By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor
As Southeast Missouri’s duck hunters head into the final two weeks of the state’s south zone season, they’re hoping for a little reprieve from Mother Nature, who hasn’t been so kind to them lately.
“It’s been a season of extremes,” says Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) biologist Kevin Brunke. “It went from extremely dry and mild to extremely cold, with many wetlands getting covered in ice up to 6 inches thick.”
The lack of open water over the last two weeks has forced a large percentage of ducks in the region to move on, though some birds, mostly mallards, teal, and gadwalls, still cling to what open water they can find.
“They’re mostly hanging out on the St. Francis and Black rivers,” says Brunke, though wide daily temperature fluctuations are putting the birds on the move. “They’re yo-yoing with the warm-ups.”
In the “past couple weeks, there are guys that have been able to find pockets of birds on the various rivers and lakes, or where ducks are field-feeding that have been successful despite these tough conditions,” adds MDC Wetlands Ecologist Frank Nelson.
The most recent waterfowl and habitat survey by MDC staff really tells the tale: the number of ducks statewide, at just shy of 151,000, is only about 25 percent of what was counted the previous two Januarys.
In the south zone, the Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area (CA) in Mississippi County is holding around 22,000 ducks, plus another 22,000 snow geese, while at the Little River CA in Dunklin County, 3,000 birds, primarily shovelers, remain in the limited open water.
The Coon Island CA, a popular walk-in area in southern Butler County, has experienced a significant drop in bird numbers since ice covered most of the property, and MDC’s survey found only 11 gadwalls on the entire property. However, that did improve slightly when Conservation Agent Frank Campa noted a push of a couple hundred green-winged teal on the area right before the weekend. Plus, the nearby Otter Slough CA still holds good numbers of birds, which likely will trade back and forth.
With ice still prevalent, Brunke recommends hunters “run the rivers and see if they can find ducks. You’ve got to get mobile to try finding them.”
In the short-term, the weather forecast remains cold, though a significant warm spell is predicted for late in the week and could bring more birds to the region.
“I wouldn’t hang up my waders just yet,” says Andy Raedeke, MDC’s top waterfowl biologist. “It looks tough for the next little while, but it doesn’t take much change at all for birds to bounce back. If you time it right, hunts just when it thaws out can be great.”
Raedeke does recommend hunters change things up this late in the season. “This time of year, the ducks have seen everything,” he says. “You need to do something different.”
He says downsizing your decoy spread is a wise move, not only because birds are used to seeing larger spreads, but also because they are “starting to disperse for mating and they’re not wanting to join big groups.”
Goose hunting, primarily for snows and white-fronts, Raedeke says, also remains an option. While their numbers still are a little lower than normal for this time of year, there are plenty of birds around and he expects more to start returning any day from the south.
“By mid-January, we usually start picking up geese moving back north, but this cold snap has delayed it,” says Raedeke.
Paul Davis is a writer and photographer with a lifelong passion for the outdoors, including waterfowl, turkey, and deer hunting. He resides in southeast Missouri and will be providing migration, habitat, and hunting information for Mo., Ark., Tenn., Miss., and Ky., through the 2017-2018 waterfowl season