Southeast Louisiana: Go To The Ducks!

Where are all the ducks? Right where they're supposed to be! Follow our expert's advice to put yourself in the right place at the right time — right now!

New Orleans-area hunters have plenty of ducks to shoot, but they may need to do a little more legwork or piroguing to get to them. Photo by John N. Felsher

By John N. Felsher

By the time most ducks arrive in south Louisiana marshes, they've seen thousands of blinds and decoy spreads stretched over the 3,000-mile shooting gallery that is their migration corridor. With Canadian waterfowl seasons beginning months before Louisiana seasons, birds face about five months of shooting pressure before the season ends.

Young or stupid birds fall to predators or sportsmen before they ever reach the Gulf Coast. By January, the ducks in Louisiana have demonstrated extraordinary savvy. Veteran mallards don't grow old by being gullible. By the time survivors hit the wintering grounds, even first-year ducks are seasoned veterans.

In January, many sportsmen stare at empty skies in coastal marshes and wonder: "Where are the ducks?" Well, the ducks have arrived in coastal Louisiana - they just aren't committing stupid errors like being detectible by you: They've learned to avoid man. They can distinguish nearly every type of tantalizing decoy spread imaginable. They can pick out blinds. They can instantly discern the sound of real quacks, ignoring the phony ones.

From Jan. 6 through Jan. 9, 2004, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries flew aerial surveys over coastal marshes, Catahoula Lake near Alexandria and up the Mississippi River to northeast Louisiana to determine duck populations. The survey estimated that 3.4 million ducks arrived in Louisiana - 1.1 million more than a similar survey conducted in December 2003.

The survey numbers came in slightly below the previous five-year average of 3.8 million for that time of year, but slightly ahead of the long-term average of 3.2 million. The report also indicated that birds were widely distributed across coastal and southwest Louisiana rice fields.

About 1.58 million appeared in southwest Louisiana and 1.51 million in southeast Louisiana marshes. The survey estimated 291,000 ducks on Catahoula Lake, much higher than the 43,000 reported a month earlier. The survey also estimated 113,000 ducks in northeast Louisiana and about 335,000 scaup on Lakes Pontchartrain and Borgne.

Despite those positive numbers, hunters still wondered why they found little action in their blinds, some blaming conservation groups for "short-stopping" birds (although the numbers came in above the long-term average), others the weather, for not pushing enough ducks south.

In fact, ducks arrived in appropriate numbers, as they have for centuries: They just didn't approach blinds where they could be shot at. They stayed on large inland lakes or rode the waves just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. If boats disturbed them, they took off, circled and landed exactly where they'd floated minutes ago. When not sitting on large waters, they poured into refuges or other sanctuaries where they could escape from hunting pressure. At night, they flew to marshes and rice fields to feed.

At places like Catahoula Lake, hunters might not bag a bird all day. However, if they stay in their blinds 30 minutes after legal shooting hours end, they might see thousands of mallards, pintails, gadwalls, teal and other ducks flooding into the lake. Ducks sit on the lake all night, because after they've feeding in nearby agricultural fields, it affords them sanctuary from predators; then, before first light, they disappear. With high-speed wings, ducks can cover a considerable distance quickly. They might roost more than 100 miles from where they feed.

When ducks won't respond to normal methods, it's time to change tactics. If late-season ducks become blind-shy and call-shy, they might not come to hunters, so hunters must go to them.

A LOOK BACK

AT BILOXI WMA

In the 1970s, my family and I frequently hunted the 39,583-acre Biloxi Wildlife Management Area along the southern shoreline of Lake Borgne near Hopedale. You may only enter the area by boat. Once there, you'll find numerous bayous, potholes and ponds. Surrounding marshes range from mostly salt to nearly fresh.

At times, these marshes provide some of the best duck hunting in Louisiana. Hunters bag mostly teal, gadwalls, mottled ducks, widgeon and divers, with occasional mallards and pintails. Unlike other public hunting properties, this vast wet wilderness could benefit from more hunting pressure. Huge numbers of birds often congregate in isolated lagoons.

We'd build temporary blinds out of bushes and tall reeds, or simply squat in the marsh grass. We'd toss about a dozen decoys into potholes. After the early-morning flights stopped, we'd sometimes explore the vast labyrinth of interconnected sloughs, ponds and bayous in the endless marsh. Paddling our pirogues, we'd try to find some of those undisturbed, isolated lagoons holding scores of ducks. Quite often, this strategy proved more effective than would sitting in a pond with decoys.

Federal laws prevent hunters from shooting at ducks from boats under power (this includes sails and electric trolling motors). Before anyone may shoot out of a boat, the motor must stop and all forward momentum of the boat cease. However, sportsmen can shoot ducks from human-powered boats.

Some mornings, we wouldn't even bother with decoys. We'd slowly paddle our pirogues through the labyrinthine sloughs and ponds, looking to jump ducks. Periodically, we'd stop paddling to listen for quacking, splashing or other sounds. We'd scan the bayous ahead for telltale movement, wakes or anything unusual.

With shotguns stretched across our laps, we'd hug the shorelines, trying to make ourselves blend in with the grassy edges. We preferred broken shorelines with plenty of points, coves and other irregularities instead of open ponds or long straight canals. As silently as possible, we'd dip our paddles into the water, a strip of rubber bicycle tube stretched along the gunwale reducing paddle noises. (Water dripping from a paddle can alert wary ducks, as sound travels long distances over water, especially on still mornings.) In very shallow hard-bottomed areas, we could use paddles almost like push poles. Whenever possible, we'd scull along weedy shorelines without lifting paddles from the water.

When coming around bends, we'd cautiously take the inside curve, hugging the grass for concealment. Quite frequently, a pair of ducks or a flock might explode from the water as we'd round a bend; sometimes they'd jump from the water almost next to the boat. With this method, we'd bag mallards, teal, gadwalls, dive

rs and just about any type of duck found in southeast Louisiana.

JUMP-SHOOTING

Jumping ducks by boat offers one of the few effective methods for targeting exceptionally wary mottled ducks. Mottled ducks seldom respond to decoys or calls. Non-migratory marsh natives, they quickly learn all the places to avoid. Except during teal season, they habitually frustrate sportsmen in blinds by flying just out of range. By late season, few mottled ducks fall to shots fired by any but sportsmen engaged in jumping.

Jumping offers excellent opportunities to teach children about hunting. Children soon grow bored by sitting in cold blinds for long hours. At least with paddling, they can see different scenery, and might spot some other illusive wildlife such as otters, raccoons or minks.

When jump-shooting with more than one person, designate one shooter; for safety reasons, take turns. The person in the stern acts as spotter and paddler. Only the designated shooter in the bow should hold a loaded gun at ready.

When jump-shooting from boats, use full-choked shotguns. Wary masters of concealment, ducks may erupt from a bayou or slough at any moment. Hunters must remain alert and react quickly before birds fly out of range. Ducks can spring from weeds less than 10 feet from a boat or from more than 40 yards away.

Use chokes and ammunition that can reach out and knock down big ducks at distances. Today, several makers of nontoxic bismuth, tungsten and other heavy loads reach out with considerable stopping power almost like the old lead shot.

OTHER OPTIONS

Besides Biloxi WMA, hunters near the Crescent City might try paddling through the lower part of the 35,032-acre Pearl River WMA near Slidell. The Pearl River forms the Louisiana-Mississippi line before splitting into the West and East Pearls. West Pearl carries the major flow, but the rivers further subdivide into West Middle, Middle and East Middle Pearl rivers. Numerous tributaries branch off these main rivers.

Between U.S. 90 and Lake Borgne lie about 10,000 acres of fresh to brackish marshes crisscrossed by numerous bayous and smaller sloughs. Hunters can paddle through these bayous for hours looking for mallards, wood ducks, teal, gadwalls, widgeon, spoonbills, scaup and occasional pintails.

West of Slidell, the 17,095 acres of Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge lie along the northern shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain. Several sloughs branch off Bayou Lacombe; in these, paddlers may bag birds.

South of Pass Manchac, 8,325-acre Manchac WMA offers one of the most popular (and crowded) public hunting grounds between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Most people throw decoys in the Prairie, a shallow pond near Lake Pontchartrain. However, some isolated potholes could offer chances for jumping ducks.

Just north of Manchac WMA, 15,609-acre Joyce WMA offers very limited and difficult access. Except for a few bayous off the Tangipahoa River, sportsmen cannot access the interior of the largely-unbroken flotant freshwater marsh except by pirogue. One shallow drainage at the northern end of the property and a few stumpy pirogue trails through cypress and gum swamps off state Highway 51 offer the only access. Hunters will likely bag mallards, teal and wood ducks if they can find places with enough water for birds to land.

In the Mississippi River Delta, hunters can paddle for days and still not see all the marsh. After taking a 30-mile boat ride down the Mississippi River, sportsmen find a maze of bayous, passes, shallow ponds and canals passing through fertile fresh to intermediate marshes in one of the richest waterfowl habitats in North America. Pass-A-Loutre WMA offers 66,000 acres of state property, while the nearby Delta NWR comprises another 48,800 acres of federal marshlands and open water. Ducks can land almost anywhere in the Delta.

Southwest of New Orleans, Pointe-Aux-Chenes WMA offers 33,480 acres of fresh, intermediate and brackish marshes in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. This marsh interlaced with numerous ponds can offer almost unlimited jump-shooting opportunities for gadwalls, green-winged teal, mottled ducks and widgeon. Sportsmen may also bag divers, pintails and mallards.

About 12 miles southwest of New Orleans, Salvador/Timken WMA contains 34,520 acres of fresh to brackish marshes, open water and ponds along lakes Salvador and Cataouatche and their tributaries. Hunters may paddle through freshwater marshes pockmarked by a few ponds surrounded by maiden cane, cattail and bull tongue. People may only access the area by boat through Bayou Segnette, the lakes or several canals in the area.

Near Morgan City, the 141,000-acre Atchafalaya Delta WMA at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River and the Wax Lake Outlet consists mainly of open water and patches of marsh. Hunters may find difficult paddling, but they can use their pirogues to hide in nearby marshes or among vegetated mudflats.

Many public areas restrict hunting to morning or early-afternoon hours, thus avoiding overpressuring birds. Birds enjoy sanctuary in the afternoon and may stay in an area longer. Check local regulations for each area before planning a public hunt.

TIPS FOR TAKING MORE LATE-SEASON DUCKS

Since hunters may not build permanent blinds on public lands or reserve spots, sportsmen who hunt wildlife management areas or federal refuges may actually have an advantage over people on private leases. The first person in the pond gets it. This could force hunters to look for alternative ponds.

Some people simply don't want to leave the comfort and convenience of permanent blinds and large decoy spreads that have been in place since before the season began. If ducks fly over them, they may kill some. However, if ducks change their flight patterns, or learn to avoid those blinds, they may kill relatively few birds. In late season, successful hunters must move with the ducks.

If they don't want to paddle pirogues or canoes through vast tracts of marsh, traditional sportsmen may still hunt over decoys. However, they might consider the old adage "less is more." Often, three or four decoys in a small, quiet and isolated pothole will work better than covering an entire pond with plastic mallards.

Varying decoy sizes and types also helps. By far, most people use mallard decoys. Birds learn to equate green heads with gunfire. Spread a few green-winged teal or pintail decoys in a pothole. Use a pair of pintails on one side of pond and a half-dozen gadwall or scaup decoys on the other side. Avoid widgeon decoys, because widgeon often steal food from other ducks, especially divers.

A few scattered "confidence" decoys complete the illusion. Place a couple of heron or egret decoys on a far shoreline. Ducks get used to seeing herons and know they don't like to hang around people with shotguns. A couple of coots floating at extreme range not only serve as confidence builders, but shooting marks.

Limit calling in late season and avoid mallard highball calls. Use low drake tones or feed calls instead - or teal or pintail whistles. Call enough to get birds to look in the direction of the spread and stop, especially if they turn and head toward the decoys.

Call less and hide more. Whenever possible, crouch in growing native vegetation or behind natural cover such as standing timber. A waterproof bucket allows hunters to sit comfortably in thick grass. Even when building a temporary blind, only use materials from that area.

Unfortunately, natural blinds don't always grow next to the best duck ponds. Commercially available woven grass mats or camouflage netting offer excellent concealment to cover small boats. In places like the Atchafalaya or Mississippi deltas, hunters often cannot stand in muck so they hunt from boat blinds. Don't hunt in the same place twice. Even when hunting the same pond, pick a different hiding spot each time.

Hunters using boat blinds can also easily keep up with bird movements. With a good boat blind, hunters can toss a few decoys into a pothole and begin hunting in minutes. If they see birds flocking into a nearby pond, they can move and begin hunting in a different spot quickly.

This year, the second split in the West Zone runs from Dec. 18, 2004, through Jan. 23, 2005. In the East Zone, the season runs from Dec. 18, 2004, through Jan. 30, 2005. However, sportsmen may only bag pintails statewide from Dec. 18, 2004, through Jan. 7, 2005. Hunters may shoot canvasbacks from Dec. 18, 2004, through Jan. 16, 2005.

Hunters may bag up to six ducks, five mergansers and 15 coots per day. The limit may contain four mallards, but only two hens. The limit may also contain no more than three scaup, three mottled ducks, two wood ducks, two redheads, one black duck, one hooded merganser, one pintail and one canvasback, in season.

With a little ingenuity and a willingness to experiment, hunters could bag more ducks this season by going where the birds want to go.



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