By Wade Bourne
Roughly 40 percent of North America's ducks and geese follow the Mississippi Flyway, which serves as a vast funnel for migrating waterfowl from the Canadian Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico. This flyway provides some of the continent's best waterfowling, and plenty of good hunting is available on public land. Following are five Mississippi Flyway public hunting hotspots where waterfowl are plentiful and opportunities to hunt them are available to one and all.
Green Bay, Wisconsin
Wisconsin's Green Bay ranks among the Midwest's top waterfowl hunting destinations, and public hunting opportunities abound on its broad, open waters and adjacent coastal marshes. According to Jeff Pritzl, district wildlife supervisor with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, peak numbers of diving ducks-including lesser scaup, canvasbacks and redheads-typically occur around Halloween, but good diver hunting generally continues through Thanksgiving. Pritzl adds that diving duck numbers have increased on Green Bay in response to an abundance of zebra and quagga mussels that invaded Lake Michigan a couple of decades ago. In the 1970s and 1980s, Green Bay lost much of the submerged aquatic vegetation that provided an important food source for diving ducks, so many of the birds went elsewhere. But now the ducks are back.
"Most diver hunting on Green Bay is done on open water, and this should be undertaken only by hunters with the right equipment (i.e., big seaworthy boats and dependable motors) and experience hunting big water," Pritzl cautions. "The bay can be very dangerous when the wind kicks up, and it's no place for ill-equipped, inexperienced hunters."
Good dabbler hunting can be found on the Green Bay West Shores Wildlife Area, a scattering of public units that stretch from the city of Green Bay to Marinette. "This area contains the largest coastal marshes found on the Great Lakes," Pritzl says. "The Green Bay West Shores Wildlife Area has several thousand acres of shallow marshes where mallards, teal, and other dabbling ducks are abundant. These units are open to public hunting throughout the season with few restrictions. Also, the West Shores marshes are very shallow, so hunters can wade in. They don't even need a boat."
One other note: Wisconsin is divided into three waterfowl hunting zones with different seasons in each zone. Green Bay is included in the Southern Zone and opens a week later than the northern half of the state. This allows hunters to take advantage of bigger concentrations of ducks that occur here as fall progresses.
For more information about waterfowl hunting opportunities on Green Bay, visit the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources website at dnr.wi.gov.
Goose Pond and Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Areas, Indiana
Located on the eastern edge of the Mississippi Flyway, Indiana is not generally known for waterfowl hunting, but the Hoosier State has its share of high-quality public hunting opportunities. Two hotspots are Goose Pond Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA) near Linton and Kankakee FWA near North Judson.
Goose Pond FWA is an 8,064-acre wetland complex where moist-soil management produces an abundance of smartweed, barnyard grasses, and other early successional plants that produce seeds relished by feeding ducks.
"When our duck numbers reach their peak in late November and early December, we'll hold tens of thousands of birds," reports Goose Pond FWA property manager Travis Stoelting. "And we'll have a diversity of species: gadwalls, teal, wood ducks, and of course a lot of mallards." Also, our local Canada goose flock is growing," Stoelting continues. "We're seeing more white-fronted geese to augment our Canadas. Goose Pond FWA is emerging as a good goose hunting area."
All hunting spots at Goose Pond FWA are assigned by lottery. Hunters can apply online for preseason reservations, or they can show up on-site and take their chances in a daily draw.
Hunters are assigned to a specific unit on Goose Pond, and they can set up and hunt anywhere within the unit. "Except for opening weekend, almost all hunters get a spot almost every day," Stoelting notes. "We have excellent hunting here. Last year our hunters took nearly 4,000 ducks."
Just upstate, Kankakee FWA covers 5,000 acres, consisting of a combination of natural wetlands, flooded timber, and flooded agricultural fields. "Kankakee is really diversified in its habitat types," says property manager Justin Lynton. "Hunters can pick the type of habitat they want to hunt."
Hunting spots are assigned both through online drawings and an on-site lottery each morning. Hunting is allowed every day of the season, although hunting hours are varied to keep the ducks from becoming patterned. Virtually all hunting is from permanent blinds. Forty blinds are available, and hunters are provided with boats and paddles to access them. However, hunters must bring their own decoys, life jackets, and other personal gear.
"We usually hold a peak of 20,000 to 25,000 ducks on our rest areas," Lynton says. "And our hunters have pretty good luck, especially those who are drawn in the first 15 or so slots."
For more information about hunting on Goose Pond and Kankakee FWAs, visit the Indiana Department of Natural Resources website at in.gov/dnr.
Guntersville Lake, Alabama
Guntersville Lake in northeastern Alabama is also far from the heart of the Mississippi Flyway, but this reservoir attracts tens of thousands of ducks each winter. Encompassing 69,000 surface acres, Guntersville Lake stretches for 75 miles along the Tennessee River. Much of the lake is shallow, with abundant aquatic vegetation such as hydrilla and milfoil. Both puddle ducks and divers congregate here to feed on these plants as well as in flooded cropland on adjacent wildlife management areas.
"No question, Guntersville Lake is far and away the best duck hunting spot in Alabama. There's no close second," says Jud Easterwood, wildlife biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. "The gadwall is the lake's bread-and-butter duck, and we attract large numbers of canvasbacks, redheads, lesser scaup, and ring-necked ducks. We also have mallards, wood ducks, black ducks, pintails, and a few other puddle duck species."
Easterwood adds that much of the lake is open to public hunting. Hunting pressure can be heavy, especially on opening weekend. However, hunters can still find places to set up if they scout properly and have the right equipment.
"Many waterfowlers hunt from boat blinds that have mud motors so they can run back in the shallows where the vegetation is thick," Easterwood says. "Others set up on the points of islands or walk in and hunt from the bank. Just about all hunting methods are practiced here."
Three wildlife management areas border Guntersville Lake: Crow Creek WMA and Raccoon Creek WMA near Stevenson and Mud Creek WMA near Hollywood. There are also two waterfowl rest areas: Crow Creek and North Sauty state refuges near Stevenson and Scottsboro, respectively.
For more information about duck hunting on Guntersville Lake and its surrounding WMAs, visit the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website at outdooralabama.com.
Dave Donaldson Black River Wildlife Management Area, Arkansas
It is difficult to pinpoint just one "top" public waterfowl hunting area in Arkansas. The east-central portion of this state hosts the largest wintering population of mallards in the world, and high-quality duck hunting is the norm rather than the exception on several well-managed public hunting areas here.
The most famous of these is Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area south of Stuttgart. However, lesser known WMAs offer duck hunting of equal quality with less hunting pressure. A good example is Dave Donaldson Black River WMA in northeast Arkansas near Corning. This WMA encompasses 25,510 acres, consisting mostly of bottomland hardwood forest. When seasonal rains cause the Black River to spill over into adjacent lowlands, ducks arrive in huge numbers.
"I'd say this area draws more than 100,000 ducks when the water spreads out through the timber," says Zack Yancey, biologist with the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission (AGFC). "Because of this abundance, we have a lot of hunting pressure. But if they keep looking, most hunters can find a spot where they can work some ducks."
Yancey adds that the hunting is best when the Black River water level climbs above eight feet on the Corning river gauge, and river stages above 11 feet are ideal. "Most hunters here hunt with johnboats," Yancey explains. "You can go anywhere you want with a 25-horsepower outboard."
Yancey reminds hunters that shooting is allowed only until noon on Dave Donaldson Black River WMA, and boats must vacate the area by 1 p.m. Also, hunters must obtain a "Sweet 16" WMA permit to hunt this and 15 other Arkansas WMAs. For more information, visit agfc.com.
Atchafalaya Delta Wildlife Management Area, Louisiana
Atchafalaya Delta WMA encompasses 137,695 acres on the Louisiana Gulf Coast, approximately 25 miles southwest of Morgan City. This WMA includes the mouths of the Atchafalaya River and the adjacent Wax Lake Outlet. Most of this area consists of open water in Atchafalaya Bay, but also includes some 27,000 acres of coastal marsh.
"This is one of the few places along the Louisiana coastline where freshwater marsh is actually building, and the vegetation is particularly attractive to ducks," says Larry Reynolds, waterfowl study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF).
"There is sediment building up from both the Atchafalaya River and the Wax Lake Outlet, and the marsh is pushing farther into the Gulf each year," Reynolds explains. "And this situation is attracting a lot of birds. Green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, and gadwalls are our main ducks, and there's also some very good canvasback hunting late in the season. Hunting can be outstanding for those who scout and learn where the ducks are."
However, Reynolds adds one caveat. "Hunting pressure is pretty high on this WMA, and I get many complaints about increased disturbance from boats with surface-drive motors," he says. "There is a balance between access and disturbance. When there are a lot of boats running in a given area, it scares the ducks away."
For this reason, the LDWF has established a series of limited-access areas where hunters must go "motorless" by paddling, poling, or wading. Reynolds says these areas were set up to limit disturbance and to reward hunters who are willing to work a little harder for their birds.
"In the last three to four years, the average harvest per hunter on these limited-access areas has been nearly one duck higher than on the rest of the WMA," Reynolds says. "So this would indicate that restricting disturbance is helping to achieve higher-quality hunting."
Reynolds adds that another option is to hunt from a boat blind in open water. "Many hunters have outfitted their boats with blinds and mud motors so they can hunt out on the shallow flats where ducks like to rest," he says. "This is how they avoid the crowds. So there's a lot of room out on the open bay."
For more information about hunting on Atchafalaya Delta WMA, visit wlf.louisiana.gov.
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.