This longtime local hotspot is becoming a mecca for waterfowlers
Years ago, when someone steered a truck towing a duck boat onto Interstate 55 during December or January, you knew where they were heading: the rice fields or flooded timber of Arkansas.
But for about the past decade, many of those rigs have veered a bit northeast of the world’s acknowledged duck capital, parking instead in the waterfowl-rich habitat of southeastern Missouri.
And when you talk to local experts, it’s easy to understand why.
The SEMO Scene
At the northern edge of the vast Mississippi Delta, southeastern Missouri, or SEMO, features a cornucopia of habitat for wintering waterfowl, including major rivers, sprawling refuges, flooded cropland and moist-soil-managed areas. Hundreds of thousands of waterfowl converge on the area every fall and winter, and as hunting pressure at traditional destinations seems to intensify every year, waterfowlers have begun taking notice of this relatively small gem.
“I think southeastern Missouri in general is starting to become the new Arkansas,” said Brandon Martin, creative director for Banded and founder of DayBreak Outdoors, an outdoor media production group. He’s hunted southeastern Missouri for years and captures many of those adventures for DayBreak’s YouTube videos.
“There are a lot more ducks now than when I started hunting here. I don’t think ducks need to migrate as far south anymore because of food availability,” Martin said. “I don’t think it has to do with weather, necessarily. I think it’s because the farther south they go, the higher the pressure they encounter. Lots of ducks just hit southeastern Missouri — even northern Missouri — and stay. They’re adapting as to how far they migrate. Luckily for us, we’re just far north enough we’re not having to worry about that yet. Of course, more ducks equals more people. There’s way more hunting pressure.”
Luke Wehmhoff, wildlife management biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, who manages Otter Slough and Coon Island conservation areas, echoed those sentiments. He said that during a typical year, Otter Slough might hold up to 72,000 birds at its peak, and other area refuges have similar concentrations. Further, those numbers have held fairly steady, depending on annual weather conditions, for the past five to 10 years. And that many birds generate attention.
“I would say we’re getting a lot more publicity,” he said. “And not just at Otter Slough alone, but everywhere.”
Eric Rinehart, who has lived in southeastern Missouri all his life and has guided duck hunters there since he was young, said the area waterfowl scene can be spectacular, and he believes the recent uptick in publicity is just a sign of the times.
“It’s traditionally been a pretty tight-knit community in the Bootheel, especially the northern portion of southeastern Missouri,” he said. “It’s been pretty private. But now, it’s just getting to where the people who kept it private are phasing out. And the amount of ground that’s flooded here is really unexplainable. There are thousands of acres of habitat all around us — everywhere. Reelfoot Lake (Tennessee) is right across the (Mississippi River). Ballard County, Kentucky, is just a few miles away across the river. Mingo National Wildlife Refuge, 10 Mile Pond Conservation Area and Otter Slough are close by, and the guys who manage those properties do an unbelievable job of managing ducks.”
Of course, hunters long to take advantage of such a great resource, but that can be difficult for nonresidents or folks without the finances for land or a lease. That’s where a new venture has stepped in.
Eagle’s Nest Adventures
This season, Rinehart will begin outfitting waterfowl hunts through the newly formed North Delta Outfitters, which in 2019 purchased a property called Eagle’s Nest. The tract consists of about 600 acres a few miles from the Mississippi River in New Madrid, Missouri. Long known as a waterfowling hotspot, the land offers unlimited potential.
“It was one of those places that if you ever got invited to it, you made dang sure you had nothing to do that day,” said Martin, who hunted Eagle’s Nest about six or seven times before the purchase and limited out every outing. “You made sure to cancel everything. You never knew when you’d get invited back.”
What makes Eagle’s Nest special? Rinehart said it’s a combination of location, habitat and circumstances. The area is located where several waterfowl funnels — including the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi rivers — enter the Mississippi Delta. The property was previously managed as rice fields, but it’s now enrolled in the federal Wetlands Reserve Program for moist-soil management, which involves seasonal drawdowns and flooding at impoundments to provide plant and animal foods that are critical for the diet of wintering and migrating waterfowl.
“It’s truly an unbelievable place,” Rinehart said. “It’s fascinating how good it can be at times and just how consistent it can be day in and out. It’s a lot of willow breaks, willow trees, moist-soil management, and the little bit of corn and rice we can plant down there for food, which isn’t much. It’s one of the lowest-lying pieces of property in Missouri, if not the lowest. It’s just an indent in the world, and that’s what makes it so good.”
The property also has a ditch connected to the Mississippi, and when the big river floods, ducks follow the fresh water to Eagle’s Nest.
“When that river gets out, it’s like an instinct,” Martin said. “Within an hour of when the river starts going out of its banks, it’s going to be some of the best hunting in the world at Eagle’s Nest.”
Rinehart said mallards typically dominate the duck species at Eagle’s Nest, but the area also sees good flocks of divers — including canvasbacks — as the river rises. Teal numbers can be very strong from late November through Christmas. If freezing weather locks up shallow waters, many ducks relocate to the large rivers but stay in the area. And as weather warms toward late season after a hard freeze, hunters can experience incredible gunning.
“When it warms up after it’s been single digits or in the teens, the amount of ducks that come back is incredible,” Rinehart said. “The ducks in Arkansas push right back up here. It’s the very edge of the delta, and after they get here, it’s a pretty long haul to get to the next area (north) with habitat. When they come back north during the season, they don’t go much farther than here, so when it warms up, it gets to be the best hunting. They’re hungry and want to eat, and they’re very vulnerable.”
Rinehart said North Delta Outfitters is already about 70 percent booked for the 2020-'21 season. The service will likely run a rotation of five or six guides and hunt 50 to 60 days this season. North Delta Outfitters is also building a lodge at nearby Gee Bottoms, and it should be finished by duck season. Further, the outfitter plans to put another 650 acres into WRP soon. All that adds up to what should be a world-class experience for clients.
“The blinds are fantastic, the food’s going to be good and the accommodations are going to be really nice,” Rinehart said. “We’re just doing 12 people a day. We’ll work as hard as we possibly can to put them on ducks. The guides here aren’t just your everyday people. They think about duck hunting every day.”
With places such as Eagle’s Nest, southeastern Missouri has unquestionably become a bucket-list waterfowling destination. Ultimately, it’s impossible to say whether the area has supplanted Arkansas for top duck hunting honors. Both regions hold loads of birds and offer tremendous hunting opportunities. Still, when you consider that a tiny corner of the Show-Me State has attracted so much attention from hunters who always revered Arkansas as royalty, you realize that something special is happening in there.
If you’re lucky enough to hunt with Rinehart and Martin, or at one of the many other duck hotspots in the area, you can experience it yourself. Then you can make your own determination about which state is tops.
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