Crescent City Ducks

By now, all of the easy ducks have fallen victim to hunters farther north. You'll have to try some different tactics if you plan to take late-season ducks near New Orleans.

In the late season, many people anticipate shooting mallards, which are among the last ducks to migrate south.

Mallards may only fly as far south as the first available food and unfrozen water they find. In 2000-01, ice and snow falling as far south as Alexandria drove many mallards to the coast. While record cold temperatures led to record mallard harvests during the 2000-01 season, mild temperatures kept mallards farther north during the 2001-02 season; then, many mallards never ventured farther south than the Dakotas.

"The 2000-01 season was a record year for mallard harvests and approached a record for all ducks," said Robert Helm, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' waterfowl study leader. "It's not realistic to think that every year could be as good."

Helm pointed out that while mallards migrate later than other ducks do, they typically comprise only about 12 to 15 percent of the state harvest. In 1997, the annual kill topped 2 million ducks for the first time ever. In each of the years since, about 105,000 Louisiana hunters have downed between 2 and 2.5 million ducks.

In coastal marshes, Helm says, blue- and green-winged teal and gadwalls make up about 60 percent of the harvest. These species migrate earlier than other species do, regardless of weather, ordinarily arriving in force by late October. Mallards typically won't migrate until frozen fields prevent them from feeding up north.

Later seasons don't necessarily mean more birds in the bag, however; during mild winters, many Louisiana hunters fare better in the early split. An example furnished by Buddy Oakes, a guide with Hackberry Rod and Gun Club: During the 2001-02 season, hunters at Hackberry, which lies in the marshes south of Lake Charles, killed 3,882 ducks in the first split and 3,859 in the second split. In the first split, the club occupied 270 blinds for 23 days, usually putting three people in a blind, but sometimes two; in the second split, 431 blinds were hunted from for 37 days, but fewer ducks were killed.

THE LATE-SEASON CHALLENGE
"People have the perception that birds arrive later because they see them after the season," Helm said. "People see ducks in their ponds after the season and think they just arrived from Wisconsin. However, the birds were probably already in the area. Human activity around the blind during the season drove them away. They returned after hunters left. In addition, late-season birds are more difficult to hunt. They become blind-shy and avoid humans, so hunters kill fewer birds in late season."

By January, Louisiana hunters - especially those working public lands - face significant obstacles to bagging limits. Although cold weather drives more birds south, mallards in particular, the survivors grow more wary. Most ducks prone to stupid mistakes don't even make it to southern Louisiana; few of the lucky but dumb who live to see the Bayou State don't get through the first split. Even first-year youngsters are seasoned veterans by the time they reach the Gulf Coast - if they reach it.

After four months' worth of dodging a gauntlet of shotgun blasts stretching from the Arctic to the Gulf of Mexico, surviving ducks become quite skilled at picking out decoy spreads or blinds and avoiding them - a talent that's even more critical whenever they set down in public lands subject to intense pressure. Dropping birds in late season by and large obliges hunters to adopt new tactics and to cultivate flexibility.

By January, these feathered masters of the fine art of not getting killed can easily spot every imaginable type of tantalizing decoy spread and pick out every variety of blind and camouflage pattern; they know every possible call, every clever configuration of hunting resources. They're call-shy, blind-shy and decoy-shy - which is why less is often more during the late season. Fewer decoys and less quacking could mean more ducks in the bag.

By late season, the ducks still breathing and flying have heard thousands of phony quacks from thousands of hunters spread out over thousands of miles; so jadedly cautious are they that they might not even respond to the most alluring hen call. In fact, calling might spook them. Too much calling or improper calling could make them bolt from any given pond. So if ducks look like they might want to land in a pond, let them; remain still, quiet.

The majority of hunters across the continent use mallard hen calls as their primary attractant. If - given that every other guy in the marsh is quacking away - you feel you must call, you might consider trying something different to make your decoy spread stand out. Try varying type and/or tone: Use a mallard drake call, or a feeding call; instead of monotonously sticking with high, boisterous quacks, call at a low pitch. Throw in a few widgeon, pintail or teal whistles even when you're calling mallards - ducks don't often hear anybody whistle at them.

THE TROUBLE WITH DECOYS
The same logic applies to decoys. Ironically, overnumerous decoys can telegraph a waterfowler's position to birds as sure as a hunter-orange cap will alert another human. A few well-placed decoys in a pothole on public land will likely present a more realistic appearance than will 350 mallard dekes spread over a lake. Late in the season, most ducks (diving ducks on big waters excepted) prefer gathering in small flocks or pairing off to hanging out in huge congregations.

In addition, ducks traveling for thousands of miles over four months learn to equate mallard decoys with death. Avoid the magnum greenhead decoys; use a few pintails or widgeon with more white on them, sprinkle in a few teal decoys, and/or mix several species together in small yet distinctly separated flocks or pairs.

Add a couple of solitary coot decoys at the extreme edge of shooting range to give the spread a different look. Add one or two confidence decoys, such as a blue heron or white egret, along a far shoreline. While not directly threatened by hunters, egrets and herons seldom remain long near gunfire.

In the last few years, several types of spinning-wing or motion decoys have gotten quite popular. These battery-powered inventions employ contrasting rotating wings to create flashes resembling ducks landing in a pond. Other electronic decoys dive or move on the surface, injecting a bit of realism into a staid spread. Some vibrate, making waves ripple across the surface on calm days.

In one test conducted by the LDWF at Sherburne Wildlife Management Area (a 42,690-acre cluster of public lands near Krotz Springs), biologists collecting information from 141 hunter groups discovered that 36 percent of the groups used spinning-wing decoys. Groups with spinning-wing decoys killed 4.8 ducks per hunter; those not using such devices killed 3.6 ducks per hunter.

Made up mainly of hardwood bottomlands in the Morganza Floodway, Sherburne WMA provides flooded timber and bayou hunting; the primary quarry consists of mallards and wood ducks. Hunters may access the area by state Highway 975, which connects with U.S. 190 at Krotz Springs on the north and Interstate 10 at Whiskey Bay in the south. Several feeder roads or Big and Little Alabama bayous reach into the interior.

While exceptionally effective early in the season, motion decoys too may spook ducks by late season. If the popularity of spinning-wing decoys increases sufficiently to result in the devices becoming ubiquitous in the marshes, birds will come to associate the flash caused by spinning wings with pellets aimed in their direction, and, thus, to fear them.

Some units come equipped with remote control buttons that easily turn them on or off. Use the flash from the spinning wings to get a duck's attention and then, after it sees it, shut the decoy off; continuing might chase late-season birds off.

"The effectiveness is short-lived," acknowledged Robert Mathews, the creator of Roto Duck spinning-wing decoys. "Like all techniques, birds figure it out after a while. After the novelty wears off, ducks get used to them. At times, we had better success without motorized decoys after ducks became used to them."

THE ADVANTAGES OF PUBLIC LAND
Late-season hunters at public areas have one big thing going for them: a novel look.

On private property, many people hunt out of permanent blinds that look like blinds and keep their decoys in the same place all season; ducks become accustomed to seeing the same pattern each day and stay away. On public land, however, hunters can't set up permanent blinds, nor can they leave decoy spreads set up overnight. The regs fix it so that ducks see decoys in different places each day. Forced to set up anew for each hunt, those hunting public lands must scout for the likeliest ponds. Accordingly, they can keep up with changing flight patterns better than hunters anchored to the same blinds each day can.

Public-land hunters must build or find their own temporary concealment each day, either using native vegetation to create a blind, or simply hiding amid whatever natural cover the landscape affords. Often enough, no blind at all is the best blind in the late season. Crouch in thick weeds, such as cattails; get behind driftwood or a logpile on a shoreline; in timber, stand behind trees. Natural cover doesn't scare birds, because they simply identify it as what it is.

Unfortunately, not every good duck pond comes complete with decent cover in the right locations. By late winter, many weeds and bushes have died off or become sparse. In such cases, small stationary boats make exemplary vehicles for both finding and ambushing ducks.

A small camouflaged flatboat or pirogue not only makes a first-rate shooting platform, but also allows hunters to keep up with bird movements. You can quickly spread some camouflage netting, brush, weeds, moss or palmettos over a boat, toss a few decoys and begin hunting in minutes, maybe even changing locations several times in one morning to adjust to shifting flight patterns and weather conditions.

LATE-SEASON HOTSPOTS
Tactical flexibility informed by scouting will be critical for those hunting near big cities. Lying within an hour or two of New Orleans are several estimable public waterfowl properties, but on weekends, most of these stack the people in deep. When hunting late-season ducks, stick to the smallest possible waters - ducks soon learn to shun the big, popular, easy-to-find shooting areas. A public-land waterfowler who sets a few dekes out in a small pothole under an active flight path might take more limits than will someone on a large lake crowded with hundreds of decoys and competing shooters every 150 yards.

For example, 8,325-acre Manchac WMA, near La Place, ranks among the most popular public hunting properties between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. However, most people crowd into a few hundred acres near "the Prairie"; on weekends, some hunters arrive two to three hours before shooting hours begin to secure a decent spot in this heavily hunted shallow, marshy lake along the edge of Lake Pontchartrain.

While hunters at the Prairie may bag a variety of ducks including teal, scaup, ringneck ducks and gadwalls, people finding smaller, isolated freshwater potholes usually get more mallards, mottled ducks, widgeon and, occasionally, wood ducks or geese. For the best results, hunt small waters and deploy just a few decoys. Access the area from U.S. 51.

Intense action at Manchac might force some birds to fly to the almost unhunted Joyce WMA, just a few miles north near Ponchatoula. The 15,609-acre area consists of a large freshwater marsh surrounded by cypress and tupelo swamps. Getting into the area is difficult at best. A few ditches and a drainage canal off Interstate 55 offer the only access to the interior; some get in by way of the Tangipahoa River. If you can find a pond to hunt, you might happen on some unharried mallards, wood ducks and teal.

Not far away, on the other side of Lake Maurepas, stretch the cypress and tupelo swamps of the new 60,880-acre Maurepas Swamp WMA. Opened in the fall of 2001, the property contains habitat appropriate for mallards and woodies. Teal, widgeon and gadwalls put in occasional appearances.

Proceeding eastward along the northern shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain and you might find some ducks at the 15,000-acre Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge off state Highway 434 near Lacombe. A permit is required for duck hunting at the refuge. Mallards, gadwalls, teal, wood ducks, widgeon and divers frequent the brackish marshes and bottomland hardwoods.

Along the Louisiana-Mississippi line near Slidell, just north of Lake Borgne, 35,032-acre Pearl River WMA offers about 10,000 acres of fresh and brackish marshes in which to target mallards, teal, gadwalls, widgeon, scaup, and the occasional goose. Some opt to chase mallards, hooded mergansers, wood ducks and the odd teal through the timbered swamps or to hunt the lakes and bayous punctuating this watery maze.

Most people hunt the marshes south of U.S. 90. Several public launches off Military Road in Slidell enter the West Pearl, providing boating access to the property. At U.S. 90, ramps offer access at the West and East Pearl rivers.

Near Hopedale on the southern shoreline of Lake Borgne lies Biloxi WMA, whose 39,583 acres harbor some of the richest duck habitat in the state. Reachable only by boat, its multitude of bayous, potholes and ponds make available nearly unlimited opportunities for getting a shot at just about every species of duck found in Louisiana and, sometimes, geese, in a low-pressure situation. The marshes range from very salty to almost fresh.

Among the best duck marshes in the world, the Mississippi River delta hosts thousands of birds of nearly every species imaginable. Pass-A-Loutre WMA offers 66,000 acres of hunting property, while the nearby Delta NWR comprises another 48,800 acres of marshlan

ds and open water in Plaquemines Parish.

Fed by the fertile flow of the Mississippi, these lush marshes abound in waterfowl forage. These fecund areas poised on the last outpost of land in North America are used by millions of birds as a jumping-off place for their long overseas flights south. Here in these tidal lands they fatten up before migrating south and recuperate when headed north on the return flight.

"Hunting at the mouth of the Mississippi River was once again good with large numbers of pintails and gadwalls," Helm reported of the 2000-01 season.

To the west, in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes near Houma, lie the 33,480 acres of Pointe-Aux-Chenes WMA. A vast tidal marsh, the system attracts many teal, gadwalls, divers and widgeon to fresh, intermediate, brackish and salt marshes. To find mallards, head more toward the fresher portions along the northern fringe of the area. You can access the area only by boat, and only from launches in La Rose, near Houma or Golden Meadow.

Southwest of New Orleans, Salvador/Timken WMA in St. Charles Parish has 34,520 acres of fresh-to-brackish marshes, open water and ponds. Access this area from Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego, or through Bayou Des Allemands.

Atchafalaya Delta WMA, near Morgan City, is a 137,000-acre area that closely resembles the Mississippi River delta. Nourished by the awesome flow of the Atchafalaya River, this delta is one of the few places in Louisiana that continues to build marsh. Freshened by the flow, myriad interlacing bayous, potholes and marshes, canals and open water at the southern extreme of the longest river bottom swamp in North America create outstanding duck habitat for a variety of species. Access the area from the Atchafalaya River or Wax Lake Outlet by way of launches in Morgan City or Berwick.

* * *
All around the greater New Orleans area, you can find plenty of places for bagging ducks. Remember that you might need to change your style a bit, and to keep in mind that less equals more - more birds in the bag!



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