Southwest Louisiana: Things Are Just Ducky!

Southwest Louisiana: Things Are Just Ducky!

With duck numbers on the rise, Bayou State waterfowlers have reason to be optimistic about the new season. Here are some hotspots that can make your plans and dreams come true.

By John N. Felsher

While the 2002-03 waterfowl season proved disappointing, many sportsmen in southwest Louisiana hope to find better gunning this fall.

"The prairies were very wet this spring and numbers of almost all duck species are up," said Robert Helm, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries' senior waterfowl biologist.

After two years of extreme drought conditions across most of the prairie pothole region and corresponding plunging duck numbers, the vast breeding grounds received considerable water in April 2003. By the summer, water conditions ranged from good to excellent across most of the prairies. Habitat has improved substantially since 2002 and duck populations rose accordingly.

By July 2003, overall duck numbers jumped to 36.2 million breeding birds, up from the 31.2 million birds estimated in the summer of 2002. The index for breeding habitat conditions stood at 5.2 million ponds, 91 percent above the 2.7 million counted in the summer of 2002.

"This is great news following the extremely dry winter that we had across these same areas," said Don Young, executive vice president of Ducks Unlimited. "The extraordinary snow and rains that started in April (2003) provided much-needed moisture that will benefit waterfowl. But as always, hunting success in any given location is very much affected by regional and local weather conditions."

Numbers for the most common duck species have risen since the summer of 2002, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Mallards jumped from 7.5 million in 2002 to 7.9 million birds this year, breaking a three-year decline.

A couple of southwest Louisiana duck hunters show off their bounty after a successful day of waterfowling. Photo by John N. Felsher

Widgeon numbers climbed from 2.3 to 2.5 million, a 9 percent increase, but remain 14 percent below the North American Waterfowl Management Plan goals. Gadwall numbers increased from 2.2 million to 2.5 million birds, up 14 percent over last year and well above the NAWMP goal.

Shovelers (also known as "spoonbills") leaped 56 percent, from 2.3 to 3.6 million, or 82 percent above the goal. Green-winged teal skyrocketed 46 percent from 2.3 million to 2.7 million, the second-highest level since 1955. Blue-winged teal populations jumped from 4.2 million to 5.5 million, a 31 percent increase over last season.

After two years of steady declines, redheads went from 565,000 to 637,000, an increase of 13 percent. Canvasback numbers rose from 487,000 to 558,000, an increase of 15 percent.

"These increases are mostly the result of much better conditions on the prairies, which stimulated the birds to stop and breed," said Dr. Bruce Batt, DU's chief biologist. "Upland nesting habitat is the other critical element that drives nesting success. It improved this year because of generous rains, but for the long term we still have a great deal to do to improve and secure improved nesting conditions, especially in Canada."

Only pintail and scaup numbers remain seriously below the NAWMP goals, but each has increased since 2002. Pintails rose from 1.8 million to 2.6 million, an increase of 43 percent, but remain 39 percent below the long-term average. Scaup increased 6 percent to 3.7 million, but remain 29 percent below average.

"We are especially glad to see the jump in pintail numbers," Batt said. "Conditions on the prairies were just right when they arrived. Pintails remain of great concern, as they are still below their long-term average. Nevertheless, this relief from the recent trends is welcome."

Waterfowlers hope to see some of those birds at the two prime public hunting lands in southwest Louisiana. Combined, Sabine and Lacassine national wildlife refuges offer about 44,000 acres of public hunting. The 9,621-acre Cameron Prairie NWR, near Bell City, only offers limited youth hunting by lottery.

SABINE NWR
The 124,511-acre Sabine NWR near Hackberry offers some of the best public waterfowling in southwest Louisiana. Situated between Sabine and Calcasieu lakes in Cameron Parish, Sabine attracts ducks from both the Mississippi and Central flyways. Habitat ranges from fresh to brackish marshes, but a few freshwater impoundments, bayous, canals and small natural lakes hold ducks of various species.

The refuge allows hunting on about 34,000 acres. Not far from the nature trail, one 10,000-acre parcel north of the Central Canal and east of the Beach Canal in Unit E sits adjacent to an impoundment that typically holds ducks. Other tidal marshes remain open in Units A, B, C and D south of the Central Canal, east of Burton Canal and north of the Southline Canal. Old North Bayou drains Unit D and part of C, providing more access.

Hunters may access the Unit E area off Vastar Road. They may not use motorized boats in this area, but may use pirogues or canoes. For access into the remaining 24,000 acres open to public hunting, sportsmen may launch boats at Hog Island Gully or other points along state Highway 27. Except for Christmas and New Year's Day, Sabine NWR allows hunting every Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday morning throughout the duck season and during the September teal season.

Generally, the same state licensing and hunter education rules that govern Louisiana also apply at the federal refuge, except that hunters need to carry site-specific permits, which are free of charge, while on federal property. Conveniently, the permit doubles as the area hunting brochure and contains a map of the hunting areas as well. People may obtain the permits from the refuge headquarters on state Highway 27 south of Hackberry, or online at http://sabine.fws.gov.

Most sportsmen kill gadwalls or green-winged teal, according to refuge biologists. Gadwalls typically account for almost 39 percent of the harvest, followed by green-winged teal at about 23 percent. Widgeon make up about 9 percent of the total bag. Hunters may also find a few mallards, pintails, blue-winged teal, ring-necked ducks, scaup and a smattering of wood ducks, ruddy ducks, goldeneyes and just about every other type of duck found in Louisiana. Lucky sportsmen may also bag an occasional snow, blue or speckle-bellied goose.

"In coastal marshes, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and gadwalls comprise about 60 percent of the harvest," Helm said. "Louisiana has never been a big mallard state. Historically, mallards make up about 10 to 15 percent of the total harvest. Just three years ago, mallards comprised

about 20 percent of the total harvest. That's an all-time high. That year, we harvested double the amount of mallards that wintered in Louisiana in 2002-03. With the exception of the past two years, the mallard harvest has been high for the past eight years."

At the far western edge of Louisiana, hunters visiting Sabine NWR might also bag a few cinnamon teal and fulvous or black-bellied whistling ducks. Common in western states and Mexico, cinnamon teal seldom stray east of the Atchafalaya River. Whistling ducks breed in Louisiana and Texas but migrate to parts farther south for the winter. In early season, many hunters at Sabine NWR see these gangly birds that resemble a cross between a duck and a goose.

Like many public lands, Sabine NWR can attract large crowds. On the opening weekend of each split, hunters in several hundred vehicles might line up along state Highway 27, all waiting to launch their boats. However, as the season progresses, fewer hunters make the trip to Hackberry. On Wednesdays, hunters might find themselves alone in the vast marshland.

To beat the crowds, some Sabine hunters arrive at the earliest legal time to claim the best ponds. Others run as far as they can with their outboards and then launch pirogues to go even farther. The first person to arrive in a spot gets it.

Hunters may enter the refuge up to three hours before legal shooting time, 30 minutes before official sunrise, and must leave the marsh by noon. Hunters cannot "reserve" their ponds by building blinds. In fact, waterfowlers may only use portable blind materials or native vegetation. By noon, they must leave the marsh with whatever they carried into it, including spent shell hulls. Upon leaving, sportsmen must check out and report their harvest results through a self-clearing station.

By federal regulation, hunting parties must remain at least 150 yards away from another hunting party. They must also remain at least 50 yards off the main canals. Boats with outboards may not leave the designated canals and major bayous. Boaters may use trolling motors on pirogues, but they may not use go-devil type motors, airboats, mud boats or personal watercraft on the refuge.

Army-style camouflage netting stretched over a flatboat makes an effective blind. Woven mats of natural reeds also make good blind material, but people must remove any blinds when they leave. Native marsh grass blankets most of the refuge, providing excellent blind material in most places.

To reach Sabine NWR, exit at state Highway 27 off Interstate 10 at Sulphur; go south through the town of Hackberry and continue heading south. The refuge headquarters sits about eight miles south of Hackberry at 3000 Holly Beach Highway (state Highway 27) on the east side of the highway. For more information, call the refuge headquarters at (337) 762-3816.

LACASSINE NWR
Just to the east of Lake Charles, Lacassine NWR off state Highway 14 in Hayes provides 34,886 acres of fresh and brackish marshes for duck habitat. The federal refuge allows duck hunting on about 9,300 acres. Regulations similar to those governing hunting at Sabine NWR are in force at Lacassine, except that the refuge allows duck hunting every day except Mondays and Tuesdays by permit.

Most of the people hunt about 6,000 acres south of the Intracoastal Waterway. About 3,300 acres of open marsh along Streeters Canal between the Mermentau River and Lacassine Bayou also allow hunting. Many people hunt a shallow area of open water called appropriately, the Duck Pond.

As at Sabine NWR, hunting at Lacassine NWR ends at noon each day. For a free permit or hunting information, call Lacassine NWR headquarters at (337) 774-5923, or go to http://lacassine.fws.gov.



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