For Missouri's waterfowl hunters, the sight of mallards fluttering into a spread of decoys is the essence of autumn. The Missouri Department of Conservation manages a number of wetland development areas across the state where waterfowlers can experience the thrill of world-class duck hunting. One such area is Nodaway Valley Conservation Area.
Located north of St. Joseph in Holt and Andrew counties, Nodaway Valley Conservation Area occupies about 3,800 acres of floodplain along the Nodaway River. The Missouri Department of Conservation purchased the area from 1991-93 to restore a portion of the wetlands that once defined the area. The Department's efforts there have created a wildlife oasis for both resident and migratory species, highlighting the importance of wetlands to Missouri's natural landscape.
Naturally, Nodaway Valley is home to a diverse assortment of shorebirds, wading birds and songbirds. Come autumn, it beckons impressive numbers of ducks and geese, making the area popular among the region's waterfowl hunters.
Craig Crisler, a wildlife management biologist for the Conservation Department at Nodaway Valley, said that in 2003, the peak of the waterfowl migration brought about 40,000 ducks to the area at one time. He said he expects that number to increase.
Crisler bases his optimism on the 2,000 acres of new wetlands that the Conservation Department restored in 2002-2003. These marshes straddle the Nodaway River and provide valuable resting and feeding habitat for migrating waterfowl.
To provide nutrition for waterfowl, Crisler said the Department manages about 60-70 percent of the wetland units for food production. The staff manages these units for moist soil foods, like millet and smartweed. It also plants a mixture of row crops. Other areas are planted with corn and milo. This combination provides high protein to help waterfowl maintain good physical condition, as well as high carbohydrates to fuel their migration.
To obtain water for the wetlands, the staff at Nodaway Valley Conservation Area pumps water into the wetlands from the Nodaway River. This ensures that some habitat is available every year.
"Last year, due to the severe drought, the river was really low," Crisler said. "We decided to limit pumping because we didn't want to put any additional stress on the river's aquatic wildlife and aquatic habitat."
Having water in only 60 percent of the wetlands still was enough to draw in thousands of mallards, as well as many other ducks and geese. With 100 percent of the wetland habitat available in a wet year, Crisler said, the area should attract even more waterfowl.
Although mallards are the main draw for hunters visiting Nodaway Valley Conservation Area, other species of "dabbling" ducks also use the area. Their numbers fluctuate depending on the time of year. Because of the nature of the habitat, diving ducks, such as canvasbacks and redheads, aren't as numerous.
"Most of our wetlands are really shallow," Crisler said. "They attract a lot of dabbling ducks, like teal, wigeon, pintails and wood ducks.
"Our birds, mostly blue-winged teal, start arriving the first or second week of August, but their numbers start increasing dramatically in late September," he added. "That's when we start seeing a lot of green-winged teal, pintails and gadwalls. The mallards start arriving in mid-October and remain through the end of November, depending on the weather."
Weather is the key factor that determines how long ducks linger in Missouri, and Nodaway Valley is especially sensitive to it. As the northernmost of all the Conservation Department's wetland development units, it usually experiences severe weather first. Because its marshes are shallow, they freeze over quickly. When that happens, the ducks depart.
"Generally, we start getting ice in November, and you can count on the entire marsh freezing up by the first or second week of December at least every other year," Crisler said. "We're always one of the first areas to freeze up, so we're also one of the first to be done with good hunting."
Hunting access at Nodaway Valley is managed primarily by a daily drawing that takes place before legal shooting time. The west half of the area is open marsh with no blinds or designated hunting sites. Hunters who draw in are simply assigned to a pool, and hunting ends at 1 p.m.
Hunting on the east side is similar to the west side, but hunters are allowed to hunt waterfowl until sunset. One pool on the east side contains four duck blinds. These have been popular with hunters during the past two seasons.
The southern end has marsh units that are open to walk-in hunting. Drawings are not held for this area. Hunters self-register and pick a spot. These units are popular among those who want to hunt after work.
"The open area can have some really good hunting," Crisler said. "The first season the east unit was open to hunting, in 2002, about one-third of the area harvest was on the open hunting area. They averaged about 1.8 birds per hunter, while they averaged about 1.7 birds per hunter on the rest of the area."
In 2003, area hunters averaged about two birds per trip. That's an impressive average, and when conditions are right, ducks should be even more plentiful. That's just one good reason to plan a trip to one of Missouri's most remarkable conservation areas.
The Department's efforts at Nodaway Valley Conservation Area are possible thanks to the contributions of some dedicated conservation partners. These include:
To hunt waterfowl on the controlled access portions of Nodaway Valley CA, hunters must participate in a daily drawing.
If all of the marsh habitat is available, the staff at Nodaway Valley generally allows access to 15-20 groups of hunters through the drawing.
Open hunting is allowed on a walk-in basis at selected units. No drawing is required, but hunters must register before entering. Unless they draw into one of the four blinds on the east side of the area, hunters must provide for their own concealment. Layout boats or hunting kayaks are popular among many hunters.
For more information, contact Nodaway Valley Conservation Area at (660) 446-3371, or visit the Conservation Department's web site.
Nodaway Valley Conservation Area provides habitat to a multitude of other bird and mammal species that non-hunters can enjoy.
"With the amount of emergent marsh we have at Nodaway, we have a pretty good mix of species throughout the spring and summer months," said Craig Crisler, wildlife management biologist for the Conservation Department. "We've got some birds that breed here on these wetlands, too, like American coots, pied-billed grebes and least bitterns.
"We also have a pretty good population of river otters," he added.
The wetland pools at Nodaway are also productive fisheries, Crisler said. In late summer, the pools recede from evaporation, concentrating fish into small areas. That attracts minks and raccoons, as well as great blue herons and otters.
"We get a pretty good migration of pelicans in the spring and fall," Crisler said. "They concentrate in the same habitat as the herons and otters, eating young fish and crayfish."
In the spring and fall, you can also see sandpipers, yellowlegs, ibis and other species of herons. Nighthawks and swallows also eat the insects that hatch in the marshes.
"In August, there are just thousands of swallows swarming over the wetlands eating those insects that are hatching," Crisler said.
The Missouri Department of Conservation publishes brochures of most of its conservation areas, including Nodaway Valley. These brochures contain maps of the area, as well as area regulations.
To obtain a brochure of Nodaway Valley Conservation Area, contact the Conservation Department's office in St. Joseph at (816) 271-3100, or the Department's Chillicothe office at (660) 646-6220.
Maps and brochures are also available on the Conservation Department's web site, keyword: nodaway.
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