By Brad Fitzpatrick
Managing a property for wildfowl is a labor of love, and that’s a good thing because proper land management is a year-round task. With the arrival of spring, migrating birds are headed back north to raise their broods and the time has come for duck hunters to start cultivating their land with crops to draw in and hold birds for the fall. By properly managing water levels in your impoundment and planting productive seed blends, you’ll be on track for a fantastic hunting season, but making mistakes during your spring drawdown and planting routine will cost time, money, and effort and can spoil your dreams of building a duck paradise.
If you do not have the ability to manipulate the water level in your duck pond, you’re facing a steep uphill battle. The cheapest water control system to install is also the easiest to maintain—flash boards. Need the water to be deeper? Add a board. Want to drop the water to plant? Pull all of the boards and let the impoundment drain. It’s simple and effective.
The more expensive option is to install a pump, which offer some significant advantages over flash boards. Primarily, pumps use mechanical power to control water levels and run on electricity or the PTO on a tractor. Regardless of whether you use a flash board system or a mechanical pump, you’ll need to install pipes and gates that allow you to maintain water levels. This may seem like an overwhelming and extremely expensive task, but depending upon the size of the impoundment, you may be able to install the needed equipment in a single day at a cost of just a few hundred dollars. Regardless of your budget, you’ll be better-equipped to properly manage your impoundment when you can manipulate water levels.
Chris Rogers and his family own and operate River Refuge Seeds in the heart of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and the company was among the first to develop seed blends specifically for wetland restoration and waterfowl habitat improvement. Chris and his family have made a career out of planting for ducks, and over time he’s developed a plan that helps property owners attract the most birds to their land—even when surrounding properties are also offering food sources and vying for the same birds.
“Let’s say you have had a crop of a combination of wild millet, smartweed, and American sloughgrass that has been flooded for the winter to attract waterfowl,” Rogers says. "Winter water has helped control unwanted vegetation. The wild millet and smartweed have dropped a ton of seed, and the American sloughgrass, being a perennial, has lain dormant in addition to dropping its own seed."
Your first thought may be ducks have eaten all the seed—wrong. With this mix of seed producing plants, the ducks never get it all, according to Rogers. In fact, no matter how many birds end up in your pond, they probably only feed on 20 to 30 percent of the seed produced. If drawdown is done at the optimum time, you will often have a better crop the second year than you did the first year you planted, says Rogers.
You can let the ducks do some of your planting for you. Proper habitat management not only draws in more birds during hunting season, but if you manage the water levels for seeds that you know are in the soil, you can actually save time and money by allowing the seeds that are already in the soil to mature and feed birds the following year. The key is to know exactly when to draw down the water on your property, and that requires a basic understanding of the growing season in your part of the country.
Growing season is the period of time between the last frost in the spring and the first frost in the fall. In western Oregon, where River Refuge Seeds is located, the growing period generally runs from May 1, to Nov. 1.
“If you can, try not to draw down until the soil can warm but soon after your last frost,” Rogers says. “In Western Oregon we aim for May 20. This gives the target species of wild millet, smartweed, and American sloughgrass it’s best chance to out compete weeds, take advantage of spring rains and makes use of the entire growing season. If you have the option to flood, irrigate the area during the growing season. A couple of quick floodings will stimulate more seed production but make sure to let the area dry out later in the growing season so that the plants are forced to make seed and finish before the cooler temperatures of fall arrive. When flooding, be sure not to completely submerge the plants for more than a few days. All of these species can grow in water as long as they are not completely submerged.”
Timing it Right
Drawdown dates vary with specific varieties of plants, so it’s beneficial to learn how different plants respond to cold temperatures. In some cases, you may actually want to draw down your impoundment before the last frost of the season to aid in weed control and give your planted perennials the best chance of survival. Having multiple seed types can complicate things if the different plants do not respond the same way to early drawdowns.
“Perennial grass crops that can be seasonally inundated, such as our mix of water foxtail, western mannagrass, and American sloughgrass, can handle some frost and should be drawn down as much as a month or more before the last frost,” Rogers says. “This technique promotes weed control as it can expose and kill unwanted weeds that are frost intolerant, but also gives the perennials a head start on the growing season as they can begin growing in the cooler temperatures of early spring. Swamp Timothy (a grass) benefits from a later draw down, up to two weeks after your last frost, because it needs a little extra warmth to thrive."
Smartweed, when planted by itself, can tolerate some frost and benefit from an earlier drawdown to help with weed control. Water Plantain and Wapato Duck Potato thrive when water is left on them until they have matured and started to flower at which time the water should be drawn down to moist soil.
For southern states such as Mississippi and Louisiana, Rogers suggests a later draw down, maybe as late as July. Summer rains may sprout shattered seed from earlier season plants later in the growing season when there isn’t enough time for those plants to mature and seed out before the fall flooding. Ideally you want to back date your drawdown so that the plants are ripening in September or October or a week or two before your fall flood up.
Weather will play a factor—you may get an unexpected frost late in the year or draw down early with the intent of frost killing unwanted weeds, but the temperature stays above average. You’ll miss the mark on occasion through no fault of your own, but drawing down water levels at the correct time is the critical first step towards a better fall.