Along the Texas Gulf Coast lies a broad coastal plain that extends up to 80 miles inland and encompasses over 9.5 million acres. This ecologically important geographic area is commonly referred to as the Texas Coastal Prairies and it provides important habitat for one of the largest winter concentrations of waterfowl in all of North America. Historically this regions flat topography was dominated by tall prairie grasses interspersed with a mosaic of natural ponds or “potholes”. During years of average to above average rainfall these natural potholes were inundated, providing habitat for ducks and other wetland dependent wildlife.
The flat topography and long 270-day growing season of this region made it well suited for agricultural production of rice. Rice soon became the primary crop with rice-pasture rotations and rice-rotation crops such as milo and soybeans becoming standard agricultural practice by the 1960’s. Production of rice in Texas is limited to the southeastern Gulf Coast; an area commonly referred to as the Rice Prairies or Texas Rice Belt. This area encompasses 18 counties between the Guadalupe River in the southwest and Sabine River in the southeast. There are 10 distinct prairies ranging in size from 195 to 1,160 square miles located within the Texas Rice Belt. In most years this region winters over 2 million snow geese and 1.5 million ducks making it one of the top destinations in the U.S. for waterfowl hunting enthusiasts.
The rice prairies of the Texas Gulf Coast have long been an important wintering ground for waterfowl migrating down the Central Flyway. The infrastructure utilized for rice agriculture make the Texas Rice Belt well suited for development of recreational hunting property and waterfowl management. Harvested rice fields inundated during wet cycles or by mechanical means provides a food source that waterfowl quickly exploit. When properly managed residual rice grain left after harvest provides waterfowl with a dependable high-energy food source. In addition, fallow, set-aside, and retired rice fields can easily and economically be converted to waterfowl impoundments managed exclusively for native moist soil vegetation. These native grasses, sedges, rushes, and smartweeds typically referred to as “weeds” by Texas rice producers are high in protein and make up an important food resource for waterfowl.
The greatest potential for developing hunting properties for waterfowl management exists in areas where wetland hydrology has been altered or modified by agriculture. Areas that are poorly drained with a reliable water source to allow shallow winter flooding are well suited for waterfowl management. Land with clay or silty clay loam soils are best suited for development of waterfowl impoundments because these soils compact well, creating a tight seal when flooded. Water and soil dynamics play an important role in determining habitat condition and utilization by waterfowl. Food resources must be provided in a manner that makes them available to waterfowl. Impoundments that are shallowly flooded (6″ – 12″) place food within the forage zone of the greatest number of waterfowl species as well as other wetland dependent wildlife.