North Louisiana Early Ducks
September 28, 2010
North Louisiana's terrain may not be the classic waterfowl-friendly variety seen in the Delta area to the south, but its lakes and rivers are duck hunting hotspots fit to rival any in the state.
By John N. Felsher
People around the world think of the vast south Louisiana coastal marshes, rice fields, rivers and swamps as duck heaven. But the lakes and rivers of north Louisiana also contribute their share to the duck harvest.
Rice cultivation has increased substantially in many parts of north Louisiana, especially south of Monroe. Sportsmen also hunt over flooded soybean fields. Often in parts of north Louisiana, private clubs with outstanding shooting offer members and guests the opportunity to pay huge fees to hunt their fertile acres.
However, not everyone can afford either a pricey private club or the pampering that a quality guide service might provide; some hunters must work for their birds. Fortunately, many rivers, lakes and wildlife management areas provide excellent to outstanding waterfowl gunning at times.
Of course, much depends upon when the birds migrate all the way down to Louisiana - if they do at all. In the past three years, warm weather and abundant food up north has kept many birds well away from the Sportsman's Paradise. If a severe cold front pushes birds south, or if ponds and rice fields in Arkansas or farther north freeze, north Louisiana sportsmen may get shots at migrating ducks before hunters along the coast do.
"Areas in north Louisiana follow the trends of the state," said Steve Hebert, a wildlife biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries in Minden. "When ducks come down, hunting can be very good. If a major front comes through, we get a major flight of birds. If the coast is hot and dry, we usually do better up here. During the past couple of years, it's been a hit-or-miss deal depending upon the days people went."
Many public lands and waters in north Louisiana attract thousands of ducks at times. Most wildlife management areas follow state seasons, but to keep from chasing birds away, some only offer morning hunting or prohibit waterfowl hunting after 2 p.m. Federal areas might impose substantially different regulations.
Many lakes, including Bistineau, Caddo, Cross, D'Arbonne, Caney, Claiborne and Toledo Bend offer some public shooting. However, lake commissions in some areas might govern when and where people may hunt. Before hunting, sportsmen should always check state and local regulations.
A hunter calls to more mallards as his yellow Labrador retriever waits in a flooded slough to fetch them. Photo by John N. Felsher
Migrating birds may not stay in one place long. Too much pressure, not enough water or insufficient food might force birds to fly elsewhere. With their strong wings, ducks can easily roost in one place and feed 100 miles away from the roost site. They may fly 300 miles the next day.
"The last two or three years have been disappointing with the number of birds available," said Jerald Owens, an LDWF biologist supervisor in Monroe. "Some people did very well, but they worked for their birds. They were really mobile. They did a lot of scouting and followed the birds from place to place."
If pressure becomes too intense in the south, or if temperatures warm sufficiently, birds might fly from coastal marshes to northern Louisiana lakes or Arkansas rice fields overnight. Hunters with fixed blinds or permanent leases could experience excellent shooting one day and see nothing the next.
At public areas, hunters may not build permanent blinds, nor may they "claim" a spot: If someone beats them to their favorite hole, they must go elsewhere. Therefore, hunters on public property must keep several places in mind. This forced flexibility actually helps sportsmen who hunt on public land. They must remain mobile. If they keep up with bird movements, they may bag more limits than will people anchored to permanent blinds.
On lakes and rivers, small boats give hunters outstanding flexibility. Some companies sell easy-to-erect portable blinds that encase boats in camouflage netting or other material. People can usually toss a few decoys in a likely pothole, erect the blind and hunt directly from the boat. If they wish to move, they can usually pack everything in minutes and move elsewhere with little trouble.
Sportsmen without fancy prefabricated blinds can cover a small boat with native materials such as Spanish moss, branches, brush or vegetation. If that doesn't work, they can often hide a boat a few hundred yards away and simply hide in available cover.
KNOW YOUR DUCKS
In flooded timber, hunters typically bag wood ducks and mallards, but they might down a few teal, widgeon, gadwalls or pintails. In open lakes or major rivers, hunters usually kill more divers, such as ring-necked ducks, scaup, canvasbacks or redheads. Of course, Louisiana hunters might kill any species of duck that visits the state.
"Wood ducks are common throughout the state, and all suitable wildlife management areas have populations," said Robert Helm, the top duck biologist in the LDWF. "Wood ducks prefer wooded swamps, bottomlands, flooded hardwoods, cypress and tupelo wetlands. Many of our wildlife management areas were never cleared because they were too wet for agriculture. That's what wood ducks like. We have a resident population of wood ducks that nest here. That population increases three to five times when northern wood ducks migrate down here."
Wood ducks typically fly predictable patterns every morning and evening. They may "crash-land" in any thick cover they can find - the thicker, the better. Often, they don't fly in the evening until after shooting hours end. However, observant hunters can plan to place themselves at the right spot on the following morning before the woodies return.
"Wood ducks fly for 10 or 15 minutes at first light from their roosting spots to their feeding spots," Helm said. "They eat acorns, seeds, wild grasses, sedges and foods that other dabbling ducks eat. They roost in very dense wetlands like buttonbrush, dead timber or thick wet underbrush. They have a distinctive flight pattern. Many hunters take advantage of that and shoot them between the roosts and feeding locations - but normally that's a very quick hunt."
Unlike wood ducks, mallards usually fly later in the morning. They like plenty of sunlight and visibility so they can see potential predators. They don't like to light in thick cover, but may land in open water and swim into some heavy stuff.
FINDING YOUR HOTSPOT
Several rivers traversing no
rthern Louisiana serve as flyway highways. Birds coming down the Central Flyway from the northern Great Plains use the Red River for navigation. Birds migrating from Canada frequently use the Mississippi River as their route to the Gulf of Mexico. Along these and other rivers, such as the Tensas and Ouachita, hunters can often find great shooting at times.
"A lot of people hunt along the Red River near Coushatta," Hebert said. "It's a major flyway for ducks. But the Red River can be a dangerous area for someone not familiar with the river and working currents. It's not an area that people should go without doing a lot of scouting, especially on foggy days."
On major channels, such as the Mississippi or Red rivers, most hunters slip into oxbows and backwaters. Islands and sandbars also create excellent places to throw decoys into. On sandbars or islands, hunters may hide among driftwood piles, rocks, fallen trees or other natural cover. Some hunters lean against trees or squat in thick vegetation to break up their outlines.
Points, especially those growing with cattails, bullwhip or other native vegetation, make excellent places to hide. Points also allow hunters to take advantage of winds blowing from several directions. Surrounded on three sides by water, hunters can position decoys advantageously and pick off birds landing into the wind from three directions.
Hunt downstream of islands, sandbars or points, because these geographic features help break currents and create slack water. Unless they can't find anywhere else to land on those rare frozen days, ducks don't like to struggle constantly against powerful currents.
Rivers provide the best shooting on the coldest days. When ponds, marshes and backwaters freeze, currents keep rivers clear of ice. Birds might not find any other places to land besides in rivers. They might drop into an unfrozen pocket of slack water by the thousands, even if a person hunts without decoys.
On lakes, most hunters use floating or permanently anchored blinds surrounded by several hundred decoys unless a lake commission or other governing body passes local regulations prohibiting it. Decoys usually remain in place all season. Some blinds can accommodate several hunters.
"The state owns the water bottoms of lakes, so they are public property," Helm said. "In some developed lakes, hunters have to be careful where they set up blinds so they are not in somebody's backyard. There might be local laws or regulations that would prohibit hunting in these areas."
Although people can't really own public water bottoms, many people use the same blinds, anchored in the same locations, for decades. Some blinds and locations pass down from generation to generation. Some people even sell blind sites. People who frequent the same lake learn who uses which blinds in what locations. On days that blind owners don't hunt, others often slip into these structures for a morning of shooting.
Besides several lakes already mentioned, some northwest Louisiana wildlife management areas offer excellent waterfowl hunting. During the fall, the state floods some low timbered hardwood bottomlands to create greentree reservoirs. At Bodcau WMA, along the Louisiana-Arkansas line northeast of Bellevue, the state floods about 1,300 acres. The state floods another 110-acre greentree reservoir on Loggy Bayou WMA in Bossier Parish for public hunting. Water 18 to 24 inches deep and good mast production from hardwood trees provide ideal habitat for dabbling ducks.
"During a good acorn year, greentree reservoirs are really good for wood ducks and mallards, but they have opened up in the past few years," Hebert said. "Hunters kill occasional gadwalls and teal. On the lakes, the preferred species are mallards, but hunters bag a mixture of ducks including a lot of ring-necked ducks, gadwalls and teal."
Most people use waders and stand among the trees when hunting greentree reservoirs; some enter areas with pirogues or other small boats. Although duck seasons generally follow state seasons, some public areas may close during deer season or at other times.
In northeast Louisiana, Russell Sage WMA, east of Monroe, offers a couple of greentree reservoirs. One contains 1,800 acres, the other about 600 acres. In dry years, they might hold considerably less water. Ouachita WMA in southeast Ouachita Parish contains several open fields with impoundments and moist-soil units that the state floods. Some impoundments measure 400 to 700 acres.
"In northeast Louisiana, hunters bag good numbers of mallards and wood ducks in flooded timber areas," Owens said. "Hunters also bag some teal and gadwalls. In some locations, we get a few pintails."
People may also hunt along the Ouachita River or the Boeuf River. Boeuf WMA in Caldwell Parish holds good concentrations of ducks at times. It contains a 1,800-acre greentree reservoir. Red River and Three Rivers WMAs near Ferriday also hold some ducks when the rivers flood, trapping water in impoundments and a greentree reservoir. Some flooded timber adjacent to the Red River and nearby bayous will hold ducks occasionally.
"Hunting has been sporadic for the last few years," said Reggie Wycoff, an LDWF biologist in Ferriday. "Boeuf WMA probably offered the best public hunting in this area, but it's been off of what it once was a few years ago. Last year, hunters did fairly well at greentree reservoirs at times. Sometimes it was a little better than surrounding private lands. When the river comes up, many low areas adjacent to the river flood. We also have some development projects, such as open fields, that offer tremendous opportunities."
Near Alexandria, waterfowlers find some of the best hunting in the state. Catahoula Lake and the Saline-Larto complex can at times rival the best coastal areas for variety and numbers of ducks.
Each fall, the state floods Catahoula Lake near Pineville. A natural low spot, the lake expands from a few thousand acres and less than 2 feet deep up to 35,000 acres. During most hunting seasons, the lake holds about 20,000 to 24,000 acres of water spread over an area about four miles wide and 15 to 20 miles long.
Hunting success largely depends on water levels. The state tries to keep the inundated cow pasture at about 18 inches deep. However, heavy rains can flood the lake to a depth of several feet and swamp permanent blinds. Dabbling ducks may rest on the lake during high water periods, but they cannot feed in deep water. If water remains too deep for dabblers to feed, ducks might visit surrounding rice and bean fields during the day and return to Catahoula Lake at night to roost. If water remains 12 to 18 inches deep, dabblers might stay on the lake to feed.
"Catahoula Lake is one of the top lakes in the country for canvasbacks and pintails," Helm said. "In some years, up to 40 percent of the continental population of canvasbacks has wintered on Catahoula Lake. We've had more than 30,000 canvasbacks on the lake in some years."
In some years, the lake attracts 200,000 to 500,000 ducks of nearly every species. Besides canv
asbacks, hunters typically harvest mallards, pintails, gadwalls, teal, widgeon, scaup and ring-necked ducks.
Hundreds of blinds dot the lake. Some people also hunt along the wooded shorelines or in small boats. Opening day attracts thousands of hunters, manning blinds every few hundred yards. It sounds like a war zone.
Not far away, Saline Bayou connects Saline Lake and Lake Larto through an 8,000-acre maze of natural bayous, swamps, flats, canals and backwaters. A weir regulates the water level. Wood ducks cruise timbered edges and roost in flooded swamps. Mallards, teal, gadwalls and pintails prefer backwaters off Saline Bayou, Shad Lake, pockets in Muddy Bayou, Nolan Bayou, Bull Lake Slough, Long Slough, Duck Bayou, Cross Bayou and hundreds of unnamed potholes. Redheads, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks and scaup frequent open water in the larger, deeper lakes.
Both lakes, along with Catahoula Lake, border the 60,276-acre Dewey W. Wills WMA 20 miles northeast of Alexandria. Hunters cannot build permanent blinds on the management area itself and must stop hunting by 2 p.m. each day. However, many people float permanent blinds in public water bottoms or hunt all day from boat blinds in secluded coves and sloughs.
Since Saline Lake and Lake Larto also hold excellent fish populations, especially crappie, many anglers run these lakes. In addition, ducks frequently gorge themselves in nearby soybean fields and return to the lakes later in the morning to rest or roost there at night. Fishing boats may jump birds or break up duck concentrations. If sportsmen stay in their blinds long enough, they can often enjoy outstanding shooting in the middle of the day as fishermen return to the docks for lunch or move from one honeyhole to the next.
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Just about anywhere in Louisiana, sportsmen can find places to hunt ducks. Waterfowlers just need for an adequate complement of birds to make the trip down to the Bayou State this fall.
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