by Bill Cooper
I had endured the worst duck season of my waterfowling life. Instantly, the agony vanished as Perry May, owner of IYF Outfitters of Southeast Missouri, turned a sharp corner, breaking away from the cover of a cypress-tupelo river bottom forest. I gasped as a 1,000 acre flooded rice field, teeming with ducks in the southwest corner, broke into view.
“I have never seen so many ducks in one location,” chimed hunting partner Aaron Smith, of Kirksville, Missouri. “This is a moment I will remember.”
“How do we get to those ducks,” I asked.
“We are going to check a couple of nearby spots. Those birds will serve as our insurance that ducks will keep piling into the area. Just be patient.”
The rich, alluvial soils of the Mississippi River delta supported thousands of square miles of cotton, soybeans, corn and wheat when I grew up there in the 60s. However, change loomed on the horizon. A growing number of industrious farmers converted acreage to rice production.
According to Frank Nelson, a Missouri Department of Conservation research scientist at the Big River Wetlands Field Station, rice has become a significant contributor to waterfowl habitat in the Bootheel region.
“In 1972 there were 4,250 acres of rice in the region. In 2010, the acreage had grown to 241,500 acres,” he said.
Flooding harvested rice fields to attract ducks has caught on in the Bootheel, according to Nelson. “Flooding of rice fields and low lying areas along the Mississippi vary each year depending on the weather. Flooded acres, including rice field and natural causes, have varied from 66,000 to 269,000 acres.”
“Farmers approach me all the time to lease their flooded rice fields,” May explained. “It is an extra source of income for them and I am able to provide hunting opportunities for waterfowl hunters in Missouri’s middle and south zones as well as Arkansas’s northeast zone.”
Flooded rice fields have become increasingly important to migrating ducks as natural wetlands, grasslands and bottomlands have been developed. In dry years, rice fields often supply the majority of fall and winter duck habitat in some areas.
Ducks Unlimited and the USA Rice Foundation formed the Stewardship-Partnership in February, 2013, which addresses rice production, waterfowl and conservation. According to USA Rice Chairman Mark Deman, “Rice fields and waterfowl mutually benefit each other, and water is the essential underlying resource for both waterfowl and rice, as well as society as a whole.”
May said, “The Bootheel region has a long and rich waterfowling tradition. Ducks have funneled through here for eons, following the Mississippi River. However, as wetlands were drained for farming, fewer acres became available for migrating ducks. Our Missouri Department of Conservation and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stepped in and bought up several major waterfowl habitat areas which help hold birds in the region.”
Kevin Brunke, the wildlife management biologist at Otter Slough WMA, said that the Missouri Department of Conservation has made great progress in managing the waterfowl areas in the Bootheel. “In years past, managers planted a lot of crops, like corn. We began looking at the entire landscape picture and adjusted our efforts more towards wetlands and water management, so that we could provide nutritious food sources over a longer period of time for migrating waterfowl,” Kevin said.
The Missouri Department of Conservation has helped area farmers understand the importance of their farming practices as well, according to Nelson. “Standing rice stubble provides twice as much waste grain for ducks as burned fields,” he said. “Too, water depth of flooded fields of one foot or less provide the best feeding situations for ducks.”
“The management improvements of the MDC on those conservation areas, in conjunction with the development of rice farming in the Bootheel, has created a boon for duck hunters,” May concluded.
Our hunting party grew antsy after several minutes of listening to hundreds of pintails whistling in the rice. After investigating two other areas near the mass of ducks we had discovered, May selected a pit blind in a flooded rice field, positioned 200 yards from a block of timber. “We’ve got some open water in front of the pit,” he explained. “Once we set the decoys and begin calling, we will catch some of the ducks headed to the southwest corner.”
Our five man crew settled into the pit blind at 11 a.m. At 11:06 the first flock of ducks responded to May’s calling. On his command to shoot, two pintails tumbled from the sky.
Minutes later, a dozen mallards bore down on our decoy set, intent on feeding in the rice stubble. A pair of greenheads folded at the report of our shotguns.
For the next two hours our party enjoyed the thrill of picking through hundreds of ducks attempting to take only mallards and pintails.
The day ended with limits of pintails, mallards and gadwall. Russ Nanni, of Paducah, Kentucky summed up the day.
“I have been duck hunting for a long time. This is a day I will always remember. But, it is often like this when we hunt ducks in the rice!”
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