By John Pollmann
The Central Flyway, stretching from the Canadian Arctic to the Texas Gulf Coast, offers tremendous public waterfowl hunting opportunities. But it's crucial to be in the right place at the right time when ducks and geese are funneling through this vast flyway. The following are five public waterfowling hotspots where you can meet the migration head on this season.
North Dakota - Devils Lake Wetlands Management District
With more than 50,000 acres of public hunting access, the Devils Lake Wetland Management District in northeast North Dakota is a freelance hunter's paradise.
"Thanks to quality nesting habitat in the area, there are a good number of locally produced birds that provide opportunities in the early season," says Mike Szymanksi, migratory bird specialist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. "The amount of water in the area and available food sources are what attract migrating waterfowl throughout the fall. It is probably one of the most consistent areas in the state each year in terms of duck and goose numbers."
Spanning more than 200,000 acres, Devils Lake is a vast staging area for many of those birds and is open to the public. Hunters can target bluebills and canvasbacks on the open water and mallards in the flooded dead timber and sheltered backwater areas.
"Scouting is essential for success on Devils Lake," says longtime North Dakota waterfowl hunter Joe Fladeland, "and so is a large boat capable of handling the big water. You don't want to mess around on Devils Lake when it comes to safety."
In addition, thousands of acres of private lands in the Devils Lake region are open to the public through the state's Private Lands Open to Sportsmen (PLOTS) program. For more information about waterfowl hunting in the Devils Lake area, visit gf.nd.gov and tourism.devilslakend.com.
South Dakota - Mickelson Memorial Marsh
The 1,650-acre Mickelson Memorial Marsh in east-central South Dakota was dedicated in 1995 in memory of Governor George S. Mickelson, who died tragically in a plane crash two years earlier.
"Governor Mickelson was an avid waterfowl hunter and very interested in conservation. He often hunted this marsh with his sons," says former South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks Secretary John Cooper. "The state partnered with Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to work with landowners to create what I think is a public-hunting gem in the governor's honor."
Although this area receives considerable hunting pressure, a shallow-draft boat and mud motor can help waterfowlers find uncrowded places to hunt. A good pair of binoculars and a handheld GPS also come in handy when it's time to scout hidden pockets of open water, which are favored loafing areas for a variety of duck species, including mallards, wood ducks, pintails, gadwalls, and blue-winged teal. A commemorative marker on the marsh's southeast corner is a must see.
Nonresident waterfowl hunters who wish to hunt ducks in South Dakota must apply for a limited number of permits chosen by lottery prior to the season. For more information on this and other public hunting opportunities in South Dakota, visit gfp.sd.gov.
Nebraska - Rainwater Basin
The numerous shallow wetlands in south-central Nebraska's Rainwater Basin attract thousands of migrating waterfowl each fall. The region also contains more than 75 public hunting areas, including state-owned wildlife management areas, Ducks Unlimited projects, and those managed by the Rainwater Basin Wetland Management District.
Although water levels are managed on some properties, adequate rainfall is key to producing the wetland conditions favored by the diverse mix of waterfowl that frequent this region. Late-summer rains, in particular, can turn Rainwater Basin wetlands into an early-season buffet for blue-winged teal.
"Wetland conditions in the Rainwater Basic will change dramatically from year to year, so monitoring water levels is crucial to finding those areas holding mallards, pintails, teal, and shovelers," says state waterfowl biologist Mark Vrtiska.
For more information about public hunting opportunities in the Rainwater Basin, visit outdoornebraska.ne.gov.
Kansas - Large Reservoirs near Cheyenne Bottoms
When it comes to public waterfowl hunting opportunities in Kansas, Cheyenne Bottoms Wildlife Area is often the first place that comes to mind, and for good reason. The nearly 20,000-acre wetland complex attracts droves of migrating waterfowl. With these kinds of bird numbers comes increased hunting pressure, but nearby Cedar Bluff and Glen Elder Reservoirs and Wilson Lake provide excellent public hunting opportunities that are often underutilized by waterfowlers.
"Scouting is an absolute must to stay on top of water levels and bird concentrations on the big waters, which require a big boat," says local hunter Zach White. "I recommend at least an 18-foot V-hull to safely handle the waves."
Large decoy spreads and aggressive calling are the norm for attracting big flocks of mallards, which arrive with colder temperatures. Pheasant and quail hunting can be found on state-managed Walk-In Hunting Areas in the region as well.
For more information about public hunting opportunities as well as updates on water levels and waterfowl numbers, visit ksoutdoors.com.
Oklahoma - Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area
Prior to being drained in the early 20th century, the flood-prone area known as Hackberry Flat in southwest Oklahoma attracted scores of waterfowl and hunters, including President Theodore Roosevelt. In the late 1990s, a host of conservation partners, including Ducks Unlimited, helped restore a sprawling complex of managed wetlands and adjacent upland habitat in this area, and today the Hackberry Flat Wildlife Management Area (WMA) again serves as a prime migration destination for waterfowl while also providing public access for hunters.
"A pair of waders, a bag of decoys, and a short walk from a levee are all that is required to set up on one of the area's many islands," says Hackberry Flat WMA biologist Kelvin Schoonover. "Shallow-draft boats and mud motors also open up new hunting opportunities when water conditions allow."
Green-winged teal, pintails, shovelers, and mallards are common on this WMA, and hunters may also see diving ducks, Canada geese, and even sandhill cranes.
Waterfowl surveys are conducted throughout the waterfowl season by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. For updates on waterfowl numbers as well as general hunting information, visit wildlifedepartment.com.
Fantastic waterfowling action can be found on public land across North America. The following highlights five destinations for each flyway to help you plan your next hunt.