When the Waterfowl Disappear

By Nick Johnson

Iowa just seems to be in that perfect position on the continent that hardly lends itself to be a waterfowl hunting destination state. Maybe imperfect is the better word and many local hunters will refer to it as “The Fly Over State”. Okay, this might be a little harsh but there is a bit of fact to that and at certain times of the season it appears the bulk of the birds vanished overnight leaving the country club geese and local mallards to be uncooperative as usual.

For those that live to waterfowl hunt above most other hunting sports, this is actually a great time to get out and scout and find an isolated group of birds using a specific area. This can happen early in the season but generally is observed in November and even up til the end of the Iowa season which is still before the weather forces that big push of northern birds down, given a typical year. During this time, my experience has shown light hunting pressure when many others are focused on pheasants and deer. There may not be droves of birds sitting on every refuge or river bend but there ARE birds to be found if you spend the time looking. Some of my best hunts in Iowa have actually taken place during the seasonal lull and on public ground!.

About eight years ago I was driving around in the evening looking for ducks along the Des Moines River north of Humboldt a ways out in the country. I noticed a cloud of birds circling a field in the distance and veered down a gravel road to inspect closer. The hunting had been extremely slow with mild late season weather and I thought this was unusual for a big flock like this to be around. As I neared the birds I noticed that it wasn’t a field at all but a patch of public ground along the river and the birds were dumping down into the timber out of sight, mostly Mallards with some Pintails mixed in. Gold mine!

I made a call to a buddy and we set out to hunt this ground the following morning. When we got there it dawned on me that I really had no bearing on what I was walking into especially in the dark. I felt foolish for not going in there the evening prior but I didn’t want to spook those birds off. With a bag of decoys on each of our backs we walked through the dark woods heading in the direction I saw the ducks go down into. The approaching dawn turned the woods gray and we could start to hear the quacks and chatter of mallards up ahead. I knew they would go off to feed so we waited a while and sure enough flocks of 20 and 30 began to erupt from the timber and river. I am generally not an advocate for hunting a roost but this was sort of a last-ditch effort in a place I’d never hunted before.

When the commotion calmed down we pushed ahead and to my surprise found a large depression in the forest that was flooded with water from beaver activity on the nearby creek. The river was just 30-40 yards away also. We set out about two dozen decoys and waited. After what seemed like an hour we had our first returning flock and they made no hesitation backpedaling down through the timber. A few more flocks followed the same routine and in a matter of 20 minutes we had our two-man limit of Mallards and one bonus, and very random hen Bluebill.

Aside from Wood ducks, a few Teal and Mallards, this was the only decent concentrations of birds I had seen for a few weeks. Even the refuges between Humboldt, Calhoun, and Webster counties did not have much for numbers yet. Had I not been putting miles on the truck scouting I would have never stumbled upon this.
The past few years, a group of friends and I take a long weekend somewhere around the last week of south zone duck season and hunt along the Des Moines river corridor, starting near Des Moines and sometimes ending up south of Hwy 92. It all depends on where we find birds and generally the first day is spent scouting. We’ll split up and use google maps to find roads that meet the river and do a lot of glassing. Many times, we’ll put the boat in and run the river looking for groups of birds stationed on a bend or sand bar. If you see flocks, especially in the morning or evening, follow them and see where they go. You can learn a lot about the patterns of waterfowl just by watching and following flocks and taking note of the time when they are doing so.

If you find a good pocket of unpressured birds that are sticking to a certain area it really doesn’t take a lot of decoys to be successful. However, if you find a roost which in many cases is a refuge and then locate where the ducks are flying to feed, you can either hunt where they feed or try to intercept them coming to and from. The latter is often the case for us hunting the river and this is where a large decoy spread and excellent concealment can pay off. It can be a lot of work but that’s part of the fun in my eyes. Use a lot of goose floaters or shells and full bodies if you have them to increase visibility and spend the time to make a good hide that offers overhead camouflage.

One tool that many hunters use to locate areas of interest is Google Maps. We use this religiously when hunting public areas and exploring unknown territory. When scouting, you may see a flock of ducks pile back into an area off in the distance with no road to get you close. Pull up the map with the terrain layer on to get a good overhead visual of where they might be going. We’ve had this tool reward us many times and have found little isolated water holes tucked out of sight we never knew existed that were holding the only huntable numbers of birds in the immediate area.

Hunting in Iowa can seem tough when the ducks seem to magically disappear, but don’t give up hope! Take the time to scout whether it’s for an hour after work or spending the first half of a day scouting without even tossing out a decoy. The moral of the story here is putting the time in to find ducks, you will be rewarded. Good luck this season!