Think Small For Northwest Ducks

Waterfowling amid the ridges and valleys of Georgia's northwest corner may not be "classic" duck hunting, but it can prove rewarding all the same. (Dec 2006)

Classic waterfowling scenes on canvas portray hunters peering into the sky as the first few weak rays of light turn night into day over a duck marsh stretching to the horizon. A skilled artist brings life to the images of Labrador retrievers, making them appear to shiver with an excitement born of the awareness that huge flocks of ducks will soon be coming in, each arriving wave offering the dogs the opportunity for a mad dash into the icy water. Such renderings vividly recreate this country's long, storied past of waterfowling.

A refined appreciation of the classics of design is certainly to be admired, but "art" ultimately lies in what your eye makes of it. And something of the same relationship holds true for northwest Georgia duck hunting: maybe not a masterpiece in the classical sense, but frequently pleasing nonetheless.

No marshes here, nor flooded hardwood bottoms: Here, those participating in the Sport of Kings (as both waterfowling and horse racing have been called) instead find hardwood ridges and greenfield valleys stippled with a few pasture ponds and the occasional beaver's handiwork damming up a small stream or spring seep.

Duck hunting isn't an easy sport to make a start on in this region; you've first got to pay some dues if you hope to enjoy success down the road. Northwest Georgia lies in the path of no major flyway, and although enough ducks use the area to make hunting them a worthwhile pursuit, it does require the cultivation of a new slant on the sport.

Two northwest Georgia hunters who've got small-water duck hunting down pat are the uncle-nephew duo of Allen "Butch" Eleam and Scott Copeland, both of Summerville. They prefer to start their winter days by spending the first few hours of daylight on a duck pond before they head for the offices of Guffin and Eleam Insurance for an honest day's work. Both have been duck hunting in northwest Georgia since they were old enough to swing a scattergun, and have witnessed many a sunrise while gripping a shotgun and looking up into a waiting sky.

"Duck hunting up here can be good," Butch Eleam said, "but it takes a little different way of thinking. We would all love to have the kind of duck hunting they do in Arkansas and other places on the major flyways, but you take what you can get -- and around here that means hunting a small pond or swamp for a few hours in the morning before work.

"We still see plenty of ducks, though. On a good morning hunt, you may have 25 or 30 ducks come in on you."

"It all depends on the weather up north," Copeland added, "but usually the later in the season it gets, the more ducks we see. The first few hunts of the season might be a little slower, but toward to the end it really picks up."

Since wood ducks are considered by many hunters to be the bread-and-butter ducks for Georgia waterfowlers, it's surprising that gadwalls, mallards and black ducks make up most of the duo's harvest.

"We don't shoot a lot of wood ducks," Eleam noted. "We usually let them fly. The reason is the other ducks like mallards usually come in just a little later, and you don't want to be shooting up the swamp after a few wood ducks and scaring off some good flights of mallards that were headed your way."

"We don't hunt near any major rivers," Copeland pointed out, "and, in fact, one of our best ponds is a good ways from the Chattooga River, which isn't very big to start with. But Lake Weiss isn't very far away by air, and the ducks we hunt seem to prefer to spend the night on the lake and then come to the ponds during the day to feed."

Copeland's observation that the 30,000 acres of Lake Weiss aren't terribly distant as the duck flies is telling. If doing well as a duck hunter in northwest Georgia is you goal, keep that in mind.

"Scouting is key," offered Eleam. "You need to go scout the pond you plan to hunt at least the day before the hunt -- and several days in a row is even better. The ducks are coming to the pond or swamp for a reason, but they aren't there all the time. What you want to do is figure out where they are coming from, what part of the pond they like to come to, and then set up accordingly on the day of the hunt.

"You have to do a good job of scouting if you want to be consistently successful. Mornings are best, but watching the ducks leave the pond in the evening can help too."

Eleam and Copeland echoed each other on another major key to profitable duck-hunting: Don't overcall. Maybe give a little feeding call and leave it at that, they emphasized, pointing out that if your scouting's gotten you into the right place, the ducks will already be disposed to come to the pond on their own, and you won't really have to draw them in. You just want to avoid doing anything that could scare them off.

This restraint extends to the use of decoys: You want no more than a dozen -- usually just four or five.

So what indicates that you're looking at a promising small-water duck hole? "What you want to look for are secluded ponds," Copeland stated. "If there is much activity around them, the ducks won't use them much. The more secluded, the better, especially for black ducks. Our best black duck pond is way, way off the beaten path.

"Good duck ponds have clean water with shoreline vegetation. Stagnant ponds without flowing water don't seem to be as attractive to ducks. Ponds don't have to be just a mile or two from bigger water, either -- if the pond has what they are looking for, the ducks won't have a problem finding it and coming there on a regular basis."

Once you've followed up on Eleam's and Copeland's tips on locating and scouting your own north Georgia waterfowling paradise, you need to keep one other critical factor in mind -- unless, that is, you want to see all your hard work go for naught.

"Don't overhunt!" Eleam insisted. "That is absolutely key."

Once you've scouted out a likely pond or swamp, don't give in to the temptation to hunt it more than once a week. Otherwise, the ducks will very probably abandon the pond, putting you back to square one.

"Scott and I try to hunt four or five mornings a week if our schedules allow," said Eleam. "If you are going to hunt that much, you need a half-dozen or more ponds on your list and scouted. That way you can rotate from one to another and give each pond a week or more to rest before you hit it again."

How does

one find and gain entry to these duck ponds? This being a part of the state containing very little public land, that can take some detective work. Perhaps begin with the aerial photos found on various Internet mapping sites -- a pond completely obscured from the road stands out like a sore thumb from the air. Next, drop in on the county tax office and determine who owns the pond; then, contact the landowner. With any luck, the process will end in your obtaining leave to hunt the pond.

Just don't forget the once-a-week rule. And as it's never a good idea to have all your eggs in one basket, start with a long list of potential ponds, so that after everything's said and done, you end up with access to a handful of really good ones.

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