October 22, 2019
By David Hart
In a normal year, Sam Schneider and his family grow corn, rice and beans on more than 4,000 acres of Mississippi River bottom near Cape Girardeau, Missouri. And when the crops are in, there’s a good chance Schneider will be sitting in a blind somewhere on that farm, scanning the sky for ducks.
This year has been anything but normal. Thanks to extensive and prolonged flooding, the Schneider family managed to get just a few hundred acres of beans planted. Duck season? That’s anyone’s guess.
“It’s like that all around here. Everything was still under water in mid-July. It’s the most water I’ve ever seen inside the levees,” says the Avery pro-staffer and "Day 60" TV host.
“I feel like I’ve been punched in the face by Mother Nature, not just as a farmer, but as a duck hunter. I don’t know what the season will be like, but I’m not too optimistic and neither is anyone else around me. All the outfitters in my area don’t have anything planted, either, so they are going to be hurting.”
Schneider and his neighbors aren’t alone. As of early July, 31 million acres, or one-third of America’s corn crop, never got planted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Additional millions of acres of rice and early beans didn’t make it in the ground, either. Low-lying farmland that should be in row crops from Illinois south to parts of Mississippi and west into Kansas was still under feet of water or too soggy to plant as of mid-July.
So what does it all mean for migrating waterfowl and waterfowl hunters? That likely depends on where you hunt.
“Waterfowl are adaptive to highly variable environments. They will search for and find wetlands with good resources. If there is something for them to eat somewhere they will find it,”says DU chief scientist Tom Moorman. “I’ve seen extreme dry years and extreme wet years and duck survival is pretty high at either end of the spectrum, although in 27 years, I don’t recall ever seeing such widespread flooding from the end of duck season until mid-summer.”
Although corn is an important food source for migrating ducks and geese, it isn’t their only food source. In fact, it isn’t even their preferred food. Seeds and invertebrates found in typical marsh habitat and moist-soil impoundments can be more attractive than grain when ducks have the choice.
But even those naturally-occurring foods will be tough to find in the flooded areas, acknowledges Moorman. Low-lying areas have been inundated with deep water for months, preventing rooted aquatic plants from growing. And without plant matter, there will likely be far lower densities of invertebrates.
“Those invertebrates need plant matter to feed on,” notes Moorman. “I think their production will be down anywhere water has been on the ground for several months because there isn’t any plant matter for them to feed on.”
Change in Landscape
He is also concerned with the scouring effect of water flowing across fields for months on end. Much of the topsoil, along with the seed bank in that soil, will be gone, leaving large areas of barren mud behind. It could take a few years for new plants to repopulate those scoured areas.
In other words, lots of hunters will likely have a tough season, especially those who won’t have any flooded crops to watch over. So will those with managed moist-soil impoundments in the flood zones.
“Basically, any hunter whose spots have been under water for the entire spring and summer will probably be struggling. They might get some birds passing through, but I think it will be a difficult season for some,” adds Moorman.
On the other hand, hunters with access to wetlands at elevations above the floods will likely have good hunting. So could hunters on the fringes of the flooded areas in the major flyway corridors. Moorman says past flood events have sent birds “pioneering” far outside of their normal fall flight paths in search of food. He recalls reports of good seasons in places like Alabama and Georgia when traditional duck states have been hit with floods. However, if vast amounts of water stays on the landscape into the fall and winter, we could see a repeat of last year: ducks widely scattered and difficult to find.
Warm weather and abundant water resulted in few ducks on Schneider’s farm in 2018, so he’s concerned another poor year could spell the end of quality hunting in the future.
“I’m just afraid if the ducks don’t find anything here this year, they will just stop coming here because they’ve gone to other places for the past two years,” says Schneider.
That’s unlikely, says Moorman.
“Ducks don’t migrate in family units like geese do, so the young birds don’t have any idea where to go. They aren’t imprinted like geese can be. Juvenile ducks just search out the best habitat every fall,” he says.
They may actually find enough food to keep them around, but only if the water recedes in time for natural vegetation to grow. That’s exactly what happened several years ago after another wet year prevented Schneider and most other farmers in his region from planting crops.
“We actually had a pretty good season. After the water went down in the summer, a bunch of volunteer plants like smartweed and grasses grew and the ducks really hit it hard. I don’t know if that will happen again or not, but it’s not looking good with all the extra rain we just had,” says Schneider.
Is There Enough Time?
Soon after he opened the gates on his fields to let some water out in July, the region was hit again by the remnants of Hurricane Barry. At least four more inches of rain fell. Even more fell on parts of southeast Arkansas, keeping flood waters at or near record levels.
At least some ducks will pass through those flooded regions and provide hunters with opportunities this fall, but those hunters may not be ready for the start of the season. Steel pit blinds are popping up out of the ground, a common occurrence during floods, adds Schneider. Hunters will have to dig new holes and reset the blinds, assuming fields are dry enough to support the necessary equipment. Pumps are inundated and likely ruined, roads, bridges and dikes are washed out and mountains of debris clog flood gates.
“There’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done before we are able to hunt,” says Schneider.
The outlook on public hunting throughout the flood zones is equally uncertain. Much of Missouri’s legendary Grand Pass Conservation Area, for example, remained closed into mid-July as a result of flooding. The 5,300-acre public hunting area is popular with hunters and can hold hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese at peak migration. Managers were still assessing damage, but areas normally planted in crops will be bare.
“We plant about 1,500 acres of wetland crops at Grand Pass and around 400 at Fountain Grove. Nothing is planted at Grand Pass this year. We got some crops in at Fountain Grove, but I’m not sure if any survived,” says Missouri biologist Chris Freeman. “I expect some ducks and geese will show up like they always do, but I wouldn’t be surprised it we didn’t get many.”
Although it was too early to say at press time, Freeman says if the rivers remain high, some or all of both areas may remain closed well into the hunting season. River levels around his areas are controlled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
“The Corps said they were going to keep the river levels high into November, but they didn’t say how high,” he notes. “We may make the decision to keep them closed, even if the water does go down some. I expect we will have some draw hunts at Grand Pass, but how many? I don’t know yet. Opportunities will definitely be reduced. We have to assess the conditions, but there are probably a lot of hazards out there.”
The various national wildlife refuges and wildlife management areas in eastern Arkansas have also been under water for months. Every road in White River NWR remained closed in mid-July and refuge managers still don’t know the extent of the damage.
“Right now we aren’t too worried,” says refuge assistant manager Jason Roesner. “I don’t expect to see any reduction in hunting, but we will evaluate things when the water goes down. There may be some damage or there may be very little, but I think we will be fine by hunting season.”
Moorman, however, is more concerned about the long-term damage to the bottomland hardwoods that are so important to migrating ducks. Temporary or seasonal flooding generally isn’t harmful to the oaks that draw mallards by the tens of thousands, but months of water during the growing season may damage or kill some trees.
He is also concerned about the impact of Hurricane Barry on the Louisiana coast. The storm didn’t bring the surge that was predicted, but it did push salt water far into the brackish and freshwater portions of the marsh. That can wipe out the fragile aquatic vegetation that is vital to wintering waterfowl in an area that is already suffering from significant habitat loss.
“It’s certainly going to be an interesting season,” says Moorman. “Some hunters will struggle. Others will do fine and some may even have a really good season. Overall, I think the birds will be fine and if we get a normal year next year, we might just forget about this year.”