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Managing Your Land for Ducks: Learn the Basics

October 18, 2016 // Posted in: Uncategorized

When it comes down to managing wetlands and “duck holes”; I have grown up hearing an old adage that I think will benefit some to hear – honestly, I have failed miserably at trying to prove wrong. “If you can get the Wood-ducks started early you will get the Mallards late”.

I already know what your thinking; What does that mean, and how do I do it?  Stay with me, I’m going to explain.

One of the most common questions I get in the hunting property business is, “What is the best thing I can plant to harvest ducks?”  This question is host to many different answers, and it all comes down to the amount of time, money, and ultimately, what Mother Nature has in store for you and your property on any given year.  Your only option might be natural moist soil plants, but on an optimal year, getting an assortment of feed will be the most productive and attractive option – when available and affordable.

Ultimately, diversity is the key to maximizing your properties hunting potential.  It is the one thing that all walks of wildlife need to flourish.  Diversity in your food sources is the key that will get your ducks to show up early and stay later throughout the hunting season.

I have dabbled in a lot of different “food sources” for ducks here in Central Illinois, and I have come to the conclusion that there are three foods that are reasonable to obtain and that ducks and geese will frequently use on any given year.

The ‘big three’ in Illinois

The three main options for Illinois waterfowl managers come down to natural moist soil vegetation, Japanese Millet/buckwheat (I usually recommend blending these two together), and corn.  I have tried other plants such as soy beans, milo, barley, and even rice but was mostely disappointed in the performances.

There is no need to try and reinvent the wheel, so I will stick to the ‘big three’ mentioned above. Combined, they will add a ton of diversity to a property, especially if you utilize  all three of them in the same year.  All three of these food sources can fulfill different needs for ducks throughout the hunting season, which ultimately means you attract, hold, and harvest more ducks throughout the different stages of the season. Understanding how to properly stage them in your wetlands will be the key to attracting ducks early and holding them later.

It is easy for anyone that has sat in a flooded corn field on a late November Illinois day to naturally want to plant their entire wetland into corn whenever and as often as possible.  The attraction and holding power of corn is awesome, especially in late season, but creates problems when you look at your property and how it is ultimately used and useful to ducks.  It also can be impossible to manage, afford, and, quite frankly, it can create dead space and wasted acreage when managing for waterfowl.

Let’s not forget that natural vegetation has been feeding ducks forever, and is certainly not one to shy away from.  Let’s face it – natural vegetation is free to plant and can be more desirable to waterfowl when the temperatures are still warm and the early stages of the fall migration have just begun.

Waterfowl can consume a huge amount of food in a short time frame.  Maximizing your tonnage per acre is the goal, but making certain foods available from start to finish is essential to increasing your duck numbers.

Just remember, the more ducks you have the more food you will need.

Get into the zone

Every duck hole (wetland) has three distinct zones that just make sense to manage separately.  These are as basic and as simple as you can imagine.  They ultimately are correlated to the depth of the water when flooding the wetland.  All wetlands and duck holes have unique and different designs but for the most part still have these three characteristics in place.

Deepest zone : (Over 5 foot deep in most cases)  This is typically in the lowest lying portion of the wetland and is likely in the middle of the wetland where the drainage ditches and control structures are located.  It floods first and drains last.

Middle zone: (2 to 5 foot deep) This area usually consists of the largest amount of water surface in the wetland.  It is the second part of the wetland to start flooding and offers the most flexibility in food options.

Shallow zone: (under two foot deep)  This area consists of the water’s edge and shallowest portion of the wetland. Iit is constantly changing with the raising and lowering of the water level, but for the rest of this  article I will be referring to the shallow ground when thinking of your wetland as being filled to maximum water capacity.

I have had people ask me in the past, why does any of this matter?  If I can plant the entire thing into corn, why wouldn’t I?

Well, iIt all comes down to duck usage and capitalizing on the water levels throughout the flooding process. If you can get some wood ducks to start feeding in the deepest portion of the wetland as it is rising, you will ultimately get more ducks coming to the wetland during the earliest parts of the season and that usually means before season starts when they can feed undisturbed and feel comfortable coming back.

If you have to pump three feet of water in your wetland before any ducks can start using the food sources, you are missing out on what could be several days or weeks of getting ducks to find your wetland.  It also correlates directly with what food source works best in each zone.

Flooding and draining

These are the only two ways that I mentally look at and devise my strategy for manipulating wetland food sources.  Looking at it in the spring, it is obvious that the shallow  zones are going to drain and dry out the soonest.

The middle  zone will be the next area to dry out, followed by the deepest zone.  It will flood in the fall exactly opposite.  I am not stating this to be “Mr. Obvious” but because it is hard for me to convince people that in the spring when their wetland is draining they need to be thinking about how it will be flooding in the fall.

When you start draining your wetland, it is easy to get caught up in the fact that the shallowest  zone is usually the easiest area to manipulate to plant certain food sources that take the longest to mature, such as corn.  If you think it through, corn is usually not the best food source for this shallow water zone.

The ears on a corns stalk can be and usually are over 3 feet high on the stalk,  if this area has less than 2 feet of water it will be very difficult for  a duck to access the feed when it is sitting a foot or higher than a ducks head while swimming around.  I like to use a mixture of millet and buckwheat in this  zone because the millet’s stalk will weaken in the water and fall over making it very accessible for ducks at full capacity.

The middle ground is the optimum spot for planting and flooding standing corn.  It might be slower to drain but the water levels are optimum for ease and use for ducks and the fact that this  zone usually has the largest surface area, it gives you the option to use corn that will help hold ducks through the colder parts of the season.  There are so many varieties of corn to choose from; options ranging from different maturity lengths, to different types of chemical and pest resistance.

I usually recommend the use of a “triple stack” corn which is resistant to root worms and cut worms.  I suggest you  work directly with a professional seed salesman,such as LandGuys very own George Chandler, to figure out what will work best for you.  To take this a step further you can even diversify your maturity lengths in your corn varieties to coordinate with the draining and flooding of your wetland cell.

Shorter season varieties such as sweet corn only take 80 to 85 days to mature, while a full season corn takes around 120 days.  If you want to get more corn planted but the water is not draining fast enough, consider a shorter season variety towards the deeper end of the wetland.

The deepest zone is obviously the last to drain yet the first to flood.  This is a great option for using natural moist soil vegetation such as nutsedge grass, smart weed, and arrowhead.  These native species typically find a way to mature quickly and are easier to manage and manipulate in the wet areas.

This area might stay damp to long to work the soil, which is fine because it will help diversify your food sources.  The moist soil vegetation will be highly desirable in the early flooding stages, and provide a great source of attraction as the temperatures are still warmer and high carbohydrate foods (corn) are not necessary to hold the ducks.

These moist soil plants will fall over in the water and get some of the early season ducks such as wood ducks, pintail, and teal to find and start using your wetland.  As the water level rises and the temperatures drop, the corn will help hold the waterfowl for an extended period of time, and the millet and buckwheat combination on the out side perimeter allows for additional tonnage of food in what could otherwise be useless space.

Matt Cox is an experienced wildlife property manager and a broker for LandGuys, LLC. You can reach him at matt@landguys.net