Keeping Waterfowl Properties Ready

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When Jason was 9 years old, his grandfather called his mother and then took him out of school so he could be in his waterfowl hunting party—which needed a third member in order to be able to draw.

The boy was more than ready, having grown up looking at waterfowl identification books and hearing his grandfather’s hunting stories.

“I was always jerking at his pant leg, begging him to go,” Vandercar said.

Since that first hunt, Vandercar, now age 45 and living in Lowell, in Lake County, has had a love affair with waterfowl hunting.

“Northwest Indiana has got a pretty big waterfowl culture,” Vandercar said. “You start with your family meeting people and start hunting and watching ducks fly.

“It just gets into your system, the love of being outdoors watching those birds fly—there are sunrises, sunsets, it’s beautiful.”

Vandercar still hunts waterfowl about 10 to 15 times a year when he can get away from his job as a road inspector.

Thanks to the efforts of the DNR Fish & Wildlife property managers, Vandercar and others like him should be able to enjoy hunting on public lands for years to come. A total of 544 acres of wetlands were restored on Fish & Wildlife properties in 2018, and 823 acres are planned for restoration in 2019-20. It’s year-round work that hunters and other property users don’t always see in progress, but they reap the benefits.

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to managing waterfowl habitats and hunting areas is the water itself. Nick Echterling, property manager at Hovey Lake Fish & Wildlife Area (FWA), near Mount Vernon, said he is always working to make sure the water is at an optimum level year-round, whether that involves monitoring what nature throws at the area, or taking matters into his own hands and using a pump to make adjustments when needed.

“In dry years we’re filling up the wetlands in early fall through diesel or electric pumps from the river and keep it flooded through the season,” Echterling said. “In late spring or early summer after most spring migrants have passed through, we draw down water levels, to mimic the natural flooding season of the river.

“Once a wetland unit dries out, we can go in and do some habitat work (typically mowing, disking, or planting) to make an area more productive.”

Zack DeYoung, property manager at LaSalle FWA, near Lake Village in northwest Indiana, said that manipulation of water levels throughout the season needs to occur to keep wetland habitats desirable to the many species they play host to.

“If you left many of these riparian wetland systems alone, they would quickly become less desirable to wetland species and would lose the biodiversity that makes them so important to the watershed,” DeYoung said. “There are a lot of man-made factors that have changed the way water behaves in the Kankakee watershed—this warrants the need for artificially mimicking what was once a natural cycle of slow rising and falling water levels seasonally in the wetland areas we manage.”

The ability to properly manage water in these areas leads to more consistent use by hunters and other property users throughout the year, while also benefiting the overall health of the wetlands. Without timely raising and lowering of water levels native vegetation may be edged out by invasive species that are less desirable to wildlife, leading to the eventual collapse of the entire ecosystem.

Echterling said a lot of time, money and man hours are spent fighting invasive species so they don’t overtake wetland areas. These species are able to colonize wetlands in a short amount of time and outcompete native vegetation that waterfowl and other species rely on.

“We try to manage for a balance of perennial and annual vegetation in our wetland areas that in turn provide benefits to all species during their various life cycles,” DeYoung said.

Wetlands provide areas to slow floodwaters and filter sediment, which contributes to cleaner water within watersheds throughout the state.

“We’re trying to provide good habitat for waterfowl and hunters year in and year out,” Echterling said.

But the conservation of these areas doesn’t just fall on property managers and DNR staff. Hunters and visitors have their own role to play.

“Keeping these areas clean is an issue all property managers have,” DeYoung said. “There’s a lot of trash left when people leave, so it’s always nice to see people going around and picking up and taking all of that with them.”

DeYoung and Echterling also recommend joining a waterfowl conservation organization and looking for volunteer opportunities at DNR Fish & Wildlife properties.

Besides Hovey Lake and LaSalle, Willow Slough, Kankakee and Goose Pond are also especially popular with waterfowl hunters. There are other areas around the state as well—check this hunting guide for details. Each property has its own regulations on uses of outboard/electric motors, shooting hours, and types of hunting offered. If you are trying a new property, it’s a good idea to call ahead for details on property-specific rules.

Most properties also have a daily drawing—the kind 9-year-old Vandercar once participated in—to allocate hunting opportunities. Hovey Lake, LaSalle, Willow Slough and Kankakee FWAs have daily drawings, while Goose Pond FWA has drawings on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 5:30 a.m. and Wednesdays at 11 a.m.