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  • Building The Perfect Duckhole

    Building the Perfect Duckhole
    By Benny Marascalco

    Chad asked me to write something about how to create and maintain a duckhole. I’m probably not the best to offer this advice, but I will do my best to help you learn how this task can be handled.

    Changing the environment to suit the needs of one animal or another is the primary goal. In this case, it is waterfowl that you wish to attract. To change environment, you must manipulate the variables that control it, which are:

  • Soil
  • Water
  • Nutrients
  • Sunlight
  • Natural Plants
  • These variables are widely diversified in their combinations, and yield varying results when attempting to manipulate them. Variables always change, even within the same duckhole, from year to year and month to month. If you look at the water line of a place, then look at the deepest and most moist area of the hole, the plant flora will vary widely. These varying conditions of moisture in the soil change the composition of the plants that use the space. Manipulating this complex system to better suit the nutrient needs of waterfowl is the object of waterfowl habitat management for me.

    6 years ago when I became heavily involved in these projects, I called my local conservation groups and ask if they had anyone who could come out and give me insights into what I should do. I highly suggest that you do the same. I also highly suggest you listen to them more than I did. The first and the last words from their mouths was that natural flora delivers the highest nutrient yield per square foot than any alternative. It also requires less work than other alternatives. In this equation and not considered by most men who try this is the amount of invertebrates that live in and on these plants. Invertebrates are a vital part of the duck diet, and they thrive in natural flora conditions, adding to total nutrient availability while diversifying the offering.

    Today I still plant a lot of ag crops in duckholes, but I do so in the development years of a hole, the first two or three years.
    During this time much open space is available, I use this space to plant agricultural crops, simply because I enjoy planting them.
    It certainly isn’t necessary to do this, but agricultural seed is available through a variety of sources for habitat planting at prices as low as $5 for a 50 pound bag, ($65 agricultural price). The Delta Wildlife Foundation is one such source for seed, I have used literally tons of grain obtained from these men to benefit wildlife.

    During the beginning stages, the object of the game in the long term is to eliminate plants that use the space which do not benefit waterfowl, and allow the plants that do benefit them such as smartweed, nuts hedge, and other grasses to take control of the areas surface. You accomplish this by selective spraying of unwanted plants, and by killing encroaching trees. To reach a pristine duckhole that is completely natural and requires very little maintenance is the long term goal.

    Soil & Water conditions:

    In most of the lower areas that will hold water in the winter and provide habitat, there is a series of moisture levels that exist from the driest areas that usually are right at your waterline, to the deepest areas that can be drained for growing, but remain moist well into the growing season. Different plants will do best at these different levels depending on their moisture needs. Rain changes these levels annually, the ecosystem is very sensitive to water changes, and plants will come up and thrive in any given area according to water that is available. Water is the most important creator of change in the environment, with sunlight and nutrients coming next followed by your selective growing process. This is not a process that works every time, will work every year the same as it did the last, or something that you can be sure will go as you wish. In fact, it quite often will defy your efforts until you learn to plant within the water/sunlight/nutrient control guidelines. You cannot change the system, it is so powerful that you cannot defy it. You must learn to plant so that your effort takes complete advantage of the conditions that are THERE this YEAR, and not what you want it to be. This is a major key to success.


    Many soils in low areas have been repeatedly fortified with nutrients from dying foliage, continual submersion, and the continual natural degradation process. They are already “hot” with nutrients, all you do is add seed and water, and it will take it’s own course with healthy results. Most natural cover does not need additional nutrients, in fact you can easily hurt them with additions, but corn, Milo, soybeans and other agricultural crops draw heavily on nutrients and can stand to be fertilized, yielding much higher grain counts for the effort.

    For beginners I would recommend a low count mixture on fertilizer, such as 6-6-6 or 8-8-8 to apply and watch what happens.

    These numbers on a fertilizer bag stand for the three major elements that plants need in abundance.
    Nitrogen (the first 6)
    Phosphorous (the second 6)
    Potassium (the third 6)

    Plants need lots of nitrogen to grow the green parts, lots of phosphorus for blooms/seed, and lots of potassium for healthy stalks and “rigid” parts that do the same thing that your skeleton does.

    Fertilizers will easily kill your crop if you overdo them. A coverage with 20-20-20 (3 times stronger than 6-6-6) that gets just enough rain to open the fertilizer, but not enough to disperse it, ( a half inch) will burn your crop to the ground if you use too much. Fertilize your crop, it’s nice and cheap to do so, but don’t over do it. Give yourself time to learn about how certain products effect growth before you break out the big guns ahead of a thunderstorm and turbo charge a Milo crop. Fertilize, but don’t over do it. If you try to use fertilizer, you WILL overdo it once or twice, until you learn. Don’t do your entire place when you experiment, do areas within it, so when you DO make that mistake, it wont kill the entire place, and so you can see clearly what your application results were.


    Obviously without sunlight, none of your growing would take place. Sunlight changes in intensity through the growing season, and plants respond to these changes in a way that isn’t realized by most newcomers to planting things. What this means is, WHEN you plant makes a world of difference in the final product.

    This is so true because plants have internal clocks that we don’t recognize. When a seedling comes up, it knows exactly what time of year it is, it knows how much time it has to grow, and it will change it’s growth patterns to optimize the final result, which is to get a seed head on for the next generation. Plants live for one thing, to make seed. That is their job, and that is exactly what they have adapted to do in a variety of conditions.

    For instance, Milo planted early on (late may/April) is already coming to a head at this time, which is the first of July. It’s cycle to seed is about 120 days. After the first heads appear and mature, the Milo knows there is still plenty of time to make more seed, and it does just that, and produces auxiliary seed heads at the base of the plant, sometimes up to four more heads, after the primary seed head has matured.

    If you plant Milo NOW, which is the first of July, it has 120 days to come to seed, That puts it into November to get a mature head, and when it comes out of the ground, it knows that it is too LATE to grow a big plant BEFORE it seeds. So what it does, is it grows a SMALLER plant, but it comes to seed quicker, shortening it’s OWN seed cycle, using the available energy to balance the amount of plant/seed ratio that it can produce with this given amount of sunlight energy. Plants do this magnificently, it is vital to their survival. Seed heads will be smaller, but they produce and it will create a good viable crop if the alternative is nothing beneficial to the ducks. I frequently mix late plantings with millet as well, to fill the cracks.

    ALL plants respond to this cycle in the same way. WHEN you plant is critical to just how large a crop you manage to acquire.

    In the wild in this area, there are two major blooms and occasionally three if it stays warm long enough.
    Gardeners who get more than one crop from their vegetables know full well that in the plant world, the first push of the season to grow, the “spring” push, is by far the most productive push for plants. Wild plants are also maturing now in early July with their first bloom, and some of their seed will sprout and create a SECOND seed push for the season, these plants WILL seed, but they will be smaller and produce less yield. In some cases, the very same specie plant that sprouts at a different time will even look to the eye to be a completely different plant, because it changes they way the plant grows. I use both the spring and the later pushes to plant and to spray. This natural plant timing that revolves around usable sunlight is the second most important aspect behind water/rainfall.

    Natural Plants:

    Unlike the men who hunt them, ducks know from previous trips through the flyway places where they can obtain certain nutrient requirements. Most nutrients are widespread through out the flyway, but in some conditions, ducks will use heavily a certain area that is right next to a magnificent stand of Milo or millet, without using the this resource, because it is the nutrient content of the offering that is controlling where they forage. There have been many failed attempts with millet to produce a duckhole, it is a mystery to the project owners why the ducks will not use it. The answer is they already have those nutrients, and are using other sources in the areas to round out their intake needs. Ten tons of BB’s will do you no good to play base ball if you don’t have a base ball.

    The best way in the world to see what the ducks are using in your area is to break open the ducks craw and examine it’s contents. If you do not recognize the seed you find, then wash it, dry it, and save it until spring, and plant it somewhere that you can keep track of what it does. I learned an awful lot about seed and ducks and how they use them by doing just this. If you want to duplicate and environment that has exactly what a duck wants to use in your area, then break open his craw and take the seeds from it, plant them in an area off to the side, and watch what comes up, and what proportions they are in.

    The key to avoiding usage problems is to diversify your offerings. All natural plants are a diversified strata of flora that all offer different nutrients and provide cover for invertebrates producing an offering that is balanced and has something for the ducks no matter what they need at the time. This is a sure way of having traffic to your site as much as you possibly can.

    Manipulating natural flora:

    In any given environment, the energy that is available in every square inch of dirt/water/sunlight is being used by one plant specie or another. Plants have developed highly aggressive and specialized plans of action to compete with each other for these resources. It is literally a war zone out there, these plants fight daily to take control of the square footage. They succeed in the areas that the soil/water/sunlight conditions are better for them than another specie. Some of them have developed such highly aggressive plans that they simply dominate the other plants, even on ground that is primly suited for another specie.

    Deciding how to control this usage is divided along the simple line of what do ducks use, and what does not benefit them.

    Controlling these usage patterns is accomplished primarily by creating the opportunity for the desired plants to take hold. You do this by removing the unwanted plants with either chemicals or equipment. Keep in mind that you cannot simply disk an area and get rid of unwanted plants. What you actually do, is PLANT the seed, and you can accidentally cause and explosion of unwanted plants by doing this. After some time you can predict what will respond to the disking and be ready with the right chemicals to remove them.

    The seed game is a two year or biannual challenge. When you kill off unwanted plants and there is enough moisture in the soil to sprout new seed, and new batch of plants will spring forth to grab the space. They may be unable to compete with the plants that you are removing, so you give them the opportunity to thrive and cover the ground by removing the more dominant plants. When you spray to remove plants, you are simply creating opportunity for the plants you want to do the rest of the job FOR you, and they certainly will do this if given the chance. You rob the aggressors of their power to control, and allow the less aggressive and more beneficial plants to thrive in their place. Over a two year period the new inhabitants can take over the area, smothering out the others, and removing 90% of the work that you must do to control the environment. The object of the game is to work to set the stage so the the plants do the work for you.

    How does a specie spread out in an area?

    Wherever a seed touches the right soil/water conditions, it will sprout.

    WATER is by far the most powerful mover of seed. When you flood your duckholes in the fall, any plant that is within this area of water, will have seed that floats and is blown by the wind to other areas of your duckhole. You should think of seed dispersion over your duckhole as TOTAL. Any plant that seeds in your hole, will have a very large coverage of seed for next year, because the water you use spreads them to all areas, and they come up and thrive in the conditions that the seed needs.

    Why is this so important?

    Lets say you have a patch of cockle burrs in your duckhole. Not a big patch, only 50 or 60 plants. After the water has spread those seeds out from only 50 plants, you will find yourself next year with an astonishing stand of cockle burrs that have suddenly gobbled up half of your duckhole. If let go, cockle burrs will gobble up the entire surface, smothering all others out. We typically call this a cockle burr patch, because that’s all that grows there besides some low growing shade tolerant grasses.

    Don’t think for a minute that one little patch of some unwanted plant is going to stay a little patch, because it isn’t. If you don’t want to start a full fledged fight with that specie, you better knock them down before they come to seed, and knock them down again next year, because most wild virile seed with germinate for TWO years after it falls from the staff. It takes a minimum of two years high intensity maintenance to arrive at a thriving flora that is all usable by ducks.

    Who’s Side am I on anyhow?

    If you want ducks, then you want seed, small seed, highly nutrient packed seed. Ducks prefer smartweed seed over any other natural flora in this area. It has a tiny seed half the size of a flea, but they love it, and it is a strong contender for ground control once you have allowed it to get established. If you target only ONE nutrient source, it should be smartweed in this area.

    The “grasses” such as millet and other natural grasses also produce small seed and the ducks use them regularly.

    The “hedges” are yet another group that are highly used by ducks, they resemble grasses, but they are designed to thrive in soils with higher moisture levels than most grasses, the kind of environments that usually represent a large portion of a duckhole, and usually have an underground storage system or a ‘tuber” or a “nut” which is packed with nutrients and prized by ducks.

    So how do I change this balance?

    Herbicides are the tool of choice for this job, and using them with a back pack so you can be highly specialized about what you spray is by far the best way to change these relationships.

    To remove unwanted trees or stop them from growing, a product called arson is applied to a scratch in the bark, and will kill the tree dead if applied in June through late Aug.

    Both plants and many herbicides are subdivided into two major groups.

    Wide leafed plants, with big round or oval shaped leaves, such as smartweed, sunflowers, soybeans, are called DICOTS, short for dycotoleons.

    Narrow leafed plants, such as milo, corn, millet, grasses, are called MONOCOTS, short for monocotolyons.

    Different chemicals target one group or the other, or they are non selective, killing all of them. Roundup is a non-selective herbicide, meaning it will kill whatever it touches. Other herbicides will not hurt one plant but will kill another. Herbicides are divided along these lines in a variety of products that work very well.

    To spray chemicals and be very selective about what you are killing with them, you use a product that kills only one or the other type of plant, for instance 24D kills dicots and is very useful to control cockle burrs and coffee weed in milo or corn.

    For example, this year I have a stand of corn and milo in one of my duckholes, which I planted this way on purpose. The reason is because they are both monocots and can take spraying with a poison that kills dicots. (24D) Both cockle burrs and coffee weed have gobbled up this duckhole, they are both highly aggressive and kill the other plants, and they are both DICOTS.

    So I planted MONOCOTS, so I can poison and kill the DICOTS with a selective herbicide which in this case is 24D. 24D is slated to go off the shelves this year, but if you have cockle burrs or other problems I would highly suggest you buy a 2 gallon jug of it before it does. 24D is my tool of choice for selective dicot problems.

    This allows me to poison the cockle burrs and the coffee weed without damaging my crop, and it allows that extra space to be gobbled up by other plants that are less aggressive than burrs, more useful to ducks, and much lower maintenance.
    In these photos you can see how the 24D is rolling over the dicots, burrs and coffee weed, but it isn’t touching the milo, corn, or the other grasses. It is selectively killing the unwanted and allowing the “good stuff” to flourish.

    Image showing how to target the different groups.

    However the rules just aren’t that simple. Smartweed is also a DICOT just like cockle burrs, so are beans and sunflowers.
    So as I go along poisoning, I have to be careful, and pay attention to what I am doing, and not poison the smartweed plants that are also coming up to compete. Their seed will spread next year, and make this job more difficult as it makes the duckhole much more viable at the same time. Soon, I will not be able to spray this hole with a dicot killer anymore, because it will kill the smartweed. At this point, (usually the second year) you want to be sure and have any burrs or coffee weed or others completely removed as much as possible, and I mean every single one of them. ONE PLANT will start the entire process again.

    In the final stages where smartweed is well established, you may come in during the early spring and disk the smartweed, it is actually good for it to do this. Then you plant over this ground any add on’s you wish to use, such as milo or corn.

    Thick smartweed with corn starting to burst through the canopy

    Corn & Milo breaking through the smartweed canopy to produce large seed over the small smartweed seed.

    The end result is this, a field that is smothered out with nothing but solid smartweed, which the ducks use very heavily, that has a canopy above it of corn and milo. It takes several years to accomplish this usually, but once you reach this point, you have the best conditions you can develop until the water conditions change once again the layout of the smartweed. You cant just do it once and that’s it. It changes every year, but once you reach a management stage like this, it is relatively simple to maintain this ground. You simply spray the bad stuff and plant some agricultural crop in its place until the smartweed can reestablish itself.

    This small hole is one of my favorites this year, we clear cut the trees in this hole last year, and the cycle begins again to compete for the ground. We burned the log debris a little bit, and behind that I sprayed milo seed over the soft ashes, sure to germinate new seed. Because there are no cockle burrs or other aggressive plant seeds here, the smartweed has taken off immediately gobbling up this ground. The combination of milo and smartweed is a fine waterfowl offering and has very little maintenance. In the very beginning of this new cycle for this ground, which is this year, I simply spray out the newcomers and stop them from establishing themselves, allowing the smartweed to flourish. Next year there will be little need for anything other than an early spring spraying of unwanted with a June follow up. The smartweed will take care of the rest of it. If I see any new burrs or coffee bean coming up, I will spray them. This job becomes less and less and less effort IF you do it well and regular for the first few years.

    Using Late season millet:

    Millet is widely used late in the season to create waterfowl areas. It has a very short seed cycle, usually 50 days or less.
    Planting millet late in your growing season will produce much seed for waterfowl, but you must select the proper type millet for the soil you are using to get the best results.

    Most people think that habitat developers use Jap Millet, or Japanese Millet because the ducks prefer this seed. That is not true. They choose this variety because it flourishes in moist to even wet soil conditions, and those conditions are prevalent in many duckholes. When the time comes to plant millet, if your soil is still moist even after the summer dryness, then you should plant Jap millet to get the best stand.

    If you have diked up land that dries completely out in the season like normal “farmable” land, then you should use the other millet options available that do much better in dryer soil conditions. Brown top millet is the usual next choice, but white millet and prozo millet also do very well in dry conditions. Get a handle on your soil moisture conditions for THIS year, and plant accordingly. Your next years choices may be completely different depending on the rainfall and available moisture.

    Millet is also an excellent and highly recommended choice for filling in the “gaps” after the plants have matured. Timing in front of an assured rainfall is important, but if you can catch the time frame, in front of a nice large summer storm, and you KNOW that this ground is about to get a pretty good drenching, you can broadcast millet seed over the top of a milo or corn or soybean or even smartweed stand late in the season. At that time of year, the ground has cracked open, there is a lacing of cracks in the soil, and a relatively thick coating of millet seeds will put plenty of seeds in these small cracks. When the rain comes, it fills in these cracks with new soil, perhaps only an 8 inch at times, but that is plenty to germinate the seed that you cast which has fallen in these cracks. It will sprout the millet, and it will shoot up in between your standing crop in any available sunlight areas. Provided that you get some late season rain, it rounds out the offering, mixes the nutrients, and adds to the holes ability to hold invertebrates that the ducks also use. I call this the “icing on the cake” in the world of duckhole manipulation, you have to time it correctly and the conditions have to be right, but if you can pull this off, it yields a staggering display of usable duck forage.

    Flooding In the fall:

    Pumping up early to cover an area has proven to many a hard learner to be costly and yielding little ducks. The problem is that when there is no water in your area and you pump up, the ducks are not spread out in the area, they are only in areas that have water. You may have a lot of ducks, but when you shoot them, they have no place else to go to land in water, and they quickly leave the area. What this means is that early season shooting in the absence of normal rainfall surface water offers only very limited success for the cost involved. Pumping up is best utilized by simply providing a place for the ducks to stop, so they establish a pattern of using your area, without shooting them until ground water levels in the area will support them when you do shoot them out.

    Catching water too early is also a common mistake in the south. You cant catch water in the first of November because our temperatures are well into the fermentation ranges for most seeds. If you catch your water in early November and wait for the season, by the time it gets there, a great deal of your seed will have spoiled and not be available. This not only hurts the hole in the early season, but by late January when the ducks really need the nutrients, there is virtually nothing left to forage on, and the ducks will move on.

    To try and time this correctly, which the rainfall rarely lets you actually do, you want to catch water from two weeks before opening day to two weeks after it. Any sooner will cause fermentation and you will loose yield dramatically.

    In closing, I would suggest to someone who wants to get involved with this, to pick a spot of a duckhole with several different soil moisture conditions that is small enough that you can manipulate it, perhaps a couple acres, so you can watch it closely, pay attention to what happens in these areas over the year, and begin to learn what to expect from your given area. Don’t try to get too big too quick, because you will quickly be put in your place by mother nature if you do, you will feel overwhelmed, and you will probably abandon the project for lack of understanding. Start small and grow as you gain the experience. I have about 6 holes that I am controlling this year that are about 6 acres each and are just about all I want to fool with. Time is of the essence. When you can get an idea of just how much time you spend on a small project to do it correctly, you can then determine just how much area you can do efficiently over the year. Stagger your projects by area. Do this in one area and do that in another. Set a timeline for them so you can do different things at different times. Even a small project will overwhelm you if you are not used to fighting mother nature. She is a formidable opponent and you will come to love and respect her power to a much greater level as you learn what it takes for you to manipulate her system for the ducks. GOOD LUCK!!!!!

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