We met well after daylight, and to our surprise we had the entire north side of the reservoir to ourselves. We dragged a pair of sneak boats down the bank, tossed them into the water, and filled their cockpits with decoys. As we towed the boats along the shore, we kicked up little bunches of ducks here and there, and the low sun at our backs lit up hundreds of them–mallards, teal, gadwall–flushing at our approach, swirling like multicolored flakes in a snow globe.
We threw out three dozen decoys, staked and grassed the boats, and lay down flat on our backs, peeking over our toes. Within minutes the first bird came back–a single greenhead. I’d hardly had time to make the retrieve and cover up again when a flock of teal blew around the point, intent on the landing hole in our decoys. The mallards flew higher and slower but committed to our spread just as willingly. An hour later, we were shooing gadwall and teal out of the decoys as we waited for one last bunch of mallards to fill our mixed-bag limit.
That day on the Coralville Reservoir near my home in Iowa City proves that hunting on public land isn’t always about fighting crowds and competing for the attention of a few jaded birds that know where the refuge boundaries lie. Public lands can offer waterfowling spectacles that put your heart in your mouth: mallards battering down through flooded timber, divers streaking low over the whitecaps, pintails making their agonizingly slow descent into the decoys. You may have to win a preseason lottery, stand in the “sweat line” hoping for your number to come up, or be willing to motor, paddle, or walk in farther than anyone else, but America’s federally and state-owned wetlands provide a wealth of opportunity. The following are 25 of the best public waterfowling destinations in the country:
- PACIFIC FLYWAY
1 Potholes Reservoir, Washington Think of the Sahara with water, and you’ve got an idea of what the upper reaches of Potholes–locally known as “The Dunes”–is like. Although the water is shallow, the mazelike dunes are no place for walk-in hunters; the best action takes place on islands accessed by shallow-drafting air-boats. Hunt from a boat blind or hide in the brush from the mallards and pintails that swarm the area, and bring a GPS to make sure you find your way back to the ramp.
CONTACT 509-754-4624; wdfw.wa.gov
- 2 Ridgefield NWR, Washington This 5,000-acre area on the Columbia River floodplain lies within 15 minutes of the city of Vancouver, Washington. The birds–thousands of geese and wigeon–fly all day, so you can hunt gentleman’s hours. Stop at the office, take your pick of blinds, and set up in time for the 10 A.M. flight.
CONTACT 306-887-4109; ridgefieldrefuges.fws.gov
- 3 Klamath Basin NWR, Oregon/California Straddling the Oregon-California border, the Klamath Basin begins just south of Crater Lake, where a half dozen national wildlife refuges protect the remains of the once vast wetland that covered the basin. Tule Lake NWR on the California side offers a mix of marsh, big water, and field blinds. Specklebelly and mallard hunting is good early in the season at Tule; the Lower Klamath NWR shines for puddle ducks just before a freeze.
CONTACT 530-667-2231; klamathbasinrefuges.fws.gov
- 4 Sacramento NWRs, California These wetland remnants holding on amid a sea of agriculture north of Sacramento total a mere 35,000 acres, yet they hold as many as 500,000 ducks by early December. The Sacramento, Delevan, Colusa, and Sutter NWRs provide some of the nation’s finest walk-in hunting. Delevan offers the widest variety of ducks and habitats; Sutter is mallard central. A marsh seat (called a “tule stool” locally after the native bulrushes) is a necessity for a comfortable day sitting in the reeds.
CONTACT 530-934-2801; sacramentovalleyrefuges.fws.gov
- 5 Imperial Wildlife Area, Wister Unit, California Two hundred feet below sea level on the shores of the Salton Sea, the Wister Unit boasts some of the Imperial Valley’s best duck hunting. This 6,000-acre area is well known–Wister ducks see plenty of decoys and hear a lot of calls. A good strategy for success here is to find a small hole in the tules, throw out a small spread of teal and pintails, and keep quiet.
CONTACT 760-359-0577; www.dfg.ca.gov
- 6 Cibola and Imperial NWRs, Arizona/California Summer temperatures reach 120, and rainfall averages 2 inches a year–southern Arizona along the California border doesn’t seem like duck country. But the dams on the Colorado River fill the backwaters, turning the desert into a waterfowl oasis. The Cibola and Imperial refuges run for some 50 miles of river, attracting thousands of ducks and geese. Wigeon are the go-to bird here; bring a whistle to mimic their three-note call.
CONTACT 928-857-3253; southwest.fws.gov
- 7 Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah The mudflats and freshwater marshes of the Bear River refuge, which edges the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake, are a major staging area for pintails and other puddle ducks. The refuge also attracts tundra swans, which you can hunt by special permit. Even if you don’t draw one, pay attention to the great white birds: Wherever swans pull up tender shoots while they’re feeding, ducks swarm in for leftovers. Hunt with a small, shallow draft boat, a mud motor, and a big decoy spread.
CONTACT 435-723-5887; bearriver.fws.gov
- CENTRAL FLYWAY
8 Bowdoin NWR, Montana The Prairie Pothole region extends into northeast Montana, where Bowdoin NWR is both a breeding ground and a migratory stopover for large numbers of ducks. The refuge sits in the middle of a wetland district dotted with small marshes. In addition to its 15,000 acres, there’s walk-in pothole hunting nearby on nearly 8,000 acres of federal waterfowl production areas. Bowdoin also issues sandhill crane permits.
CONTACT 406-654-2863; bowdoin.fws.gov
- 9 South Platte Wildlife Management Areas, Colorado Cold weather forces ducks and geese off eastern Colorado’s reservoirs and onto the wide, shallow South Platte River where they rest between forays into the irrigated grainfields. Although clubs and expensive leases tie up much of this section of the river, the Colorado Division of Wildlife owns several chunks, including the Dodd Bridge, Brush, Cotton-wood, Elliott, Atwood, and Dune Ridge WMAs. Hunting this river is simple: throw a few dekes in the water, put some shells on a sand-bar, and hunker down behind some driftwood.
CONTACT 303-291-7227; wildlife.state.co.us/swa
- 10 Federal Waterfowl Production Areas and Pothole Marshes, South Dakota South Dakota may be the nation’s best-kept waterfowling secret. The state limits nonresident licenses to just 4,000 a year, which are issued in a June drawing. You’ll find federally and state-owned potholes galore around Aberdeen, in the northeast part of the state. Look for a spot where the ducks are lolling about, throw out a couple of dozen decoys, and stand in the cattails. Be patient: Teal and gadwall fly early, but the main event starts at midmorning when the mallards come back from the fields.
CONTACT 605-773-3485; www.sdgfp.info
- 11 Missouri River, Santee, Nebraska As the Missouri River curves around the northeastern corner of Nebraska, it sprawls into miles of cattail backwaters–a popular stopover for mallards and Canadas on their journey south. Put in at the Santee Indian reservation and run down the main channel. Launch after dawn and watch to see where the birds are working, then set out a mixed spread of duck and goose floaters.
CONTACT 402-471-0641; www.ngpc.state.ne.us
- 12 Cheyenne Bottoms WMA, Kansas This huge wetland basin in central Kansas holds up to half a million ducks and geese from early October until January. It’s a mass of cattails and shallow open water. Beat the crowds by taking your kid hunting; the southeast corner of the marsh is reserved for hunters accompanied by children under 16.
CONTACT 620-793-7730; www.kdwp.state.ks.us
- 13 Hackberry Flat WMA, Oklahoma Teddy Roosevelt hunted Hackberry Flat shortly before farmers pulled the plug on this 7,000-acre Oklahoma wetland in the early 20th century. Restored in the 1990s by a pipeline connection to Waurika Lake, Hack Flat holds water even in dry years, making it a magnet for waterfowl. The cover is wide open, and the pools are small and shallow. It’s a great place for walk-in and sneak-boat hunters.
CONTACT 405-521-3851; www.wildlifedepartment.com
- MISSISSIPPI FLYWAY
14 Upper Mississippi River National Wild-life and Fish Refuge, Iowa/Illinois/Wisconsin/Minnesota The huge river refuge runs for 261 miles downstream of the Twin Cities, where the Mississippi lies impounded in a series of locks and dams. Pool 9 north of Harpers Ferry, Iowa, attracts mass concentrations of divers–especially canvasbacks–but you’ll shoot everything from teal to sea ducks and geese on the river. You need a seaworthy boat and a big spread of diver decoys.
CONTACT 563-873-3423; midwest.fws.gov
- 15 Magee Marsh WMA, Ohio It used to be an exclusive private hunting club in the famed Lake Erie marshes, but now Magee Marsh belongs to the Ohio Division of Wildlife–and to the public. Draw a hunt in the preseason lottery, and state personnel will motor you out to your blind and drop you off. Hunters at Magee enjoy excellent success, especially those who bring plenty of decoys and have the ability to plead their case well using the right call. A few miles to the southeast, Pickerel Creek WMA holds daily drawings and is known for top-notch teal hunting throughout the season.
CONTACT 800-945-3543; www.dnr.state.oh.us/wildlife
- 16 Donnelley–Lake DePue State Fish and Wildlife Areas, Illinois Hunt like a millionaire for only $10. That’s the price of a daily use stamp for hunters who draw a blind at Illinois’ Donnelley State Wildlife Area, formerly the Windblown Bottoms Duck Club. Donnelley sits above Peoria on the Illinois River’s Great Bend, an important migratory funnel for mallards and the location of some of the state’s storied duck clubs. Nearby Lake DePue, another former club now owned by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, offers season-long blind sites to hunters lucky enough to win the summer blind lottery.
CONTACT 815-447-2353; www.dnr.state.il.us
- 17 Four Rivers Conservation Area, Missouri A marshy area at the convergence of four rivers (thus the name) in west-central Missouri, Four Rivers holds 10 percent of the continental pintail flock during some years and, roughly, one zillion mallards. The terrain is wide open, and there’s no place to hide, so it’s strictly a BYOB–Bring Your Own Blind–proposition. Small sneak boats with the requisite grassy camouflage can be deadly here.
CONTACT 573-751-4115; www.conservation.state.mo.us
- 18 Bayou Meto WMA, Arkansas It’s earned the nickname “Bayou Metro” because of the crowds, but when conditions are right at Bayou Meto, there are ducks enough for everybody in this area’s 34,000 acres of flooded timber. This is duck hunting as pure as it gets: lean against a tree, blow a call, and slosh ripples in the water. Advice for new guys: Sleep in, launch at 8 A.M., and then look for a hole full of hulls and feathers left behind by an early bird. More ducks will come.
CONTACT 877-367-3559; www.arkansas.com
- 19 Sabine NWR, Louisiana Louisiana harvests more ducks annually than all states in the Atlantic Flyway combined. Sabine NWR, in the southwest corner of the state, provides 35,000 acres of prime coastal marsh that’s open to hunting for a mixed bag of puddle ducks and the occasional snow, specklebelly, or Ross’ goose. This place is no secret: Hunters line State Highway 27, the lone access road, waiting for 3 A.M. to roll around, when they can legally set foot on the refuge.
CONTACT 337-762-3816; sabine.fws.gov
- ATLANTIC FLYWAY
20 Casco Bay, Maine Crouching on a rock ledge over a string of eider decoys on Maine’s Casco Bay is as hardcore as waterfowling gets. Many of the offshore rocks and islands that jut out from below the high-water mark belong to the public. Some hunters use layout boats and tenders or boat blinds, but many motor out and position themselves on a ledge near the mussel beds where sea ducks feed, waving a black flag to attract the birds’ attention to their decoys. This is not a hunt for the inexperienced or the ill equipped, but once you try it, you might be hooked.
CONTACT 207-287-8000; www.state.us/ifw
- 21 Eastern Lake Ontario WMAs and Montezuma Wetlands Complex, New York Cold snaps bring waves of waterfowl across Lake Ontario from Canada, where they settle in state-owned wetlands along the great inland seashore. Excellent puddle duck hunting awaits hunters willing to paddle a canoe deep into the backwaters of Sodus Bay, East Bay, Beaver Creek, Red Creek, and Black Creek WMAs. A few miles inland, at the tips of the Finger Lakes, lies the huge Montezuma Wetlands Complex, which includes the Montezuma NWR and healthy populations of ducks, Canadas, and snow geese.
CONTACT 585-226-2466; www.dec.state.ny.us
- 22 Pymatuning Reservoir, Pennsylvania Rather than drain Pymatuning Swamp back in the 1930s, the state of Pennsylvania built a lake on top of it. The result–17,000-acre Pymatuning Reservoir–sits astride the Pennsylvania-Ohio border about 15 miles inland from Lake Erie, where it’s perfectly situated to draw birds coming south from the lake. Though it’s famous for Canadas, Pymatuning is just as good for mallards. There are blinds apportioned by preseason lottery, and there’s a free-roam area, too.
CONTACT 724-932-3141; www.dcnr.state.pa.us
- 23 Forsythe NWR, New Jersey In the shadow of Atlantic City, the Brigantine and Barnegat NWRs–consolidated into the Edwin B. Forsythe NWR–constitute the Boardwalk and Park Place of mid-East Coast water-fowling. The area contains some of the last undeveloped barrier beaches in the state and thousands upon thousands of acres of salt marsh. The best access to the 46,000-acre refuges is by boat, and the birds are classic East Coast: mallards, black ducks, Canadas, and brant. A special snow goose hunt is held on select days throughout the season.
CONTACT 609-652-1665; forsythe.fws.gov
- 24 Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, South Carolina
Once a private duck club, Santee Coastal Reserve WMA allocates blinds and dates through a pre-season lottery. Each of its three parcels is open for hunting just once a week, virtually guaranteeing a great take. If you win a spot, don’t waste the opportunity by holding out for greenheads–Santee is teal and gadwall country, although you may shoot almost anything, including a snow goose. Groups are restricted to one bag of decoys per blind, and retrievers are discouraged since a healthy gator population thrives here.
CONTACT 843-546-8665; www.dnr.state.sc.us
- 25 Merritt Island NWR, Florida Established in 1963 as a buffer for NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the vast 140,000-acre Merritt Island NWR encompasses a coastal barrier island laced with a series of dikes and canals. Home to many endangered species, Merritt counts wood storks and manatees among its residents, as well as large numbers of teal, mottled ducks, wigeon, gadwall, and divers. Although the hunting pressure can be fairly high, most guns average two ducks per day.
CONTACT 321-861-0667; merrittisland.fws.gov
* #22 GOVERNED BY ATLANTIC FLYWAY SEASONS AND LIMITS