By Paul Davis, WF360 Mississippi Alluvial Valley Migration Editor
While hunters in northern and west-central areas of Missouri have enjoyed generally good duck hunting throughout the season, those in the southeastern portion of the state continue to struggle with low numbers of scattered, stale birds. Periods of warm, unseasonable weather have also hampered hunting and duck movement.
“I wish I had better news, but it’s been a tough, tough season,” says Andy Raedeke, lead waterfowl biologist for the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). “I don’t remember a season like this one in terms of difficulty.”
Raedeke’s thoughts are echoed by MDC biologist Kevin Brunke, area manager at the highly popular Otter Slough Conservation Area in Stoddard County. “We went from our second-best season on record last year to the worst I’ve seen, for sure,” Brunke laments.
Raedeke calls the difference this year “baffling.” He notes that there was a significant push of birds into the state around Veterans Day, but in the six weeks since, there have been few new birds on the move. A lack of any strong cold fronts has also failed to move ducks around the state.
Statewide survey tallies this week showed 755,000 ducks, 89 percent of which are mallards, according to MDC Wetland Ecologist Frank Nelson. This number is down from the survey taken two weeks ago but is on par with the five- and 10-year averages.
“We are now on the backside of the migration peak,” Nelson says.
A big problem for hunters, especially in the southeastern section of the state, is that the birds are scattered widely and, worse yet, they’ve been there for a long time.
Many hunters speculate that flooded crops in the north are holding birds there longer, but Raedeke isn’t sure. “There is substantially more flooded corn than five years ago,” he says, “but it’s about the same as last year, so I don’t see that as a factor.”
Nelson agrees that northern habitats may not be to blame for the lack of birds in the southeast. “Going into the season, the habitat looked so good everywhere, even in southeast Missouri,” he says. “I can’t say I’ve ever seen quite as much of a disparity in numbers from one part of the state to the next as we’ve seen this year.”
Such disparity can be seen on Otter Slough and on Ten Mile Pond Conservation Area, about 40 miles to the east. Otter Slough typically holds around 50,000 ducks in late December, but Brunke counted only 12,430 this week. However, Ten Mile Pond area manager Tyler McCann counted nearly 42,000 ducks, closer to the average for this time of year.
Another disparate pair has been Duck Creek Conservation Area and adjacent Mingo National Wildlife Refuge. Duck Creek area manager Nicky Walker counted just under 17,000 ducks this week, while right next door, Mingo biologist Brad Pendley recorded more than 55,000 ducks.
Daily birds-per-hunter averages have been far below normal on all four areas, although Mingo’s Pool 8 timber has been open only a couple of weeks and hunter success is steadily improving.
Stale birds, the nemesis of all duck hunters, has become the most talked about problem this season. “Once the birds have been around a while, they learn and they become more difficult to hunt,” Raedeke says. Brunke believes that the ducks are feeding mostly at night and simply not moving around in the daylight when hunters are out.
In the far southern reaches of the Bootheel, Dirty Rice Outfitters owner J.D. Driskill says he has had to make changes to keep his clients in birds. “We move and stay mobile,” he says. “These are the same birds we’ve had for a while, and they know where they can go and when. It’s all Mother Nature’s game, and they’ll move when they want to.”
Difficult conditions won’t keep Raedeke at home this season, however. “A full moon and mild weather isn’t a recipe for optimism, and this will probably be the worst season I’ve ever had,” he says, “but you won’t get anything if you don’t go. You just have to watch for days with decent weather and good hunting conditions.”
Raedeke says that ducks in southeast Missouri tend to bounce around a lot between that region, Arkansas, and Tennessee. With a good, strong cold front, he believes that Show-Me State hunters still could see a big push of birds from the northern portion of the state or those other states before the Middle Zone closes on January 6.
“The season’s not over, so I wouldn’t hang it up yet,” Raedeke says.
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Paul Davis is a writer and photographer with a lifelong passion for the outdoors, including waterfowl, turkey, and deer hunting. He resides in southeast Missouri and will be providing migration, habitat, and hunting information for Mo., Ark., Tenn., Miss., and Ky., through the 2017-2018 waterfowl season