Sumner , Missouri, pop. 142, is home to Maxie, the world’s largest Canada goose statue. Back when Canadas were scarce across the U.S., Sumner was a big deal, attracting hunters from all over and billing itself as the “Wild Goose Capital of America.” On my recent trip I stopped to pay my respects to Maxie, but goose season wasn’t even open. I came to Sumner to hunt ducks.
My destination, Habitat Flats (habitatflats.com), is a duck lodge near Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge. It comprises 2,200 intensively managed acres of flooded corn, moist soil plants, and rest areas in the timber and it attracts and holds mind-boggling numbers of ducks all season.
They hunt with a variety of methods at Habitat Flats, sometimes using sneak boats to get right out where the birds are and hide in thin cover. Ira McCauley, one of the four partners, started making his own boats in the early 90s and sells them under the MOmarsh (momarsh.com) name. The first order of business was to refresh the camouflage on our boats. Ira zip-tied cut native grasses to plastic netting he attached to the boat.
Before and after the camo treatment. You can barely see the bow of the second boat poking out of the grass. MOmarsh boats weigh about 75 pounds and can be poled, paddled, motored or towed in just a few inches of water.
Our plan that afternoon was to hunt pintails in one of Habitat Flat’s managed moist soil units. Ira and his partners draw water levels down to encourage plant growth. They also seed millet, then pump water to just the right level . Pintail populations, which declined badly in the 80s and 90s, have recovered somewhat, and the bag limit has increased from one to two. It’s an understatement to say we flushed lots of ducks when we arrived.
We towed our boats to their hiding places in the millet to be ready when the pintails came back. That’s Ira’s Lab Sadie taking a ride.
One of Ira’s partners, Tony Vandemore of Avery Outdoors (averyoutdoors.com), helped us set decoys.
While Tony set decoys he showed me a tip: he made decoy anchors of #9 wire or coat hangers to save weight back when he used to walk a long way in to public areas with decoys on his back. The anchors weigh nothing but hang up in any kind of underwater vegetation.
After we set the decoys, Tony tucked himself into the weeds along the levee to record the hunt from long distance.
Ira loaded up, then closed the blind doors. You’re well-hidden in a sneakboat. You’re also dry, comfortable and surprisingly cozy down out of the wind, too.
Ira and Sadie going eyeball to eyeball with the first ducks that came back, a bonus flock of mallards. What I love about this kind of hunting is looking up at ducks right over me that never know I’m there. You can’t believe they can’t see you, but you’re invisible to them . . .
. . . until it’s too late.
Me, with the drake. Shooting off your back in a sneakboat takes getting used to. As in all shotgun shooting, you have to take your time. It helps to remember that the ducks are looking at the decoys, not at the boat, and that you have time to sit up and make an unhurried shot before they notice you. See how well the KW-1 camo blends with the millet? Unlike most waterfowling camos, it is not too dark to blend in to dried grasses.
The pintails proved wary, as they almost always do, staying high and circling endlessly. Tony Vandemore calls them “the duck that never lands” and that’s doubly true on a cloudy day. This flock finally decoyed perfectly.
Ira and Sadie come back with the three drakes we shot out of the bunch.
Pintails work much better with a clear sky. When the sun broke through a hole in the clouds, another flock came in.
I shot my second bird, giving us each a limit of drake pintails and cause to celebrate. You don’t need a huge pile of dead birds to have a great hunt.
We lurked, hoping for another mallard or maybe a greenwing teal. We didn’t shoot another duck but we watched birds pile into a nearby field – so now we knew where we would hunt next morning.
All smiles at the end of shooting time.
Field & Stream’s shotgun editor, Phil Bourjaily, headed to the Habitat Flats duck lodge near Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Missouri, which comprises 2,200 intensively managed acres of flooded corn, moist soil plants and rest areas attracting and holding a huge amount of ducks throughout the season. Find out how the acreage is maintained and follow Phil and his partners on a sneak boat hunt, from camo prep to the moment the pintails fall from the sky.