Moist Soil Management │ Creating Great Early Season Duck Hunting
By Chris McLeland
While shooting a big fat green head never gets old, it is really hard to be a group of early season mallards working the Hard Core duck decoys in a moist soil marsh. Many waterfowl hunters have heard the term “moist soil”, but do not quite understand what it exactly is, and why these habitats are important to waterfowl. In this article we will discuss the topics of moist soil management and how proper actions can help you have great duck hunting this fall.
Moist soil is a term that really describes a specific suite of early successional and perennial plants that result from specific variations or changes in water levels within shallow marshes or pools. The timing of these variations, along with the duration, can play a large role in terms species of plants established in these areas. In most intensively managed areas, the goal is manage these areas in such a way as to establish seed producing, wildlife (especially waterfowl) friendly species.
Some examples of beneficial moist soil plants that waterfowl and other wading birds utilize during the spring and fall migrations would be annual smartweeds, panic grass, sedges, and wild millets just to name a few. These plants more often cursed and cussed for clogging up boat props, and causing many on duck hunting trips to take an early season “polar plunge”, by tripping them up. These plants are much more than just weeds. These species have excellent nutritional value and can be easily promoted with the proper water level management or successional management practices.
So why are these plants important? Moist soil plants such as those listed above provide an excellent food source for many different waterfowl species, both in the spring and in the fall. Ducks and geese actively seek out the seeds and roots of these plants, and well as feeding on the macro-invertebrates or bugs that are attracted to these types of areas. While flooded corn fields in the fall can provide an excellent source of carbohydrates during the winter months, when waterfowl are actively looking for high energy foods as they prepare to migrate south, ducks and geese cannot live on it 24/7. There’s in an old saying, “if a duck had to eat corn every day, he would starve to death”. This is a very accurate statement. By providing native, seasonal habitat in conjunction with flooded cropland areas, you are covering all of your bases.
Moist soil areas are dynamite areas to harvest ducks and geese, especially species such as teal, widgeon, gadwall, and pintail and of course, green headed mallards. While moist soil areas are effective locations all season long, they are exceptionally productive for duck hunting during the early migration as most of the early season waterfowl species are making their way south.
So how do you promote moist soil plants? As was stated earlier, moist soil plants are a result of water level change, and the time of year that change took place. In other words, the natural variation in water level change is the driver of this cycle. Typically, most areas are wetter in the early spring months due to snow melt and increased rainfall, dry out in the summer, and then tend to be wetter in the fall. We have probably all seen that lake or pond that is bank full during the spring, then as the water level drops you begin to notice vegetation growing in the shallow areas close to the bank. As the rains return in the fall, the vegetation that grew during the warm summer months, is now flooded again and in turn is available for consumption by waterfowl, and makes some excellent duck hunting. This is the same mechanism that managers try to simulate during what is referred to as a controlled draw down.
A controlled draw down is a process in which water levels are managed to mimic the natural cycles above. The first step in completing a controlled draw down is having the ability to add or remove water from the area. This is typically completed through utilizing water control structures. Water control structures consist of a vertical rectangular box, set to a specific elevation with boards that slide in the box. The more boards you add, the deeper the water will be. Inversely, as you remove boards, you can drop the water level. To simulate the natural draw down cycle and stimulate the duck food were all love, managers aim for dropping the water level between ½-1” per week. Drop the water too fast, and you can promote problematic plants such as cocklebur and spike rush, drop the water too slow and you can shift the plant community to more of an emergent marsh community which can be beneficial in certain areas.
While water control capabilities make it much easier to manage the plant community of a wetland, promoting moist soil plants can still be accomplished. In areas where water levels fluctuate based through normal evaporation, the timing may be thrown based on wet conditions. Utilizing methods such as disking and mowing can help keep problematic species at bay, and can help promote and establish moist soil plants, and will help you keep mallards in the duck decoys this fall.
Moist soil vegetation provides a cheap and natural food source that waterfowl require to make the long trip south in the fall, north in the spring and to sustain them through the nesting season. While they may just seem like weeds and grass, these plants make all the difference in the world of ducks and geese. Take some time to explore these areas this fall as you scout for ducks and geese we bet you will be glad you did. Who knows, you may just find yourself packing out a stringer of green after a duck hunting trip this fall.