By Nick Green
‘Quack,’ ‘quack,’ ‘quack,’ ‘quack,’ ‘quack’ – the hail call turned the ducks over the refuge, and as if they were on a string, they b-lined straight for us. A patented “mallard circle” ensued, and a soft feed chuckle to my right drew them lower and lower. The iridescence from the drakes’ heads was blinding as the sun peeked over the tree line to the east.
The corn strip we sat in was well-maintained, even on that late-November day, thanks to conscious hunters and the cooperation between share-croppers, stakeholders and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
The sorghum strip in front of us provided some excellent, secondary cover. The buckwheat opposite us was also a crucial food source for migrating ducks. We had set up in the third row of corn at about 6 a.m.
My marsh stool was uncomfortable, and whatever engineer designed it had only intended its use for two feet of water, not three. My hands still ached from breaking a thin sheet of ice and placing decoys. The taste of coffee cake in my mouth was subsiding as I loaded three No. 2-shotshells.
The smell of gunpowder mixed with the late-fall, dense haze that surrounded us made me feel at home; I wasn’t in my normal home, though, of an alder thicket or aspen stand – this was duck habitat.
It was my first managed area hunt. The sight of 2,000-plus ducks lifting up at once isn’t something a literary device can describe: It must be witnessed. The care that went into managing the Shiawassee River Managed Waterfowl Hunt Area (MWHA) was evident, and I was hooked.
Michigan’s Wetland Wonders
There are 15 MWHAs spread throughout Michigan’s two peninsulas. These are areas that undergo intensive management for waterfowl, which sometimes includes diking systems, water pumps and control structures, crop planting, nesting infrastructures and blind placements. Areas like these include the Maple River State Game Area (SGA) and Crow Island SGA, too.
More known, however, are the seven MWHAs that have morning and afternoon draws – Shiawassee River SGA, the Harsen’s Island Unit of the St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area, Muskegon County Wastewater, the Fennville Farm Unit in the Allegan SGA, Fish Point State Wildlife Area, Nayanquing Point State Wildlife Area and Point Mouillee SGA.
Waterfowl has been placed a top priority at these MWHAs, and each offers its own brand of excellent duck and/or goose hunting throughout the year.
Michigan also bolsters its strong waterfowl hunting heritage with ample opportunities for puddle, diver and sea ducks because of the state’s placement within the migratory flyway, said Barb Avers, Waterfowl and Wetlands Specialist for the DNR.
“Renowned waterfowl areas like Saginaw Bay, St. Clair Flats and the Detroit River have built and supported local economies and communities with industries such as duck decoys, boats and hunting clubs,” Avers said. “I like to ask people where else in this country can you field hunt for Canada geese, hunt puddle ducks in a marsh, wood ducks in a forested wetland, and diving ducks and sea ducks on big water all within a few hours’ drive?”
With early teal season now set-in-stone in Michigan, waterfowl hunters also have the opportunity to chase the early-migrating birds during times when they are most abundant. It’s important to identify what you are shooting at during early September, though, and to try and avoid areas where wood ducks might be. Teal prefer mud flats, are small compared to other ducks, make a “peeping” noise and fly fast.
Our neighborhood wood ducks, mallards and geese typically offer the most opportunity during the early, regular waterfowl season.
As days shorten, leaves drop and autumn starts to close, Michigan is hallowed ground for the migration.
That first trip to the Shiawassee Flats was during the start of the migration. We ended up harvesting two birds that day; but, a resident bald eagle got to one of them before we could. The eagle was lying in wait, knowing full well that a shot meant he might get breakfast. It only took a matter of seconds before the giant bird swooped in and picked up the drake mallard.
Fish Point was my second trip to a MWHA. My brother-in-law, Eric Gary, and co-worker, Shaun McKeon, decided to make the trip with me.
We were in a corner unit that faced the refuge — we were probably only 150 yards from the edge. All morning we had watched ducks get up and sit down. A few made it to the zone to the right of us, and those guys ended up with seven ducks harvested.
Eric harvested a drake pintail, which was his first pintail, and for Shaun and I, that was a pretty successful day when compared with our other duck hunts.
Even in the morning darkness at Fish Point, an area that none of us were familiar with, we were able to use the signs to navigate our way to our zone. This is one of the MWHA blessings. Maps are available, signs are placed and DNR staff at the draws are more than happy to help you navigate your way to your zone. Almost all of the areas, with the exception of some Shiawassee Flats zones, are easily navigated to by foot. A boat can make your life a little easier, but it isn’t necessary.
As a new waterfowl hunter, the benefits of the MWHAs were priceless. Finding ducks can be daunting, and learning how to call, properly place decoys and worrying about proper duck hunting etiquette adds to the stress. However, a hunter can learn a lot by asking, watching and mimicking actions that you see at these units: only calling when necessary, not sky busting, looking at others’ decoy placements, being mindful of maintaining cover and being respectful to those around you.
Trace Koble and Jake Sawyer watch two black ducks get ready to land in their decoy spread during a late-split hunt in 2017. Photo: Dylan Snyder
While eavesdropping at some of the morning draws, I have heard stories of hunters with decades of experience who frequent these areas. And when I ask them why, I almost always receive the same answer, “Because there are ducks here.”
Information on what times the draws are held for the seven MWHAs can be found in the Michigan Waterfowl Hunting Digest or online at the Wetland Wonders Website. Some of these MWHAs are not open every day — that information can also be located in the digests or online.
Some of these areas have special regulations like not being able to use spinning-wing decoys. All of the draw MWHAs also have a 25-shell limit. Conservation officers strictly enforce these regulations and all the normal waterfowl regulations.
The DNR, in partnership with Michigan United Conservation Clubs and Consumers Energy, also offers the Wetland Wonders Challenge. Participants can receive a punch card at one of the seven MWHAs that host draws, and when three or more punches from different MWHAs are received, hunters can enter that card in for prizes. Hunting more than three MWHAs will increase your entries. Seven winners will be selected to win a waterfowl hunting prize package including a $500 gift card, a custom Zink duck call and the coveted Golden Ticket. The Golden Ticket gives your party an automatic first choice pick of hunt zones at a non-reserved drawing at any of the seven MWHAs hosting draws.
Michigan’s Waterfowl Future
Every spring, the DNR conducts a Breeding Waterfowl Survey. In 2018, it was estimated that Michigan had 34 percent less total ducks than in 2017. And the 2018 estimate of geese remained consistent with the 2017 numbers. Our wetland abundance average was 9 percent over the long-term average.
Avers said the numbers shouldn’t make people fret, though.
A group of mallards get set to put their feet down during the late-split hunt in 2017. Editor Nick Green was able to hunt with a crew of Hillsdale locals and the hunt was one to remember.
“Even though 2018 spring estimates were down, overall, there are good numbers of ducks, and mallard numbers in Michigan are pretty stable,” Avers said. “I haven’t seen any preliminary results from the continental Breeding Waterfowl Survey yet, but last year’s numbers, which is what 2018 hunting seasons are based on, were quite good for most duck species. Hence, the liberal (60-day, 6-duck) duck hunting season.”
Michigan will also continue to have the most liberal goose hunting season possible, Avers said. Michigan continually ranks in the top three for Canada goose harvest and for hunters in the nation, she continued.
How to give back
2017 was my first year waterfowl hunting, and it would have been daunting without the help of McKeon and other friends who are avid waterfowl hunters. Avers offered these points to try and help continue our waterfowl heritage and pass on the sport we hold so dearly in Michigan to the next generation:
1) Take somebody new hunting; but, more importantly, mentor a new hunter
2) Connect or reconnect a new or former waterfowl hunter
3) Join a conservation organization that protects and restores wetlands and supports waterfowl hunting
4) If you’re part of an organization, consider hosting waterfowl hunting workshops or mentoring programs
5) Continue to buy state and federal duck stamps to support wetlands conservation (to provide more hunting lands)
6) Be a conscientious hunter and give waterfowl hunters a good image