“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveler, long I stood..” So reads the opening lines of a classic poem by Robert Frost, one of America’s most beloved naturalist authors.
In a roundabout way, there’s a clear connection between the author’s compelling rhyme and waterfowl hunting on public land in Missouri. The “Show Me” state offers two markedly different hunting experiences on its bountiful public land. But unlike the subject of Frost’s poem, shotgunners aren’t obliged to pursue a single option.
“It was like it was raining ducks,” says Bill Powell, an avid waterfowler from Columbia. His description refers to a morning flight last December at the Fountain Grove Conservation Area near Chillicothe in the north-central portion of the state. Fountain Grove is one of 15 (CAs) where the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) actively manages the area for waterfowl habitat and hunting. Conservation areas with managed hunts are one of the “paths” hunters can take to tap the state’s bountiful waterfowl.
“The Conservation Areas managed for waterfowl help make up for historic wetland loss,” explains Andy Raedeke, a waterfowl biologist with the MDC. Like other states in the waterfowl migration corridor in the central part of the country, just a small fraction of the marshes and backwaters present in the 19th century currently persist in Missouri. “We mostly use water management for natural forage production for waterfowl, but there’s also some cropping to supplement natural food sources.”
The state schedules waterfowl hunting during the regular season in three zones: the North, Middle and South. Each zone has a number of managed CAs with the majority falling in the Middle Zone.
Hunters desiring a spot on one of the managed areas must put in for a drawing. Missouri residents can apply for slots beforehand. Residents who don’t pull a reservation still have a shot at hunting as do nonresidents. All of the managed CAs allot a percentage of the hunting privileges in an early morning drawing the day of the hunt. Dubbed the “poor line” the pre-dawn lottery can still yield superb hunting.
Poor line odds vary by CA and hunting conditions. In some locations on many mornings, nearly everyone in the pauper’s pack gets a spot. When a cold front ushers a wave of migrating ducks from the north or harvest spikes for other reasons, odds in the poor line drawing may drop to 1 in 4.
“For this coming season we’ve simplified the drawing system,” reports Raedeke. In the past, various CAs had different procedures and allotments for hunting reservations. Feedback to the MDC found hunters consistently lobbying for an easier system.
“This year 50 percent of the slots at every CA will be given through the poor line. Another 25 percent will be allotted in a pre-season drawing. The final 25 percent will go in a once-a-week drawing during the season.” All managed hunts will be operated on the same basis, eliminating confusion.
Conventional wisdom concludes that “day of” drawing chances are highest on weekdays versus weekends. That holds true for the most part. However, word gets out quickly of a high daily harvest. The number of rubber-booted mallard shooters in the poor line often takes an upswing, no matter the day of week. In general, though, hunters who can muster their dogs and decoys during the week routinely find the best success in the poor line lottery. For example, at the wildly productive Grand Pass CA during the 2018-19 season, Monday hunters had almost twice the odds of pulling a spot from the underprivileged queue as those who showed up on Sunday.
Video Evidence of Greenheads
A video posted to YouTube days before Christmas a few years ago by the MDC aptly captured the appeal of Missouri public land. As a wildlife biologist puttered along a levee on the Ten Mile Pond CA conducting a waterfowl count, ducks (mostly mallards) launched from a canal like fans at the Super Bowl doing “the wave.” There are moments in the video when the viewer can scarcely see the sky for the upward rain of waterfowl. The day’s count? 100,000 ducks on the 3,750 acre Conservation Area.
The 15 managed waterfowl hunting areas in the state cover 80,595 acres, a sizeable chunk of real estate. Within each CA, only certain portions are open to hunting. Designated refuge areas assure waterfowl some respite from hunting. Of course, not all CAs are created equal when it comes to hunting.
“Generally speaking, the larger the better, at least when it comes to hunting,” advises Raedeke, himself an avid waterfowler. “Conservation Areas that are in a complex close to other wetlands are also ideal. Grand Pass and Fountain Grove, for example, are in an area where there’s been lots of wetland and habitat restoration.” The biologist also notes CAs with a high percentage of acreage devoted to “refuge” that are off-limits to hunting and other human activity encourage ducks and geese to stick around.
The ability to hunt on a managed CA requires success in the drawing. Where a hunting party winds up on the area is also a matter of luck. Those who pull a position are also given a number that determines their sequence in the “pick” of spots. Some managed CAs have some sunken blinds. Otherwise, hunters are assigned to a slice of habitat where they’re on their own for camoflauge. “Some areas might have small pools where a hunting party has it all to themselves,” explains Raedeke. “On large pools there might be 10 parties. We aim for about one party per 40 acres across the system.”
In some cases, a less than desirable drawing number can still yield fantastic hunting. A couple seasons back, Raedeke and some friends hunted the Eagle Bluffs CA. “We had absolutely the last pick and wound up in a spot where no one had done well all season.” Despite the party’s low expectations, the morning’s hunt turned memorable for all the right reasons. “The location literally turned on that day. Mallards were coming in all over the place to the extent we could alternate shooters and really pick our shots.”
Not all of public-land waterfowling in Missouri involves drawings, managed wetland and lots of other hunters. The biologist acknowledges “with management comes a higher level of predictability.” But he’s also aware some waterfowlers are turned off by the press of humanity and the not-so-pristine scene at managed areas. Recounting a morning when ducks descended on a popular CA by the thousands, Bill Powell described the intensity of gunfire as “sounding like a NATO training exercise.” Waterfowlers checked in copious numbers of greenheads as they left the area, Powell’s party among them. But during any given season, you’ll find this solitude-seeking outdoorsman hunting other public land far more frequently than the managed areas, even though he may not harvest as many ducks or geese.
“There are lots of great places to hunt on public land beyond the Conservation Areas,” Raedeke says. “But it’s a different kind of hunting. You can’t just mark the calendar and say we’re going here or there on this day and expect it to be successful. It takes a lot more preparation and flexibility. The people who do the best are those who can drop everything and go hunting when the stars align.” Reservoirs, large and small, attract ducks and geese as do major rivers and more modest streams.
Harry S. Truman Reservoir in the west-central portion of the state tops Raedeke’s list of waterfowl-friendly reservoirs. “It’s our largest reservoir and is traditionally the best hunting. The upper end has flood easements and other characteristics that make for good habitat.” Stockton Lake, directly south of Truman is another prime destination. It sits in the South waterfowl hunting zone (Truman is in the Middle) and often harbors copious flocks of birds when northern and shallow waters have frozen over. There’s croplands in its vicinity, offering ducks a meal not too distant from the lake.
Along with major impoundments like Truman and Stockton, numerous smaller reservoirs can offer good hunting. Similarly to CAs, Raedeke urges hunters to look for lakes associated with other wetlands or prime waterfowl habitat. Major river corridors, including the Missouri, Sac and Osage, can be duck magnets, especially when area marshes begin to freeze over. They can also provide superb hunting during flooding. Tackling the “Might Mo” isn’t for the faint of heart but often yields plenty of shooting when shallower waterbodies are frozen but before ice pancakes begin to build in the river. Flight days can be excellent on big water (reservoirs and rivers), but can be boom or bust. Hunters need to pay attention to water levels, but also freeze-up and weather.
Arriving before dawn, two friends and I prepare to launch a boat at Thomas Hill Reservoir in the north-central part of the state in mid-December. The weather forecast calls for clear skies and mild temperatures, pleasant conditions for sitting in a boat blind. Not so great if the goal is killing birds.
We motor up the lake, then swerve into a secluded cove. Bill and Brad arrange several dozen decoys in what we hope is an irresistible array. I stay with the boat, occasionally checking the exuberance of our two canine companions.
It proves a memorable morning, though not a bountiful harvest. A few small flights of mallards wing down the lake and a gaggle of geese pass high overhead. They ignore our decoys and calls. Halfway through the morning I drop a single pintail drake. The rest of the time is spent listening to my companions’ tales of far better hunting days on the lake, sipping surprisingly good coffee from Brad’s Thermos and watching a leggy blue heron poking about the shoreline.
If this is a “bad day” of public hunting in Missouri, I’ll happily endure the disappointment.