Do-It-Yourself Duck Ponds

If you have water that you can manipulate, you can probably attract ducks to your land.

Brad Bailey | December 1, 2006

A Clemson Leveler is simply a PVC pipe run through a beaver dam to allow draining of a pond. Shown here is the pond-side of the device. The welded-wire mesh is to prevent beavers from damming the pipe. Holes in the pipe reduce the sound of running water, which attracts beavers.

Georgia isn’t known for its red-hot duck hunting. We are a long way from the rice fields of Arkansas and clouds of mallards. For most Georgia duck hunters a good morning hunting means you were able to slog into a beaver-pond swamp and scratch down your pair of woodies.

There are some exceptions. Some private landowners have developed their own high-quality duck ponds where they can attract good numbers, and often a wide variety of ducks. For some, the result has been almost Arkansas in Georgia.

Greg Balkcom is the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division waterfowl biologist.

“We routinely hear from landowners who want to know what they can do to attract ducks,” said Greg. “They may have a spot where they are seeing a few ducks but they want to make it better. The No. 1 thing most folks are after is trying to enhance the food source. That can be done by manipulating the water level to enhance natural vegetation or by draining, planting and flooding.”

In Crawford County, Yancey Houston and three friends are developing a wetland tract where they can pull water off, plant, and then reflood.

Yancey has always been an avid waterfowl hunter, and he was bit with the desire to develop his own piece of Arkansas duck hunting in Georgia.

“I went duck hunting with a friend who had 24 acres of flooded corn in Monroe County,” said Yancey. “There were more ducks falling out of the sky into that hole than I had ever seen in Georgia. You can see hundreds of ringnecks, and you can kill pintails and mallards and widgeon that you don’t see anywhere else. Ever since I went hunting there, I said ‘I’ve got to have a place like that,’ and I have kept my eye open for a place that I could flood for ducks.”

That opportunity presented itself recently when Yancey, his brother and two close friends pooled resources to purchase a 100-acre tract in Crawford County.

“The place had some old fields and a creek running through it, and we thought it was perfect. The ducks are already in it, and it has some flooded timber that looks like Arkansas.

“We spent $10,000 to build a dam on the back of the fields and put in two drain pipes so we could drain the water off,” said Yancey. “We shut the pipes off a month ago, and we can pump out of a creek from a beaver pond and flood about six or seven acres of corn. The corn didn’t do real well this year, but we have some smartweed growing in the field. And we did grow some corn, and it looks pretty nice right now. That big rain last night flooded a lot of it.”

Yancey and his partners hunt the swamp only once a week, and last season the results were good. There were hundreds of woodies and a handful of mallards using the swamp, he said. In the past there have been black ducks and pintails taken from the property, so they have high hopes for their duck-hunting future.

“We always get our pair of woodies early,” he said. “The mallards come in later in the day, and we fool around with them and usually get two or three.”

Drawing mallards can be a hit-or-miss proposition when building your own pond, said Yancey.

“I have another friend who has a pond and all he can attract are woodies and hooded mergansers,” he said. “It’s just like putting in a dove field. There are some places doves like to be, and there are other places they don’t like even with the same kind of food out there. It’s the same thing with ducks. If you want mallards, I don’t think you can get them unless they are already close.”

Last year, two weeks after the season went out there were 200 mallards using the swamp, said Yancey.

“The place we bought already had mallards in the timber, so when we get the corn to grow, we are going to have mallards in the field,” he said.

The pond Yancey and his partners have built serves a dual purpose.

“Until it gets flooded, we kill deer in that corn,” said Yancey. “One of my sons, Zack, has killed four deer from a stand that looks at the duck pond.

“We drain it in February or March, so most of the year it’s just a field. You can shoot deer on it, and we have shot doves over part of it, too.”

Work on the pond continues.

“It’s going to be world-class in a few years,” said Yancey. “As we can afford it, we want to put in more dikes. We are only flooding one of the four fields, and we want to be able to plant and flood them all and have 30 acres of flooded fields and 30 acres of flooded timber, and then we will really have something. I think it will happen, it only takes money.”

Dudley Ottley of Atlanta was the Ducks Unlimited MARSH committee coordinator for four years and has seen the development of a number of state wetland projects. He has also helped create several private duck ponds, including one in Gordon County that was a mallard mecca.

“There was some property near the confluence of the Conasauga, Coosawattee and Oostanaula rivers that was mostly bottom land that was available in 1995,” said Dudley. “There had been a big rain and the property had flooded, and the farmer leasing it hadn’t been able to get his soybeans out of a 100-acre bottom. When we went to look one afternoon just before Thanksgiving, there were 300 ducks on the pond. I said, ‘Good gosh — this is unbelieveable.’ It was mostly mallards, but there were all kinds of ducks — pintails, ringnecks, widgeon, gadwalls, woodies, green-wing teal — everything. We realized that the place was on some kind of natural flyway.”

Dudley and three other individuals put together a partnership and purchased 213 acres for about $1,100 per acre, closing the deal in 1996. Then they set about improving the property.

“We hired a former WRD biologist named Steve Johnson who surveyed the property and laid out the ponds. We had to get a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dam the stream using two existing old roadways. Then we hired a local grading contractor to build two dams so we could keep the water two- to three-feet deep. We put in flash-board riser water control structures.”

The grading work cost about $35,000 in 1996. One dike was 600 feet in length and about three-feet tall. The second dike was 800 feet long and approximately 3 1/2-feet tall.

“The first pond was about 17 acres; the second pond was about 28 acres, and they both had a lot of natural food in them,” said Dudley.

The first year there was enough rainfall to flood the impoundments. The second year a diesel engine and pump were used to pump water out of the Conasauga River. The ability to pump is often critical.

“If everybody has water, everybody has ducks. But if you can control the water level on a pond, and you are the only one with water, you will be the only one with ducks,” said Dudley.

“The local farmer who had leased the land in the past planted soybeans,” he said. “I have since learned that soybeans aren’t a good duck food. The seeds turn to mush when they get wet, and if the pods are out of water, they break open and the seeds fall out by December.”

Dudley said he has had good luck planting corn, Japanese millet or grain sorghum in various duck ponds because the seeds persist longer. However, according to Dudley, research by Dr. Richard Kaminski at Mississippi State has found that ducks prefer natural foods like smartweed or natural millets.

The hunting was often outstanding in the Gordon County pond, which was roughly half open water and half standing timber. In their best season during the late 1990s, 252 ducks were killed.

“We had some fantastic greenhead shoots,” said Dudley. “Sometimes there were two or three hundred mallards on the pond. When we shoot mallards, we go out of our way to shoot only greenheads. It was a rare spot.”

According to Dudley’s records, over the six or seven years he hunted the property, mallards made up 36.5 percent of the ducks bagged.

In Oglethorpe County, John Seginak of Comer has improved both his duck and deer hunting possibilities by installing something called a Clemson Leveler in a beaver pond to be able to manipulate water levels.

A Clemson Leveler is a simple and relatively inexpensive PVC-pipe drain designed to be installed through a beaver-dam so the water level can be manipulated (see photo on page 119).

“What you do is rip out a section of the beaver dam and put the Leveler in,” said John. “It’s got about 20 feet of pipe that extend from both sides of the dam. Then you cap the drain, and the beavers come back and rebuild the dam, and they think they have fixed you. Then you uncap the pipe to drain the swamp, and they can’t figure out what went wrong.”

The Leveler gives John options on how to manage his swamp for ducks and deer.

“The beauty of the thing is that you can cap it and keep water in a swamp or you can uncap it, drain the swamp and plant for the desired species — ducks or deer. It’s worked great for me. I have planted the swamp with iron-and-clay peas, wheat and soybeans for deer, and for ducks I have planted millet or rice and flooded it when the plants get to the desired height.”

John said that last season he and his duck-hunting friends killed six different species of ducks including woodies, mallards, black ducks, gadwall, green-winged teal, and widgeon.

“We would have had seven species,” he said. “But someone missed a pintail. A pintail came in with some mallards, but the people who saw it freaked out.”

John said they get a shot at an occasional Canada goose, but the honkers generally prefer bigger water.

“The key to creating a good duck pond is having a good water supply,” said Greg Balkcom. “You need to have it flooded by mid November in time for the migration, but September and October are two of the driest months.”

If you dam a stream, you are likely to have to secure permits.

“There can be several layers of permitting,” said Greg. “All wetlands and streams are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.”

Beaver ponds are an exception, however.

“Beaver ponds have a nationwide exclusion,” said Greg. “You can fool with them, tear holes in them, or blow them up. The one technicality is that if you remove material from a beaver pond you must dispose of it on dry ground. You can’t throw it back in the pond or the creek channel downstream.

“If you want to flood an oak bottom to create a greentree impoundment for ducks, you may have to acquire several permits,” said Greg. “You may need a Soil Disturbance Permit and a Variance Permit that allows you to work in a stream. Both are issued by the county. You may also need a permit from the corps.

“Usually what happens when you contact the corps is that they will send you a list of consultants who can come out and evaluate your project,” said Greg. “If you are enhancing, creating or restoring wetlands, you are probably in good shape, but the corps will want to look at your purpose and at the outcome of your project.”

According to Greg, it doesn’t take much of a puddle to require the corps’ paperwork and their blessing.

“I believe that if your project impacts an area greater than 1/10 of an acre, the corps needs to be contacted,” he said.

If you are working on dry land, outside a wetland, and building a dike around a field and flooding it from a creek or a well, you should not have any trouble with the corps, said Greg.

If you are considering construction of a private duck pond, there may be cost/share money available.

“Potentially, there are two federal programs that assist with private wetlands projects,” said Greg. “The WRP — Wetlands Reserve Program — may provide assistance in instances where you are restoring past wetlands, and it allows some limited manipulation to attract ducks.

“The WHIP program — Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program — also provides cost/share money to private landowners on a competitive basis, and funding is limited.”

Greg recommends contacting the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for help with getting started with design and construction of a pond.

“The NRCS is a great contact to tell you whether your project qualifies for any cost/share programs,” said Greg. “They can sometimes help with design work, and they may know local contractors who can do the work.”

If you create high-quality waterfowl habitat, you can usually expect ducks will come, but not all ponds are created equally.

“A lot of factors determine whether you attract ducks,” said Greg. “Water depth is extremely important. If you have six inches to 18 inches of water, that’s plenty. Many ponds are built with water that is three to six feet deep. Most folks try to make their ponds too deep. Those are the guys trying to increase their acreage by making the pond deeper, but if the ducks can’t reach the food, you’ve got zero acres of available food.”

Ponds tightly enclosed by tall trees tend to attract wood ducks and hooded mergansers. Ponds with more open land or fields around them tend to attract a greater variety of ducks. The vegetation available also affects the species of ducks that may use a pond.

“Ringnecks just love watershield,” said Greg. “If you have a lot of duckweed, you will usually see a lot of woodies and teal.”

Greg says that flooded corn is the most popular planting for ducks.

“You can plant corn to attract ducks,” he said. “But you must leave it standing. You may not manipulate the crop by bushhogging it or knocking it down or doing anything to make that seed more available to waterfowl.”

While corn will attract ducks, Greg concurrs with Dudley’s observation that natural duck foods are hard to beat.

“I look at it like this: are you providing ice cream or meat and potatoes,” said Greg. “Ducks will eat corn, but the natural foods provide a better balance of nutrition. If you have a mix of smartweed and wild millet, and fall pellet grass, you will have an area that is attractive to ducks.”

If you have access to a beaver pond, a Clemson Levelor may be all that stands between you and improving the quality of your duck hunting.

“Most beaver ponds have a tremendous amount of natural seeds that have washed in. If you can install a Clemson Leveler and drain the pond, I guarantee you that there is a tremendous seed source ready and waiting there. If you can get some sunlight and oxygen to the soil, you’ll be amazed at how thick the sedges, smartweed and rushes will grow.”

Greg recommends you hunt a private duck pond no more than one-half day per week.

“You don’t want to put too much pressure on them,” he said. “Otherwise they’ll go next door where your next-door neighbor has put in his own pond.”

For assistance in planning a duck pond, call the NRCS and your local WRD Game Management office.

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