Duck Hunting On Old Man River
September 30, 2010
The mighty Mississippi can be a bit intimidating, but with these tips you can cut it down to size for some wingshooting. Let's go duck hunting on the big river! (January 2006)
Photo by Kenny Bahr
Daylight was coming quickly now, and with it came the promise of another clear, cold January morning of duck hunting on the mighty Mississippi River. The damp, penetrating chill of the morning air made me pull up the collar of my goose down jacket as I launched the decoy-laden duck boat into the dark muddy water of Grand Gulf Boat Landing near Port Gibson.
My hunting partners for the morning were Desten Segrest and David Strittman, both experienced waterfowlers on the "Father of Waters." Accompanying us on our adventure would be their two well-trained chocolate labs -- Lexie and Beau. A good retriever is invaluable when hunting the big river, and we were fortunate to have two of the finest duck dogs in southwest Mississippi.
Desten fired up the big Mercury outboard and directed the bow of the boat toward the main channel of the river. Just as we approached the swift flowing current of the Mississippi, he suddenly killed the engine.
"What's the matter?" I asked, hoping we had not encountered a mechanical problem in the pre-dawn darkness.
"Nothing", he replied, "I just want to check and make sure a barge isn't coming down the river before we cross."
We listened intently into the darkness for the tell-tale rumbling of the many barges that carry their goods both north and south. No big diesel engines could be heard on this particular morning, only the gurgling of the giant whirlpools as they passed us on their way downstream.
The half-mile boat ride across the big river seemed to take an eternity. And the freezing North wind combined with the icy spray created by the boat's wake only compounded our discomfort.
As we approached the western bank of the Mississippi, Desten guided our boat into a pocket of "slack" water on the southwest corner of Middle Ground Island, an isle created when Old Man River decided to change its course. Several pockets of still water and numerous mud and sand bars on the backside of the island offered migrating waterfowl excellent places to raft up and rest out of the swift currents of the Mississippi.
Working quickly, Desten and I slid the boat into a patch of flooded willows and assembled the pop-up boat blind as David set out our rather large decoy spread.
"You think four dozen decoys is enough?" David asked laughingly.
"Probably not, but since that's all we have, it will just have to do", Desten responded. "Now switch on that Mojo Floater and let's get in the boat! It shouldn't be long before the ducks will be here!"
No sooner had the three of us settled into the comfort of the well disguised pop-up boat blind, than the first flight of mallards approached. Lexie and Beau simultaneously came to attention and stared anxiously skyward at the incoming flock.
"Here they come!" David whispered excitedly.
The first flock circled over our spread with a bit of uncertainty. After all, late season ducks are hard to fool. They have seen about every trick in the book on their long journey south. We began begging them back with light come back calls and before we knew it we had a dozen orange feet right in our face.
"Take 'em boys!" Desten shouted.
We proceeded to fill the sky with steel shot as the ducks frantically flared and darted in all directions in a vain attempt to escape our ambush. We were able to bring down a total of five greenheads with that first volley.
Within an hour we had gotten our limit, a mixed bag of mallards, woodies, and pintails. We then just sat back and watched in amazement as wave after wave of ducks lit in our spread. After that magnificent hunt, I no longer wondered why my two friends were so passionate about duck hunting the Mississippi River.
The single most important element to a successful duck hunt is being in the right place at the right time. But what is a duck hunter to do if he doesn't have an expensive duck lease or access to the storied duck clubs of the Mississippi Delta? The answer is quite simple -- go with the flow!
The Mississippi River, along with its many tributaries, comprises what many believe to be the Magnolia State's best-kept duck hunting secret. Hunting these flowing waters is certain to provide ever-changing adventure and -- at times -- some of the best duck hunting imaginable. Primarily, this is when the water is rising and breaking into the willows along the banks. Under these conditions, the ducks can show up overnight.
Old Man River is the main thoroughfare for waterfowl in the central United States. In addition to being the primary travel route, it also serves as an excellent feeding and resting area for birds migrating south for the winter. Depending on the weather, duck hunters in Mississippi are likely to encounter pintails, mallards, wood ducks, scaup, gadwalls, widgeons, mergansers, as well as blue- and green-winged teal.
Duck hunting on the Mississippi River is best when the water level is very high or very low. Ducks flock to newly flooded areas, created by rising water overflowing into woods and fields bordering the river. Likewise, the pools of water trapped behind sandbars when the Mississippi is extremely low are favorite rest areas for ducks. This is especially true when hunting pressure is heavy, causing the ducks to seek refuge in obscure, out-of-the-way locations. In either situation, excellent shooting can be had for those hunters with the right equipment and know-how to hunt ducks on the big river.
Duck hunting opportunities on the Mississippi River are almost infinite. With access to public landings spread out from Tunica to Woodville, you can easily be at any number of duck hunting hot spots with just a short boat ride.
And don't overlook the many oxbow lakes that line the Mississippi River. Chotard, Albemarle, Yucatan, and Eagle lakes can be especially productive with a bit of cold weather and high river stages.
Other public land opportunities along the Mississippi River exist in the form of our state managed wildlife management areas or at the St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge located just a short drive south of Natchez. For more information on duck hunting these public lands check out the St. Catherine Creek National Wildlife Refuge Web site or the Mississippi Depar
tment of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks Web site.
Most seasoned river duck hunters run the Mississippi in high-sided johnboats outfitted with large outboards and portable blinds. Extreme caution is always warranted when hunting on the Mississippi. The big river is a dangerous place, especially when it's flooding. The worst mistake a duck hunter on the Mississippi River can make is to go out in an undersized, underpowered boat. I would recommend at least an 18-foot boat with a 6-foot beam, a splash well, a large bilge pump, and at least a 50-horsepower outboard. Collapsible blinds work best, since they do not impair vision when you're running. But most importantly, always wear your personal flotation device. Old Man River can be very unforgiving, especially when you take him for granted and don't respect his awesome power.
During the season, experienced river hunters keep constant watch on the Mississippi's water level. They know from past history where water will back into the willows and low-lying oak flats at higher river stages. The secret is to set up at the head of the water, the areas that are the most recently flooded. Why you may ask? Because the rising water is flooding a smorgasbord of food for ducks! This food may consist of moist soil plants, acorns, or a grain field. These newly flooded areas attract ducks like a magnet.
When the water starts falling, reverse direction and hunt places where the floodwaters are running back into the river. This is where the food is coming out. Typically spots for this would be at the mouths of creeks or sloughs and where willows border a stand of timber.
A good pair of binoculars is essential when hunting ducks on the Mississippi River. Some veteran duck hunters call it -"keeping your eyes to the skies". A good set of optics allows you to identify where the ducks are working. Then all you need to do is go in and set up. This usually involves tossing out a couple of dozen decoys, hiding the boat in whatever cover is available, setting up the boat blind, and waiting for the next flight.
I cannot stress enough the importance of total concealment. Many duck hunters often overlook blending into the profile of the surroundings. Saying "good enough" when setting up is not going to get educated ducks cupped and coming. Short stopping birds are often due to the lack of concealment, or concealment that looks like danger.
While most blinds offer the hunter adequate concealment head on, these blinds most often lack proper overhead concealment. Remember that the incoming birds are flying around your decoy spread, not walking around it. Overhead concealment is vital to hide your movement and equipment. We all know that detected movement can send the incoming birds flaring straight up.
Ducks soon learn that large obstacles that don't fit into the surroundings mean guns that shoot. Your perfect boat blind may look like danger to incoming ducks. When looking back at your blind from a distance, the height of your blind should not tower above the surrounding vegetation or cover. This means the smaller and shorter your blind is the better. This is why sink boxes, layout boats, and lay down blinds are so effective.
The next time you find yourself saying you think the birds may be "decoy shy" or "call shy", make sure that you and your hunting partners are truly hidden from the many eyes of the incoming flocks of ducks.
When hunting ducks on the Mississippi, decoys and their placement can mean the difference between a highly successful day and a downright miserable one. Many of today's duck hunters tend to put too much emphasis on the call and are forgetting to implement quality decoy spreads. There is much more to setting out a good spread than just throwing your decoys out and waiting for the ducks to come in.
One of the most common mistakes hunters make is to put their decoys up at the end of the season and then get them back out for the next season with no regard to how they look or even if they are clean. Faded or dirty decoys are things that ducks will notice! This is especially true in areas where the birds see a lot of decoy spreads. The better your decoys look, the better your chances of getting a shot at every bunch you work.
The purpose of a decoy spread is to produce the illusion of ducks in a natural and safe setting that invites others that are in the air to join your spread. Your goal, therefore, is to create a realistic and life-like impression with your decoys. This is accomplished by mirroring the patterns of real ducks.
A "landing zone" or pocket, as it is also referred to, in your decoy spread is simply an invitation. It is an offering to those birds that are in the air to join the birds that are already on the water. It's your welcome mat for them.
The easiest way to describe a landing zone is to use the letters "C" or "U." You want your decoy spread in the shape of either a C or U. The area at the open end of the letters extending within them forms what is referred to as a pocket or landing zone.
There are two critical elements in creating a landing zone. The first is the size of the zone. It must be large enough to accommodate the size of flocks you will be working. It is better to have a landing zone that is a little on the large size than one that is too small.
Second, the flight lane to get into your landing zone should be clear of decoys. You do not want the approaching birds to fly over your decoys to get into your pocket. Quite often ducks land short of your spread rather than fly over decoys to get to the landing zone.
Working ducks to the call and into your decoys is the essence of the sport. The other pleasure of duck calling is that several people can enjoy it at once. However, this can lead to mass confusion when you start working ducks as a group. Calling as a group can be great when you're trying to break high ducks, but there are days when "less is more".
Anytime you go hunting with a group, always decide who the lead caller is, or take turns on every bunch. The person who is the lead caller should also be the person calling the shot.
Understanding the importance of location is critical to your duck hunting success as well. It can be the difference between you having little or no success and filling your bag limit that day.
One of the biggest mistakes duck hunters make is their unwillingness to pick up and change locations during the day, if they are not exactly where the ducks want to be.
Changes may occur during the day, which cause birds to use an area other than where you originally set up. For example, changes in weather conditions, wind direction, wind speed, or water levels may cause ducks to change their patterns.
Instead of picking up and moving to a new and more productive location, too many duck hunters try to pull the ducks into their spread.
Whenever possible, pick up your decoys and change locations to where the birds want to be. There are times when only a short m
ove spells the difference between success and failure. That is one of the benefits of duck hunting on the Mississippi River. The number of new locations a river hunter has to choose from is almost limitless.
The bottom line is that duck hunting opportunities on the Mississippi River are plentiful. Although hunting on the Muddy Mississippi isn't easy and can be dangerous, it can also be very rewarding. Not many people duck hunt the big river, but more would if they knew how good it can be to "go with the flow"!