December 16, 2022
By Andrew McKean
The first time I hunted eastern Idaho’s Market Lake, I got mired in sucking mud that gripped my wader boots as firmly as the jaws of a leg-hold trap. With no dog to handle retrieving duties, I had waded out in a shallow bay to fetch a mallard, stepped in a boggy hole and was immobilized.
While I was laughing at my self-imposed captivity—it was balmy early November so I wasn’t likely to experience hypothermia—my buddy yelled from shore that I should quit thrashing and make like an island. Birds were working our decoys.
A flock of ducks was coming in hard, some already dropping their feet and braking with their wings, others uncommitted and staying high and suspicious. Problem was, I didn’t have my gun—I had left it in our reed blind with the rest of my gear—but that moment was all the more indelible because I couldn’t actively participate in it.
As I watched peripherally from my bowed head, my buddy tripled on orange-legged mallards, dropping them around me like bowling balls tossed from a plane. I somehow dislodged my leg and stove-piped my way from bird to bird, gathering and delivering them back to my ungrateful—and foolishly grinning—buddy.
That’s the sort of bounty this part of the world can deliver. Market Lake Wildlife Management Area is just one of a constellation of jewels of public land that are strung along Idaho’s Snake River, from the lava plains around Pocatello west to the Oregon line. Not only is there abundant public real estate here, but the amount and variety of water across southern Idaho is perfectly arranged to catch south-flying ducks at the very height of the Pacific Flyway waterfowl migration.
The Snake River, and its associated wetlands and ponds, can hold birds for weeks or even months, depending on the weather. And because the next stop south for migrating birds, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, is nearing record-low levels, the Snake is taking a disproportionate role this month for both waterfowl and the hunters who live for November.
PUBLIC WATERFOWL AREAS
Happily, those arriving birds will have a greeting committee. The Snake curls and bends more than 200 miles between American Falls Reservoir—the first big impoundment on the river—to about Weiser, near the Oregon border west of Boise. In that stretch of water, Idaho manages a half-dozen properties that are either primarily or secondarily intended for waterfowlers. Other agencies manage thousands of acres of other prime duck-and-goose water.
None of these spots are unknown. As my buddy at Market Lake explained to me as we cleaned double limits of ducks, scoring on the Snake River’s public marshes and refuges requires a combination of adaptability and good timing. But when the birds are coming down, there are few better places to intercept them than on the beaded necklace of the Gem State’s Snake River.
Note that the public areas are not equal when it comes to waterfowling. Those in the Southwest Region, adjacent to Nampa and Boise, can get tons of non-hunting recreational pressure on nice November weekends, so be aware that you’ll be sharing a cherished public resource with folks who might look askance at your camouflage and shotgun. Most WMAs have access restrictions that mandate walk-in hunting, so waterfowlers with packable decoy bags and the willingness to hump gear anywhere from several hundred yards to nearly a mile often do better than those with big spreads and blinds.
Because of the sheer amount of water and its diversity, the Snake River system is one that rewards hunters who pay attention to weather. Hunt the main river just after a windless cold snap that freezes marshes and shallow ponds. Or hunt on the leading edge of a big winter storm for birds that are pushed out of the north. When conditions are good, the Snake will hold birds for much of December and even into January. Fortunately, duck hunters now have more season to enjoy. The state’s Fish and Game Commission earlier this year pushed the closing of duck season back to Jan. 31 in most of the state in order to align with Canada goose seasons. Goose hunters also got an extra bird in the bag; the statewide limit is now five honkers.
Starting at boot-sucking Market Lake, here are some of the must-hunt public waters on or just off the Snake River, all the way downstream of Boise.
MARKET LAKE WMA
Boasting 6,000 acres of prime waterfowling habitat, Market Lake is located just off what’s still the cold-water stretch of the Snake, upstream of American Falls Reservoir. Get here off Interstate 15 about 15 miles north of Idaho Falls. The property offers waterfowling from blinds along the river, in smallish boats or by wading in shallow marshes as I did.
East Springs Marsh gets my nod for the best combination of variety and consistency, but timing is everything. The WMA can get hammered by fellow hunters on weekends when the northern birds first move in. Those waterfowlers with more discretionary time and income are migrating to the nearby Fort Hall Indian Reservation for lower-pressured birds, but you can still have an epic day on Market Lake on nasty cold-front days throughout November. The best duck water freezes up by the end of the month.
This 4,000-acre public game area gets neglected by waterfowlers who prefer the larger, more riverine WMAs downstream, but it can offer excellent duck and honker shooting through the month. Sterling is located on the northern shore of American Falls Reservoir, itself situated just northeast of Interstate 86 west of Pocatello. Diver hunting can be excellent on wind-strafing days, and the agricultural operations all around—and even on—the refuge make it a good spot for goose hunting. Note that all waterfowl hunting is by walk-in access only.
With about 80 miles of shoreline of Lake Walcott under federal management, there’s plenty of room to spread out here, but the wide-open habitat makes this graduate-level hunting. Best bets are walking in with a dozen decoys and hunting the many bays on Walcott’s north shore.
NIAGARA SPRINGS WMA
Occupying about 1,000 acres in Gooding County on the north shore of the Snake, highlights here are public access to over 3 miles of the river and a string of eight very productive duck-hunting islands. Duck hunters can have excellent shooting on the ponds of the WMA, and there’s a public hunting blind on the East Trout Pond that’s available on a first-come basis with no reservations accepted. Float-hunters should launch at Cedar Draw access site and float down to the Clear Lake Grade bridge (S. 1700 E. Road). Shotgunners have bonus pheasant hunting on the WMA for birds that are released weekly.
Idaho’s first WMA, Hagerman was established in 1940. Eighty years later it remains a great spot to pass-shoot geese and ducks that roost on the Snake and WMA ponds and feed in fields around Tuttle. Pond hunting on the WMA—Riley, Anderson and Highway ponds get my nod—can also be very good early in the month. Depending on weather conditions, the shallow impoundments will start freezing by Thanksgiving.
C.J. STRIKE RESERVOIR
This sprawling reservoir—and the 11,000 acres inside the C.J. Strike WMA south of Mountain Home—can offer excellent hunting for birds that get pounded on the more accessible sections of the Snake. The WMA is divided into seven different management sections, each with different habitat types, hunting styles and rules. Regardless of the section they choose, non-boating waterfowlers should prepare to walk from the few access roads. Boaters have better access on both the Bruneau and Snake River arms of the reservoir. C.J. Strike is probably Idaho’s best spot for divers, but Idaho Fish and Game routinely counts about 30,000 mallards and an additional 80,000 Canada geese on the refuge. Other species worth the trip include pintails, wigeons, gadwalls and a good number of wood ducks, especially along shorelines with Russian olives and the islands upstream of Highway 51.
DEER FLAT NWR
This federal refuge due south of Nampa offers excellent duck hunting on the Lake Lowell Unit, as well as on the Snake River islands for geese that have become year-round nuisances in much of the greater Boise area. A cartopper boat will give you lots of access.
PAYETTE RIVER WMA
While nearby Fort Boise WMA can offer good duck hunting, there are so many weekly restrictions and property-specific regulations that most serious waterfowlers head to the 1,000-acre Payette River WMA, which is scattered in smaller parcels all along the Snake and lower Payette rivers.