By Brodie Wubben
Owner, Fowlwater Outdoors
I have waterfowl hunted in northern and central Iowa my entire life chasing waterfowl and would like to share some of my experiences and tactics that helped but more birds in my frying pan over the years.
North Central Iowa
North Central Iowa (specifically the Winnebago county area) is where I cut my teeth. If you go to the Iowa DNR website and look up the wetland habitat conditions tab you will find every county in Iowa with all of the current marshes and what condition they are in at the last survey. This is the best place to start looking for your new hunting spot. Nothing can replace the time spent behind the wheel and looking for the birds and feeding areas but you have to know which direction to go. Once you have picked out the county you are going to explore you can open the specific marsh or wetland and get detailed information on what type of species it holds and how to access. The description will also let you know if you will need to walk in or what type of boats can gain access. Our state has done a great job in providing this information and I think every person should use this tool.
Rice Lake is one of the first bodies of water the migrating waterfowl will touch when they cross state lines from Minnesota. This lake offers great early season duck hunting but is closed to goose hunting as it is a refuge to them. If you are looking to capitalize on the honkers the boundaries are clearly marked around the refuge so you can hunt outside and have great luck. Don’t fool yourself though these birds are smart and until late in the season they will play the fences (literally) to stay in the safe haven of the refuge.
Not far away from Rice Lake is a great little slice of heaven called Elk Creek where you will have a great time trying to make perfect shots on fast buzzing teal and the ever confused wood ducks coming off of the creeks and pasture areas close by.
Otter Creek or as some call is Chelsey is also a great place to hunt and offers many access
points for boats and walk in hunters. This marsh is located in Tama County and you can find it on
the DNR website. Early season teal shoots are plentiful. As the season moves on it will become a bit stagnant and your hopes will change from a healthy limit to scratching a few birds here and there. Don’t let this keep you away. As the season moves from the nice blue bird days to a bit nastier weather, especially up north and in the Dakotas you will see large amounts of the all might greenhead coming in and hanging out for quite a while. This is where otter creek can shine. The hunting is great and the scenery is even better. There are plenty of places to hunt and ducks around early to mid-morning and coming back in for the evening hunt and rest.
Lake Red Rock is no secret to waterfowl hunters in central Iowa or at least shouldn’t be. Two of my favorite spots, as well as many other hunters is the area referred to as Boxcars and also
Whitebreast. Boxcars is a great glimpse of what waterfowl hunters strive for hunting in Iowa. At times you will get to the boat ramp at 3 am and you will see 20 boats of all shapes and sizes ready to go out for the day and do what you love. I remember as a younger teen going out there with my 16’ flat bottom boat that I spent all of my money on and free time sitting in the lineup and really feeling like I belonged there. This was going to be the day I will remember for the rest of my life. I had many days that I will never forget on that water. Not every memory was linked to the number of birds killed but always great experiences. When the birds are migrating it is truly magical. Sitting in the boat with good friends and an even better retriever as the clock hits shooting time you can close your eyes and picture yourself in the middle of the war as hunters from around the marsh take their first shots. Whistles blowing and retrievers charging through the water followed by the chanting and laughing of everyone in the boat about the good shots and the clean misses.
Whitebreast is straight down river from the boxcars a few miles and is a much more mild area to hunt. It seems a lot of birds getting out of the main lake and boxcars area will swing over there and try and get away from all of the commotion. The water is much shallower and the vegetation is usually plentiful. A perfect place for people to walk in and hunt from shore out of layout blinds (you may get a little wet but you are a waterfowl hunter so just wear your waders in you blind).
Hartford (big and little) are also great places to try out. This is a bit more of a river back water place to hunt and at times can be great. When the water is up enough in the river the DNR will run diesel pumps and bring the water levels up for big boats. This is a perfect place to test out that new mud motor and boat to see how it hauls a load and how quickly it will plane out and test real life speeds. Walk -ns are also possible here and can get you some extra ducks through the season.
Saylorville the other big water in Iowa is a much overlooked place to duck hunt. Especially in the late season I have often hunted and limited out of diver ducks of all sorts. This is typically one of the last areas to freeze along with Red Rock. When all the small marshes and wetlands freeze up the ducks will seek big water and they come by the hundreds. The north section of Saylorville over by Jester Park is your typical wetlands type setting with shallow waters. Don’t be afraid to go against your gut and set up on the shore in the big water. I have killed more ducks hunting the big water than the marsh area many times. As soon as the ducks get pressure from the wetland area they fly south 300-600 yards and raft up. If you are set up out there it’s going to be a good time.
So we covered some places you should check out in central Iowa. Keep in mind there are great places to hunt on the east and west of our state that are going to yield bigger numbers with the larger river systems. My best suggestion before hunting a big river like the Mississippi or Missouri River is to go with someone that has been before. The hunting is phenomenal but you need to be careful and learn some of the rules of these big and fast rivers.
Now that you have some places to hunt, the next thing to cover is some of your tactics and gear that are essential.
Big subject but we will keep it short. Yes everyone has killed geese over milk jugs back in the day and it worked. Well those days are over unfortunately. As hunting has become more popular and the birds are seeing more spreads. Buy the most realistic decoys you can afford. Movement and presentation are the most crucial details and not numbers.
Think about what most people do in a marsh. I look around and everyone throws 4-6 dozen mallard decoys, sprinkles in a dozen teal, two spinning wing decoys, maybe a splasher decoy, and half a dozen goose decoys off to one side
Stop doing this……. Go small, or go big, but do not split the difference.
I prefer to go small. I may throw one dozen decoys and run six spinners and no goose decoys.
Other times I may run 10 dozen duck decoys out front and set up four goose decoys on the shore and one floater goose up wind 50 yards of me if there are geese around. I always strive to look different. If you think like a duck and how everyone sets there decoys you will almost never see actual ducks in this way. Ducks don’t land in a J or a V or W or whatever you were told to make the spread look like. Get out and Scout and look at how the ducks are landing amongst each other and mimic that. Spend your time on your hide not on your decoys set up. Throw them out slightly upwind of you and go tend to your shooting position and hide.
The most important thing you can do is conceal. This is where you need to spend 80% of your time when setting up to hunt. Everyone likes to be comfortable but you should really ditch that giant boat blind with the stove and fridge and heaters. If you want to kill ducks hunker down, hide and get ready to shoot. Sneak boats are deadly and big boats are great to get you where you need to go but ditch the boat and hide. 90% of the time hunters are on the shore or in less than two feet of water. There are products out there that you can sit on or in that will hide you very well in that situation. Clothing has improved greatly in the last ten years so you don’t need the heater. Get your dog a stand and blind and one for yourself and I guarantee you will kill more ducks than the guys that are warm and eating eggs and sausage.
Smaller the better. Ditch the big blind. Go with a lay down style or put a platform on it to where you can set your layout blind on the top and grass the ever living vegetation out of it. Show me a great looking tumble weed blind that looks like a great beaver hut and I will point them out in the marsh just like the ducks will.
You’re not going to kill ducks if they are not there. Get out and scout the area like you are hunting. Don’t show up at 10am and think you’re going to find the sweet spot. Get there before shooting hours and see where they are coming out of and sitting. Go back again in the evening around 4 and be patient and see where they are coming from and where they go. Take special note of the wind and sky conditions. If the next day’s conditions are the same you have a very good chance the ducks will follow suit. If the conditions are different you need to take that into account. If the wind switches the ducks and geese will be feeding in different locations most of the time and flying back a different way and for sure will be landing on the water from a different direction.
I try to always have the wind at my back or at my side. That will set me up for a face shoot or a side shoot. I never want the sun in my face so I will always sacrifice the wind at my side to put the sun in their face. A cross or side shoot is much more effective than the typical in your face shot. It simply comes down to more surface area to hit your game.
We have covered a lot of information, but with our success hunting waterfowl in Iowa we feel we have narrowed down some of the “hot spots” and what kinds of gear and tactics have produced great hunts for us. For more information, please inquire through our website and we’d be happy to follow up; http://www.fowlwateroutdoors.com/about/