Private Marsh Management

Duck clubs and other private landowners provide vital habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife

© Chris Jennings

By Roy Kroll

In many parts of North America privately owned wetlands, including duck clubs managed primarily for waterfowl hunting, are essential to conserving sufficient habitat to support healthy populations of ducks and geese. These wetland properties can range from a couple dozen acres of marsh leased by a few pals to vast tracts spanning thousands of acres. Older, well-established duck clubs, some of which have been in existence for more than a century, provide a reliable habitat base that helps attract and consistently hold waterfowl year after year, benefitting hunters on adjacent public and private lands. Geography plays a key role in where duck clubs are located, typically in major waterfowl migration corridors or wintering areas in close proximity to major cities. The mid-Atlantic coast, Great Lakes, Missouri Confluence, Great Salt Lake, Butte Sink and Suisun Marsh in California, and many other regions have celebrated histories of waterfowl hunting and waterfowl hunting clubs.

Duck clubs and other private wetland landowners often share a singleness of purpose that justifies intensive management. Many duck clubs rely on systems of levees and water-control structures to manage wetlands for waterfowl and other wildlife. Their efforts can rival that of state and federally managed wetlands, and pumps can run nonstop for weeks or months with the associated pipes, gates, grates, and weirs requiring daily or weekly attention. The investment in time and money is justified by the incredibly productive habitat that intensive water-level management can produce, from shallow seasonal wetlands full of seed-producing native annuals like smartweed, nutsedge, and millets to broad expanses of deep-water marsh that provide resting and feeding habitat for divers and late-season mallards. Many other tangible benefits result from marsh management, including production of hordes of protein-rich invertebrates, which are a key food source for waterfowl in both the spring and fall.

For almost 50 years, the preferred marsh management practice in shallow wetlands with the capacity for water-level control has been the spring "drawdown," aimed at maximizing seed production from native annual plants. In some regions—the Midwest and South in particular—this is practiced year after year. In other parts of the country, the model calls for taking water off the marsh each spring for several consecutive years, followed by a few years of shallow-water management for perennials like cattail and bulrush, whose seedlings get started under a canopy of annual plants. True to form, the perennials progressively overtake the annuals, typically expanding by rootstocks and rhizomes in dense single-species stands. As cattails advance across a marsh, for instance, higher water levels—up to two feet maintained year-round—are then used to manage the existing patchwork of open water and emergent plants toward a desired 50–50 ratio (hence the term hemi-marsh). Such spacing of vegetation can foster growth of a dozen different underwater plants that in turn provide perfect habitat for invertebrates, an essential component of any healthy marsh. The ideal duck hunter's hemi-marsh would likely have dominant stands of perennials to provide concealment interspersed with openings that contain an underwater stew of leafy greens and bugs with a few strips of annual plants dropping loads of seeds along the upland edge.

Marsh managers like to maintain such hemi-marsh conditions for as long as possible, but often after about five years a large chunk of the marsh becomes dominated by a single plant species, and the marsh's productivity, hunter access, and attractiveness to ducks declines. In freshwater wetlands, holding at least two feet of water for a couple years can knock back or knock out the culprit, resulting in a wide-open marsh, hopefully with a few strategically located stands of blind cover on high ground. This seldom-heralded deep-marsh stage can increase valuable underwater food resources and can be the last place in the marsh to freeze, but the first place to look for divers and wary mallards during the late season. Also, deep marsh sets the stage for a return to the spring drawdown phase of the management cycle and increased seed production by annual moist-soil plants.

Unfortunately, this fairy-tale model of marsh management is becoming increasingly difficult to practice as invasive exotic plant species have become established in wetlands across a large portion of the nation. Phragmites (common reed) and purple loosestrife are among the worst invaders of wetlands in the Great Lakes, Midwest, and mid-Atlantic regions, making herbicide application a primary component of marsh management in these and many other parts of the country. This new reality has also given managing for high-quality deep marsh greater appeal because germination of phragmites is all but eliminated when permanent deep water covers the marsh basin. Such trends and a justifiable "fear of phrag" can make marsh managers more concerned about what plants to avoid than those to promote, thus drastically revising if not reversing the old standards. Although hemi-marsh is still a commonly desired goal, traditional spring drawdowns have proved increasingly risky and are seldom used in the relatively carefree but prescribed manner of the past.

Generally, a larger acreage of marsh is required to provide quality hunting compared to unharvested flooded croplands. But nothing can quite replace the feeling of being alone in an expanse of marsh during duck season. Marshes and other natural wetlands also provide year-round natural habitat for a variety of waterfowl species and a bevy of benefits up and down the food chain for hundreds of other wildlife species, as well as improved water quality throughout the surrounding watershed. Moreover, maintaining native habitats that host rare or declining species is an important criterion used by government agencies in awarding grant funds for wetland restoration and enhancement. And last but not least, being part of the solution to the problem of ever-declining wetlands is fulfilling in itself, and can inspire others to support this important cause.

Anyone who has spent much time managing a duck club is bound to meet a bunch of veteran marsh rats, hunting guides, fish cutters, trappers, and other club managers, all of whom may tend to be more appreciated over time than at first meeting. If more than two or three of these characters from different clubs end up in the same watering hole on a Friday night, the furniture will probably be rearranged before closing time. But some of the best insights and real-world applications of knowledge in the realms of marsh management and waterfowl biology can be gleaned from such folks, particularly when a well-known and appropriate "filter" is strategically employed.

Larger privately owned marshes and duck clubs, due to their longevity, generally need to keep a supply of seasoned guides and marsh hands on the roster. These individuals are great sources of information if you can somehow get a boot in the door. One trick is to make the approach during the longest period of the roughest work detail or worst weather and offer up some free labor "just to get some experience." A couple of weekends spent scraping boat bottoms or building blinds in the preseason blitzkrieg can go a long way when the guide list comes up one man short and you have established your "drop it and run" availability on the 24/7 hotline.

Roy Kroll is manager of conservation programs at DU's Great Lakes/Atlantic Office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who in his previous life, managed a renowned private duck club in Ohio.