By Wade Bourne
The Mississippi Flyway is a major migration corridor for waterfowl, and good public hunting opportunities exist from the Mississippi River's headwaters in Minnesota to its mouth in Louisiana. Wildlife management areas, refuges, national and state forests, federal waterways, and other areas offer excellent hunting depending on local food, water, and weather conditions.
Picking only five public hunting areas is a subjective undertaking. These areas, in a typical year, draw clouds of birds and provide high-quality shooting. Are they the "best" public hunting areas for waterfowl in the flyway? They certainly can be when the conditions are right.
Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois)
The Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge offers prime opportunities for high-quality public waterfowling. This refuge stretches 261 river miles, from the confluence of the Chippewa River in Wisconsin to just outside Rock Island, Illinois. It encompasses 240,000 acres, with approximately 190,000 of those acres open to public hunting in accordance with each state's seasonal waterfowl hunting regulations.
"Our refuge stretches through 12 navigation pools along the Mississippi River," says Stephen Winter, wildlife biologist for the Upper Mississippi River refuge. "It includes 23 closed areas and sanctuaries to provide feeding and resting places for waterfowl. Our refuge is a major stopover area for dabbling and diving ducks, Canada geese, and other waterbirds as they migrate to their southern wintering grounds. We typically reach peak numbers as high as 750,000 waterfowl."
Winter notes that Pools 7, 8, and 9 host one of the biggest concentrations of canvasbacks in North America—up to 400,000 birds in some years—from the last week of October through mid-November. These and other diving ducks (particularly lesser scaup) are drawn by beds of wild celery, sago pondweed, and other natural foods.
Winter says that local waterfowl hunters have learned how to capitalize on the abundance of food and habitat the refuge offers. "Most hunting on the Upper Mississippi River refuge is done by freelancers hunting from boat blinds. A few also hunt from the bank or paddle into shallow areas in kayaks or canoes," he says. "We have a huge community of hunters here, and they enjoy some great shooting.
"However, this isn't a place you can just head out into and expect quick success. Scouting is crucial, since this is a very large area with many potential places for ducks to congregate. It takes a while to learn how to navigate the backwater channels and sloughs to find them."
For more information about hunting on the Upper Mississippi River refuge, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/upper_mississippi_river.
Harsens Island Managed Waterfowl Hunt Area (Michigan)
The St. Clair River flows from Lake Huron into Lake St. Clair between southeastern Michigan and Ontario, Canada. The area at the mouth of the river is called the St. Clair Flats. This is the largest freshwater delta in the United States and is composed of islands, marshes, shoals, and open water. Not surprisingly, this area is also a magnet for both dabbling and diving ducks migrating to Lake Erie and points south and east.
Harsens Island is the largest U.S. island on the St. Clair Flats, and it is the site of the Harsens Island Managed Waterfowl Hunt Area, owned and intensively managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). This area spans 3,355 acres of flooded cornfields, natural marshes, and open water. Public hunting is available through pre-hunt reservations the first two days of the season, then through daily on-site drawings during the remainder of the season. Two drawings are held each day, one for morning hunting and one for afternoon hunting.
"Harsens Island is one of our premier public spots to hunt ducks," says Barb Avers, waterfowl and wetlands specialist for the Michigan DNR. "Mallards are the main species
taken here, followed by American black ducks, wood ducks, and green-winged teal. Overall hunter success depends on the status of the migration
and daily weather conditions, but shooting is typically very good. Some years hunters at Harsens Island harvest more than 10,000 total ducks."
Hunters who are unsuccessful in the daily drawings at Harsens Island have other nearby public hunting opportunities on Muscamoot Bay, St. John's Marsh, and Lake St. Clair, which offer high-quality hunting for a variety of species.
Click here for more information about Harsens Island Managed Waterfowl Hunt Area.
Grand Pass Conservation Area (Missouri)
Grand Pass Conservation Area in west-central Missouri is managed to accommodate as many hunters as possible while maintaining a high level of hunter success. Some days up to 125 hunters are allowed in, and during the 2013 season, hunters bagged an average of more than three ducks per day—extremely high for a public area.
The Grand Pass Conservation Area covers 5,296 acres and borders the Missouri River for six miles. This area is engineered for intensive management via a system of pumps, levees, and water-control structures.
It is divided into several different units in which grain crops and moist-soil vegetation are flooded at varying intervals to keep fresh food accessible to ducks throughout the season.
Hunting slots at the Grand Pass Conservation Area are available through advance reservations and an on-site drawing each morning. Hunts are held every day of the season except Christmas.
Chris Freeman is a wildlife management biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation. He says Grand Pass is situated in what is historically one of the best waterfowl areas in this state. With the management infrastructure available, his staff can manipulate water levels and flood crops to attract and hold large numbers of ducks.
"We work diligently to maintain the high level of hunting quality that Grand Pass is known for," Freeman says. "We offer as many hunting opportunities as we can, but we're careful to control hunting pressure so the ducks stick around."
To learn more about hunting on Grand Pass Conservation Area and throughout the Show Me State, visit the Missouri Department of Conservation website at www.mdc.mo.gov.
Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area (Arkansas)
Hunters come to Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area (WMA) from across the United States to experience the thrill of ducks spiraling down into flooded hardwoods. And while several other Arkansas WMAs offer great flooded timber shooting, Bayou Meto is the biggest, the most famous, and consistently the best area to pursue "green-timber mallards."
Bayou Meto WMA is located approximately 20 miles south of Stuttgart, the Rice and Duck Capital of the World. It encompasses 33,832 acres of wetlands and bottomland hardwoods. About 13,000 acres are flooded annually for duck hunting. Bayou Meto is crisscrossed by several natural streams and manmade ditches. Hunters park at one of the area's access points and then boat or wade into hunting sites.
Duck numbers at Bayou Meto vary from year to year depending on the acorn crop and water levels. Hunting pressure can play a big role in hunter success, as the area typically draws large crowds when conditions are favorable and ducks are plentiful.
"Hunting quality on Bayou Meto can be extremely good. This area got its reputation for a reason," affirms Luke Naylor, waterfowl program coordinator for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. "It can get crowded at times, but just be courteous, be patient, and use commonsense. You can usually have a good hunt."
Shooting at Bayou Meto ends daily at noon; hunters have until 1 p.m. to vacate the area. Hunters are also restricted to 15 shells daily. The daily bag limit on Bayou Meto is four ducks (versus six statewide) and three mallards (as opposed to four statewide). These restrictions are imposed to reduce hunting pressure on ducks using the area.
To learn more about hunting on Bayou Meto WMA, visit the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission website at www.agfc.com.
Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area (Louisiana)
The Pass-a-Loutre Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is located in Louisiana's southern Plaquemines Parish at the mouth of the Mississippi River. This 115,000-acre area is accessible only by boat, and the closest access point 11 miles north in Venice. Thus, hunters traveling to Pass-a-Loutre WMA must navigate the main Mississippi River channel, at times facing dangerous waves, strong currents, fog, and traffic from oceangoing vessels.
"Pass-a-Loutre offers hunters some excellent waterfowl hunting, but it can be challenging if you're not prepared to run rough water or hunt in some very primitive conditions," warns Shane Granier, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries staff member who manages this area. "Hunting pressure is fairly light on Pass-a-Loutre, and there's a good reason for this. It's just so remote. It's utilized mostly by veteran hunters, not novices. It's important to emphasize that hunters coming to Pass-a-Loutre for the first time must be prepared for some potentially dangerous boating conditions."
Hunting on Pass-a-Loutre is open during legal shooting hours every day of the season. Hunters claim spots on a first-come, first-served basis. Primary species taken here are gadwalls, blue-winged and green-winged teal, pintails, wigeon, and canvasbacks.
A survey of hunter success in 2013 showed that an average bag of 3.4 ducks was taken per hunter per day at Pass-a-Loutre—the largest bag of any wildlife management area in Louisiana. Most hunters run the big river in large boats and carry or tow pirogues to access shallow backwater ponds that offer the best shooting.
Five primitive campgrounds are available for hunters for camping and hunting for consecutive days. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries offers a simple line map of the Pass-a-Loutre WMA at www.wlf.louisiana.gov. Granier also recommends that hunters planning to hunt Pass-a-Loutre study Internet mapping software such as Google Earth to find navigable cuts and ponds not shown on the agency's map.
Learn about destinations in the other flyways: