Waterfowl hunters are no strangers to working the road. While Canada offers some of the best waterfowling on the continent, COVID travel restrictions will likely keep hunters from visiting our neighbors to the north this season. Thankfully, there are plenty of great DIY opportunities south of the 49th parallel. The abundance of birds and availability of public access in these three states make them top destinations for freelance waterfowl hunters in 2020.
There are several states that damn near made the cut. The first of them is South Dakota. The Rushmore State has a ton of public lands and enough friendly landowners that still let strangers use their fields and sloughs. Non-resident waterfowl licenses vary by unit, but most cost about $120. The downside is that many are distributed by a lottery, which requires some extra planning in the summer months.
Missouri also has excellent public duck hunting opportunities, particularly on state-managed areas that contain food resources or flooded corn. It also happens to be one of the cheapest places to purchase a non-resident waterfowl license (around $50 for a three-day permit). But Missouri’s growing notoriety as a stopping point for migrating mallards has really upped the competition on public ground.
Finally, no list of DIY waterfowl destinations would be complete without mention of Arkansas and the famed Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area—one of the largest in the nation at nearly 34,000 acres. In it you’ll find some of the country’s best flooded green-timber hunting for mallards. As a DIY destination, however, Arkansas requires some serious homework. The competition on public areas can be insanely high, so scouting is essential to get away from the crowds.
License fee: $150 for a statewide license good for two seven-day periods; $100 for a zone-restricted license
Season: late September (early October for nonresidents) to early December
Public lands managed for waterfowl: No
The secret has long been out on North Dakota’s waterfowl hunting, but this state remains a top DIY destination. It has loads of ducks and geese, and hunters can find ample public and private land access by knocking on doors.
At more than 200,000 acres, Devil’s Lake in northeastern North Dakota attracts scores of migrating ducks and geese, making it a popular launching point for DIY hunters. The region also has about 50,000 acres of Waterfowl Production Areas managed by the USFWS. The hunting pressure in this part of the state can be frustratingly high, so plan on at least two days of scouting on the front end of any trip.
A lot of hunters focus on field hunts, so bringing a boat is a great way to find some elbow room. You can do a lot of prep for water hunts before even hitting the road.
“I do a lot of Google Maps and onX scouting, looking for water bodies in areas that typically hold waterfowl where I can traffic birds as they move between feed and roost,” said veteran Dakota boat hunter Phil Kahnke. “And I try to call a game warden or other local contact to make sure boat accesses are actually useable, since that’s not always the case.”
(On an unrelated note, North Dakota was also one of our top DIY states for whitetail hunters in 2020. You could basically spend your whole fall up there.)
License fee: $85 for a three-day license; $200 for the whole season
Season: mid-October to late January
Public lands managed for waterfowl: Yes
Geographically speaking, Washington can be a tough trip for DIY hunters. It may not be a state you visit every year, but the variety of waterfowl and abundance of publicly accessible lands make it an attractive destination. Add to this a 107-day-long season—more than a month longer than some parts of the country—and there are a lot of reasons to give the Evergreen State a chance.
Personally, I don’t have the experience to do a hunt on my own for harlequin ducks and Pacific brant along Washington’s coast, but for the hunter who can grasp tidal charts and is outfitted with the right boat, the sky is the limit. My background lines up better with the opportunities found in the eastern half of the state for mallards and green-winged teal.
If I was planning a trip, my first step would be to call the state wildlife area where I plan to hunt. Chad Eidson, manager of the Washington Department of Natural Resources Potholes Reservoir Unit within the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area, agrees with that plan. He just asks that you do a bit of homework before dialing his number.
“We get a lot of calls about ‘where should I go duck hunting,’ and that’s kind of hard to answer. But the hunter who has looked at the department website or onX or Google Earth and calls and says, ‘I’ve looked at this spot on a map, and I’m trying to gauge water depth or wondering when this region typically gets a push of birds,’ we can be far more helpful,” Eidson said. “But we are blessed. Regardless of whether you’re a walk-in hunter or have a boat or want to field hunt, there’s an opportunity on public ground out here for you.”
License fee: $92 for a seven-day license; $163 for the whole season
Season: Varies widely by zone
Public lands managed for waterfowl: Yes
Michigan is a state rich in waterfowl hunting heritage, especially Saginaw Bay, tucked along the southwestern shores of Lake Huron. The availability of quality public hunting areas found in this region makes it a top DIY duck hunting destination, too.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources manages more than 30,000 acres of state wildlife areas in Saginaw Bay, including Fish Point SWA, where hunters can enter a draw to hunt mallards, black ducks, pintails, and more over flooded corn and other crops. Weekends are busy at Fish Point, so veteran Michigan waterfowl hunter Jay Anglin recommends entering the draw on weekdays if possible.
“If I don’t draw a spot, I’ll go hit the bay where there’s unlimited opportunity for a hunter who is geared up to handle big water,” Anglin said. “You can go pretty much anywhere. You can hit divers out on the big water, or tuck your boat into smaller bays and go after puddlers. There is a ton of prospects for freelancers.”
Timing a DIY trip to Saginaw Bay or one of the other state wildlife areas in the state can be tricky, Anglin explains, as birds tend to move quickly through some areas.
“There are two windows to focus on. We get a decent push of calendar ducks in mid- to late October, and another big push typically arrives in mid-November. Wait too long and ice becomes a pretty serious issue.”
Like chasing whitetails, elk, or turkeys, waterfowl hunting favors the prepared—even in primo states like these. But if you get your ducks in a row (pun intended) and visit one of these places this fall, you’ll find some of the best DIY waterfowling in the country.