Five Public Land Hotspots in the Central Flyway for 2021

© Avery Outdoors

Among the public hunting opportunities found throughout the Central Flyway are those that bear the mark of Ducks Unlimited volunteers and fellow supporters of wetlands conservation. Give a tip of your hat to their work—and bag a few birds—by visiting the following five remarkable public hunting destinations this season.

Manitoba – Dr. Frank Baldwin Wildlife Management Area

Located on the southeast side of Lake Manitoba, the Dr. Frank Baldwin Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is a destination for those who enjoy hunting canvasbacks, redheads, and other diving ducks in a classic marsh setting.

Dr. Baldwin, a longtime contributor to Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) and former member of the DUC board of directors, passed away in 2011. His passionate support of wetlands conservation spanned more than 30 years, during which time he placed an emphasis on educating and mentoring young hunters. The WMA was recently renamed to honor these and many more of his contributions.

Come fall, Baldwin loved tolling diving ducks over a set of his own hand-carved and painted decoys in that very marsh, making the tribute most fitting, says recently retired DUC CEO Dr. Karla Guyn.

"His favorite waterfowling areas were the ‘diver' marshlands surrounding Manitoba's great lakes, so to see an area he was so attached to named for him now is particularly special," Guyn says.

Locally produced ducks will provide early-season hunting opportunities, says Dr. Scott Stephens, DUC director of regional operations for the prairies and Boreal, and the action only increases as ducks begin to migrate into the area throughout the fall.

"Hunters will likely encounter puddle ducks, too, but the divers are a main attraction," Stephens says.

For more information, visit https://www.gov.mb.ca/fish-wildlife/wildlife/wma/index.html.

Montana – Big Lake Wildlife Management Area

Big Lake WMA encompasses 4,400 acres of wetland and grassland habitats that provide high-quality waterfowl and upland bird hunting opportunities just minutes west of Billings, Montana.

The wetlands at Big Lake and in the surrounding area are critical for staging waterfowl during the fall migration, says Bob Sanders, DU manager of conservation programs in Montana.

"And many of the improvements and expansions that have been made at Big Lake WMA were made possible through the contributions of DU volunteers over the years," Sanders says. "They have absolutely played a critical role."

Wetland conditions can vary greatly from year to year, which impacts hunting conditions and waterfowl numbers. When the region has received enough precipitation, expect to see mallards, pintails, gadwalls, Canada geese, and many other species utilizing Big Lake WMA and nearby Hailstone and Grass Lake National Wildlife Refuges. Bring your walking boots to take advantage of the sharp-tailed grouse hunting available in the surrounding uplands or on any of the nearby private parcels enrolled in the state's Block Management Program.

For more information, visit https://myfwp.mt.gov/fwpPub/landsMgmt/siteDetail.action?lmsId=39753790

South Dakota – Odessa Lake Game Production Area

The wetlands and grasslands found across north-central South Dakota represent some of the best duck breeding and nesting habitat remaining in North America, and there is no greater champion of this portion of the "Duck Factory" than John "Coop" Cooper.

Cooper's commitment to conservation is highlighted by his more than 20 years of service as a federal game warden and 12 years as the secretary of South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. Cooper and his wife, Vera, are DU Major Sponsors and active volunteers at the state and local levels.

To recognize John and Vera's work on behalf of wetlands and waterfowl conservation, DU hosted a tribute event in 2021, raising over $400,000 for use on habitat projects in the Prairie Pothole Region. A cairn and bronze plaque honoring the tribute now stands on Odessa Lake Game Production Area, a 450-acre wetland complex near Eureka in McPherson County that was enhanced and protected through a partnership between DU and South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks.

"Hunters who come to Odessa Lake or any of the other public hunting areas in this part of South Dakota will have opportunities to harvest a mixed bag of ducks—mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, and more—especially early in the season," says Terry Kostinec, DU director of development for South Dakota and Nebraska. "As the season progresses, bird numbers continue to build until the region's shallow wetlands freeze."

For more information visit https://gfp.sd.gov/hunt-accessible-areas/

Nebraska – Doug Frey Wetlands Complex

The rivers and wetlands of western Nebraska provide vital staging habitat for migrating waterfowl, sandhill cranes, and many other species of birds, but the public hunting opportunities in the region are in relatively short supply. That makes the work of Platte River Basin Environments (PRBE) all the more important.

"Clive Ostenberg, who left the gift to start our work, wanted it to make a difference in the health of the natural landscape of western Nebraska, where he grew up and hunted, and he wanted it to benefit the public," says PRBE Director Hod Kosman, who has worked with Ducks Unlimited and other partners to identify, purchase, and protect over 30,000 acres of habitat in the Nebraska Panhandle.

Among those properties protected by PRBE is the Doug Frey Wetlands Complex, located just off the North Platte River near Bridgeport. The 680-acre public hunting area features a number of shallow wetlands that are a popular stopping point for thousands of migrating waterfowl and other birds throughout the year.

"It is just a beautiful piece of ground made all that much better because it is open for the public to enjoy," Kosman says.

The wetlands are named for Doug Frey, who has generously contributed to many efforts to conserve wetlands and other important wildlife habitats along the Platte. Doug and his wife, Allison, first contributed to DU at the local chapter level. They became Life Sponsors in 2007 and are now DU Gold Legacy Sponsors, Grand Slam Life Sponsors, DU Canada Life Sponsors, and DUMAC Diamond Life Sponsors. They are also members of the John E. Walker III Society. Doug serves on DU's board of directors and is a Wetlands America Trust trustee.

For more information about this property, visit http://outdoornebraska.gov/hunting/.

Wetland Development Units, Oklahoma

Photo © Michael Furtman

Oklahoma may not be the first state that comes to mind when thinking of waterfowl hunting on public ground, but there are tremendous opportunities for a variety of waterfowl species on land across the state that is accessible to the freelance hunter. While the state’s river systems and reservoirs receive a lot of attention, the intensively managed Wetland Development Units are perhaps most popular with waterfowl and hunters.

“The diversity of wetlands and variety of food available on these units are what help attract migrating waterfowl,” explains J.D. Ridge with the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. “For hunters planning on visiting one of the units, the best thing to do is stay on top of what is happening in that specific area in terms of bird numbers and the weather. Call ahead and do some homework.”

Mallards are a top target of hunters at the different Wetland Development Units, but Ridge advises to be prepared to take advantage of other options, especially if the temperatures drop.

“A cold snap will ice things up in the shallow wetlands where mallards are feeding and loafing pretty quickly, so it is wise to be prepared to hunt larger water,” says Ridge. “The good news is a hunter is likely to see a wider variety of waterfowl species on these bigger wetlands and lakes.”

For more information about hunting in Oklahoma, visit https://www.wildlifedepartment.com/