By Ian Nance
If you can’t find a place to duck hunt in Florida, you’re simply not trying.
I’ve long maintained, if you can’t find a place to duck hunt in Florida, you’re simply not trying. Waterfowling here is legal on most bodies of water with public access. The coasts provide an almost-endless opportunity to set up for a hunt. Multiple river systems and WMA’s throughout the state are there to be explored. The options are incredible.
Having said that, though, Florida waterfowling is a maddeningly inconsistent sport from year to year. For one, the vagaries of the migration affect the quality of hunting. While many factors contribute to the birds’ travels, generally speaking, weather conditions have a profound impact. Too warm to the north and many ducks don’t bother making the journey. Too much rain in this state and the game tends to spread out.
Furthermore, habitat changes, both natural and artificial, impact the hunt. Weed control, seawater encroachment, development, water management policy, among other factors, can run ducks to the next pond over.
For that reason, it’s best to have a few options tucked under your wing. The best duck hunters stay mobile, scout, and research, taking full advantage of all the state has to offer as well as get away from the crowds. But, if you’re new to Florida duck hunting and seeking a place to get your feet wet, let’s take a look at five standard-bearers for local water-fowling.
Merritt Island NWR
Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR) is as well-known of a Florida duck hunting venue as you’ll find. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS), in 1962 NASA acquired 140,000 acres of land, water, and marshes adjacent to Cape Canaveral to establish the John F. Kennedy Space Center. Through USFWS, large undeveloped portions of this area became a refuge which is now managed by the Department of the Interior.
As a duck hunting location, multiple water-control impoundments serves as habitat for migrating waterfowl, from puddle ducks to divers. In years gone by, MINWR was considered to be a premier destination until seawater encroachment damaged much of the vegetation upon which migrating ducks relied.
With the recent summers of heavy rainfall, the saltwater has been largely flushed out, and the hunting has improved; however, MINWR permits – with applicants chosen through an annual lottery – are limited and highly-coveted, and new rules governing motorboat accessibility and passage have been implemented effective the 2016 season.
Still, when the conditions are right, the duck action at MINWR is hot with hunters experiencing some of the finest mixed-bag shooting Florida has to offer.
T.M. Goodwin WMA
Per Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), T.M. Goodwin Waterfowl Management Area (WMA) is comprised of 6,270 acres split between two management areas – the T.M. Goodwin Unit and the Broadmoor Marsh Unit. The T.M. Goodwin Unit was developed with funds provided by the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, Ducks Unlimited (DU), and the former Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.
Broadmoor was acquired in 2002 through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the St. Johns River Water Management District purchasing a Wetland Reserve Program conservation easement and fee-title acquisition on agriculture property north of Goodwin. This land was then leased to FWC to provide high-quality wetland habitat for waterfowl and other species.
Located near Fellsmere, T.M. Goodwin offers limited-entry hunts throughout the season. Like MINWR, hunters apply each Fall for permits. Once checked in on the hunt date, successful applicants choose their hunting area on a map based on the order in which the permit was designated to the recipient. FWC staff is on hand to give the conditions of each cell. Hunting spots on Broadmoor are accessible by kayak, canoe, and, in a few areas, wading. Hunters in the Goodwin Unit can use motorized boats under 40HP in certain hunting zones.
Even if you’re unsuccessful pulling permits for T.M. Goodwin WMA, access to Upper St. Johns WMA is off the same access road and holds vast duck hunting potential for those willing to explore.
Kissimmee Chain of Lakes Watershed
Central Florida hunters who either weren’t drawn for limited-entry hunts or don’t care for assigned seating for a duck hunt should check out the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes watershed.
These vital wetlands begin in Orange County and form the headwaters of the Kissimmee-Okeechobee-Everglades system. Including Cypress Lake, Lake Hatchineha, Lake Kissimmee, and the Kissimmee River among other lakes, their tributaries and marshes, this region serves as major hub for Florida’s waterfowl.
The big lakes, in particular, attract a variety of diving and puddle ducks due to hydrilla found there. Hunters must pay attention, though, to efforts to control this invasive vegetation for as those weeds go, so goes much of the attractive elements for ducks who forage through these hydrilla mats.
For airboaters, the Kissimmee region is a paradise as they are able to access out-of-the-way honey-holes that outboards and surface drives can not reach. While the immensity of this area can be intimidating, there are a charitable number of boat ramps, campsites, and lodging opportunities for hunters to set up shop. Combined with some of the best bass fishing in the state, the potential for a world-class Florida Cast N’ Blast adventure is abundant throughout the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes watershed.
The marshes from Clewiston and Moore Haven north to the city of Okeechobee on the Big Lake are well-renowned for quality duck hunting and with good reason.
These expanses are replete with habitat that favor migrating waterfowl, namely shallow water, plenty of food, and room to escape hunting pressure.
On a place like Okeechobee, there aren’t too many secrets these days. Airboats have an easier time reaching low-traffic spots but other hunters do just fine working the outside marshes. Blue-winged teal and ringers comprise the majority of hunters’ bags with mottled ducks and black-bellied whistling ducks helping out when the migration is slacking. The trick on Lake Okeechobee is to scout, locate birds, try not to booger them up too bad, and get there early before the next guy does.
And, as with Kissimmee, the bass action is on fire during the winter months. Tournament season is underway leaving duck hunters and fishermen jockeying for available lodging.
Stormwater Treatment Areas
Seeking a quality South Florida hunting adventure when on any given morning one can expect a potpourri of different duck species? Look no further than the Stormwater Treatment Areas (STA’s).
Designed to trap phosphorus from storm runoff in an effort to resuscitate the Everglades ecosystem, the STA’s have become a hotbed of waterfowling activity. Shallow waters and hydrilla congregate the birds in these areas. At this time there are four STA hunting properties – STA 1-W in Palm Beach County; STA-2 north of the Palm Beach / Broward County line on HWY 27; STA-3/4 at the intersection of the L-5 levee and US 27 at the Palm Beach / Broward County line; and STA-5 in eastern Hendry County.
Being the duck magnets these areas are, drawing permits has become difficult in recent years; however, in 2016 FWC changed the permit issuance process in an attempt to spread the wealth as much as possible. With motorized vessel prohibited, hunters canoe or kayak to spots near designated parking spots.
The shooting has been consistently good from year to year, but there is concern about the long-term viability of the duck hunting as cattails and hyacinths thrive and choke out hunt space due to the accumulation of phosphorous and other nutrients. For now, however, it doesn’t get much better in this state.
No matter where you choose to duck hunt in Florida, expect a wild experience. Many different species winter here. It’s not uncommon to kayak eyeball to eyeball with a gator while coastal hunters become accustomed to dolphins swimming around decoys. Give it a try and you’ll be hooked.
For more information on waterfowling in Florida, please check out FWC’s webpage on the subject at http://myfwc.com/hunting/by-species/waterfowl/