Hunting ducks at the 'Wild Goose Capital'

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SUMNER, Mo. — It's not difficult to find the mayor of the "Wild Goose Capital of the World." When John "Fast Eddie" Krueger came here in 2000, he stopped in a local tavern and asked if anyone knew where he might find Jim Woody.

"He's sitting right over there," Krueger was told.

It's not that Woody, the mayor for the past nine years, hangs out in the bar on a regular basis. Sumner's population is 142, "counting the dogs and cats," as Woody likes to say. And in towns this size, everybody knows where everybody is, all the time.

The exception to that rule here occurs every third weekend in October, when Sumner's population swells to a few thousand during its annual Wild Goose Festival. In the 1950s, when nearby Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge suddenly became the annual wintering grounds for a rapidly increasing population of Canada geese, it seemed appropriate for Sumner to declare itself the "Wild Goose Capital of the World."

During the peak populations that occurred in the early 1970s, it was estimated that the 10,795-acre Swan Lake NWR held 150,000 to 200,000 Canada geese.

A closely-monitored quota system allowed for the harvest of 25,000 Canada geese per hunting season during the 1970s. Woody remembers how local businesses would post the quota and harvest numbers, updating them on a daily basis.

"It was amazing how fast that quota was reached," said Woody, recalling that even with daily bag limits of only one or two Canada geese per day, the quota would be filled in less than two weeks.

The "largest goose in the world," a fiberglass statue nicknamed Maxie, continues to reside in Sumner. But the wild Canada geese don't come here in nearly the numbers they used to — the wintering flock here now ranges from 10,000 to 80,000.

Legendary waterfowl biologist Frank Bellrose once compared the increase in North America's Canada goose population, which coincided with the Swan Lake NWR increases, to the most spectacular wildlife management accomplishments of the 20th century, "rivaling the comeback of the white-tailed deer and the wild turkey."

And the Canada goose increase has continued to be a success story. The huge population that piled into Swan Lake NWR during those heydays now winters further north.

Duck hunting has been more of a constant in this western section of the Mississippi Flyway. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 7563 establishing the Swan Lake National Wildlife Refuge in 1937. Its primary purpose was to provide nesting, resting and feeding areas for waterfowl, and primarily ducks. Swan Lake NWR is located just north of the Grand and Missouri rivers' confluence.

"I think the duck hunting has gotten better since the geese have left," said Woody.

The mayor of Sumner spends a lot of time in a duck blind this time of year. Woody and his best duck hunting buddy for the past eight seasons — the aforementioned "Fast Eddie" Krueger — were the hosts for this stop on the ESPN Outdoors Duck Trek.

Four of us would spend a day in a 4-foot by 12-foot pit blind. It was one of two pit blinds sunk next to each other in a small, shallow lake on private property located about a quarter-mile from the Swan Lake NWR boundary.

A bunch of ducks have been killed from these two blinds over the years.

"You're allowed 360," said Krueger, referring to the daily six-duck limit in a 60-day season. "We thought we'd try to get it one year."

"Man, we smoked 'em that season," Woody said.

They estimated a total approaching 700 between them that year. Obviously, you have to hunt almost every day in a 60-day season to approach that number. And you've got to do it in an area that holds plenty of ducks.

The management plan at Swan Lake NWR includes water control on 3,500 acres of wetlands to produce the natural, moist soil foods for waterfowl, like smartweed and wild millet. An additional 1,000 acres are farmed for corn, milo, wheat and/or soybeans to supplement the natural foods.

But the floods that have plagued much of Missouri and surrounding states over the past year have wiped out much of that waterfowl food supply. The Grand River has reached near-record levels three times since last spring. Those high water levels have affected not just the waterfowl food grown in Swan Lake NWR, but thousands of farmland acres in this section of the state, most of which were planted in corn.

"Usually we see a lot more ducks than we have this year," Woody said. "But it seems like we are pulling in just about every duck we see."

As has been the case on much of this ESPN Outdoors Duck Trek, the norm would change upon our arrival.

That didn't seem to be the case initially. It was 7:36 a.m. when Woody, Krueger, James Overstreet and I were settled in one of the 12-foot-long pits. At 7:42, a small group of mallards worked well to Woody's calling. We killed two and should have had more, but that didn't seem like a big deal at the time.

Woody isn't your average duck-caller. He's been a successful competition caller, and he often serves as a judge in local and state calling competitions now. But Woody, 54, also has the practical experience gained by so many days of duck hunting. He estimated that he'll hunt "only" about 50 of the 60 days allowed this season.

Woody knows when to blow hard on a call, when to ease up and when to stay silent. After that initial group of cooperative mallards, nothing else would be so easy the rest of the day.

"There's too many ducks," said Woody, as one group after another joined in circling over the decoy spread. "They're everywhere. I don't know what to call at."

After they'd circled and circled and circled, then increased elevation before circling one more time, then flying away, we got a laugh out of Woody's, "There's too many ducks," quote. That's something Overstreet and I hadn't heard yet this season. [NEXT PAGE]

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