Short Corn, the Silver Bullet for Duck Hunters?

  • Missouri Harvests Reported Low 
  • Location, Location, Location…Short Corn
  • Weather Factors are Key
Duck hunters along the Mississippi Flyway have been looking for ducks this year. Joe Forma Photo
Duck hunters along the Mississippi Flyway have been looking for ducks this year. Joe Forma Photo

By Jim Low

Last week I attended a meeting of the Conservation Federation’s board of directors, a group that includes quite a few duck hunters.  While we were waiting for the meeting to start, we convened a neoprene caucus to compare notes on the season so far.

The mood was not festive.  The story was the same everywhere.  Guys who hunker down in the weedy borders of farm ponds and millionaires who spend thousands of dollars annually planting corn and pumping water around deluxe pit blinds were killing the same number of ducks – almost none.

The final word came from a St.  Louis area hunter who said he had a conversation with a U.S.  Fish and Wildlife Service agent about this year’s lousy season. “He told me that if anyone claimed to be killing ducks, he was lying,” said the discouraged Mississippi Valley hunter.

For me, I take this personally.  The last time I fired a gun at a duck was before resident wood ducks left for Arkansas.  How in the name of Nash Buckingham can we have historic high numbers of ducks, ample water and great habitat and me still not be able to have one decent hunt in the entire first month of duck season?

  Anytime duck hunters talk about rotten hunting, Bob Brown Conservation Area (CA) is sure to come up.  This 3,300-acre managed wetland area in Holt County is, depending on your mood, either a shining beacon of hope or a relentless reminder of your dismal luck.  From opening day to season’s end, the per-hunter average daily bag seldom drops below three.  Once a substantial number of ducks arrive in northwest Missouri – usually around the second week of November – the kill rate often hovers between five and six ducks per hunter for days at a time.  It’s enough to make a hardened veteran of the Mallard Wars weep.

Missouri duck hunters have spent lots of time scanning empty skies this fall.
Missouri duck hunters have spent lots of time scanning empty skies this fall.

The worst day at Bob Brown is better than the best day most other places.  Consequently, it’s next to impossible to get a reservation there.  I had the good fortune to draw one two years ago.  It was for opening day, which is less than ideal because Missouri seldom has many ducks that early in the year.  There was no wind, the sky was clear, and the high temperature that day was 85 degrees.  In short, it was a particularly unpromising day.  But it was at Bob Brown.  I shot two wood ducks, two pintails and a green-winged teal.  I would have limited out if I hadn’t been taking a leak when the last flock of the day bombed into our decoys.  Incredible.

Last week, I stood in a stand of flooded corn at Grand Pass CA with three friends, watching an empty sky.  Naturally, we mused about what Bob Brown has that nowhere else in the Show-Me State does.  Pat, who is our group’s custodian of wild rumors, said he heard that the managers at Bob Brown plant a special strain of corn that bears ears just inches above ground.  This makes the high-energy food available to ducks the minute water creeps into a strip of corn.

“I don’t know if that’s true, but I don’t have any other explanation for why they kill so many ducks over there,” he said.

That’s the sort of simple answer that people – myself included – find irresistible.  I wanted to believe that short corn was the silver bullet of duck hunting.  If true, it would allow my duck club to make its 150-acre wetland a webfoot paradise.  It was too good a rumor not to pursue, so I dialed up Bob Brown CA and asked whether they had a secret weapon growing in their marsh.  The answer was “yes and no.”

At Bob Brown and other wetland areas managed by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), corn and other crops are planted under two different plans.  The majority of crops are planted by permittee farmers, who bid for the privilege of growing corn on MDC land with the stipulation that they leave a certain number of rows in certain locations for ducks and other wildlife.  The remainder – which is all left in the field – is planted by MDC staff.

Permittee farmers and MDC both have their choice of different types of corn, classified according to how long they take to mature.  Ninety-day corn is the fastest growing, and because it has to produce ears in shorter time, it doesn’t get as tall as 100- or 120-day varieties.  All the corn planted by Bob Brown’s staff is the 90-day variety.  Permittee farmers are encouraged to plant 90-day corn, but they can choose their varieties according to their own preferences and needs.*

MDC Resource Scientist Doreen Mengel, who specializes in waterfowl management and biology, says the option of planting 90-day corn is available to all MDC wetland managers.  So there’s no reason think that Bob Brown’s enviable harvest history is the result of short corn.  Instead, she and the staff at Bob Brown say the area’s success results from a variety of factors, one of which is location.  The Missouri River makes up 3 miles of the area’s western boundary, which offers several advantages.  For one thing, the river is a major migration corridor, an unmistakable sign to southbound waterfowl.  The sign says, “This way to Arkansas,” “Plenty of water here,” and “Good Eats!”

Bob Brown’s location at the northwest corner of the state means ducks arrive there without having been shot at as much as they will have been by the time they reach more southerly wetlands.  Anyone who has watched flock after flock of ducks fly straight toward a decoy spread with half a dozen motion-wing decoys, only to veer off at 60 to 100 yards, knows that educated ducks are harder to fool than naïve ones.

Finally, and probably most importantly, Bob Brown also happens to be located just 2 miles south of Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).  It’s a place where hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese can stop to rest from the rigors of migration without getting shot at by hunters.  Fountain Grove CA is similarly close to Swan Lake NWR, but there’s a difference.  The managers of Swan Lake plant corn for waterfowl to eat.  Squaw Creek doesn’t.  If ducks at Squaw Creek want to tank up on high-energy food for the next leg of their trip south, they must leave the refuge.  How significant is this difference? To quote Pat, I don’t know, but I don’t have any other explanation for why they kill so many ducks over there.

Mengel says the main reason for this year’s poor duck hunting is warmer-than-normal weather, whatever “normal” is these days.  It certainly isn’t normal for a pair of Canada geese to start nesting in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in November, but Mengel says that actually happened this year.  Here in Missouri, warm weather has meant that the substantial number of ducks already here (more than 1 million by late November) have tended to settle into refuges and stay there.  With daytime highs ranging from the 50s to 70s, ducks burn up almost none of their fat reserves and don’t feel the need to leave refuges to eat.  That explains the empty skies over spots that otherwise might provide excellent hunting.

Interesting as all this is, the main thing on my and other Show-Me State duck hunters’ minds today is whether we will enjoy even one decent hunt this year.  Duck season runs through Dec.  27 in the North Zone, and action in the South Zone lasts through Jan. 22.  But with snow and low temperatures in the teens forecast for the next few days, experienced waterfowlers know the season could be nearly over, practically speaking.

Mengel, who enjoys duck hunting herself, says she is as worried as anyone that Missouri wetlands could become skating rinks this week, sending hundreds of thousands of birds south before she gets a crack at them.

“My hope is that this cold spell is a short one and the birds stick around,” she said.  “Also, we could see a warm-up in December that would prompt birds to move back in.”

If the cold spell does turn out to be short, it could result in superb hunting.  Falling temperatures and north winds would get ducks up and moving into the cornfield in Grand Pass’s Buckwheat Hole where John, Pat, Paul and I didn’t fire a shot last week.  It also might cause a sudden flurry of duck activity at my duck club, where we installed an Ice Eater last year.

If the hunting in my area doesn’t improve, I will continue to hope for another reservation at Bob Brown CA, because the corn is always shorter on the other side of the state.

* Incidentally, I was also pleased to learn that the folks at Bob Brown also use and encourage permittee farmers to plant non-Bt corn.  Bt corn has been genetically modified to produce a protein that kills the larvae of butterflies and moths.  I understand the importance of GM crops in feeding a hungry world.  However, I also worry about the effect these crops have on things I love, such as monarch butterflies.  And it seems to me that using Bt crops is inconsistent with MDC’s mission of conserving nature.