Hunting the Big Easy Flyway
September 28, 2010
"N.O." doesn't have to mean "no ducks"!
By John N. Felsher
With billions of stars shining overhead on this cold Christmas Eve, one could imagine the Star of Bethlehem illuminating the desert.
However, this trip didn't involve crossing the desert. Droning against the current of West Pearl River, the outboard motor pushed the 14-foot aluminum flatboat past towering cypress and tupelo gum trees. With only the stars lighting the way, as they did two millennia ago, the twisted shapes of gnarled trees along the shoreline took on an eerie appearance. Ethereal wisps of fog climbed from the dark, swirling currents like ghostly soldiers marching to one final battle.
Above the fog, a shooting star plunged to its death in a brief, but brilliant blaze of glory across the ebony sky pockmarked by points of light. Beyond the blackness that marked the water edge, unseen creatures began to stir with various squawks, grunts and whistles.
A few miles upstream, we turned off the main river channel into a secluded lake. The motor kicked up sand as we proceeded down the tiny channel into the lake. We rounded a couple of points and stopped the boat next to some overhanging brush along the outside point of a bend. We broke off some branches to drape over the green boat. Finally, we covered the motor with an old camouflaged poncho and waited.
Wood ducks generally follow the same flight patterns each morning and evening. Usually they move at first light and after sunset between roosting and feeding areas. They eat a variety of nuts, berries, fruits, grasses, sedges and seeds. Among all foods, they prefer acorns. Hunters who can position themselves in the right spot under a well-used flight route can often experience excellent, if brief, shooting.
Growing up near Slidell, Eric Holbrook and I spent every possible hour exploring Honey Island Swamp, now mostly encompassed by the 35,032-acre Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. We knew that wood ducks, occasional mallards or green-winged teal often flew over this lake heading to their roosting or feeding spots in the swamp. Without using calls or decoys, we waited for the morning flight.
Wood ducks used the waterways for navigation. Often they flew down the middle of the channel at treetop level. Sometimes, they zipped through trees, dodging trunks as if radar-controlled. Always, they presented quick shots to alert hunters, appearing and then disappearing into the swamp in moments.
On this frosty Christmas Eve, temperatures hovered just above freezing. Whistling black specters already rocketed down the channel as just a hint of pale gray lightened the eastern sky. When shooting hours arrived, several loose clusters of weaving objects burst through the fog. We opened fire, unsuccessfully. For the next 15 minutes, we couldn't load our shotguns fast enough as birds suddenly materialized and vanished between the trees.
When the action died down, we warmed our hands on the heated barrels. A fleet of spent shell hulls bobbed in the frigid water or clattered around the bottom of the boat. The morning wave seemed over. We had enjoyed a quick, exciting hunt, but had nothing to show for it.
This flooded slough is a great place for calling some December ducks; witness these two mallard drakes. Photo by John N. Felsher
"Felsh, we've been hunting and fishing a lot of times, but we never been skunked," Eric said. "So far, we've shot more than a box of shells and didn't touch a feather."
"Day's not over yet," I replied. "Maybe we'll get a Christmas present."
With nothing flying as the morning brightened, I poured myself a cup of coffee. I hardly had time to enjoy the strong, rich flavor before a lone drake wood duck appeared. Flying much lower than the others, it flew straight up the channel. As I pulled the trigger, the bird splashed into the water. A single pellet of the 12-gauge Magnum load found the mark.
"That's a beautiful bird," Eric said. "Look at all the colors. Incredible! We still haven't been skunked yet!"
"Yep! This one is almost undamaged. I've always wanted to mount a wood duck. This one's going on the wall - a little Christmas present to me."
PEARL RIVER WMA
Woodies still fly over the myriad lakes, bayous, rivers and sloughs of the Pearl River WMA. Much of the area has changed little over the past century. Pearl River forms the Louisiana-Mississippi line before splitting into 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 provide outstanding habitat for wood ducks and some mallards.
Between U.S. 90 and Lake Borgne, the area contains about 10,000 acres of fresh to brackish marshes. Looking more like typical waterfowl habitat, several sloughs and bayous run through the area. Hunters may hide in marshy potholes to ambush mallards, teal, gadwalls, widgeon, spoonbills, scaup and occasional pintails.
U.S. 11 exits Interstate 59 and dead-ends in the northern part of the swamp. Several public launches off Military Road in Slidell open into West Pearl. At U.S. 90, ramps provide access at East and West Pearls.
Besides Pearl River WMA, Louisiana hunters may use more than a million acres of state management areas and 500,000 acres of national wildlife refuges. At the terminal point of the Mississippi Flyway, wetlands surrounding New Orleans offer some of the best waterfowl habitat in the world.
BOGUE CHITTO NWR
Just north of Pearl River WMA, the 36,000-acre Bogue Chitto NWR offers limited waterfowl hunting, mostly for mallards and wood ducks. Primarily a bottomland hardwood forest, the refuge does contain some lakes, bayous, rivers and periodically flooded bottomlands that hold ducks. The Bogue Chitto River, which means "large stream" in Choctaw, forms the major waterway. People can hunt until noon with a federal permit.
Mallards prefer fresh water and usually remain in lakes, more-wooded areas north of the coast, or freshwater marshes. Mallards generally comprise about 12 to 15 percent of the Louisiana duck harvest, said Robert Helm, chief waterfowl biologist for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. In coastal marshes, blue-winged and green-winged teal and gadwalls typically comprise about 60 percent of the harvest.
BIG BRANCH MARSH NWR
West of Slidell, the 17,095-acre Big Branch Marsh NWR can hold mallards, teal, pintails, wood ducks, mottled ducks, gadwalls and a variety of
other species. The habitat consists mostly of brackish marshes and mixed hardwood and pine forests along the northern shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain. Sportsmen may access the area off state Highway 434 near Lacombe or from Bayou Lacombe. The refuge offers limited duck hunting until noon on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays by permit.
Continuing west, Pass Manchac connects Lake Pontchartrain with Lake Maurepas. One of the more popular public hunting areas between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, the 8,325-acre Manchac WMA south of Pass Manchac attracts crowds on weekends. Most people throw decoys in The Prairie, a shallow lagoon measuring several hundred acres along Lake Pontchartrain.
In the heavily pressured Prairie, hunters mostly bag divers, but might also down a few teal, gadwalls or widgeon. If hunting pressure becomes too intense on The Prairie, hunters might find better success in numerous potholes scattered throughout the marsh. Here, sportsmen might bag more mallards, mottled ducks and pintails. Use only a few decoys. Hunters may access the area by boat from U.S. 51.
If Manchac attracts huge crowds, the 15,609-acre Joyce WMA just north of Pass Manchac remains almost unhunted. Its expanse of largely unbroken flotant freshwater marsh surrounded by cypress swamp offers very little water access except through one drainage ditch and a few pirogue trails. Some people enter the property from tributaries off the Tangipahoa River. Interstate 55 runs adjacent to Joyce WMA, but offers only tangential road access. If hunters can find a pothole large enough to throw a couple of decoys, they might bag mallards, wood ducks, mottled ducks, gadwalls or teal.
MAUREPAS SWAMP WMA
On the south shore of Lake Maurepas, the 62,500-acre Maurepas Swamp WMA offers some flooded timber hunting in St. John the Baptist, St. James and Ascension parishes. Most people enter the area from the Blind River or Reserve Canal. Pockets of water in wet years can provide excellent waterfowl habitat, but often, hunters must fight carpets of Salvinia, an exotic aquatic fern that can choke shallow waterways. In potholes between the trees, hunters might also bag wood ducks, widgeon and a few teal.
Hunters don't find a water shortage in the 39,583-acre Biloxi WMA on the southern shoreline of Lake Borgne near Hopedale. Sportsmen may only enter the area by boat. Once there, they find numerous bayous, potholes and ponds. Surrounding marshes range from mostly salt to nearly fresh with the majority hitting in the brackish range.
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 can benefit from more hunting pressure. At times, birds congregate in huge numbers and remain undisturbed in isolated lagoons.
The lush fresh to intermediate marshes of the Mississippi River delta create some of the richest waterfowl habitat in the world. Unlimited fresh water grows unlimited duck food. Feed by the awesome flow of the great river, these southern-most marshes also served as a jumping off platform for ducks migrating farther south and a welcome mat for returning migrants.
AND DELTA NWR
Two public properties offer outstanding waterfowl hunting for just about every species that visits Louisiana. 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 state property while the nearby Delta NWR comprises another 48,800 acres of marshlands and open water in Plaquemines Parish. Hunters on each mostly kill gadwalls, teal, mallards, pintails, widgeon and divers.
About 30 miles south of Venice, Pass-A-Loutre WMA, spreads through delta marshes and bayous. These fertile marshes don't offer much solid ground so most people hunt from boat blinds. Some simply ram a pirogue into tall canes, toss a few decoys and lie down in the bottom of the boat. Some people set up temporary blinds on a few low ridges, mudflats, sandbars or spoil banks.
Established in 1935 to preserve vital waterfowl habitat, Delta NWR remains one of the most remote public hunting grounds in Louisiana. Freshwater marshes near the river comprise about 60 percent of the refuge. They gradually give way to brackish marshes as one goes closer to the Gulf of Mexico. Dominant plant species include wild millet, delta duck potato, three-square grass, elephant ears and Roseau cane. The federal property allows hunting on Saturdays, Sundays, Wednesdays and Thursdays until noon northwest of main pass and south of Raphael Pass.
In the vast delta marshes, ducks can land and feed virtually anywhere. Hunters must keep up the bird movements and tides. A strong south wind can make a pond too deep and salty for ducks. A strong north wind could drain the same pond. Hunters not watching the weather and tidal movements could find themselves stuck on mud with no way to extricate themselves or their decoys.
Southwest of New Orleans, Pointe-Aux-Chenes WMA offers 33,480 acres of fresh, intermediate and brackish marshes in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Hunters bag mostly gadwalls, green-winged teal and widgeon. In larger ponds, hunters may kill scaup and ring-necked ducks. In fresher ponds at the northern end of the property, sportsmen might bag some mallards. People may only access the property by boat from launches in LaRose, near Houma or Golden Meadow.
About 12 miles southwest of New Orleans, the Salvador/Timken WMA contains 34,520 acres of fresh to brackish marshes, open water and ponds along the northwestern shore of Lake Salvador, Lake Cataouatche and their tributaries. The LDWF owns 30,600 acres at Salvador WMA. Immediately east of Salvador WMA, the Orleans City Park Improvement Association owns 3,920 acres at Timken WMA, also known as Couba Island.
Both areas consist primarily of freshwater marshes punctuated by a few ponds. These ponds, surrounded by maiden cane, cattail, bull tongue and several other aquatic plant species, provide excellent duck habitat. Several large stands of cypress trees, which once marked tributaries to the Mississippi River, now stand in some northern portions of the property.
People may only access the area by boat. Many people launch at Bayou Segnette State Park in Westwego and proceed down Bayou Segnette to Lake Cataouatche. Sellers Canal connects Bayou Verrett and Lake Cataouatche. Bayou Des Allemands also provides access to the marshes. Several canals, small bayous and ditches open into the duck marshes.
ATCHAFALAYA DELTA WMA
Near Morgan City, the 141,000-acre Atchafalaya Delta WMA at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River and the Wax Lake Outlet closely resembles the Mississippi River delta. The Atchafalaya Rive
r takes about 30 percent of the flow from the Mississippi River. This incredible flow of fresh water can stain the bays and lakes along the coast and even spread into the Gulf of Mexico.
Most of the area consists of open water in Atchafalaya Bay. Sportsmen can find about 27,000 acres of vegetated mudflats created by dredge deposits and river sediment in the two deltas of the Atchafalaya River and the Wax Lake Outlet. About 15,000 acres of marsh and scrub exist on the main delta with another 12,000 acres on the Wax Lake delta.
With so much open water, most people hunt the flats from boat blinds. These extensive flats can provide outstanding shooting at times. Hunters mostly bag teal, scaup, ring-necked ducks and some gadwalls, widgeon and mallards. Sportsmen might even down a few redheads, goldeneyes, mergansers or canvasbacks.
Access to the area remains difficult. Accessible only by boat, myriad channels, bayous and canals create a wet labyrinth at the extreme southern end of the longest riverbottom swamp in North America. The mighty river can dissuade people from running its treacherous waters. Most people take long boat rides down the Atchafalaya River from Morgan City or Berwick. Many people also use the Wax Lake Outlet to reach their hunting spot.
Hunting the deltas and other public properties requires considerable effort and skill. However, while people may enjoy the comfort and security of permanent blinds on private leases, hunters who frequent public land may actually hold an advantage over their more sedate brethren. Ducks quickly become accustomed to seeing permanent blinds or static decoy spreads and learn to avoid those areas.
On public lands, hunters cannot make permanent blinds. Hunters must either bring in blind material each day or hide in natural cover. Thick native vegetation makes the best blind. Natural cover doesn't spook birds as easily because one patch of reeds looks nearly identical to every other patch.
Therefore, the rules require flexibility. People must learn to scout popular areas and pick three or four prime locations. Scouting can allow hunters on public property to keep up with bird movements. This becomes even more critical in crowded public areas near Baton Rouge or New Orleans.
Many public areas restrict hunting to morning or early afternoon hours, thus avoiding over pressuring 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.
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