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By Jay Anglin

The Mississippi Flyway offers a wide variety of habitats for migrating and wintering waterfowl, and you can find an abundance of public waterfowling opportunities from north to south. Check out this list of five fantastic options for hunters looking to bag public-land ducks and geese this season.

Northwest Minnesota—Thief Lake

Northwest Minnesota is a waterfowl superhighway for birds migrating from the Canadian Arctic, Boreal Forest, and prairies. Located at the eastern edge of the Prairie Pothole Region, the area’s mosaic of upland and wetland habitats supports an impressive number of birds from brood rearing to migration.

Between the cities of Roseau and Thief River Falls, a patchwork of tens of thousands of acres of wildlife management areas (WMAs) offers waterfowlers great options for both walk-in and boat hunting.

“This area is home to a bunch of classic prairie wetlands that are stepping-stones of habitat for waterfowl as they migrate between the wintering grounds and breeding grounds,” says Ducks Unlimited Biologist John Lindstrom. “Many of these wetlands and shallow lakes are managed to provide critical resting habitat and food resources by way of submerged vegetation and aquatic macroinvertebrates.”

The marquee attraction is 55,000-acre Thief Lake WMA, which offers a host of opportunities, including waterfowl, upland, and big game hunting. Campsites are located along the shoreline of 7,100-acre Thief Lake. Wheelchair-accessible facilities are also available.

“Thief Lake WMA is one of the better WMAs in the state for duck hunting. This property provides a diversity of excellent waterfowl hunting options for both diving and dabbling ducks,” explains Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR)Waterfowl Staff Specialist Steve Cordts. “In recent years, hunter success over the course of the season has averaged two birds per hunter/day, which compares favorably with any public waterfowl area in the entire flyway.”

The west and north-central portions of Thief Lake, along with some of the surrounding marsh and upland, is a sanctuary. A controlled hunting zone with 85 blinds (including some that are wheelchair accessible) and shooting positions are located on the west and north side of the sanctuary.

Over-water waterfowl hunting is permitted on areas east and south of the sanctuary boundaries on Thief Lake. There is a 10-horsepower outboard restriction for boat hunters, and regulations do not limit the number of hunters that use the lake.

“Most years, ring-necked ducks and redheads are the main birds in the bag, but some years, dabbling duck species such as pintails, green-winged teal, and mallards are also prevalent,” Cordts says. “Hunting is generally best late September through late October, and the lake always freezes before the season ends.”

For more information, visit Minnesota DNR website. https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/ 

Saginaw Bay, Michigan

Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay is located between the “thumb” and the rest of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula on the east side of the state. Though relatively shallow, this immense body of water covers more than 1,100-square-miles. The bay is surrounded by marshes, and its watershed forms the largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetland in the country, offering migrating waterfowl food and rest adjacent to the vast expanses of deep, open water in Lake Huron.

From the market gunning era to the present day, waterfowling heritage is rich in the Saginaw Bay region, inspiring decoy carving, art, and other waterfowl traditions over the decades. You can see examples of this during the annual Saginaw Bay Waterfowl Festival, which draws well over 15,000 visitors.

“It’s an amazing body of water with plenty of public hunting opportunities in the area,” says avid waterfowl hunter and DU volunteer Dean Noble. “We have some really nice state-managed properties around the bay, including draw-style hunting over flooded crops. They can be very productive, but just like any place else, success is often dependent on factors such as weather and, of course, bird numbers.”

While state game areas offer relatively easy access to marsh and shoreline hunting, Saginaw Bay’s open water, coves, and smaller bays make up what can only be described as a waterfowl hunting paradise.

“On the bay itself we hunt an amazing diversity of divers including bluebills, redheads, and canvasbacks, not to mention an increasing number of sea ducks—especially long-tailed ducks,” explains Noble. “We hunt the big water from layout boats, big rigs, and even pontoon blinds—really whatever the situation dictates. Safety is the critical factor out there. The bay can get ugly fast, so it’s important to pay attention to wind direction and the marine forecast.”

Noble suggests hiding in the reeds along the shoreline to target both divers and the area’s plentiful puddle ducks. This is an especially good option for hunters who don’t have the big-water boats and the gear required to hunt the open bay.

The state of Michigan manages properties for wildlife and hunting from one end of the bay to the other, with the primary focus on waterfowl. These include Wigwam Bay State Wildlife Area (SWA), Nayanquing SWA, Tobico Marsh, Quanicassee SWA, Fish Point SWA, and Wildfowl Bay SWA. These properties are all located less than an hour from Bay City, Michigan, on the south end of the bay. Some are only minutes from downtown.

Whether diver hunting from layout boats, walk-in hunting on managed areas for puddle ducks, or just about any scenario in between, the Saginaw Bay region offers some of the finest public waterfowl hunting in the Mississippi Flyway.

Additional information on hunting properties managed by the state is available on the Michigan DNR website. More information on Michigan’s waterfowl hunting, including seasons and regulations, can be found here.

MDNR Waterfowl Page

Illinois River Valley

While driving along the Illinois River, it’s difficult to not look skyward for migrating flocks of ducks and geese. Millions of waterfowl flock to this area annually, attracted by plentiful bays, river bottoms, backwater lakes, and expansive marshes.

Forbes Biological Station staff conduct weekly aerial waterfowl inventories September through January along a stretch of over 200 miles of the Illinois River Valley (they also inventory nearly 275 miles of the nearby Mississippi River). The numbers of birds they observe can often be in the hundreds of thousands.

“The places we survey up and down the valley are stacked right on top of one another,” says Forbes Ecologist Aaron Yetter. “All of these wetlands, refuges, and clubs seem like they take forever to drive to because of the roads leading in and out of them, but as the bird flies, they are only a couple miles apart. It’s basically like that all the way to where the Illinois River meets the Mississippi River upstream of St. Louis.”

The Illinois and Mississippi Rivers form the primary corridor for waterfowl working their way up and down the Mississippi Flyway in this region. Like many other areas, the Illinois River Valley was impacted by heavy rains and flooding earlier this year. “While the flooding has definitely set back vegetation growth, a late burst of food production coupled with the right weather should still provide ample duck-hunting opportunities this year,” says DU Regional Biologist Mike Sertle.

Public hunting is possible on state properties as well as on some national wildlife refuges. Hunting on these public areas is controlled through annual and daily hunt draws for spots including stakes and blinds. It is extremely important to check the rules and regulations for each property as they are not all the same.

Illinois Department of Natural Resources State Fish and Wildlife Areas (SFWA), such as Donnelley-DePue, Marshall, Woodford, Rice Lake, Spring Lake, Anderson Lake, and Sanganois, are well known for excellent waterfowl hunting.

“Woodford, Sanganois, Rice, and Anderson are usually in the top ten statewide for waterfowl harvest,” explains Sertle. “For regular duck season I’d say about 90 percent of the public duck hunting in the Illinois River Valley requires a boat. Walk-in hunting is limited to about a dozen smaller subunits totaling only a few thousand acres out of the tens of thousands of acres of waterfowl management areas.”

The Illinois River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge Complex includes Chautauqua, Emiquon, and Meredosia National Wildlife Refuges (NWR) and their subunits. Emiquon and Chautauqua provide walk-in or boat-in hunting, while the Illinois DNR offers hunting opportunities next to Meredosia. The Nature Conservancy provides waterfowl hunting opportunities through an annual permit application at their Emiquon Preserve adjacent to Emiquon NWR.

Ducks Unlimited is leading the Conserving the Illinois River Legacy Initiative, which combines support from more than a half-dozen partners and federal funding to protect, enhance, or restore 13,000 acres across 19 counties bordering the middle and lower stretches of the Illinois River.

 “Waterfowling has a long and storied history in the valley, and DU wants to help ensure that legacy continues for years to come,” Sertle adds.

Western Kentucky

The western tip of Kentucky (also known as the Purchase Region) is ideally situated near the geographical center of the Mississippi Flyway. This region is surrounded by the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee (Kentucky Lake) Rivers. Remarkable numbers of waterfowl funnel back and forth throughout the area.

Flooded bottomlands along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers draw tens of thousands of ducks and geese at any given time during fall and winter. “The predominant ducks we shoot during a typical hunt are mallards and wood ducks but also other dabblers such as gadwall and green-winged teal,” says Brandon Wilson, a Mossy Oak Pro Staffer who hunts the river bottoms of western Kentucky regularly. “We’ve also been seeing an increasing number of black ducks and quite often more specks than Canada geese in recent years.”

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDFWR) properties Ballard WMA and Boatwright WMA are located along the Ohio River, while Doug Travis WMA and Obion Creek WMA are located farther south in the Mississippi River floodplain.

Hunt units on these WMAs consist of seasonally flooded crops, moist soil units, and brush- and tree-lined sloughs. Depending on water levels, boat-in or walk-in hunting is available for pits and blinds in addition to freelance areas. In addition, Doug Travis WMA offers season-long blind drawings and mobility-impaired access to some blinds.

Hunting by advance application or standby draw for spots not claimed by designated hunters is available. It should be noted that KDFWR will close these bottomland properties if high water levels prevent safe entry to hunting areas by wheeled vehicles on roads. Be sure to check the rules and regulations for each WMA, and keep an eye out for water level announcements.

Hunters with the appropriate big-water duck boats can hunt the main flows of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers by focusing on sloughs, back bays, and islands where waterfowl tend to congregate. While public hunting is possible, it’s important to know where private property boundaries are. Also be aware of controlled areas with restricted access and be mindful of commercial barge traffic.

In middle of the Purchase Region, the northernmost extension of the Gulf Coastal Plain is located at Kaler Bottoms WMA, which has over 1000 acres of wetlands including cypress swamps and some hardwoods open to hunting.  

Kentucky Lake is a large Tennessee River reservoir that forms the eastern edge of the region. The lake has some restricted areas but also offers big-water hunting for many species, divers being the main attraction. Incidentally, Kentucky Lake and nearby Barkley Lake are also known for their outstanding fishing.

“Over on Kentucky Lake a lot of guys do well on divers—mostly goldeneyes but also bluebills, ringnecks, and a few cansvasbacks, which we are seeing more often in the general area now,” adds Wilson.

Often overshadowed by other noted waterfowl hot spots in neighboring states, this part of the Commonwealth of Kentucky should not be ignored.

Arkansas/Louisiana Border

Greenheads dropping through stately oak tops into a remote timber hole is something most waterfowl hunters dream about. The argument could be made that this image is ingrained into the psyche of American waterfowl hunters like no other spectacle. That also applies to hunters who have only experienced it through art, images, or television.

While many states offer access to flooded timber hunting, no region has more public bottomland acreage than Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Vast reaches of bottomland hardwood forest periodically flood throughout winter and spring, when the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, as well as adjacent large rivers such as the Ouachita, rise with heavy rains or runoff.

Ducks are drawn to these bottoms by the millions. While many hunters choose to hunt flooded timber with guides who specialize in this unique form of waterfowl hunting, freelancers willing to do some homework will find plenty of public access on state and federal properties.

Felsenthal NWR and Upper Ouachita NWR in Louisiana are located within an hour’s drive of each other near the Arkansas/Louisiana border.

These immense refuges (Felsenthal is 65,000 acres; Upper Ouachita is 53,000 acres) feature natural depressions dissected by rivers, creeks, sloughs, buttonbush swamps, and lakes throughout expansive bottomland hardwood forests. Born in the Ouachita Mountains in Western Arkansas, the Ouachita River and its tributaries flow through both refuges. Permanent water such as cypress lakes are surrounded by bottomland that either floods naturally, or in the case of Felsenthal, courtesy of the commercial shipping industry’s locks and dams.

“Felsenthal and Upper Ouachita are fairly similar as they are both in the Ouachita river basin. Both encompass the floodplain with predominately bottomland hardwoods,” says U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) wildlife biologist Nick Wirwa. “We’ve learned that bottomland forests do better if they don’t have water on them every year. Of course, we cannot control Mother Nature, so some years we don’t have to flood, but the new management plan calls for flooding Felsenthal with water control every other year.”

Walk-in hunting is possible on both refuges, especially when the bottoms are not flooded. Boat hunters can access the main lakes, and when the bottoms are flooded, access to the timber is fairly straightforward and low tech—simply run the boat up the rivers and creek channels, find a spot, park the boat, and wade into the bottoms.

“Upper Ouachita doesn’t have water control, but at Felsenthal, during even years, we’ll start putting water in the bottoms mid-December and incrementally raise it three feet by mid-January,” Wirwa explains. “Even during the driest years hunters will find good opportunities on the 15,000-acre main pool, which tends to hold birds regardless—including a variety of diver species.”

While there are duck hunting opportunities throughout the season at both refuges, if you want to see the big show, timing is crucial.

“If I had to pick dates for somebody to come here, I’d suggest early to mid-January,” says Wirwa. “Picture ducks working into the timber while standing in waist-deep water. That’s what it’s like when the bottoms are flooded.