-Fun, Tasty Harvest, Little Gear Needed
By Jim Low
One of the things I miss from time that I have spent in Arkansas is green-timber duck hunting. Missouri once had a considerable cypress-tupelo swamp in the southeastern corner of the state, but precious little of that is left. What remains is a long way from my home in Jefferson City, but I still manage to get a taste of green-timber hunting during the first couple of weeks of duck season each year.
Wood ducks nest in wooded sloughs and along the margins of lakes, ponds, streams and Missouri’s big public wetland areas. You can even find them around wildlife watering holes on land owned by the USDA Forest Service and the Missouri Department of Conservation. I first discovered this when I was in college at MU and augmented my meager food budget with game from public land south and east of Columbia. As I stalked squirrels one day, I spied a pair of woodies in a pond small enough to throw a rock across. Both birds went home with me that day. They provided the basis for one of the first meals I ever cooked for the lissome young woman who has brightened my days and nights for the past 43 years.
Thousands of wood ducks remain in Missouri into early November. Until they depart for milder climes, they make it possible to enjoy the spectacle of web-footed prey weaving through tree trunks to splash down amid decoys. My preferred spot to wait for them is along the banks of Mussel Fork Creek in Chariton County. To be perfectly accurate, I hunt just over the banks of Mussel Fork, at the edge of a small, privately owned wetland. Mussel Fork itself often is rather short of water this time of year, whereas the borrow ditch at my duck club – Mussel Fork Legacy Marsh – always offers hungry wood ducks a congenial place to loaf and chow down on their favorite food – pin oak acorns.
Last Friday, Mussel Fork’s pre-dawn silence was enlivened by the chortles of leopard frogs who were understandably confused about the season. The calendar said November, but the thermometer tilted toward April. My golden retriever and I were comfortable without parka or neoprene vest as we watched the lightening eastern sky impart a pink glow to water beneath half a dozen wood duck decoys. Faced into the sun isn’t my first choice of duck-hunting positons, but I didn’t choose this spot – the ducks did. The previous day I flushed 20 or so woodies from the corner where two levees meet, and I knew where I would be the following morning.
As daylight stole among the pin oaks, I learned why this spot attracted so many “wood widgeons.” The trees along the nearly dry creek behind me came alive with the squeals of wood ducks. Dozens flew over my hiding spot as they headed out to forage, but I didn’t have to wait that long. Several groups saw no reason to fly to distant spots when food was nearby. They swooped in on Willa and me at five- to 10-minute intervals.
Admittedly, this was not the full green-timber experience. I was at the edge of the trees, not surrounded by them. But the ambiance had much in common with a northern Arkansas bayou, and the gunning was still challenging. I spent five shells dropping two wood ducks. When a hen hit the water, I declared my sporting limit filled. Woodies continued to check us out as I took a few photos to memorialize the morning.
You don’t need much gear to hunt wood ducks. The half-dozen I use is about twice as many as necessary. I own a wood duck call, but almost never use it, having never seen an instance where it appeared to influence wood duck behavior. What you absolutely must have is an idea of where wood ducks are hanging out. The presence of pin oak trees whose branches overhang water is a huge advantage, but this doesn’t narrow the field much. It’s also helpful to find a fallen tree that has sunk most of the way into the mud, providing ample perching space on its trunk and limbs. But the gold standard of wood duck holes is a pocket of some sort. An oxbow or a slough where a tributary enters the main stream is good. So is a small pond, the back of an isolated lake cove or a dead end or bend in a borrow ditch.
Missouri has literally hundreds of public areas with excellent wood duck hunting spots. One example is Mussel Fork Conservation Area in Linn and Macon counties. Its 2,491 acres include four ponds, two wetlands and four miles of Mussel Fork Creek. The Conservation Department’s website makes it easy to find areas like this in nearly every county. Once you pick an area, the best way to find a productive spot is to simply walk creek banks, levees or wetland edges until you flush a bunch of wood ducks. Leave immediately and return at about the same time the next day, and you likely will be in the money. If forced to hunt without scouting beforehand, choose a likely spot and set out a small spinning-wing decoy with a handful of decoys to attract the attention of passing birds. Don’t fret if you don’t own any wood duck decoys. Hen mallard, gadwall or pintail hen dekes work fine.
As their name implies, wood ducks are creatures of the woods. They tend to hug the edge of timber rather than flying out over large, open expanses. As a result, I seldom get shots at wood ducks much beyond 30 yards. No. 4 or 3 steel shot
works well at that range. I hunt with an over/under shotgun for versatility in choke selection. Screw an improved cylinder tube into one barrel and either modified of skeet choke in the other, depending on the likelihood of longer versus shorter shots.
Wood ducks are right up there with blue-winged teal, canvasbacks and prime rib for eating quality. To let the flavor shine, filet the breast meat from the bone and cut it across the grain into cutlets about ¾ inch thick. Salt and pepper these lightly and sear them in a hot skillet with butter or olive oil. When they are still pink in the middle, set the cutlets aside on a warm plate. Add a little red wine to the skillet and sauté some sliced mushrooms until tender. Serve the meat and mushrooms with your choice of potatoes, bread or buttered egg noodles. There’s no finer eating.