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Finding ducks not an easy task

Ducks have to make a living like the rest of us. Depending on the season of the year, and the time of day, their activity ranges from breeding, nesting, and raising their young to migrating, feeding, loafing and roosting.

Where ducks do these things is sometimes predictable and sometimes not. It's where ducks make their living during the hunting season that keeps duck hunters guessing.

Feeding areas Although some hunting is done around loafing and roosting areas, most hunters hunt feeding areas. And, during the hunting season, ducks are attracted to three basic kinds of feeding areas - flooded crops, greentree reservoirs, and moist soil units.

Ducks enjoy cereal like most of us. Corn and rice are highly preferred. I'm sure they would like wheat, too, but most grain wheat is gone by winter.

Milo, buckwheat, millet and soybeans are readily eaten, too - all you need is a few inches of water over the harvested field. As a matter of fact, when ducks get hungry enough, they'll feed on dry land.

I remember one year we successfully hunted ducks in a dry cornfield. They fed in flocks of a hundred or more - continuously moving across the field by birds in the rear flying ahead of the front-feeding ducks in a wave - much the way blackbirds feed.

Greentree reservoirs are woodland areas flooded in winter when trees are dormant so ducks can feed on acorns, then drained during spring and summer so trees can produce more acorns.

Earlier this season, I hunted a 2,000 acre greentree reservoir for the first time. From daylight until 11:30 a.m. I didn't see a duck - no acorns. Then at 1:30 I began seeing woodies and mallards in twos, threes, and fours, busily feeding on acorns.

Turns out there was only a small section of oaks with viable acorns.

Management tool Greentree reservoirs have been used as a management tool to attract ducks for years. Recent studies, though, have shown that oaks continuously flooded during the winter eventually die. To keep oaks healthy, they should be flooded for only two weeks at a time, more closely resembling a natural bottomland hardwood flooding regime.

You can have continuous hunting by dividing the reservoir into sections and rotating them.

In recent years, waterfowl managers have discovered that flooded weed fields are excellent duck feeding habitat - areas we call moist soil units. Ducks feed on seeds and tubers of native vegetation. And in late winter/early spring, these areas provide insects and other invertebrates, a high protein diet preparing the birds for the long flight north and the rigors of nesting.

Burning and disking moist soil units soon after the ducks have gone north is an excellent management practice. This stimulates heavy summer growth of native plants such as smartweed.

Ducks quickly learn to avoid heavily hunted feeding areas, and they will leave the area completely unless there's a refuge nearby where they can rest and feed undisturbed. With such a haven close by though, hunting areas can be hunted pretty hard and still attract ducks. And as any duck hunter knows, ducks learn quickly where the refuge boundaries are.

Answer is easy Where do ducks go when their feeding areas freeze over? The answer is easy - unfrozen water. But that's where easy stops.

Where is the unfrozen water? When an entire region freezes and stays frozen for a long time, ducks move southward until they find liquid water. that's one reason ducks migrate to start with. But in most cases in the South, the freeze is not prolonged, and attracting them is a matter of keeping part of the hunting area unfrozen with heat, air pumped into the water, or moving the water with a pump.

For most hunters, it's a matter of searching for natural unfrozen areas, such as rivers, streams, or warm water discharge from industrial or power plants.

A couple of years ago, my duck hunting friend Bob and I went to a waterfowl management area during a heavy freeze. There was one open ditch Bob knew about, so we headed out. It took all day to do it, but we both took our limits of six ducks each.

Another time we found ducks in a large frozen greentree reservoir near the spillway where a small amount of water was still flowing. The area was small, but we found ourselves among hundreds of ducks, reluctant to fly even amidst the shooting.

A light freeze allows hunters to break enough ice to place the decoys. A while back, a couple of friends and I hunted a flooded cornfield with three fourths of an inch of ice. We broke the ice, placed our decoys and built makeshift blinds in the cockleburs. Not much happened until 11 a.m. But as the ice began to thaw the ducks began to fly.

Drastic change By late afternoon, the ice was melted and we couldn't keep them away. We had calls and decoys, but they really weren't necessary - the ducks came anyway. At the end of shooting time, ducks were coming in by the thousands, thick as blackbirds.

A few weeks ago, my friend Bob and I headed out across Missouri in 60 degree weather - a trip of 325 miles. By the time we reached the other side, the temperature had dropped to one degree, with a wind chill factor of minus 30.

After a cold night in the bed of the pickup, we awoke to a hard freeze everywhere. On one of the best hunting areas in the state (hunters averaged 3.7 ducks per hunter the day before) we couldn't find any open water, and saw only one duck flying.

With ice and a 15 inch snow in the forecast, we reluctantly headed back home. Oh well - as they say, a bad day afield beats a good day in the office!

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