A young duck swims

A pied-billed grebe swims in the fish-stocked lake at Stephens Lake Park.

If you’re a duck hunter and this year’s season has looked different to you, you’re not alone.

Biologists with the Missouri Department of Conservation anticipated excessive flooding in Missouri earlier this year would affect the number and distribution of waterfowl as they migrate south through the state, according to previous Missourian reporting. The flooding affected the types and amount of crops available as food and cover for ducks and other waterfowl. Crops such as corn and soybeans couldn’t be planted in the river bottoms, so more moist-soil crops took their place later in the growing season.

Missouri Department of Conservation wetland ecologist Frank Nelson said weather patterns influence the waterfowl migration in an unusual way.

“This year has been quite a bit different from the recent falls,” he said.

Nelson wrote in a Nov. 2 post to the Missouri Waterfowl and Habitat Survey that the first week of November was much colder than usual. That pushed ducks — mallards, in particular — south more quickly.

“We saw mallards show up at higher percentages than normal, so that got us really excited,” Nelson said. “Unfortunately, we haven’t seen the buildup and abundances of waterfowl like we have in recent years.”

Nelson said the migration curve looks like a shallow plateau. There are waterfowl in Missouri, but the numbers aren’t growing week to week. As new birds migrate in, others leave.

“This is likely a reflection of the impact left by flooding that occurred earlier in the year along the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, which reduced the amount and quality of food available for migratory waterfowl,” he said.

Duck hunting in Boone County is split between the North and Middle zones designated by the conservation department. Eagle Bluffs Conservation Area south of Columbia is on the Middle Zone schedule, where duck season began Nov. 9 and will end Jan. 12, according to the department’s website.

Eagle Bluffs wildlife biologist Brady Lichtenberg said he has seen numbers on track with past years.

“I think there’s plenty of good food out for them still, even though we didn’t hardly get any grain crop on the area for them to eat,” Lichtenberg said.

The change in plant composition has changed where the birds are situated.

“This year, they’re kinda more spread out just because it’s the same vegetation across the whole area,” Lichtenberg said.

The biggest issue for hunters is camouflage, given that there are no crops to hide in. Lichtenberg recommends hunters bring their own cover, such as layout boats or blinds.

“The wider variety of that you have and can bring, the wider variety of spots you can be successful,” he said. “If you can hide, you can probably have a successful duck hunt, but I can tell you from firsthand myself it’s pretty tough in some spots.”

Grand Pass Conservation Area, a little over an hour west of Columbia, is also in the Middle Zone but was affected differently by flooding. It has more ducks in late November than Eagle Bluffs but less variety of waterfowl. Grand Pass had been surveyed by the conservation department to have over 39,000 ducks at the time; Eagle Bluffs had over 20,000.

Trace Thompson has been duck hunting for nine years, primarily on public land. This season he mainly hunted at Grand Pass, where he said he’s had success.

“They’re still drawing in the same amount of hunters, still drawing in the same amount of ducks, still shooting very good averages, even though it’s been such a hectic year,” he said.

Nelson anticipates only small bird movements through the rest of the season. “It will kinda depend on the weather conditions of the day and the habitat the birds are seeking out,” he said.

Lichtenberg said the cold front earlier this week should bring more ducks south.

“It’s probably going to be our last big push of the year,” he said.

Nelson recommends hunters do some scouting to see where the birds are foraging and return to hunt those spots.

“Birds are kind of creatures of habit, and they’re more likely to return where they’ve been able to find a meal and sanctuary before,” Nelson said. “If you do a little bit of homework and groundwork beforehand, that always increases your chances.”

Nelson said going in blind is just that.

“You won’t know if you’ll encounter birds unless you’ve scouted it out.”

He conceded time is a precious commodity.

“So even if your prep work is light on scouting, you’ll never know unless you go,” Nelson said. “Being out there is the first step in having a great day in the marsh.”

Nelson is keeping hunters updated statewide throughout the season with his survey posts. His next post will be Wednesday. More information about hunter success and opportunities on managed wetland areas can be found online at Waterfowl Harvest Reports.

“There are still days in the field to make the most of it, enjoy the outdoors, and make some memories,” Nelson wrote in his most recent post. “Have fun and be safe.”

  • Public Life reporter, fall 2019 Studying print and digital journalism Reach me at mhsdf5@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

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