Lake Michigan's Tributary Waterfowling
September 30, 2010
From the Illinois line on up to the border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula, you can enjoy hunting for ducks on the rivers that flow into Lake Michigan and its bays.
Steve Plater admires a drake mallard he shot while hunting not far from where the Sheboygan River empties into Lake Michigan. Photo by Dan Small
By Dan Small
Your canoe slips silently downstream, hugging the grassy bank, while your eyes scan the water ahead. In the stern, your partner rudders hard with his paddle, turning the bow of the canoe in an arc that matches the bend in the river. You lean forward, gripping your shotgun, senses tuned. Suddenly, a pair of mallards bursts into flight, the hen quacking loudly. Your gun finds your shoulder, your eye finds the bead and you swing above the drake. At your shot, he careens into the water, while the hen heads downriver, still protesting your rude interruption.
You scoop up the drake and lay him next to a pair of drake wood ducks and a green-winged teal, then turn to your partner and say, "Pull over and let's switch places. There's a slough a couple bends downstream from here. I'll paddle up into it and maybe we can add another bird or two to the bag."
A stiff north wind bends the bulrushes and ripples the surface of the estuary pothole. Like a turtle caught in a sudden cold snap, you pull in your neck and glance skyward. Your partner nudges your elbow and hisses in a hoarse whisper, "Incoming! Three o'clock, just over the reeds." Too fast for mallards, too big for teal, rocking now, they stall and drop toward the decoys. Gadwalls! You and your partner stand in unison. The flock splits and flares, straining to put altitude between them and their mistake. Four shots ring out, and three ducks drop. "Mark!" your partner commands, then, "Back!" His yellow Lab dives into the pothole and beelines for the nearest duck.
Snuggled into the coffin hull of the layout boat that rises and falls with each wave, you could almost drift off to sleep. A dozen specks dance on the horizon, then take winged form and grow larger, their black-and-white bellies skimming just above the slick, gray swells. Bluebills coming to your spread! Two hundred yards behind you, your buddies in the tender boat drink coffee and watch the show, hoping you will let them come this time and not shoot too soon.
The ducks bank left, then right, and finally make up their collective mind to fly straight up the longest string of bobbing blocks toward the little opening in the cluster of fakes, where you wait, in gray parka and gray boat, inches above the gray water. Flaps down and wings braking, they appear to stop in midair. "Now!" your mind screams, and you sit up, push off the safety and slap the trigger. The lead drake falters, so you hit him again and he falls. You swing on a second bird and catch it before it flares. Two pairs of black legs kick feebly skyward, as the drone of the tender's outboard grows louder.
From the Illinois line north to the border with Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Lake Michigan's open water, bays and tributaries offer these three distinct types of shooting for a wide variety of ducks and, in some areas, for Canada geese as well. Each hunting style requires specialized equipment, but between yourself and a partner or two, you can get outfitted for all three without spending a fortune. Best of all, you can practice all three without an expensive lease, a membership in a private club or the purchase of waterfront property.
SOUTHERN LAKE MICHIGAN
From Kenosha County north to Sheboygan County, residential and commercial development along tributaries and shorelines makes jump-shooting and marsh hunting difficult, but not impossible. Mallards, wood ducks and teal are the most common birds, but you will find more variety in the larger marshes.
Some hunters float portions of both branches of the Milwaukee River and Cedar Creek in Ozaukee and Washington counties, but some communities have firearms discharge ordinances, and public access is limited. You can launch a canoe at most rural road crossings, but shoulder parking is often your only option.
There is a canoe landing with parking on the Milwaukee River just east of West Bend at Highway G, and another a few miles downstream at Goeden County Park on Highway M. Farther downstream, there are landings at Fireman's Park in Newburg, Waubedonia Park on Highway A between Waubeka and Fredonia, and Ehlers County Park on Highway W just north of Saukville.
There is public access all along the East Branch of the Milwaukee River in the Northern Unit of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. You can canoe portions of the river here if water levels are high enough, but otherwise you're better off wading or float-tubing. Stretches below Mauthe Lake are posted closed to hunting in a wildlife sanctuary and youth camp. Cedar Creek flows through Jackson Marsh, a large public hunting area, where you can walk along it and hunt.
Open-water hunting is allowed anywhere on Lake Michigan, as long as you are 500 feet from shore. You can launch at public landings and marinas in every city from Kenosha north, and some hunters launch small boats off beaches, where allowed.
"The beauty of open-water hunting," says Chris Peshek, who hunts Door County waters almost exclusively, "is that once you have the gear, you can launch at a public landing and hunt offshore almost anywhere. You don't have to own property or ask permission."
Department of Natural Resources marine conservation warden Mike Neal, stationed at Sturgeon Bay, has hunted open water from Carol Beach to the tip of Door County. Hotspots and suitable launch spots change from year to year and even daily, Neal says, depending on wind direction, duck movement patterns and hunting pressure.
"Do your homework to find where the ducks are," Neal says. "Then find a place where you can get a boat in and out safely if the weather turns bad. If the conditions are right, you'll do well."
CENTRAL LAKE MICHIGAN
From Sheboygan County north, river access opens up somewhat, especially upstream of the cities and villages fed by rivers such as the Pigeon, Sheboygan, Manitowoc, East Twin, West Twin and Kewaunee.
You won't find many hunting opportunities on the Sheboygan River until you get upstream of Kiel, where there is good duck hunting in Kiel Marsh and Sheboygan Marsh public hunting grounds. On the Sheboygan Marsh, there is a landing for trailered boats at the dam just off Highway P and a carry-in landing off River Lane at the upstream end of the marsh.
The best portion of the Manitowoc River for waterfowl hunting is the slow, marshy stretch from Highway PP on the North Fork at Potter downstream about 14 miles to Highway JJ. Just downst
ream of Collins, Mud Creek drains Collins Marsh and enters the river. There are a lot of geese in this area, but you'll need a Collins permit and tags to hunt them. You can also launch at the Mud Creek dam and hunt the flowage or put in below the dam and float down to the river and Highway JJ. Below JJ, the river picks up speed and flows through high, wooded banks. From here downstream to the lake, jump-shooting would be very difficult.
Portions of the Kewaunee River offer decent float-hunting, according to Hank Zuidmulder of Green Bay, who used to hunt the river with friend Tony Ullman. Several road crossings provide access and allow you to modify your trip length depending on water conditions, duck abundance or your stamina. The best hunting is in the C. D. Besadny Wildlife Area, he says. Zuidmulder often hunts Lake Michigan in the morning, then floats a stretch of river in the afternoon.
The West Twin, Kewaunee and Ahnapee rivers offer some marsh hunting just upstream of the villages of Two Rivers, Kewaunee and Algoma. There are multiple launch sites on all three rivers.
Countless small tributaries to the lake or to these major tributaries hold a few wood ducks and mallards. Your best bet is to seek permission from farmers and walk these streams in hip boots or waders.
There is good open-water hunting in this portion of Lake Michigan. The first time I hunted here, I met Brian French at 5 a.m. in the Sheboygan Harbor. We ran full-throttle in his 22-foot johnboat up to Cleveland, where Craig Mazza waded out to join us. Then we motored back south to a rocky shoreline area where they had shot buffleheads and mallards the day before. We had to move several times to find good shooting, but French's 90 decoys are strung on five long mother lines, so he can pick them up in 15 minutes when the action slows.
You can launch small boats off the beach in Cleveland and Two Creeks, and boats of any size at public landings in Sheboygan, Manitowoc, Two Rivers, Kewaunee and Algoma. Scout to pattern duck movements and watch where other hunters go, but don't crowd them. The big lake can accommodate a lot of hunters, but more people are trying open-water hunting each year.
Door County has fabulous duck hunting on opening weekend, then things slow down until later in the season when migrants arrive from Canada.
"By the third weekend in October, there are usually birds everywhere," said Chris Peshek. "With big water on both sides of the peninsula, ducks just love it. If the wind blows from the northwest, I'll hunt the lake side. If it's from the northeast, I'll hunt the Green Bay side."
Peshek generally hunts open water at daybreak, then tries shoreline spots or tributaries when the morning action tapers off. Every bay on both sides of the peninsula holds ducks, but hunting opportunities vary with the wind.
"A layout boat is the best way to hunt open water," Peshek said. "But some guys use fishing boats covered with camouflaged tarps, and I've even seen guys anchor a big trolling boat and shoot off the tower, with a string of decoys out behind it."
For layout hunting, Peshek sets out two long strings of decoys in a V, with a ball of decoys at the point. He leaves an open spot in the center of the ball and anchors his layout boat there. He looks for a sheltered spot in the lee of an island or a bay.
Mike Neal says the best spots on the lake side are Bailey's Harbor, North Bay and Moonlight Bay. There are public hunting grounds on DNR and Nature Conservancy land surrounding these three bays that offer marsh hunting. Another PHG worth hunting is Portage Point, just north of the lighthouse and Coast Guard station at the mouth of the Sturgeon Bay ship canal.
Several small creeks offer good jump-shooting for wood ducks and mallards. Dolans Creek crosses Haberli Road near Institute. You can put a canoe in at this bridge and jump-shoot down to Mud Lake (also known as Dunes Lake), then paddle around the perimeter of this small marsh lake, then hunt back upstream to the bridge. Stony, Lilly Bay and Heins creeks are too small to float, but you can wade them and hunt. From Moonlight Bay, you can paddle and hunt up Reiboldt's Creek to another Mud Lake in Mud Lake PHG.
The Mink River offers good hunting for teal and mallards early in the season, according to Neal. Later on, buffleheads, scaup and mallards hang out in Rowley's Bay, while redheads raft offshore on shoals. Launch on Crescent Lane just off Highway ZZ to hunt the bay or mouth of the river.
Washington Island also has good hunting.
"Most guys hunt Detroit Harbor, East Channel and Peterson Bay for scaup, buffleheads and some redheads," Neal said. "This area has become real popular in the last three or four years for open-water hunting, and some hunters shoot from shore on private land."
On the bay side of the peninsula, you can launch at Sister Bay Marina or Ephraim to hunt Eagle Harbor and the Sister Islands for mallards and buffleheads. The Strawberry Islands offer a lot of coves for hunters to set up, depending on wind direction, with good shooting for gadwalls, mallards, teal and buffleheads, along with the occasional pintail, says Neal. You can launch at Nicolet Bay in Peninsula State Park.
Sturgeon, Sand, Rileys and Little Sturgeon bays offer good shooting at a mixed bag that can include teal, mallards, scaup, redheads, canvasbacks and goldeneyes. Wind direction determines where the ducks will be, as each bay has a slightly different orientation.
GREEN BAY TO MARINETTE
The southern and western portions of Green Bay are another waterfowl mecca with open-water, shoreline and tributary hunting opportunities. Popular open-water spots in southern Green Bay include the waters off Point Comfort, Point Sable, Long Tail Point and Little Tail Point. Boat landings near each of these spots and at the mouth of the Fox River provide good access.
The city of Green Bay allows hunting from shore west of Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary, although a lot of willows and other brush hunters used for cover there was cut earlier this year. Ducks and geese provide pass-shooting on their way to roost on the sanctuary ponds.
Along the bay's west shore, there are good marsh hunting spots all the way north to the Michigan line. Top spots include Duck Creek, Deadhorse Bay and the Green Bay Shores PHG units at Sensiba, Pensaukee and Peshtigo Harbor. Storms and high water destroyed a lot of duck habitat at Oconto Marsh, but there are still places there worth hunting.
The Peshtigo River is huntable from the mouth upstream almost to town. Farther upstream, the river has little duck habitat except in the flowages, where fishing guide Mike Mladenik says he sees hunters each fall when he is walleye fishing. High Falls and Caldron Falls flowages have the best hunting.
Some people hunt open water off Marinette, but the Menominee River itself is huntable only upstr
eam of the city. Mladenik says he saw more duck hunters on the river 10 years ago than he does today, but there are still ducks available, especially in backwaters and sloughs.
"The Menominee has good duck and goose hunting in the bays and shallows of Chalk Hills Flowage, east of Amberg," said outdoor writer and editor Gary Martin. "There are lots of wood ducks, among other species, along with geese."
SAFETY & SCOUTING
Mike Neal warns hunters to watch the weather and keep safety in mind while hunting open water. He has seen hunters out in small boats in dangerous conditions in high winds and waves.
"Make every effort to retrieve cripples immediately," he said. "I watched one group that retrieved one out of every three ducks they shot. That's a terrible waste of the resource."
Neal, Peshek and Zuidmulder all agree that hunters need to scout before hunting in order to score on Lake Michigan ducks. Because of hunting pressure, wind direction and other factors, the places that held birds yesterday may be devoid of them today. If you hunt where ducks roost and feed, you are likely to chase them out of the area. Instead, try to intercept them flying between the two and you should enjoy good shooting for days or weeks.
(Editor's note: The author's Web site, www.dansmalloutdoors.com, has more information on waterfowl hunting, along with special prices on hunting videos and wild-game cookbooks.)
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