As the Jet Stream dips southward and cool north winds enter the Magnolia State, the fall migration of North American waterfowl will bring swarms of birds into Mississippi.

If you are a waterfowl hunter, you know that the Mississippi Flyway, centered along either side of the Mississippi River, is a huge travel corridor for flights of ducks and geese from the north. The vast majority of waterfowl breeding in the Dakotas and Canada will follow the Mississippi River south, stopping along the way to feed and rest. Many factors dictate whether or not they will stay in our state, however, with weather and suitable habitat being the two most important.

If you've duck hunted long enough, you can probably remember a season or two when dry conditions persisted in Mississippi and a large front pushed birds right past us and down to coastal areas of Louisiana. You can probably also recall on more than one occasion when we had plenty of water in our area, but warm weather kept the birds well to our north in areas of Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.

Well, there is certainly not much we can do to change the weather, but we can do our best to make habitat conditions favorable for the birds when they make it to Mississippi.


What birds need

It's no secret that most of the available waterfowl habitat in the state is on private land. In the Delta region, most of that land consists of agricultural fields and a few scattered swamps and brakes.

Agricultural crops can provide excellent nutritional value for waterfowl. For example, one acre of unharvested rice can feed more than 29,000 ducks for one day. In contrast, one acre of bottomland hardwoods can feed only 191 ducks for a day.

This may lead one to believe that wall-to-wall crops are the key to success in attracting wintering waterfowl, but that is not correct. All wildlife needs a variety of habitat in a given area. Food, water, cover, space and arrangement are critical to a healthy habitat. Large acreages of cropland are of no use to birds who can't escape inclement conditions in a button-bush slough or a sheltered timber hole.

A diet of nothing but cereal is also not very healthy. Birds need more than just grains; they need native seeds and invertebrates as well. Research has shown that while ag crops may provide plenty of food for ducks, native species and natural areas can provide a more balanced diet.

Seeds from crabgrass, barnyard grass, smartweed and curly dock all have higher energy content than rice. Seeds from these native species deteriorate more slowly than seeds from agricultural crops, which means more food later in the season for the birds.

While moist soil plants may not provide as much available seed as unharvested corn and rice, marginal moist soil areas can feed as many as 1,400 ducks per day, and intensively managed moist soil areas can feed nearly 14,000 ducks per day.

In contrast, harvested rice can feed only about 140 ducks per day and harvested corn slightly fewer than 1,000 ducks per day. Couple this with deterioration rates of crop seed after harvest, and it is highly likely that an average moist soil area can far exceed available seed levels that waterfowl find in harvested crop fields by the time they arrive months after harvest.

These native species and natural habitats also provide a substrate for invertebrates such as fairy shrimp, water fleas, snails and midges.

Successful managers take all of this into consideration when managing for wintering waterfowl. An area that provides everything a wintering duck needs should be a mixture of approximately 10 percent permanent water, 20 percent forested wetlands, 20 percent moist-soil wetland and 50 percent flooded croplands.


Public land management

Ed Penny is the migratory game bird program coordinator for the MDWFP. According to Penny, there are 24 wildlife management areas throughout the state that are managed for waterfowl.

"The Delta is obviously the most important area in the state for wintering waterfowl, but Northeast Mississippi also has good hunting," he said. "Key areas are along the Tenn-Tom Waterway like Canal Section, John Bell Williams, Trim Cane and Tuscumbia WMAs as well as areas managed by the corps along the waterway.

"Another area often overlooked is the Pascagoula River Basin. There is a large resident population of wood ducks, and these provide a lot of opportunity for local hunters. Also, during the early season, there are also fair numbers of bluewing teal along the coastal marshes as well."

Penny explained that while there are areas of crops that can be flooded for waterfowl, that is just one piece of the pie in the management objective.

"On our priority waterfowl areas like Howard Miller WMA, we plant conventional crops like rice and soybeans in cooperation with a local farmer," he said. "We also have supplemental plantings of corn and milo in areas that are managed for moist-soil vegetation like millet and smartweed.

"On most WMAs, we try to have a diverse mix of waterfowl food - about 60 percent crop, 40 percent moist-soil on average - but it differs by WMA. In recent years, MDWFP has focused on providing a mix of habitats for waterfowl so that their needs are met throughout the wintering period. This has also helped make hunting and harvest more consistent throughout the season."

Every duck hunter worth his salt knows that flooded timber is what ducks really want, right? You hear of the timber hunting in Arkansas and how the ducks just can't resist the urge to gobble up a tasty willow oak acorn.

The stark reality is that most of that bottomland hardwood forest was cut down 100 years ago on our side of the Mississippi River. It doesn't matter if the ducks like it or not, we just don't have much flooded timber hunting in Mississippi.

Thankfully, the public-land hunter can find timber to wade on some of our WMAs. Green tree reservoirs (GTRs) are what duck hunters know as flooded hardwood timber. These areas are flooded periodically to provide food and cover for wintering waterfowl.

"There are many GTRs throughout the state, ranging from John Bell Williams WMA in the northeast to O'Keefe WMA in Quitman County, to Sunflower WMA in Sharkey County," said Penny. "Sunflower and Malmaison WMAs have the largest GTRs. At Sunflower WMA, we work with the US Forest Service to rotate flooded timber areas to promote growth of desirable species like red oaks, which are highly preferred by mallards and wood ducks.

"Flooding timber too deeply and for too long into the growing season over many years reduces oak regeneration and can reduce waterfowl use and hunting success of a GTR."

Many hunters are under the false assumption that each GTR is flooded every year. But, as Penny stated, flooding oak trees every year is not good for the trees. Even in areas like the famed Cache and White River bottoms of Arkansas, the flood is not continual or consistent. As with any other natural flood plain, you may get only a few weeks of the year where the trees are flooded, and this may not happen every year.

Even then, floods of excessive depths can leave tons of acorns on the forest floor, far below the reach of dabbling ducks that can only feed on what is about a foot and a half below the surface. By creating reservoirs in these areas of bottomland hardwoods, managers can regulate the depth and duration of the flood to benefit both the trees and the ducks.


All in one package

Robbie Kiihnl, manager of O'Keefe WMA in Quitman County, has one of the more diverse waterfowl areas in the Delta. Consisting of 6,600 acres, O'Keefe is a mixture of crops, moist-soil impoundments and flooded timber, just a mile west of the Tallahatchie River.

Approximately 600 acres of the area consists of land-formed fields. Local farmers plant cereal grains in the impoundments, and leave portions of the crop standing through the winter. Cropland that is harvested is not tilled until the following spring, which provides the maximum amount of available waste grain for waterfowl during the winter.

Approximately 450 acres of crop land can be flooded. Moist-soil units are rotated with crop units each year, and Kiihnl intensively manages about 150 acres of moist soil areas to provide the maximum amount of seeds from native, annual plants.

A full 1,000 acres of the forested portion of the WMA is enclosed in a levee system, made up of three separate units. Three GTRs can be individually flooded, and Kiihnl floods one GTR each year. Other areas of the WMA flood naturally when the Tallahatchie River inundates the area and backs up into other tributaries.

"I begin flooding the impoundments Nov. 1," said Kiihnl. "Depending on when the harvest is complete, I try to pump the crop and moist soil units about one-third full for the opener, and gradually flood the rest by about Jan. 1."

The land-formed fields are on a precision grade, so depth of the water is accurately controlled. Water on the "deep end" of the unit will rarely exceed 18 inches, which is the ideal feeding depth for puddle ducks like mallards and pintails. Even then, you will routinely see ducks feeding in the "edge water" of a field that is only a couple of inches deep.

So by flooding a small portion of the unit early, and increasing the depth as the season progresses, new food is exposed to the birds as the edge moves up the grade of the field. Winter rains will top off the unit as hunting season progresses. Water depth throughout the timber varies, due to topography features.

"The natural sloughs in the woods fill up first and are the deepest," said Kiihnl. "The water depth may range from 2 inches deep in the shallow areas, to 18 or 20 inches deep in the sloughs."

Grants from federally funded conservation programs and partnerships with conservation organizations mean that more public-land habitat is being created every year. Farm land is precision leveled and water-control structures are installed, and levee systems and wells are installed in natural areas.

According to Kiihnl, another 20 acres on O'Keefe is scheduled to be leveled with the help of Ducks Unlimited in the next few months. This location had previously been in a dry farm field, flooded only when beavers stopped up a drainage ditch that crossed the field. With the creation of the new impoundment, ducks will have another hole that floods every year, and duck hunters will have another hole that they can hunt.

"We have worked hard to make flooding more efficient on WMAs like Malmaison, where we recently completed a levee and well/pump project," said Penny. "Projects like these help give our managers flexibility to do different things throughout the year to benefit ducks and wetland habitat."


Win, lose or draw

Now that you know that public-land managers are working intensively to provide the habitat that the ducks need, how do you go about landing a hunt on one of these areas?

Some of the WMAs are open to anyone who shows up to hunt, while others are only open to hunters selected through the draw system. Hunters can apply online or in writing to the MDWFP for up to three WMAs per year.

According to Penny, eight WMAs are managed through a combination of preseason draws and standby opportunities. Six of the eight have standby opportunities, where a hunter may be selected for a hunt if the hunter who was drawn for a particular date does not show. And while you may be opposed to the draw system on public land, you have to realize that with the ever-increasing popularity of duck hunting, and sky-rocketing lease prices on private land, there has to be some way to ensure safety and a quality hunting experience on the state's public lands.

More people than ever are flocking to public lands to hunt. But rest assured, Mississippi has some fantastic public waterfowl hunting opportunities. The only way you can lose in this situation is if you don't put in for the draw, or you don't head out to one of the open hunting areas this winter.

Now if we could just get Mother Nature to send us a real winter, we'd have it made.