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Waterfowl hunting is as much about managing water, crops and food as calling.
Credit: Dale Bowman

Duck, duck, goose: In praise of moist-soil management for waterfowl

SHARE Duck, duck, goose: In praise of moist-soil management for waterfowl
SHARE Duck, duck, goose: In praise of moist-soil management for waterfowl

Sticktights are a pain in the brush pants. The boot laces. The socks.

Those tiny barbed triangles, the mature seeds of bidens, need to be plucked off everything at day’s end by hunters or anyone who walks about outside.

They’re also “phenomenal food,” Randy Smith noted.

That’s the kind of thing that pops up when talking to Smith, Illinois’ state waterfowl biologist and wetland wildlife program manager.

Waterfowl hunting gets underway seriously in Illinois on Saturday when duck and Canada goose seasons open in the north zone.

The only notable regulation changes are tweaks to black ducks (daily bag goes to two) and pintails (daily bag drops to one).

One reason I checked in with Smith was to see what impact early floods/high water and the later flood/high-water event in the summer had on food for ducks in particular. Good food along the Illinois and Mississippi rivers generally means ducks will hang around longer; with poor food, the reverse holds true.

“The natural vegetation management (moist-soil management) was helped by the hot and dry second half of the summer, and many places that were able to complete full or partial drawdowns and weren’t re-flooded in July look great, whereas planted crops that I’ve seen look pretty poor,’’ he emailed.

“This was a great year for moist-soil with the timing of the dry spell. Folks that are intent on needing corn to provide duck food might be in a tough spot with the late flooding followed by lack of rain. Natural vegetation provides an awful lot more food than a stalk of corn without an ear on it.’’

Smith is an evangelist for moist-soil management over planted crops for waterfowl management.

I asked what plants to expect in moist-soil management.

“Typically, annual weeds, honestly, to put it plainly,’’ he said.

That’s things like sticktights (bidens), annual smartweed, wild millets, rice cutgrass, pigweeds and sprangletops (growing well this year).

“Honestly, the stuff that colonizes a mud flat after the water is drawn down,’’ he said. “If you get cockleburs, you have done something wrong, drawn off too fast. But there are easy ways to control that, such as mow.’’

Moist-soil management may sound official, but the idea is pretty fundamental. If you manage a duck club or your own property, moist-soil management is the kind of thing easy enough to handle.

“When the river drops, draw the water off slowly, that is literally all you have to do,’’ Smith said. “All are natural plants that adapted to this area. Those will come up if you pull water off the same way.’’

Smith is not adverse to planting some corn, especially if used as a means to help disturb the soil every few years, which helps the plants and to set back wood succession

“That’s the best of both worlds, if done correctly,’’ Smith said. “They can shoot little ducks early and big ducks [mallards, Illinois’ most popular] when they are around.

“My hook is to plant with a purpose. Plant corn as a tool in your management.’’

Much from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources on habitat management may be found by clicking here.

Waterfowl hunting is as much about managing water, crops and food as calling<br>Credit: Dale Bowman

Waterfowl hunting is as much about managing water, crops and food as calling
Credit: Dale Bowman

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