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Plenitude in the Playas

These shallow pools in the Panhandle’s High Plains draw droves of mallards to their bounty.

By Lee Leschper

Ice crunches beneath the boots of our waders as we stumble through the darkness toward the pond. We’re dragging two flat little boats laden with decoys and shotguns that slide easily on the frosted grass. It is 18 degrees, and we feel it deep in our bones. Two fat black dogs bounce ahead of us toward the murmur of ducks.

From 200 yards, we can hear the soft chatter of dozing mallards. At 100 yards the chatter grows into an excited conversation. At 50 yards comes an explosion of wings, frightened quacks and splashing water. In the first fragments of gray light, hundreds — no, thousands — of ducks come rolling up from this tiny spot.

We have just a few minutes to prepare for their return. Breaking the ice at the water’s edge, we wade into the frigid water, retrievers padding alongside us, our layout boats floating behind. Our guide pitches the decoys into the chocolate-colored water and we anchor the boats and climb in.

Getting into an ice-covered sliver of a boat in the dark from waist-deep water while wearing waders is quite an experience. I flop across the middle of the little craft, hoping to keep it and myself afloat. With much squirming and grunting, I roll onto my back and look skyward.

The black dog perching on my feet decides it’s a good time to shake off. In seconds, the droplets freeze solid on me, my shotgun and every inch of my gear.

Now the eastern sky warms from rose to brilliant orange, and returning mallards spiral overhead. The first greenheads winnow in too close even to try a shot. The second group drifts past at 10 yards and we rise and shoot in unison. Greenheads splash down on either side of us.

Duck Paradise of the High Plains

We are spending this glorious morning in one of the state’s richest waterfowl habitats, but we are not on the coastal prairie, or even in the deep woods of East Texas. We’re in the Texas Panhandle, where seasons are long, hunting pressure is low and waterfowl of all kinds abound.

Texans who zip through this flat, expansive country on their way to Colorado might never see the abundant waterfowl that winter here. But this patchwork of ranch and farmland, planted with corn, wheat and peanuts and dotted by an estimated 19,000 shallow playa lakes, provides both feeding and resting areas for hundreds of species of wintering birds.

Ducks begin arriving in September and by late October they’re present in huge numbers — some 300,000 in wet years. Geese and sandhill cranes also migrate here by the hundreds of thousands. Close behind are the predators — hawks and eagles — that hunt the waterfowl. And behind them are the human hunters, drawn by this bounty and the longest duck season in Texas, 15 days longer in the High Plains Mallard Management Unit than in the North and South Zones.

A Concentration of Mallards

The extended season takes devoted hunters into some wintry conditions seldom encountered on the coast, but the payoff is a chance for the premier ducks of waterfowling: glorious greenhead mallards, prim and graceful pintails and (early in the year) speedy green-winged teal.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department waterfowl biologist Bill Johnson moved to the Panhandle from the duck-rich East Texas marshes. For him, ducks are passion as well as vocation, and whenever he’s not studying them, he’s probably hunting them.

“Mallards are No. 1,” Johnson says. “The majority of our ducks are mallards and pintails. Most years, mallards outnumber pintails here, probably 2-to-1. Last year I’d say they were neck-and-neck. Seventy to 80 percent of our ducks are mallards and pintails. After that come greenwings and wigeons. Everything else is just a trace.”

Compared to the hodgepodge of ducks found farther south, that’s something like saying hunters have to choose between filets and T-bones. Few duck hunters can resist the beauty of a late-season mallard drake, with its emerald-green head, ivory and blue markings, orange feet and distinctive curly tail feathers.

“Most of what we hold is mallards,” Johnson says. “The mallard is a trophy on the coast. But up here you can bag three to five a hunt, instead of three to five a season.”

Mallards are the most populous duck in North America and also among the largest, averaging about three pounds in weight. They are also hardier than their smaller brethren, often tolerating frigid conditions, ice and snow that drive smaller ducks south.

The Uses of Playas

Until ice freezes them solid, the Panhandle’s playas provide everything ducks need. Playas are small, shallow lakes that fill with rainfall. The more than 19,000 playas in the Texas Panhandle are both critical wildlife habitat and the main source of water to recharge the huge Ogallala Aquifer.

Most playas are relatively small, less than 30 acres, and usually on private land. Almost none hold water permanently; they grow and vanish with the whims of rainfall. In a normal year, spring rains foster a flush of natural vegetation in the playa beds, including plants such as smartweed, millet and curly dock that ducks prefer. Then early fall rains flood the new vegetation, just before the birds arrive.

Because they’re shallow, playas draw ducks, says TPWD biologist Johnson. “For dabbling ducks, they are perfect.” Depending on the season, ducks use the playas for both roosting and feeding, Johnson says. “Generally they eat out the playas pretty quickly, and then they start field feeding.”

While South Texas hunters don’t often see ducks feeding in a plowed field, they’re a common sight on the High Plains.

“Late in the year they use the playas as a resting area,” Johnson says. “I don’t think you can say that any playa is never used. Scouting is the key. I put a lot of miles on my vehicle scouting. I may drive by a playa all winter long, with no ducks, and then it’s all covered up with birds.”

In the bitter cold that occasionally sweeps through the High Plains, the ducks will concentrate, often keeping playas from freezing by their body heat alone.

During the late season, ducks forage in the huge fields of corn and wheat that stretch for many miles across the High Plains. In the eastern Panhandle, where peanuts are grown, the birds will key on the goobers, although corn is preferred. (By the way, a mallard drake fattened on peanuts and corn and roasted to a crunchy perfection is the best eating duck I’ve ever had.)

Playa Hunting Tactics

Playa duck hunters must be more mobile and flexible than is traditional farther south. Because the ducks are fickle, moving from playa to playa with the changing weather and forage, permanent blinds usually are useless. Instead, hunters take advantage of whatever natural cover prevails, or use a little ingenuity.

I’ve crawled into piles of tumbleweeds, hidden by hay bales and irrigation circle pivots and floated flat on my back in sneak boats. Lacking any cover, I’ve waded out hip-deep and hunkered over like a lump of grass. Building a temporary blind right in the middle of the lake can work, so long as the profile is low. Layout boats allow the hunter to float flat on the surface right in the middle of the playa.

Decoys sometimes help, but are no guarantee. The birds often will defer to open water or a particular corner that strikes their fancy.

Finding the spot they prefer is a challenge, especially if you haven’t hunted a particular playa. The best strategy is to scout the playa with binoculars from a long distance the day before you hunt. This is where duck hunters become bird watchers. Scouting will show which playas the ducks are using, where, when and how best to hunt them.

Afternoon hunts can be very productive. Finding a playa crowded with ducks, hunters can move in to flush the ducks, set up quickly and then go into hiding until the ducks return. It is important to pull out by sunset, which allows the ducks to return at dark to roost.

By their nature, most playas offer little cover for predators, including hunters. Jump shooting can be successful — if the playa you’re approaching has cover or a backside dam to hide your approach. Otherwise, a thousand ducks will fill the sky before you get within 300 yards.

More Than Ducks

One of the joys of Panhandle duck hunting is that there’s always other hunting, and in more variety than anywhere else in Texas.

On my first hunt in the Panhandle, we shot sandhill cranes at dawn, jump-shot ducks at midday and then hunted more ducks and Canada geese pouring into a playa against a rosy-orange sunset. The next day we shot limits of pheasants. My most recent Panhandle bird hunt started with big coveys of bobwhite quail in the morning and ended with hundreds of mallards and pintails at dusk.

Other Panhandle waterfowl in season include Canada and snow geese, sandhill cranes and teal. Upland game includes pheasants, bobwhite and blue quail, and even lesser prairie chickens. Bigger game includes huge whitetails and mule deer, Rio Grande turkeys, pronghorn antelope, aoudad sheep and feral hogs. Varmint hunters can find dense populations of coyotes and bobcats.

There’s even more opportunity in 2003, with the Panhandle pheasant season extended to 30 days for the first time. Many outfitters are now offering combination pheasant-duck or quail-duck hunts.

A Mallard Spectacle

But on this morning, bobbing on icy water under an orange sky filled with ducks, it’s impossible to think about anything except the pure joy of being a duck hunter.

The dogs are still retrieving those first mallards when the duck flood gates open. Mallards — great green-headed, yellow-legged drakes and slender brown hens — pour down on us like a winged waterfall. We shoot, reload and shoot again; our frozen fingers can’t keep up. Ducks circle, flare away and are replaced by dozens more.

Then, without a word, we stop, lay down our shotguns and pick up cameras.

More greenheads are circling this one Panhandle playa than I’ve seen in my previous 20 years of duck hunting. It seems ridiculous, even greedy, to rush through a six-duck limit.

By the time we’re satiated with taking photos of the duck bonanza, the sun is high and bright and we realize that we had better start shooting again. But now the ducks see us clearly and veer off out of range.

It matters little. We have plenty of ducks in the bag, but they’re insignificant compared to the spectacle we’ve seen: a lifetime’s worth of mallards filling a single sky. And we know that tomorrow, they’ll be here again on the playas of the High Plains.

Preparing for Panhandle Weather

When you’re hunting a duck that loves swimming in ice water, you had better be able to handle the cold, too. But there’s cold and then there’s Panhandle, one-barbed-wire-from-the-North-Pole cold.

Fall on the High Plains can be glorious. There are more mild winter days than blizzardy ones. Normal temperatures range from the 20s at night to mid-40s during the day. But a real blizzard is always a possibility — Christmas Eve 2000 brought a record-breaking 20.2 inches of snow to Amarillo in one day. During stretches in December or January the temperatures can remain in the single digits.

Wind is always a certainty and when the temperature is in the teens, wind chill can be well below zero. Clothing should stay warm even when wet. Wool and fleece excel here.

Dressing for a duck hunt, I start with light longjohns, then wool or fleece shirt and pants, followed by neoprene waders, wind-cutting Gore-Tex or similar outerwear, camo cap or stocking cap, and both light and heavyweight gloves. Feet get cotton socks topped with thick wool ones. Better to take too much and peel off extra layers than freeze.

Plan your duck hunting camouflage in lighter tones to match the prairie grass and cattails. Forget the dark timber patterns. Shadow Grass and cattail patterns are excellent.

Hunters combining a duck hunt with an upland hunt should add comfortable hiking boots, brush-resistant chaps or pants and full hunter orange.

Nontoxic shot is mandatory for all waterfowl, including ducks. There’s a superior selection beyond steel shot, including tungsten and bismuth.

High Plains Waterfowl Season

The Panhandle playas are in the High Plains Mallard Management Unit, which has the longest duck season in Texas, beginning Oct. 25-27 and reopening Nov. 1-Jan. 25. In the North Zone the season begins Nov. 8-9 and reopens Nov. 15-Jan. 25. In the South Zone the season begins Oct. 25-26 and reopens Nov. 8-Jan. 18.

Living Jewels of the Plains

“Historically we say there are 19,000 playas in the Texas High Plains,” TPWD biologist Bill Johnson says. “But we’re getting revised estimates and there are probably more.”

Some suggest playas were born as buffalo wallows when the great southern bison herds roamed the plains. The more scientific theory is that over time, standing water leached away the underlying caliche so the surface dropped lower and lower. As the soft rock dissolved, the surface continued to settle, leaving a clay-lined basin that collects water.

While some water evaporates, much of it seeps down to recharge the Ogallala Aquifer, that huge underground river that stretches across eight states from South Dakota to the southern Panhandle. The almost 4 billion acre-feet of water in the Ogallala come almost entirely from recharge seeping down from playas. This natural recharge is becoming especially critical as the Ogallala water level drops under the pressure of irrigated farming, faster evaporation during extended drought and municipal use. The water level in the aquifer dropped more than a foot each year in the 1990s, according to water authorities that manage the aquifer for Panhandle municipal and agricultural use.

The majority of the rainfall that fills the playas comes during storms in the spring and early fall. Winter snowfall usually adds significant moisture. In rainy years, this country can look as wet as Louisiana. During a drought, the playas may hold nothing but swirling dust.

Because of the vital role the playas play, a group of state wildlife agencies, including TPWD, conservation organizations and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, formed the Playa Lakes Joint Venture in 1989 to educate and promote protection of the playas. Besides waterfowl, playas provide winter habitat to more than 400 species of birds.

“The biggest threat to playas is siltation, especially from the croplands around them, if there’s no grass buffer around them,” Johnson says. “Most of them have silted in already.”

Because most playas are near plowed farmland, feedlots or pastures, the soil runs off with every rain. Over time, the shallow depressions fill with soil, holding less water and also disrupting the wet-dry cycle that fosters new vegetation. Runoff also can contaminate the water with fertilizer and pesticides.

“Playas need grass buffers around them to maintain them,” says Johnson. ”There are some estimates that you can increase the seed production of moist soil plants 10- to 12-fold by moist soil management.”

In moist soil management programs, the landowner irrigates the playa two or three times during the summer. This fosters the growth of plants and keeps the bed of the playa moist and free from cracks so that it holds water longer during fall rains. The grass buffers are also attractive to pheasants, but it is the ducks and geese that bring these jewels to life each fall.

Renovated Taylor Lakes WMA Offers Easy Playa Viewing

Playas offer great wildlife viewing, not only for waterfowl, but also for hundreds of bird species that winter in the Panhandle.

One of the best locations to do this is the Taylor Lakes WMA, just off busy U.S. 287 east of Clarendon in Donley County, about 75 miles east of Amarillo. Taylor Lakes was part of a family farm purchased by TPWD in 1993 to preserve and provide wintering habitat for migratory waterfowl and shorebirds.

Taylor Lakes consists of about 85 acres of wetlands including several playa lakes, 214 acres of restored grasslands and 231 acres of pastures. A spacious blind overlooks one of the playas and provides excellent viewing for waterfowl and other birds, as well as other wildlife. My teenage daughter and I spent a glorious afternoon one October watching ducks and geese on the lake.

This fall, TPWD received a $50,000 North American Wetlands Conservation Act small grant to restore this playa, called Cattail Lake, by removing 18 inches of sediment and overgrown vegetation, including cattails. TPWD, Ducks Unlimited and the Playa Lakes Joint Venture are partners in the project and contributed another $76,391 to dig a well and add pipes to provide water for three other wetlands in the WMA.

Public hunting is permitted here for dove, teal, deer (archery only), quail, waterfowl and sandhill cranes, and the area is closed during special permit hunts. For more information, contact David Dvorak, (806) 492-3405.

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