Early Ducks in North Louisiana

Early Ducks in North Louisiana

Looking to take some ducks in north Louisiana this season? Look no farther. We've got your agenda right here.

By Glynn Harris

I'd wager that it takes little imagination for you to recall your most memorable hunting trip. Maybe it was a deer hunt that saw the buck of a lifetime grace you with his presence behind your cross hairs. Perhaps it was a morning, still and cool, when you potted a limit of squirrels in an hour, and you accomplished the feat with eight shots. If you're a quail hunter with a good memory, you might recall a morning when the dogs seemed to be constantly on point and you effortlessly sent quail after quail to the ground in a puff of feathers.

If you're a duck hunter, your memories no doubt go back at least more than a couple of seasons. With the dearth of ducks in Louisiana the past two winters, you're more likely to see red when you think of duck hunting - not pictures of ducks gliding into your decoys on cupped wings. In most cases last duck season, that just didn't happen.

I recall one particular enchanted day in a blind a decade or so ago when everything happened like it was supposed to. Earl Norwood, area director for Ducks Unlimited in north Louisiana, had invited me to accompany him on a hunt to the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge north of Monroe.

The morning dawned chilly and foggy, but it began long before dawn. We actually left Ruston at 2:30 AM for the hourlong drive to the Upper Ouachita, the reason for the early departure being that of beating other hunters to the spot Norwood had located.

My partner had done his homework and had located a small opening in the flooded timber where ducks glided in at dawn several days prior to our trip to feed on acorns on the shallow flooded hardwood flat.

Usually when I go on one of those "slam-dunk" hunts on which you're virtually guaranteed to get a limit in short order, but a front blows in the night before, or the water falls out, leaving dry ground where ducks dabbled yesterday. On this day, though, it was a slam dunk that actually happened.

Earl Norwood poses with a banded mallard taken at the Upper Ouachita NWR. Photo by Glynn Harris

It began before dawn as we worked our way back into the thickets, following the beam of Norwood's light reflecting off tiny bits of reflective tape he had discreetly placed along the way with the goal of not making it easy for other hunters to find his special spot.

Tossing out a couple of dozen decoys in the small opening, we tied the boat against overhanging brush, pulled the camouflage canopy around us, sat back and listened to some of the sweetest predawn music any serious duck hunter could hope to hear.

Across the Ouachita on flooded Molicy Farms, we listened to the growing crescendo of the contented chatter of mallards, the squeal of wood ducks, the nasal whank of gadwalls and the whistle of widgeon getting cranked up for the day.

Half an hour before legal shooting time, the rush of air through wings sounded frighteningly close over our heads. That was followed by a splashdown not 10 feet in front of our boat. In the half-light we could see the silhouette of a brace of mallards paddling around the decoys before they fed off into the gloom.

Once legal shooting time arrived, we had dozens of ducks do the same thing the early pair of mallards did; dropping into the small opening, they validated the fact that Norwood had, indeed, done his homework.

The deed was done in short order. That season, the limit was three ducks, and within half an hour of shooting, we had our two mallards and one wood duck each on the water. The icing on the cake that day presented itself when we examined our limits: Norwood and I had each downed a banded mallard.

It doesn't happen this way every time you venture out into the darkness on a duck hunt, and perhaps it's good that it doesn't. Otherwise, the thrill of a special hunt such as this would be tarnished by the predictability that it was going to happen.

Indeed, hunts such as we enjoyed have been few and far between during the past couple of seasons, when duck hunting in Louisiana, in a word, stank. Season success the past two years has been bleak for the majority of the state's duck hunters, and Ducks Unlimited professionals (such as Norwood) have caught an inordinate amount of misdirected flak for the lack of success.

The purpose of this article is to assist Louisiana's duck hunters, especially those in the northern half of the state, to achieve early-season success in 2003. To accomplish this effectively, though, it is necessary to be realistic by first examining the reasons for the lack of success, early-season and otherwise, over the past two seasons.

To counter the flood of complaints directed at conservation organizations, Ducks Unlimited in particular, that organization issued a press release after the 2002-03 duck season, explaining as best they could the reasons for Louisiana's having experienced poor duck hunting during the two prior seasons.

Here are a few excerpts from the Ducks Unlimited press release that examine what happened to create some of the state's worse duck hunting in recent years.

"Because of continued drought, we have witnessed two consecutive years of poor production in the heart of the breeding grounds in Canada and the northern United States where many of Louisiana's ducks get their start. This produced a weak fall flight of mostly adult ducks. These adult ducks are 'hunt smart' and are quick to find protected habitats where they remain until forced by weather or disturbance to move.

"Mild weather conditions and little snow cover throughout the Midwest from early December to early January compounded the problem. Daytime high temperatures extending as far north as the Dakotas were often above 50 degrees. Many ducks, especially mallards, will stay as far north as possible before persistent cold weather, accompanied by ice and snow, covers their food supply and pushes them south. Reports from the Midwest indicate that there were substantial numbers of mallards and other species of waterfowl in many Midwestern states in late December.

"In October, two tropical storms destroyed significant amounts of aquatic food resources on the coast and dumped more than 12 inches of rain. Coastal marshes in the direct path of these storms lost significant habitat resources that are important to ducks, including much of the vegetation they rely on for food. In addition, the heavy rains flooded a broad area of unharvested grain crops inland throughout central and northeast Louisiana. His helped to widely scatter the ducks that did make it to Louis

iana.

"Each of these environmental factors on its own would not impact Louisiana's duck hunting to a large degree. The fact that all three occurred in the same year created a worse-case scenario, and this combination of factors led to a lackluster season."

Now that the bad news is out of the way, let's take a more optimistic tack and help put you one some prime public hunting areas in the northern half of Louisiana for the upcoming duck season.

One of the state's most remarkable duck hunting spots is Catahoula Lake, east of Alexandria. This lake contains 5,000 acres of water, or 20,000 flooded acres, depending upon the time of year and the amount of rainfall the area receives.

Catahoula Lake is managed under a tri-party cooperative agreement among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The lake is dewatered beginning around July 1 each year to encourage the production of the moist-soil vegetation that is of prime value to waterfowl. A 5,000-acre pool is maintained throughout summer and remains at that level until just prior to the opening of duck season, when the lake level is allowed to rise until the majority of the area is covered in about 2 feet of water. After duck season ends, Catahoula is raised another 4 to 5 feet to enhance commercial fishing, where it stays until the following July when the cycle begins again.

Hugh Bateman works for Ducks Unlimited as manager of the organization's conservation programs. Prior to his employment with DU, Bateman worked for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, so he has seen Catahoula Lake from both sides of the aisle.

"When water levels are high, Catahoula can cover as much as 20,000 acres, and it has always been a haven for diving ducks, such as canvasback, scaup and ringnecked ducks," Bateman explained. "If you don't mind the crowds at the beginning of season, Catahoula can offer some good early season shooting. I can guarantee you there were people out on Catahoula all this past summer preparing their blind sites for the upcoming season. Although this is a public hunting area, some folks have traditional blind sites that are generally respected by others; they've just always hunted there and they're expected to.

"When water levels are high, hunters can have good success wading the edges of the lake in the thickets. Find a hole the birds are using, throw out some decoys and you can have some good shooting," Bateman added.

Another excellent area, provided conditions are optimum, is the Boeuf wildlife management area in Caldwell and Catahoula parishes, consisting of just over 48,000 acres. The terrain is flat and poorly drained, with numerous backwater lakes, sloughs, and bayous. A large portion of the area is subject to annual flooding from Boeuf River and Bayou Lafourche. This area contains two waterfowl impoundment projects that offer additional duck hunting opportunities.

A couple of years prior to our trip to the Upper Ouachita National Wildlife Refuge, Earl Norwood and I made a hunt to the Boeuf. Launching a boat in the Boeuf near Fort Necessity, we motored in the pre-dawn darkness several miles to the heart of the area. This hunt was much like the one we enjoyed on the Upper Ouachita: We backed the boat into the brush, tossed out decoys and limited out in short order.

Today, hunters still make early-season hunts to the Boeuf; many successful waterfowlers trailer 4-wheelers to the area, driving in as far as their machines will allow and wading out into the flooded timber. On days when there is a flight of new ducks on, hunting can be fantastic. Success depends upon weather, water conditions and the presence of ducks in the area.

Another prime early season duck hunting area is the Russell Sage WMA, east of Monroe. Russell Sage covers 17,000 acres within the Bayou Lafourche flood plain. Purchased in 1960, it was the first LDWF-owned wildlife management area in the state system. Its topography is flat and poorly drained, with numerous sloughs and shallow bayous. Backwater flooding occurs frequently, which can work in the duck hunter's favor.

There are two greentree waterfowl impoundments on Russell Sage totaling 2,400 acres. Excellent hunting is provided for mallards and wood ducks along with several other species.

Another prime public hunting area for ducks in northeast Louisiana during early season is the Tensas National Wildlife Refuge, which spreads across Madison and Tensas parishes. An area better known as a trophy deer hunting haven, Tensas also features good wild turkey hunting. However, the area's best kept secret may be its waterfowl hunting, which can be excellent under the right conditions.

Jerome Ford, manager of the Tensas NWR, agrees that the area offers some good duck hunting. However, he notes, it can be a hard area to hunt. "Some of the better areas within the Tensas are really hard to get to," he said. "It may be necessary to transport a small boat to traverse the bayous and streams in order to reach the better areas. For example, there is a 200-acre greentree area located on what is known as the 'McLemore tract'. Once you get back in there, hunting can be very good. Of course, scouting is necessary to find out just where the ducks are holding, and on just 200 acres, it can get crowded if too many hunters have the same idea of where to hunt on the same day.

"On the north end of the refuge, there are several small lakes and sloughs that hold ducks, but access is even more difficult to reach such places as Lost Break, Buck Lake and Doe Lake. The best access is off private land, and it is necessary to get permission from landowners to access these areas.

"One thing that can make Tensas a good duck hunting spot is the fact that it is surrounded by agricultural fields and waterfowl leases. When hunting pressure on these areas increases, ducks will often retreat to the refuge. If you're there at the right time, you can get in on some good hunting," Ford added.

Another north Louisiana area that is just now coming into its own as a prime duck hunting spot is the Red River. A series of locks and dams constructed within the past decade along the Red River created numerous oxbows and small impoundments accessible from the river.

Donnie Bates works in the LDWF Enforcement Division out of the Minden office. Bates offered a word of caution to hunters going after ducks along the Red River.

"So long as water levels along the river are high enough to allow access to these oxbows and small lakes by boat, they can be hunted. The jury is still out on the legality of motoring onto some of the areas with fences across these waters. To be safe, I would suggest that hunters stay in their boats and hunt only the areas off the river where there are no fences to cross," said Bates.

"There are a number of oxbows and small lakes off Pool 4 and Pool 5 between Clark's Landing just south of Shreveport and Coushatta. Some of these areas, especially the oxbows and lakes arou

nd Lock 4, can hold quite a few ducks," he added.

Hopefully, we have been able to give you a realistic look at early season duck hunting in north Louisiana. We've covered the good, the bad and the ugly, but in order to help you plan for the upcoming season, it would be helpful to take a look into the crystal ball to see what the waterfowl situation might be for this season.

Hugh Bateman shared some early predictions that he's been privy to. "Earlier this spring," he said, "the situation up north on breeding grounds looked pretty dismal because of low water conditions. However, water conditions have improved steadily since then with more and more potholes filling. Right now it looks like we'll have average to a little better than average production this year. Again, it all depends on Mother Nature and the intricate combination of cold weather and water - not too much; not too little - as to what our 2003 duck season will look like. Maybe the good Lord will give us a break this season."

Louisiana's duck hunters can only hope - and pray - for a break this season.



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