Peach State Waterfowl Preview

With the main portion of Georgia's duck and goose seasons set to open soon, how will the hunting stack up? Let's take a look. (December 2005)

Photo by R.E. Ilg

Despite the shotgun in my hands, the black Lab perched behind me, my familiarity with the river and my hunting partner expertly handling the canoe to allow me the first shot of the morning, the burst of wing beats caught me by surprise. A pair of wood ducks had jumped off the water from behind a fallen tree where the river curled into an eddy. We were floating the Toccoa River among the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southeast Fannin County. The colorful birds, draped and crowned in royal hues of bronze, copper and gold, quickly flew out of range.

"Your turn," I humbly announced.

We then swapped ends of the canoe and I picked up the navigator's paddle. Fortunately, all our encounters for the day did not end the same way. Blue, black, white, red and green rounded out the "coat of many colors" worn by four wood duck drakes we killed that December morning on a six-mile float.

With the variety of hunting opportunities available during the 2005-06 Georgia waterfowl seasons, you have plenty of options from which to choose. From the mountains to the coast, there are plenty of them. Let's take a look at some of these.

SMALL-WATER WOOD DUCKS

No matter where you choose to hunt wood ducks, steady to good breeding populations of the birds inhabit the rivers, streams, swamps and beaver ponds across the Peach State, according to state waterfowl biologist Jeff Balkcom of the Wildlife Resources Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

"If there's water and acorns on the ground, there will be wood ducks flying through the adjacent woodlands," Balkcom reported. "These include both resident birds and a tremendous influx of migrating birds that fly south from as far away as the Great Lakes states and New England. Numbers of woodies are especially good in the southern half of the state, with the coastal plain being a real hotspot. Hunters do well to check out the big river swamps, those created by the Chattahoochee, Savannah, Flint and Altamaha rivers. Float the channels or walk and wade the sloughs and shallow wetlands."

River hunting for woodies is also good in North Georgia, where other duck species are few. Primary waterways are the top spots, including the Coosa, Conasauga, Oostanaula, Etowah, Chattooga (in Walker and Chattooga counties, not to be confused with the Chattooga River in Rabun County), Toccoa and Nottely rivers. At low elevations these rivers, which rise in the southern reach of the Appalachian Mountains, are characterized by slow flows through wooded bottoms that feature large eddies, backwater sloughs and ponds.

But hunters must use caution when hunting Georgia's rivers and streams. These streams flow mostly through private property. Unless the waterway is considered navigable by the Tennessee Valley Authority, or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, they may be closed to floating. Even on navigable waters, you must stay in the boat or have written permission to go onto private property. Because special shooting restrictions can also apply on any waterway, always check local hunting regulations before taking to the water.

Wood ducks typically fly early in the day. Expect the flight to occur at or shortly after daylight, and it rarely lasts more than an hour. Woodies leaving their roosts commonly squeal in flight, but do not respond well to decoy spreads or calling. Guns should be at the ready when you hear them. Shooting will be fast and can be furious, as pairs of the small duck, weighing in around 2 pounds, twist and turn sharply as they speed through the bottoms.

LAKES AND RESERVOIRS

From the mountains to the coastal plain, Georgia lakes attract ducks of many different species. However, because the state is located on the periphery of the Atlantic Flyway, duck numbers measured annually in the Peach State are not especially high. Duck species that appear include mostly "divers" -- those whose feeding habits incorporate diving underwater to feed on grasses, tubers and rhizomes. Among the most common diver-duck species are ringnecks, scaup and buffleheads. However, localized flocks also can include mallards, widgeon, teal, pintails and canvasbacks.

Lake Seminole, in far southwest Georgia, is a historically rich duck-hunting destination, where ringnecks, scaup and canvasbacks have long dominated waterfowl opportunities. Some local hunters say duck numbers have declined sharply in recent years, but Balkcom pointed out that his annual surveys reveal bird numbers holding around the long-term average of 3,500 birds, counted every year since 1972.

"There were four odd years in the early '90s that a lot of hunters are probably recalling and measuring their opinions on about the current duck numbers on Seminole," Balkcom explained. "We counted over 20,000 ducks each of those years, and we don't really have a good reason why the birds were that numerous. It could be attributed to drought conditions, perhaps, that would have dried up the sloughs and ponds that dot the Florida Panhandle, southeast Alabama and southwest Georgia. As a result, the birds may have rafted in great numbers on Seminole."

Duck hunting on Seminole centers on its grasses -- specifically, its sawgrass and its hydrilla. According to the WRD 2004 Waterfowl Hunting Pamphlet, the lake's relatively shallow water promotes the growth of aquatic vegetation that attracts the largest inland concentration of wintering waterfowl in the state.

"Because lake levels are pretty constant, the hydrilla beds are thick in the mouths of the primary creek channels, such as Spring Creek, Sondras Slough and Fishpond Drain," 15-year duck hunting veteran Michael Conley of Bainbridge offered, "and the ducks roost nearby in open water and in rafts around the islands. There is a lot of 2- to 3-feet-deep water, and shallow-water hydrilla beds are the key to good duck hunting."

Alligators can be a threat for retrievers on Seminole, he warned, but hunting hazards are relatively few. Hard bottoms are common and offer good wading among the grass beds, where Conley's decoy spreads are laid out mostly with fake coots.

"Coot decoys should be in your spreads more than any other bird, because a few ringneck decoys thrown in among coots looks more normal than anything else," he explained.

Lake Seminole is a 37,500-acre reservoir owned and operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. For more information, call the WRD Albany office at (912) 430-4254.

Clarks Hill Lake -- officially known as Strom Thurmond Reservoir -- offers open-water duck hunting for ringnecks,

but backwater duck hunting is also popular in the many shallow coves on the 71,000-acre impoundment.

Wood ducks, mallards and teal fall to duck hunters who use boats to access the most remote areas on Clarks Hill, Keg Creek, Fishing Creek, Soap Creek and Broad River WMAs. Fishing Creek WMA also includes two waterfowl impoundments. Less than 20 acres in size, these ponds are managed primarily for native vegetation that attracts mallards and teal.

For more information about duck hunting on Clarks Hill Lake, call the WRD office in Thomson at (706) 595-4222.

THE COASTAL PLAIN

From saltwater marshes to Carolina bays to river bottomlands, the coastal plain of southeast Georgia offers a wide variety of waterfowl hunting.

Open-Water Sea Ducks

"The only surviving duck hunting guide in the state of Georgia" is what Capt. David Newlin of Richmond Hill calls himself. Situated just south of Savannah, Newlin focuses his hunting on open water, where saltwater pushes inland on numerous river mouths that drain Georgia's coastal plain.

"I can still kill a bunch of birds -- 600 birds, diver ducks mostly, in 56 trips last season," said the 45-year-old charter boat captain/waterfowl guide, "but development on the coast seems to have made freshwater ducks almost non-existent. The wild rice is gone because saltwater floods the freshwater marsh more and more each year. We've even lost the 'wompy' bulbs -- an onion-like tuber that grows in the freshwater marsh."

Using 20-foot aluminum boats dressed as floating blinds, Newlin hunts sea ducks, such as scoters, old squaws and occasional eiders. In the backwaters of the bays and in the river mouths, some pintails, canvasbacks and black ducks are also found.

WATERFOWLING DETAILS
In addition to a hunting license, waterfowl hunters need a Georgia Waterfowl Conservation License and a federal duck stamp, plus a free Migratory Bird Hunting License (H.I.P permit). A Wildlife Management Area License is also required for hunting on Wma lands.

Migratory bird hunting regulations and bag limits are available online at

www.georgiawildlife.com.

"It's not easy finding public land to hunt along the Georgia coast," Newlin pointed out. "Much of the land ownerships go back to 'King's grants' from the 1700s. But as long as you stay in the boat, you're going to be legal. That's one reason we hunt open water."

Newlin stresses that "big water" duck hunting can be difficult and dangerous.

"You've got to stay on top of the changing conditions," he warned.

The WRD Waterfowl Hunting Pamphlet echoes his sentiment, noting the coastal estuaries and sounds can be dangerous and unpredictable. Therefore, hunters should be familiar with coastal navigation before they attempt waterfowl hunting in these areas.

For more information about coastal waterfowl options, contact the WRD Brunswick office at (912) 262-3173.

Bottomlands And Marshes

Isolated beaver ponds, forested wetlands and river swamps provide ducks with both feeding and resting areas on the coastal plain. They also offer duck hunters many locations for blinds to shoot teal, widgeon, pintails and even a canvasback or redhead.

At first glance, public access amid the coastal wetlands appears plentiful, but many of these tracts are closed to waterfowl hunting during the deer seasons.

The Altamaha WMA is overwhelmingly rated as the traditional best public-land duck hunting in Georgia. The tract includes three managed waterfowl impoundments and 27,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods and cypress-tupelo swamps. The Butler Unit is hunted by boat only; the Champney Unit is a walk-in area; and Rhetts Island can be accessed only by boat.

Deep canals and bayous crisscross much of the WMA, where local hunting techniques include shooting over decoy spreads and by wading the flooded timber.

Boating access is via two ramps. One is at the area check station, 1.5 miles south of Darien on U.S. Highway 17 and the other is upriver at Altamaha Park, approximately 10 miles from the Interstate 95 bridge and off Penwick Road.

Griffin Ridge, Big Hammock, Richmond Hill, Paulk's Pasture, Sansavilla, Rayonier and Little Satilla WMAs, and Harris Neck National Wildlife Refuge round out the public bottomland and marshlands available to waterfowlers along the coastal counties. Success at each is measured by scouting, opportunity and habitat. Note, too, that many WMAs and NWFs also offer deer hunting. As a result, waterfowl hunting is frequently limited to the inclusive small-game season dates that concur with state waterfowl-hunting season dates. For more information about public areas near the coast, contact the WRD Brunswick office at (912) 262-3173.

CANADA GOOSE HUNTING

Georgia's growing resident population of Canada geese provide big birds, liberal bag limits, a long hunting season and widespread hunting opportunities that provide the most dependable waterfowl hunting available in the Peach State.

"We have a lot them -- some 135,000 to 140,000 and increasing," Balkcom reported.

As a result, Georgia lakes, golf courses, public parks, greenbelts, office complexes and just about anywhere water and grass lay adjacent to each other attract flocks of geese. Beautiful as they are, these birds quickly become nuisances. Thus hunting access is often easily obtained.

Some of the best Canada goose hunting is found on private agricultural lands, where they lounge, feed and roost near farm ponds and pastures. The trend is growing among private landowners to grant permission to goose hunters to set up spreads and blinds on their lands.

"Canadas are more abundant in the north half of the state," Balkcomb observed, "probably due to habitat -- more open land where farm pastures often surround ponds and small lakes. North Georgia also holds major reservoirs, such as lakes Lanier and Clarks Hill. Fortunately, these and other large lakes provide a lot of 'open' hunting areas."

For example, WMA lands lie adjacent to lakes West Point, Clarks Hill, Allatoona and Juliette. In fact, some of these tracts include pastures that have been put in place to attract Canada geese away from other public-use areas. If not otherwise posted, reservoirs can be hunted within their normal pool elevation, but typically also include no-shooting zones that extend 1,000 feet from any structure.

Georgia goose hunters enjoy a long hunting season. Besides the September early hunting season of 22 days, another 60-day session lasts from mid-December through late January.

Scouting for Canada geese is important, Balkcom said, because resident geese know their safe areas. But safe birds also means birds in great numbers. Hunters do well to get between their roosts on open water and their "safe" zones where they feed and loaf during the day. Shooting them is a matter of intercepting them on their daily flight paths. But once they have been shot at, the geese are likely to find new safe areas and routes.

Because parklands and golf courses are frequently found near or alongside Georgia's big impoundments, the reservoirs can offer the best early goose hunting. Small ponds and isolated pastures then provide the balance of the season's best shooting, as geese utilize them to escape hunting pressure on the big water. On these sites, decoys -- sometimes hundreds of them -- and calling are needed to pull Canadas into gun range.

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