Most people don’t think of the Florida Panhandle as having a long heritage of duck hunting. But don’t be fooled! This region of the Sunshine State draws thousands upon thousands of diving ducks that spend the winter on its clear bays and lakes.
Photo courtesy of Capt. Todd Jones.
From my past experience of gunning on those big uncrowded waters, I know just how plentiful the ducks can be at times.
Most of all, there’s something special about those gorgeous bays filled with clean, clear water from the Gulf of Mexico. Along their edges, miles of eelgrass offer an abundance of food for wintering divers.
Whether you’re targeting ring-necked ducks in fresh-water lakes from a moss-draped blind — or hunkering down low in a layout boat on salt water, waiting for redheads and buffleheads to come winging into a massive setup of decoys — Florida’s Panhandle provides plenty of waterfowl action.
Capt. Todd Jones, of Back Bay Adventures out of Panama City, is one of the leading duck-hunting guides in the Panhandle. Capt. Jones specializes in taking diving ducks in that region’s big open-water bays.
Depending on the weather conditions, where birds are rafting up or simply a client’s preference, gunning may take place out of a pop-up blind, a layout boat or in a makeshift blind right off the bank.
THE WEATHER FACTOR
When hunting in the Panhandle, expect the weather to be unpredictable. One day it might be warm enough for a short sleeve shirt, and the next, the bays get churned up in whitecaps from a cold front pushing through.
“The nastier the weather, the better. And hunting in fog can be good too,” Capt. Jones noted. “Some of our best hunts come before and during a cold front, at a time when birds are feeding and on the move. And new birds may come in with the cold weather too.
“In this area, afternoon hunts can be good. And on ‘blue bird days,’ you just have to tough it out and wait for boat traffic to scare up birds.
“But even on those days of poor hunting conditions,” Capt. Jones said, “we’ve managed to have some excellent diver hunting.”
He went on to add that when it comes to Florida’s winter weather, one needs to be ready for anything.
“It can be really cold one day, and then the next, you’ll be needing insect spray as mosquitoes and no-see-ums emerge from the marsh.”
No matter what your hunting style, a wide variety of species are available on these salty waters. According to Capt. Jones, the most common species taken on the big bays are buffleheads, bluebills, redheads and a few canvasbacks.
However, other species like black scoters, white-winged scoters, goldeneyes and long-tailed ducks aren’t all that uncommon.
The guide also mentioned that though it’s not an everyday occurrence, an opportunity to knock down a Ross’s or snow goose occurs several times a season.
From personal experience hunting with the captain, I can say that a morning spent on a windswept bay with low-flying buffleheads makes for great sport. Small birds with rapid wind beats, buffleheads can often save a hunt or fill out a limit, especially after you’ve bagged a couple of fat drake redheads.
Hunting buffleheads — birds we often refer to as “sea doves” — is sort of like a marine-style dove shoot, especially since these small waterfowl fly fast and erratically.
Drakes make beautiful trophy birds and are generally plump, which helps give them their other common nickname of “butterballs.”
Though Jones takes a few ring-necked ducks on the salt marshes, he finds most of these diving ducks on local freshwater lakes. One of his favorite hunt locations is Deer Point Lake, located north of Panama City.
This scenic lake is covered in freshwater vegetation of all types and studded with moss-draped cypress trees.
When hunting there for ring-necked ducks, Capt. Jones like to set up out in the middle of the lake, away from all other hunters. Since wood ducks and coots are also common on the lake, he’ll add a few wood duck decoys to his setup — along with a couple of dozen coot decoys.
His reason for using so many coots is that they make a natural-looking sight on the water because the lake is loaded with these small black birds.
Another trick that Capt. Jones uses is to bring a cordless drill to the lake and put holes in stumps and logs.
He then puts out his own hand-carved wood duck decoys that stand up on wooden dowels. These serve as both attracting and confidence decoys, since there are wood ducks on the lake too.
PICKING A HUNTING SITE
In the Panama City area, there are numerous places that attract and hold wintertime diving ducks.
“The nastier the weather, the better. And hunting in fog can be good too,” Capt. Todd Jones noted.
East Bay, West, North and St. Andrews bays all have the potential for delivering excellent hunts for diving ducks. Since all of these big bays are connected, it may take you some pre-hunt scouting to locate the best hunting grounds.
This is why Capt. Jones recommended riding about the bays and keeping tabs on where the birds are rafting up. Since these backwaters are extremely clear at this time of year, it’s easy to detect the dark areas of grassbeds in the shallows.
Capt. Jones said to make sure you’re hunting near grassbeds that hold small scallops, since weeds and shellfish are two favorite foods of the divers in this region.
He went on to say that in here, the winter tides can be extremely low — a factor that you often need to consider for each trip. Plus, you don’t want to destroy any of the grasses in the shallows with a churning prop.
This is where good push poles or heavy-duty oars come in handy.
Jones also suggested hunting Apalachicola Bay for great diving duck potential. Since that bay is also vast, he highly recommended that any newcomer to the area hire a well-seasoned guide — a move that generally saves you a lot of wasted time and increases your chances of a good shoot, as well as make your outing a lot safer.
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