By Wade Bourne
Don Wright and I had driven from Kentucky to Kansas to hunt pheasants, towing my boat along in case we also found some ducks. As it turned out, the ringnecks were scarce, but we located a concentration of mallards on a nearby reservoir. These birds were roosting on the lake, flying out early to feed, and returning around mid-morning to loaf in the dead timber scattered throughout the reservoir's upper end.
Don and I launched the boat after the morning flight had departed the lake. We motored to where we'd seen the biggest concentration of ducks lift off, wedging the boat into a makeshift log blind that had been built long ago by other hunters. After tossing out a couple of dozen decoys, we raised the sides on my portable blind, loaded our shotguns, and waited for the ducks to return.
It wasn't long before we were digging for shells. The ducks started trickling back in singles, pairs, and small flocks. Many came into our spread with little hesitation. Don and I took turns shooting until we filled our bag limits. The colors on those greenheads were brilliant in the bright winter sun. From that morning on, our pheasant trip turned into a duck trip.
This hunt was no aberration. I've had many memorable hunts on reservoirs in other states, including South Dakota, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Texas. These reservoirs held plenty of ducks and were all in the public domain. Anybody could have hunted the same places we did, but we almost never encountered other hunters.
When it comes to public waterfowl hunting, wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges get most of the attention. These areas are usually intensively managed, strictly controlled, and highly publicized. These well-known hunting areas hold large numbers of waterfowl, and not surprisingly, they also draw lots of hunting pressure.
This leaves a vast array of other public lands that are relatively uncrowded, even though many offer high-quality duck and goose hunting opportunities. These places include not only reservoirs but major rivers, coastal waters, national forests, military installations, utility properties, and private lands enrolled in public access programs. Together they offer millions of acres of public waterfowl hunting. Here's just a sampling of underutilized public hunting areas that exist all over the country, just waiting for hunters to explore them.
Navigable rivers serve as migration corridors for many of North America's ducks and geese, and plenty of birds also rely on these waterways for loafing and roosting habitat
. To hunt these moving waters effectively, waterfowlers should scout regularly to keep up with daily bird movements in response to water levels and temperature. The best way to do this is to get out there and do some looking.
Ed Larson is a typical member of the small fraternity of waterfowlers who put in the time and effort necessary to hunt big rivers. A category manager for Cabela's Inc., Larson is a lifetime waterfowler who grew up hunting on Pools 7 and 8 and guiding professionally on Pool 9 of the upper Mississippi River. Today he hunts rivers both from a boat and by hiking and wading into backwater areas.
"You should start scouting a new stretch of river before the season opens," Larson says, "because you've got to know how to get around. You have to learn the channels and landmarks so you won't get lost. It's easy to get confused on a big river, especially when you're running in the dark. Also, you have to know where state lines and refuge boundaries are so you won't get in trouble. Using a GPS, Google Earth, and other scouting and navigation aids can help immensely."
When hunting a big river from a boat, Larson deploys a big spread of decoys, including divers, puddle ducks, and geese. He carries a much smaller spread when hunting small backwater sloughs. "You have to be equipped to hunt in a variety of situations," he says, "so you can go where the birds are working."
Above all else, river hunters should be safety conscious, Larson says. "You must respect the dangers that come with hunting on big water in cold weather," he advises. "You need a boat that's large enough to carry heavy loads of hunters and gear in rough water and strong current. Each hunter should wear a personal flotation device whenever the boat is running. You should carry emergency signaling and survival gear, including a change of clothes in case somebody gets wet. And you should always let people know where you're going and when you expect to return."
Larson's last word of advice is both practical and ethical: "When hunting public areas—rivers or anywhere—hunters should always be respectful of each other," he says. "Always give other hunters enough room to enjoy their hunt and to hunt safely. There's plenty of water and opportunities, so you should have a backup plan ready in case somebody is already set up where you wanted to hunt."
Don and I launched the boat after the morning flight had departed the lake. We motored to where we'd seen the biggest concentration of ducks lift off, wedging the boat into a makeshift log blind.
Great public hunting is available all along the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts. Bays, marshes, islands, flats, and other coastal habitats often harbor large numbers of ducks and geese. Waterfowlers who seek out these areas can enjoy great shooting for a variety of species.
Richard Stavdal has experienced the joys of coastal hunting for more than three decades. This retired U.S. National Park Service ranger lives in East Yaphank, New York, and hunts public shorelines and marshes on Long Island, where he routinely takes a mixed bag of Canada geese, brant, and puddle ducks. With 280 miles of coastline, this area offers ample public hunting opportunities. In fact, Stavdal says he usually has the spots—and the birds—all to himself.
"There's very little competition here after opening week," Stavdal says. "I typically don't hurry to get set up by shooting time. I can sleep a little longer and come in later and still have any spot I want."
Some stretches of the Long Island seashore are private, but hunters can find public areas by referring to maps published by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
"You have to do your homework," Stavdal says. "Besides identifying public areas, you have to figure out how to access them. I launch on public ramps as well as on some private ramps, where I pay a fee."
Stavdal takes a mobile approach to hunting Long Island's coastal waters. Sometimes he runs the shoreline in a 14-foot open-water layout boat and sets up on grass points or in coves where birds are loafing. Other times he drives the beaches, then hikes over sand dunes and hunts along the shore. In either case, he recommends using oversize decoys.
"My typical spread is 13 Canada geese and six black ducks," Stavdal says. "The brant and ducks trust the geese. They'll come to them with no hesitation. Plus, the goose decoys are more visible from long distances. By going with bigger decoys, you don't need as many to get the attention of passing birds."
Private Lands Open to the Public
Several state wildlife agencies have access programs that provide public hunting on private lands. States such as Kansas, Nebraska
, and North and South Dakota lease hunting rights from farmers and ranchers, opening these private lands to the public.
Rocco Murano is the senior waterfowl biologist for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department. He's also an avid waterfowler who hunts almost exclusively on private lands open to the public. "The waterfowl hunting can be extremely good, and I almost never have to compete with other hunters," Murano says.
South Dakota has two programs that offer high-quality public waterfowling. The Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, or CREP, is delivered in the James River watershed in the eastern third of the state. This watershed covers much of the state's prime prairie pothole country. "We currently have 70,000 acres enrolled in CREP and hope to have up to 100,000 acres by the end of 2012. All this land will be open to public hunting," Murano says.
Another 900,000 acres of private land are enrolled in South Dakota's Walk-In Areas program. These properties are most often used by pheasant hunters, but good waterfowl hunting is available on many of them as well.
"Opportunities for public waterfowl hunting in South Dakota are virtually limitless," Murano says. "A hunter can hunt a different pothole every day for the rest of his life and never run out of new places to try. I don't think I'd be wrong to say that South Dakota has more opportunities for public waterfowl hunting than any other place in the country."
Murano adds that while South Dakota limits the number of nonresident waterfowl permits available, approximately 60 percent of the hunters who applied were successful in obtaining permits for the 2012 season. South Dakota and other states with private land access programs publish atlases showing locations of leased properties. In addition, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks department has an interactive map on its website that helps hunters locate public access areas.
Other Agency Lands
In addition to state and federal wildlife agencies, many other public agencies own or manage lands that are open to waterfowl hunting. Examples include the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Army Corps of Engineers, and Tennessee
Valley Authority. Some of these agencies have management programs and special waterfowl hunting areas. Others simply have marshes and lakes located in flyways that draw birds during their fall migrations.
According to Mike Rabe, migratory game bird supervisor for the Arizona Game and Fish Department, the Grand Canyon State has three large national forests with plenty of manmade lakes and natural wetlands that attract good numbers of ducks. These are the Tonto National Forest north of Phoenix, the Coconino National Forest east of Flagstaff, and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in the White Mountains in the east-central portion of the state.
"Our national forest lakes offer good hunting for a variety of puddle ducks, a few divers, and also some Canada geese," Rabe says. "The only problem is, there's not a lot of hunting pressure. So if you set up on one lake and take a few shots, the birds might shift over the hill to the next lake, where there's likely nobody to keep them moving."
When conditions are right, however, the waterfowling on these high-desert wetlands can be spectacular. "On a good day, you can shoot your limit as fast as you can in Louisiana or Arkansas," Rabe says. "Also, here in the Pacific Flyway, the season is long and the limit is liberal, so there's a lot of opportunity for hunters who are willing to work for their birds."
Opportunities for All
These are only a few of the many places around the country that offer great public hunting opportunities minus the crowds. Waterfowlers can find out about these often-overlooked hotspots through a variety of sources, including agency websites, game wardens, hunters' forums, and popular media. Waterfowlers who do their homework, ask the right questions, and then get outside and track down leads can find not only great hunting, but also plenty of room to enjoy it.
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