South Alabama Duck Hunting Preview
September 28, 2010
With the approach of the duck season, it is time to turn our attention to the skies. Will the shooting be good and where should we hunt? Let's ask the experts.
By Mike Thompson
Regardless of success or failure, waterfowl hunters have to be some of the most resilient participants in the outdoor-pursuits arena. Always ready to bounce back despite a poor previous season, duck hunters are always optimistic that the next season will be better than the last.
Alabama duck hunters must truly be optimists, considering that only a small sliver of the Mississippi Flyway's annual migration moves through the Cotton State. Despite this fact, Bama waterfowl hunters look forward to the season with great anticipation.
The past three seasons have been less than stellar in the Mississippi Flyway. With Alabama being such a small portion of the migration, Heart of Dixie duck hunters have suffered through many duck-less days, with limits few and far between. While no one knows exactly when better hunting will return, the news coming from the prairies to the north is not all bad.
Another spring with decent precipitation in the form of snow and rain has staved off the prospect of severe drought that plagued three of the previous four years on the prairies.
Commonly referred to as "the duck factory," the prairies of Canada and the United States are critical to duck production. Descriptions of the conditions on the prairies when the ducks migrated north to breed have been described as fair to average.
David Nelson is a wildlife biologist supervisor for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. He covers the area near and around the Demopolis Wildlife Management Area. Working this area puts him in contact with ducks and duck hunters during the fall and winter months.
Although not overly enthusiastic, Nelson believes that provided we get a colder winter, we could experience a better season this year.
"Basically, we have to have cold weather in order to get good duck hunting in south Alabama. Most ducks only move south when pushed by freezing weather to the north," Nelson said. "After leaving the nesting grounds in Canada and the Northern states, the ducks move as far south as they find open water and food.
"Duck hunting has become so popular in recent years that people all along the flyway are intensively managing lands for waterfowl. This has caused a short-stopping of ducks to the lower Southern states. Since we receive such a small amount of the flyway's ducks in Alabama, this has a definite impact on our season," Nelson continued.
To take advantage of action that is available, Nelson believes you need to be ready when conditions are right.
"Watching the weather closely and paying attention to weather fronts is key to waterfowl success in Alabama. Getting temperatures in the single digits in states above us and freezing the available water is the only surefire way for us to have a great duck season. If it happens, you should be ready to scout thoroughly for migrating ducks. Find them and hunt them as soon as possible."
Chris Jaworowski is the area biologist for the Lowndes County WMA. Several poor seasons in a row have this biologist concerned for the coming season.
"It has been several seasons since we have had a really good duck year in Lowndes County. When the food is covered in the Northern states, we see quite a few ducks, with many different species available. When the weather is mild up north, we have to rely on our abundant resident wood duck population to enjoy the waterfowl experience," Jaworowski noted.
"I wish I knew the answer as to how this season is going to stack up, but none of us really knows. One thing we do know is that our south Alabama duck hunting relies heavily on weather to push us any numbers of migratory birds."
James Masek is the wildlife biologist assigned to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta/W.L. Holland WMAs, located in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Masek believes that migrating ducks have a great place to winter on the Alabama coast. All they have to do is make the journey there to enjoy it.
"Our area on the coast is ideal waterfowl habitat. The food is there in the form of multiple submersed aquatic grasses. We have tons of widgeon grass, duck potato and eel grass," he explained.
Like other state biologists, Masek knows it is all dependant on the weather up north.
"It takes a combination of snow covering waste grains and harsh temperatures to push significant numbers to the coast. A lot of people think that freezing weather alone will push the ducks south. Ducks are quite resourceful and will feed on aquatic grasses on running water for days. When the snow melts, allowing them access to waste grain in the fields, they go back to it," the biologist explained.
Photo by Keith B. Sutton
SOUTH BAMA DUCKS
There are many species that make the yearly migration to the southern half of the state. Each species has its own traits and habits that make it unique. These habits also pose different challenges to hunters in their efforts to harvest the various species.
Mallards are probably the most easily recognized species to any state's hunters. Mallards are also the species with the highest numbers in the duck migration on the Mississippi Flyway. However, this does not translate into the highest harvest numbers for south Alabama duck hunters.
Preferring to feed on grains rather than grasses, the mallard has little reason to venture into southern Alabama, owing to current agricultural practices.
Hunters in the southern part of the state who want to hunt mallards should concentrate their efforts in out-of-the-way places on small ponds or sloughs. If the pond or slough has oak trees, mallards will find the acorns.
Hunting mallards can be done with minimal decoy spreads, and the ducks respond well to calling.
Gadwalls, sometimes called gray ducks, are common visitors to Alabama during the winter. Hunters see so many gadwalls that they often refer to them as Alabama's "state duck." These ducks are very gregarious and are often seen in large groups.
Despite their numbers, the gadwalls can be very frustrating to hunt. The ducks prefer open water, where cover is scarce or nonexistent. While easy to take during early season, gadwalls
become educated very quickly when pressured.
Gadwalls love grasses and will gravitate to large mats of the green stuff. Find grass and you usually find gadwalls. Large spreads of puddle duck decoys can entice gadwalls into range, but often another tactic must be employed.
Because of their affinity for grasses, gadwalls are often seen in the company of another grass lover, the common coot. Hunters experienced at targeting gadwalls have discovered that using a decoy spread consisting of several dozen coots with a few gadwalls on the edges often fools the pressured gadwalls of late season.
Even though gadwalls are considered the most common duck during a typical season, the duck most commonly taken in south Alabama is the wood duck. Woodies are quite plentiful in the sloughs and ponds all across the southern part of the state.
A lot of the wood ducks taken are home-grown. However, as the weather changes and cold fronts increase in intensity and frequency, there is a significant migration of wood ducks as well. This migration is verified in survey bands that hunters retrieve from downed wood ducks.
The green-winged teal is another duck that finds its way into Alabama hunters' game bags. The diminutive greenwing is a sporty bird in flight and a challenge to even the best of marksmen. The birds decoy well, but they are notorious for darting away just before landing.
Greenwings prefer very shallow areas to feed in. Often they can be found on or near mudflats. This trait can make them very difficult to get to with a traditional duck boat. Shallow-draft boats powered with a mud motor can get hunters to the areas that greenwings prefer.
Decoy species don't seem to matter to greenwings. The birds come to decoys of most any puddle duck species. Success in hunting greenwings is usually determined by your wingshooting ability.
The northern shoveler is another puddle duck species that is seen by hunters during the south Alabama season. The duck uses its spoon-like bill to sift through mud for invertebrates. This feeding habit gives the bird a muddy taste, making it a less than desired species among hunters. However, shovelers that feed on grasses have a much better flavor.
Shovelers decoy readily to almost any spread. This tendency to gullibility is another reason they don't rate high on veteran duck hunters' priority lists.
Diving ducks also make up a significant part of the migration into south Alabama. Ringnecks and scaup are two common divers taken by hunters. Large diver spreads are used to lure the ducks into gunning range on the open waters that they prefer.
Redheads and canvasbacks make up a smaller percentage in south Alabama hunters' bags, except in extreme coastal Alabama. The salt marshes and island edges are the best places for encountering the big divers. Large spreads of diver decoys are used to attract these heavy ducks.
SOUTH BAMA WMA DUCKS
There are several south Alabama WMAs that offer viable duck hunting opportunities. The Demopolis WMA covers 6,952 acres and provides decent duck hunting when water levels and weather conditions are right. Wood ducks and mallards make up the bulk of hunters' bags in this area. Gadwalls, ringnecks, mergansers and scaup are also commonly found at Demopolis.
Most of the duck hunting in the Demopolis area is done with small johnboats. When the river level is high and water floods the acorn flats, hunters use the boats to access the ends of sloughs that ducks use.
The Dobbs Swamp Tract of the WMA is the primary area for ducks, followed by the Spidle Lake Tract. Both of the areas are best accessed by boat.
If walking in to a duck hole is more your style, you could try the Dead Lake Tract. Unless the water is very high, you must access its beaver ponds and sloughs on foot.
The Lowndes County WMA comprises 10,424 acres with very good waterfowl hunting opportunities. Blessed with a healthy resident wood duck population, the WMA offers diehards a chance to see some ducks even when weather patterns have not cooperated.
This area has been dubbed the "30-minute duck hole" because of the abundance of wood ducks. The fact that the limit is two per hunter makes it a safe bet that when the birds are flying you can have your limit in 30 minutes and still make it to work on time.
Most of the duck hunting area is cypress and tupelo gum swamp. Walk-in hunts are popular on this WMA. All you need for this type of action are a back-strap-style decoy bag, six to 12 decoys, and a good pair of waders. When there is a significant migration, the area offers opportunities at widgeon, gadwalls, teal and possibly mallards to go along with the woodies.
The most popular areas of the WMA are along Hunters Loop Road, Newport Landing Road and the swamps at the end of South Road.
The Lowndes County WMA is only open to waterfowling on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Hunting is allowed all day until sunset.
The Upper Delta WMA extends over 35,795 acres. Much of the waterfowling action is dictated by the amount of flood waters received during winter. Should levels rise well before Christmas, there will be numerous sloughs and ponds created by the high waters. Find some of these out-of-the-way places and you can experience outstanding action on mallards and wood ducks.
The wood duck action can be fast and furious at the dead ends of creeks in the Upper Delta. Along with the woodies, you can expect to see small bands of green-winged teal in late winter.
Even though the clear cuts produced by timber operations of the past have grown up recently, there are still numerous gum ponds that can hold significant amounts of ducks for those willing to work for them. Long walk-ins can produce limits of ducks for the adventurous.
The W.L. Holland and Mobile-Tensaw WMA offers 58,321 acres of land, along with another 15,000 acres of shallow water for public hunting. Known to locals as the Lower Delta, this area at time offers excellent duck hunting. The winter destination of thousands of puddle ducks and divers, the Mobile-Tensaw area is one of the most popular waterfowling spots in the state.
The area is a vast complex of shallow water bays and creeks that are tidal-influenced. Since most of the hunting takes place from boat blinds, this requires extreme caution so that you don't find yourself stranded on a mud bar when the tide drops quickly.
On the other hand, hunters who know the tides well can use them to their advantage. Ducks that prefer to feed at a certain water level may be absent at daylight but drop into that area when water levels rise later in the morning.
It is very important to scout the area to have success. Locating a freshly arrived group of
ducks and hunting them the next day is your best bet for action.
Gadwalls, teal, scaup and shovelers are the most common ducks taken in the shallow bays of the Lower Delta. There is also a very good population of mottled ducks in the region. The mottled ducks are year-round residents of the Lower Delta. However, they can be difficult to hunt and most are taken during the first two weeks of the season.
Finally, the coastal area of south Alabama can provide fantastic action on divers if the winter is harsh. Huge flocks of scaup and ringnecks winter on the coast under those conditions. On an extremely bitter front, the coastal area will be flooded with flocks of redheads and canvasbacks. Without harsh weather, the hunting is only poor to average.
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