Dabbler Ducks | Small feet and Skinny Legs?
For most waterfowl hunters, myself included the overarching dream that we all share is owning our own piece of duck paradise. In our minds, we all see greenheads dropping from a bluebird sky into dozens of Hardcore Decoys
swaying in the fall breeze. For some lucky waterfowlers, this dream becomes a reality, but inevitably the same question arises, “I have this wetland, now what?”
Luckily, with a little bit of sweat-equity and patience, wetland management can be relatively inexpensive and produce excellent results.
All wetlands across the country have many things in common. One ultimate fact is all were created by the forces of nature. Natural disturbances such as floods, channel cuttings, droughts all helped to dictate the type, size and vegetative composition of millions of acres of wetlands, providing food and cover for a wide range of wetland species – especially ducks.
Today, those natural disturbances have all but been removed from our wetland systems. As a result, the quality of habitat that is readily available for waterfowl and other wetland wildlife are very low. Luckily, we can easily replace or manipulate these natural systems to help landowners achieve their objectives, which in most cases, is to increase their habitat availability for green-headed mallards.
Let’s discuss some tips and techniques that here in the mid-west can help make your wetland management a little easier, and help you increase your harvest this fall.
Two primary focuses of wetland management are management of vegetation and water management. The two are closely related but for now let’s look at vegetation management.
The five most common ways to manage wetland vegetation are through water level management, prescribed fire, disking, mowing and chemical applications. Utilizing water as a tool or technique to managing herbaceous vegetation is by far the most inexpensive and effective method of wetland management. There are three basic ways to use water to manage vegetation. The first being high water management. High water management simply means holding pool elevations high for an extended period. This method favors a more emergent marsh type habitat. It will favor perennial plants, like cattails, but retard or even prohibit the growth of undesirable plants like cocklebur and sunflower. One benefit of high water management is, in most cases this areas will have some available water going into the fall. Not all wetlands have the luxury of water nearby and relay mostly on rain fall events. If this situation sounds familiar, you may consider this technique not only as a management tool but also to help ensure your hunting this fall.
Controlled drawdowns or moist soil management simulate the natural evaporation of a wetland at predetermined times. This is the most common water management technique practiced by wetland managers, as it yields high results in terms of food and habitat for waterfowl. When completing a controlled drawdown, remember to take it slow! You should aim to remove no more than 1″ off water off the wetland pool per day. Just as equally important is the timing of the controlled drawdown. The timing and speed of the drawdown will have a direct effect on the vegetative response. As a duck hunter, I like to keep things as simple as possible. Here are some ranges to keep in mind when completing a controlled or moist soil drawdown.
February 15th to April 15th
This time is typically referred to the early season. Drawdowns during this time typically favor smartweeds with a good mix of other annual weeds as well as beneficial mudflats for spring migrants.
April 15th to June 15th
Generally referred to as the mid-season, drawdowns during this time will yield the same vegetation response as an early drawdown, however there will be less smartweeds and more millet. This is the most common drawdown conducted by wetland owners as it producers fantastic results for moist soil diversity come fall.
June 15th to August 15th
This period is known as the late season. The vegetative response here will often be a near pure stand of grasses, namely millet and sprangletop. The design or layout of your wetland pool along with your water availability can dictate your management decisions as it relates to water management, however, when possible it is always best to try and provide a diversity of habitats come fall by practices multiple drawdowns.
When discussing water management, it is important to discuss the practice of re-flooding. Aside from pulling the trigger on the first greenhead of the fall, firing up that pump for the first time can be just as exciting!
Re-flooding can begin as early as July 15th
is some parts of the world. One benefit to an early re-flood is the ability to irrigate existing moist soil plants, to help them produce the best results possible. If this is the case, do not flood over 1/3 the height of the vegetation. Water tolerant plants like millet and smartweed will respond tremendously. It is very easy to get excited when it’s time to turn the pumps on, and many hunters make the mistake of pumping their wetlands full before the first shot sounds on opening day. Wetlands should be re-flooded slowly in order to maximize habitat. Remember, 99% of a mallard’s diet is found in moist soil wetlands and 100% of a dabbler ducks feeding takes place in water 18” in depth or less.
From water management, we move straight into prescribed fire. Prescribed fire is one of the most economical ways to manage vegetation, especially unwanted trees. A burn conducted during the growing season, after bud burst will kill most trees less than an inch in diameter. If trees are an inch to three inches in diameter they will be severely weakened. In this case, a burn the following year will usually finish them off. Remember, a burn will only be effective if there is adequate fuel to create a hot fire.Unfortunately, not much is known about the effects of fire on persistent emergent vegetation (cattails, river bulrush). Areas dominated by this type vegetation can be difficult to burn because of high moisture. Burns conducted on actively growing perennial vegetation, like cattails, will almost always weaken and set it back. The burn will also eliminate the growth from past growing seasons creating mudflats that will allow annual vegetation to germinate. It will also speed up the drying process to allow for a mechanical disturbance, like disking. Burns can also create semi-permanent openings that act as feeding areas for waterbirds and other wetland wildlife.
Most state wildlife agencies will offer a prescribed fire training to help you get started with using prescribed fire. When used properly, prescribed fire can be your biggest ally when managing your wetlands.
Mechanical disturbance such as disking has taken the place of scouring floods as the primary soil disturbance in wetlands. While the costs associated with either renting or purchasing the necessary equipment can be a limiting factor, the results are tremendous. A periodic soil disturbance (every 3-5 years) will change the annual vegetation component by rejuvenating the seed bank and by controlling succession and providing excellent habitat for waterfowl and wetland wildlife. Disking can also be used to change the vegetative structure of an area (i.e. create mudflats, thin existing vegetation and/or remove woody or other unwanted vegetation).
Timing of the disking and subsequent drawdown is very important. If completed in early summer it creates mudflat conditions that are ideal for invasive trees like cottonwoods and willows. A fall disking coupled with an early drawdown (March 15) will help avoid invasion by airborne tree seeds , because early germinating moist soil plants, like smartweed, will have the ground covered before the airborne seeds drop. If disking occurs in spring or summer and/or an early drawdown is undesirable, try to avoid a drawdown that parallels the peak fruiting period of cottonwoods and willows.
Mowing can be a very beneficial tool when completed for the right reasons. The primary reason for mowing is to change the vegetative structure of an area. A few reasons you might want to consider using mowing as a management tool in your wetland is to set back or remove unwanted trees, create pioneering areas (openings) for waterfowl and other waterbirds, set back undesirable vegetation to allow more desirable plants in the understory to compete or make an area more attractive and accessible to wildlife. For example, if a pool’s maximum water depth is 6″ and the smartweeds are 12′ tall, mowing in early July will set the smartweeds back and the regrowth may only reach 3′ in height. This technique will help you “show” water from above and will be much more accessible to wildlife, especially waterfowl. It is important to remember, early mowing’s will grow back and may need to be recut.
When it comes to using chemicals as a management tool, I always use it as a last resort if all other management techniques fail to yield the results I want. This is a very strategic decision that I sometimes make. Using various herbicides can be time consuming, and can sometimes yield marginal results. They tend to be expensive, and in some cases may be restricted in wetlands If you do elect to look at using chemicals to address wetland issues, be sure to use a brand that is approved for use in water such as Rodeo.
Owning and managing a wetland can be a lifelong job, however the lifelong memories you make will far outweigh every hour spent ensuring that your providing the best habitat you can, to ensure those greenheads are shining in your spread come fall!
Chris McLeland is a professional waterfowl and wetlands biologist from central Missouri. Chris is an avid waterfowler, and has recently been added as an expert contributor to HardCore-Brands.com. Look for more of Chris’s articles every month!