It's a fact, you can attract and hold waterfowl if you plant areas with specific crops. We really don’t refer to them as “food plots” when in regards to waterfowl, but in essence, that’s what they are. Ducks, just like deer, turkeys and most other wildlife, are always in search of their next meal. Just like most other wildlife, once they find a good location they will steadily utilize it until it’s either gone, no longer palatable, the need for migration takes over, or hunting pressure forces a move.
And there’s more; ducks are gregarious, over time you will have more and more birds utilizing your offerings. These birds will “imprint” on the spot if you treat them right. That means providing a food source they prefer, but equally important, you’ll need to manage the hunting pressure.
So how do you plant for waterfowl? In an ideal world, you would have a water control structure that would enable you to catch and drain water at will. It would allow you to raise the water level as you want and flood the majority, but leave some available to be flooded later in an effort to have some food left over for later in the season.
Planting for ducks takes some planning. The actual planting has to occur mid-summer when everyone else is fishing at the lake or enjoying cooler temperatures via air-conditioning. However, a few days of work to create the right “groceries” in your spot dramatically improves its ability to attract and hold waterfowl. This is proven time and time again.
Corn is a popular crop and it without a doubt attracts waterfowl. I also like its higher structure; it helps make ducks feel safe. They can swim into it and not feel so exposed to avian predators. Corn also attracts invertebrates that ducks need in their diet as it breaks down in the water. Corn is expensive and somewhat labor intensive to plant since you have to apply nitrogen and usually spray for weeds. On average, corn needs 100 days to mature so it is ready before waterfowl hunting season.
There are other crops like soybeans, Egyptian wheat, milo and sunflowers that ducks also love to eat, but don’t last long in the water. They break down and deteriorate through the season.
At Mossy Oak, managing for waterfowl and watching out for snakes is a big part of our late summer. Our founder, Toxey Haas, is obsessed with attracting and holding waterfowl and regularly plants every piece of open ground he can, as long as he can get his Can-Am four-wheeler into it. He has learned the hard way and regularly shares his knowledge to help others.
He has had very good success with a BioLogic blend called Guide’s Choice. We’ve planted it every way we can, but what seems to work best in our area is to broadcast it on mud flats.
We “pull boards,” and drain the impoundments during early July. The dates when you add or pull boards in your risers will vary depending on location. We’re located in northern Mississippi so adjust your timing according. If you’re further north it will be earlier and if you’re further south it can be later.
Guide’s Choice is planted at a rate of 20 pounds per acre. The major component is a specially selected variety of Japanese millet plus a light addition of grain sorghum and buckwheat – all plants that waterfowl relish. Under normal conditions the crop matures in about 65 days, but during dry, stressful conditions it is able to mature faster. It’s easy to grow and the ducks love it.
If it’s really dry during the growing process you’ll see more grain sorghum and during really wet years you’ll see the millet take over (it loves having its “feet” wet).
We’ve experimented with having buckwheat in the blend. If you have a really high deer density, they can eat the buckwheat out of the plot. Buckwheat is also a broad-leaf and created some challenges to control weeds with a grass specific herbicide. We have made the decision to remove the buckwheat going forward and this will allow to easily spray a broadleaf herbicide to kill cockleburrs, sicklepod and others weeds that don’t have any value for waterfowl, while allowing barnyard grass and other seed-producing grass plants that are beneficial to thrive.
You can plant this right into a dry seedbed just like a traditional food plot. So if you have an oxbow lake or a beaver pond that dries down in the summer, you can plant the edges. Ideally speaking, if you have a water control structure and you pull the boards to drain it, the days immediately following you should plant the Guide’s Choice right into the wet mud. Toxey refers to this moisture as “liquid gold.” It’s already there, it’s yours and you need to take advantage of it for the best seed germination.
The seed will immediately germinate in this perfect scenario. A good ATV with a broadcast seeder is the best way to spread the seed or we have used the blower attachment made by Extreme products in smaller holes. A good old-fashioned hand seeder also works great; it’s just oftentimes hard to walk in these muddy conditions.
Typically these areas are fertile and the Guide’s Choice doesn’t need a lot of fertilizer. Like many grasses it can benefit from some nitrogen if you can apply it. I’d suggest doing a soil test to determine what, if anything, you may need to apply.
A threat in August and September is army worms. These pesky caterpillars emerge from the cracked earth under dry, stressful conditions and can damage a crop quickly. During this time of the year, you have to keep an eye out for damage. Immediately upon seeing any signs of damage you need to spray. Your local farm supply store can help with a solution to kill the pests. It’s not complicated and there are many contact killers that can be sprayed and provide relief for the crop.
The water structure I referenced earlier is a very important piece of this puzzle. A good unit can make your job easier in terms of catching water, maintaining a specific level and draining. It’s basically a fabricated piece of metal that attaches to a pipe. It’s placed at the lowest point for drainage purposes and most are built to hold boards that are stacked in the fabricated grooves to determine the height of the water. You can raise or lower the water 4 or 6 inches at a time with standard cut lumber. The best commercial unit I have found is made by Osceola Machine (their website is www.osceolamachine.net).
It is also suggested to plant BioLogic’s Blind Spot around where you determine your best blind locations will be and several other areas around the pond. The plants in Blind Spot can get 8-10 feet tall in the matter of a few weeks and provide natural vegetative cover. I think it’s important to plant other patches of it so you have options to move to in different wind conditions, and then your blind doesn’t stand out as being the only patch of that specific tall vegetation.
Lastly, manage your hunting pressure. Don’t shoot them every day. You should even consider not hunting them at all during the first few years of establishing an impoundment. If you have a lot of birds in daylight you should consider flushing them and shooting the smaller groups that return so you don’t educate the entire flock. Just be smart. If you’re getting fewer ducks…hunt less.
I love the idea of planting for waterfowl. Some upland properties won’t have any opportunities for this, but many lowlands will have a low spot in an agricultural field or a beaver pond in a swamp. All it takes is a little effort on the front end to build a slight levee or install a structure. It’s a one-time expense that will provide you with a project that has the potential to get better and better each year as the ducks imprint on the place. Not only will this provide you with great hunting, but it will supply waterfowl with food and sanctuary. As gamekeepers, we just have to do our part.