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By Wade Bourne

The Mississippi Flyway offers a wide variety of public waterfowling destinations from northern Minnesota to south Louisiana. The overview of these five general areas provides a starting point for your next unguided adventure.

Minnesota Rice Lakes

One of the grandest traditions in waterfowling is paddling a canoe into one of northern Minnesota's wild rice lakes or marshes, tossing out a few decoys, and then pushing into thick vegetation and waiting for ducks arrive. Wild rice is packed with protein, and ducks vigorously consume this natural food source to fatten up for migration, or if hunters are lucky, for the table.

A state survey has documented wild rice stands on some 2,000 lakes, ranging from small and obscure to large and famous. Examples of the latter are Lake Winnibigoshish northwest of Grand Rapids and Leech Lake southeast of Bemidji. Shallow bays along these lakes' backwaters grow bountiful wild rice crops, which in turn attract large concentrations of ducks in September and October.

In addition, most wild rice lakes are surrounded by state or national forest land, so hunters can hunt where they desire if they can gain access to the water. Many of these lakes typically don't have boat ramps, so hunters must portage their boat from their vehicle to the water. This means most hunters use small boats without motors, typically canoes and kayaks.

"These lakes are shallow and clogged with vegetation, so you can't use a motor because it would bog down," says Steve Cordts, waterfowl staff specialist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). "This year's wild rice crop looks very good in west-central Minnesota, especially around Bemidji. However, the rice crop is poor to the east toward Grand Rapids. This makes scouting essential to find where wild rice is thick and ducks are abundant.

"The main early ducks on the wild rice lakes are teal and wood ducks, followed by mallards and ring-necked ducks later in the season," Cordts adds. "The teal and woodies usually don't hang around more than a week after the season opens (this year on Sept. 24). But as these ducks leave, mallards and ringnecks take their place. Our ringnecks hit peak numbers around mid-October, then they're usually gone by early November. And mallards will hang around until the rice lakes freeze over."

For more information about hunting ducks on Minnesota's wild rice lakes, visit the Minnesota DNR website at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/.

South Shore of Lake Erie, Ohio

The southwest shore of Lake Erie is an iconic waterfowling area, which attracts large numbers of ducks and Canada geese each fall. Historic gunning clubs and public hunting areas dot the marshes along the banks of this Great Lake. Public hunting, which is in high demand, is closely regulated by the Ohio DNR. Still, hunters who plan ahead and are persistent in their scouting can find places where they can successfully ply their trade.

Two of the best public hunting areas in this region are the 2,200-acre Magee Marsh Wildlife Area near Oak Harbor and the 3,200-acre Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area near Sandusky. These intensively managed areas attract large numbers of waterfowl. Controlled hunt permits for Magee Marsh are allotted before the season each year by computer lottery. Hunting on Pickerel Creek is determined by a daily on-site drawing (except on opening day). For more information about hunting opportunities on Magee Marsh and Pickerel Creek Wildlife Areas, visit the Ohio DNR website at www.ohiodnr.gov.

The Ohio DNR also maintains several smaller waterfowl areas where hunters can hunt any day, all season long. These include Mallard Club Marsh State Wildlife Area (402 acres near Oak Harbor), Metzger Marsh (500 acres near Oak Harbor), and Willow Point State Wildlife Area (620 acres near Sandusky). Justin Harrington of the Ohio DNR says these areas receive heavy hunting pressure early in the season. However, hunting pressure diminishes later in the season, and as new birds arrive, these areas can provide high-quality shooting. For more information about these wildlife areas, contact the Ohio DNR District 2 office at 419-424-5000.

Another public-hunting option for Ohio waterfowlers is the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) Complex near Oak Harbor. Consisting mainly of coastal marsh habitat, Ottawa NWR has some 20 blinds scattered on small ponds throughout the refuge. Permits to hunt on the refuge are issued through a lottery administered by the Ohio DNR. Hunters who wish to apply should visit the Ottawa NWR website at www.fws.gov/refuge/ottawa, and click on the DNR link.

Waterfowlers can also hunt along Lake Erie's southern shoreline below the high water mark. This is layout boat and bluebill territory. Hunting is prohibited or restricted in certain zones (especially in Sandusky Bay), so hunters must check local regulations before striking out to hunt from shore. Also, they should be aware of the dangers of hunting open water where storms and strong winds can quickly turn Lake Erie into a monster.

Mid-Mississippi River Valley

The Mid-Mississippi River Valley routinely draws some of the largest fall and winter concentrations of waterfowl in North America. This region includes the Confluence Floodplain where the Missouri and Illinois Rivers flow into the Mississippi River just a few miles north of St. Louis, Missouri. Then, approximately 150 miles to the south, the Ohio River merges with the Mississippi. These rivers serve as funnels for ducks and geese migrating down the Mississippi Flyway.

The Mid-Mississippi River Valley contains numerous public areas where waterfowl hunting is frequently high in quality. For instance, Missouri maintains several waterfowl management areas in this region that are noted for good shooting. They include the Ted Shanks, B.K. Leach, Bob Brown, Duck Creek, and Ten Mile Pond Conservation Areas. Hunting on these areas is available through drawings both in the preseason and also on-site each morning. Details for reservations and area maps are provided on the Missouri Department of Conservation's website at www.mdc.mo.gov.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) maintains an active waterfowl management program on the Illinois side of the Confluence area. Three areas in particular provide good hunting, but blinds are allocated by drawing on a three-year basis, thus limiting opportunities for freelancers. These include Batchtown, Stump Lake, and Calhoun Point State Fish and Wildlife Areas. For more information, visit the Illinois DNR website at www.dnr.illinois.gov.

Better freelance prospects exist in southern Illinois on the Oakwood Bottoms Greentree Reservoir and on seasonally flooded wetlands along the Cache River, the Big Muddy River, and in the Middle Mississippi River Wetlands project. The Cache River bottoms are administered by the Illinois DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Oakwood and Middle Mississippi River projects are managed by the U.S. Forest Service's Mississippi Bluffs Ranger Station in Jonesboro, Illinois.

Oakwood Bottoms is an older waterfowl area that is being rejuvenated with land management practices that are yielding impressive results in terms of duck use. The Big Muddy River and other Forest Service wetlands provide exceptional hunting when high water floods the river bottoms and adjacent low-lying areas. To learn more about hunting on Oakwood Bottoms, visit www.fs.usda.gov/shawnee. For more information and maps of the Middle Mississippi River Wetlands project, call the ranger station at 618-833-8576.

The gems of Kentucky's waterfowl program are the Ballard Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and nearby Boatwright WMA, both near the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. These areas—totaling nearly 15,000 acres—are managed primarily for ducks, and they feature a broad range of public hunting opportunities. Blinds on the Ballard WMA are allotted in two-day blocks by a preseason drawing. No-shows provide limited slots for hunters on a daily basis during the season.

The adjacent Boatwright WMA is less structured and offers blinds and boat-in and wade-in hunting options for freelancers. Hunters must check in each morning, and hunter numbers are limited on certain ponds to control hunting pressure. However, hunters who show up at Boatwright are rarely denied a hunting slot.

Ballard and Boatwright WMAs together sustain an average of around 100,000 ducks during the winter, with the seasonal peak reaching nearly double this number. For more information about hunting on Ballard and Boatwright WMAs, visit www.fw.ky.gov.

Tennessee River Valley

The Tennessee River flows from east Tennessee through north Alabama, touches Mississippi, then loops back north through west Tennessee and Kentucky. This long waterway features nine major impoundments and adjoining lowlands, which provide important wintering habitat for hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese. These waterfowl concentrate on federal and state refuges, wildlife management units, and other areas where food and sanctuary are available. These areas also provide a broad range of public hunting opportunities.

Perhaps the best is Kentucky Lake, which flows south to north from the Pickwick Lake tailrace to the Kentucky Dam. This 184-square-mile lake has numerous bays, islands, and adjoining lowlands where public hunting is available. The Tennessee NWR near Springville annually attracts large numbers of mallards, gadwalls, teal, and other ducks. These birds provide good hunting opportunities on nearby wildlife management areas operated by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA). Some areas offer hunting from fixed blinds only, while others are open to freelance hunters. Kentucky Lake itself is also open to public hunting and can offer quality shooting in years when aquatic vegetation is abundant in shallow bays and around main lake islands.

Other good bets on the Tennessee River include Wheeler Lake in the vicinity of Wheeler NWR near Decatur, Alabama; grassy flats and bays on Guntersville Lake; and Chickamauga Lake near Chattanooga, Tennessee, especially around the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and adjacent waterfowl management areas.

For more information about public hunting areas in Tennessee and Alabama, visit the TWRA website at www.tn.gov/twra and the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources website at www.outdooralabama.com.

Louisiana/Mississippi/Alabama Gulf Coast

The Gulf Coast of the southern United States is one of North America's most important wintering grounds for waterfowl. In most years, the coastal marshes of Louisiana hold half of the wintering duck population in the Mississippi Flyway.Other Gulf coastal states hold lesser, but still significant numbers of ducks and geese. In total, they comprise a huge resource and an equally large opportunity for waterfowlers.

Louisiana is the kingpin of this lineup. Scattered along its coastline are a number of federal refuges and wildlife management areas that cover hundreds of thousands of acres and harbor millions of waterfowl. Many of these areas are open to public hunting under a broad framework of regulations.

Some of the best of these areas are Atchafalaya Delta WMA (27,000 acres of marsh) in St. Mary Parish; Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA (33,488 acres) near Houma; Pass A Loutre WMA (115,000 acres) south of Venice; Biloxi WMA (42,747 acres) in St. Bernard Parish; and Pearl River WMA (35,032 acres) near Slidell.

Hunters should research each of these areas thoroughly before planning a hunt. Access varies from drive-in to boat access only. Special regulations apply in terms of boat restrictions, hunting days, etc. A good way to start is to visit the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website at www.wlf.louisiana.gov. This site offers directions to WMAs, maps, special rules, and other useful information. Then hunters should contact area managers and wildlife officers to learn about hunting opportunities, hunting pressure, special equipment needs, permits, and other specifics.

Mississippi has limited public waterfowl hunting along its stretch of Gulf Coast real estate. Two of the best options are Pascagoula WMA and the adjoining Ward Bayou WMA along the southern reaches of the Pascagoula River. These WMAs encompass some 50,000 acres and include numerous natural lakes adjacent to the river. Also, seasonal flooding of adjacent bottomland hardwood forest attracts wood ducks, gadwalls, and other dabbling ducks.

In addition, Mississippi has a separate agency that manages most of the state's coastal natural resources: the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. This agency regulates public use of several coastal marsh areas and also the Mississippi Sound, where hunting opportunities for diving ducks are abundant.

And one more public hunting resource is the Grand Bay NWR, which overlaps the Mississippi-Alabama line along the coast. This large refuge offers waterfowl hunting in coastal marsh habitats.

Just to the east, Alabama has some good public hunting in the upper Mobile Bay area. Five rivers converge here to provide thousands of acres of waterfowl habitat starting with bottomland hardwoods in the upper delta area, progressing southward to more marsh habitat, and finally into open water where Mobile Bay flows southward into the Gulf. In the upper delta, wood ducks are the primary duck species. In the mid-delta, teal, gadwalls, and other puddle ducks predominate. And in the open bay, scaup, redheads, and canvasbacks are the most prevalent species.

The upper delta contains the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and W.L. Holland Wildlife Management Areas (totaling 51,040 acres). These areas feature a mix of swamps, bogs, sloughs, and small lakes. Hunting is allowed under general statewide regulations (those hunting off the bank must have a WMA permit.)

Also, diving duck hunting is popular in the Mississippi Sound near the coastal community of Bayou La Batre. Hunters here typically shoot from layout boats or off small islands in the Sound. One additional note: this year the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources established the new Apalachee Refuge Area between the Battleship Parkway (causeway) and the Bayway (I-10 bridge). This area is now off-limits to hunters. Also, changes were made in days and hours when waterfowl hunting is allowed in the Mobile-Tensas Delta Waterfowl Management Zone.