of course, offers adequate relief to the birds using each location, and you still get plenty of hunting.

Of course, private-land shooting isn't the whole story of waterfowl gunning on either side of the I-35 corridor -- a number of rivers, sloughs, and reservoirs dot the region, too. But just because a river crosses underneath the superhighway, or a reservoir or a lake lies nearby doesn't mean much by itself; all those bodies of water are not created equal, especially when it comes to duck hunting.

For river hunting, Morrison suggests, hunters should key on finding productive sandbars t

hat the birds are using. Oxbow lakes and sloughs alongside the rivers can also be productive, although again, most are found on private land. Such wetlands along drainages like the Trinity and the Brazos rivers can provide hunting good enough to make it well worth the legwork that's required for gaining access to such a place.

"Wetlands along river corridors are good places to hunt," agreed Jeff Gunnels, a TPWD biologist who manages Richland Creek WMA. "Waterfowl will seek out and fly down these river drainages."

As for reservoirs and lakes in the region, not just any impoundment will do when it comes to good duck shooting. "Lakes are most productive when they are lakes that do not remain at a constant water level," Mason said. "Nearly every lake that is created serves one purpose, and that's for drinking water. When they're drawn down (over the course of a summer) they expose areas of the shoreline, or mudflats, which then get an annual germination of moist-soil plants. These lakes are much more productive for waterfowl because they provide food."

While it lies a fair distance to the east of I-35, Cooper Lake near Sulphur Springs as a prime example of this type of reservoir. "Last year, Cooper had a lot of water used and the water level dropped several feet," Mason said. "I personally walked the shoreline last summer and there were hundreds of acres of smartweed. It provided a tremendous amount of high-quality habitat this last year."

Because high-quality habitat is what attracts and holds ducks as they migrate into Texas each year, it stands to reason that such places will be good not only for ducks but also for the duck hunters.

Another prime example of high-quality habitat, and therefore high-quality duck shooting, is Richland Creek WMA.

While once again lying a bit to the east of I-35, the statistics at Richland Creek certainly show that it's worth the effort for Texas hunters to set the alarm clock a little bit earlier for the drive east.

In fact, last year, hunters who held the $48 Annual Public Hunting permit required to hunt at Richland Creek averaged 1.7 birds per day. Keep in mind, however, that the final seasonal average pales when compared to the 2.9 ducks per day that hunters had been bagging until the Trinity River overflowed its banks toward the end of last year.

With thousands of acres of new water, the ducks were effectively dispersed for the end of the season, according to WMA manager Gunnels. But the point here is that once again, it's all about the habitat. If it's there, the ducks will be too.

"Granted, you still have to have good numbers of birds in the entire flyway, but the bottom line is habitat," Gunnels said. "The birds will seek out the good habitat. Since we're located in the floodplain of the Trinity River, most years, we'll have good habitat."

Don't forget, however, that what constitutes good habitat in November does not necessarily hold that status into January. "By January, the ducks are shifting their diet from a high carbohydrate diet made up from things like rice and seeds and such," Gunnels said. "With the ducks then getting ready to migrate back north, they will shift their diet almost exclusively to invertebrates that contain protein and high lipids content. That's for feather molt and, for the hens, for egg production."

This knowledge can prove to be particularly helpful to a hunter later in the year should any of the rivers that flow through portions of Central Texas overflow their banks. "With new flooded fields, the birds will move into the new water," Gunnels explained. "They're feeding on invertebrates late in the year, and with newly flooded fields, you've got plenty of things coming out of the ground as it is inundated."

Regardless of what part of the season a person is hunting, all these biologists agree that there are several keys to finding good duck hunting on Texas reservoirs and rivers.

"Scout, scout, scout," said Gunnels, laughing. "Scouting and a willingness to get away from the crowds. Some of our wetlands are a mile walk. After a mile walk from the parking lot, obviously, you're going to have less pressure in that area."

Mason agreed: "I think the key to being the most successful -- and it's a limitation for most people -- is to be able to take the time to get out and look and see what the birds are doing, to see what's going on."

But scouting is only one of the tools that can help a Central Texas waterfowler come home with a limit of birds hanging from the duck strap.

Another key tool? Use the gray matter between your ears once a concentration of birds has been found. "Those birds are there for a reason," Mason noted. "You need to try and figure out, is it a food source, a loafing area, or is the area simply not receiving as much pressure? If you'll put the pieces together, you'll be able to find out why the birds want to be there."

Such scouting homework, of course, can pay rich dividends as a hunter scouts for additional productive hunting spots to set out a rig of decoys. "A lot of people try to hunt the same spot all year, don't have success, and wonder why," Mason said. "Let the birds tell you where you need to be."

One way to increase the odds of a good duck shoot in this or any other region is to be as willing and able as possible to hunt when and where other hunters will not.

Mason proposed one good example: "Hunting in the middle of the week. Obviously, the weekends are the most crowded and most heavily hunted times." Hunting in the middle of the week can help your hunting and make for a more enjoyable hunt since there obviously are going to be fewer people and lighter hunting pressure.

Since the entry into Texas of Old Man Winter usually brings new ducks into the state, keep an eye glued to the Weather Channel too. "Typically, the ducks will fly heavily before an arctic blow," Mason said. "The birds take advantage of strong winds blowing from the north to the south and will typically be ahead of these fronts."

Since the rear vanguard of the mallard migration down through the Central Flyway often waits for a significant push of cold air, later can be better for those hunters hoping to add a touch of green -- as in greenheads -- to their duck straps. Most years, however, it'll certainly be after Thanksgiving Day and, more realistically, closer to the Christmas holidays before serious cold weather shows up in the Lone Star State.

"Mallards tend to get there a little bit later in the year," Morrison agreed. "That's not to say that you will not come across them earlier, but the big push of mallards usually doesn't come until later in the year anyway."

Morrison advised, however, that you not forget that a lack of water in Texas' duck habitat can make for tougher hunting even if winter weather conditions are cooperative farther to the north in the Flyway. "You've got to have winter water for the birds to have a place to come,

" he said.

Of course, as long as there is some fair amount of water in the region's duck habitat, there can be plenty of duck shooting on the front side of jolly old St. Nick's arrival. Puddle duck species including gadwalls, widgeon, green-winged teal, pintails, and the occasional wood duck are common, along with an occasional diver to spice up the bag.

All of this makes for some surprisingly good duck shooting within 100 miles either side of I-35 as it cuts through the heart of Texas.

Just be sure that you don't tell any of those Texas duck-hunting enthusiasts heading up and down the highway corridor on their way to the more "famous" waterfowl gunning hotspots in the state. If you do that, they might exit off the superhighway and clog up the pathway leading to your favorite mid-Texas duck hunting honeyhole!

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