Magnolia State Duck Preview

The mornings are getting crisp: It's time to start thinking about duck season. What will the action be like? Let's have a look.

Photo by R.E. Ilg

Bill Ramsey had a zest for life. An avid waterfowler, he was never more in his element than when the air was crisp and the ducks were decoying well.

Duck hunting was such a passion for Bill that he wanted always to be a part of it. He accordingly asked that, when his days were done, his remains be cremated and the ashes spread across a favorite duck hole near his Eagle Lake home. "I want every gadwall that stops in that hole and takes a drink of water to carry a little bit of me to the Canadian prairie," he said before his death.

The Ramsey family went one step farther. In addition to broadcasting their dad's ashes in the manner he had specified, the boys also loaded shot shells with the ashes and, on the opening day of each duck season, fired one over the swamp's black water at the first sight of a circling duck. No doubt some fraction of Bill has by now reached the nesting grounds.

From this you will gather that Mississippi's duck hunters are a passionate breed, spending countless dollars and energy on leases and equipment, dogs and training, clothing and calls -- all for the opportunity to have a sweet day over the decoys as whistling wings incite hearts to beat just a little faster. A little flash of silver on a leg as cupped wings act as flaps to slow a decent causes every hunter's pulse to quicken, adding a bit of pressure to the shot -- pressure not there before the banded bird exposes his treasure.

Every duck hunter is aware of the key factors tending to a successful season. First is the need for water: Duck holes can't be dry holes. Over the past three seasons, hunters have been blessed with relatively wet summers, and the holes held water. Sloughs, old oxbow lakes, low places in open fields -- all became shallow ponds, ideal for feeding ducks. So far, so good for Factor No. 1.

The second factor in the good-season equation is cold weather to the north of the Mississippi Delta. Ducks often fly only as far south during their winter migration as is needed to find food and open water. This brings about a phenomenon known to anyone to the south of where it occurs as "short-stopping." Missouri, southern Illinois, and Arkansas have vast areas of food and water, so severely cold weather is needed in those states to push the ducks into still lower latitudes. Over the recent seasons the weather has played fickle lover to duck hunters: teasing, but never coming across with the goods. The winter of 2004-05 went into the record books as a relatively mild one, so many of the migrating greenheads just never reached Mississippi.

Third, an ideal season needs a lot of ducks, are sufficient numbers of new ones are made only when breeding conditions in the "pothole" country of Canada and the northern United States are optimal. If there's a weak link in the duck chain, it's the nesting period. Precipitation, predation, and a plethora of other elements can combine for boom or bust.

For years Mississippians longed for a longer season -- one that would last until the ducks were forced this far south by weather conditions to the north. After much political wrangling with Washington, the season was extended -- and then the jet stream took a turn, and the winters for the past two years were so mild that no water in the upper Midwest froze over for more than a day or two. The result? The ducks stayed in the Midwest. Again Mississippi hunters were foiled. The ducks brave enough to venture this far south were as jumpy as Liberator pilots dodging German anti-aircraft flak during World War II.

According to spokesmen for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, no significant changes were recommended for the 2005-06 season.

The science of forecasting duck population trends increasingly assumes a formidably technological tint. In pothole country, nest and egg counts are conducted, aerial surveys of ducks on the water made, and mathematically elegant algorithms applied and refined -- all to result finally in a plausible, peer-review-worthy estimate of the duck population and, thus, of what hunters can expect once the season opens. (Coffee-shop biologists, of course, always have a different slant -- and that's why they confine their practice to coffee shops.)

Witness the data from one aerial survey undertaken in Mississippi during February of this year. A two-day count in the Delta region from Vicksburg to Clarksdale, it yielded a total estimate of 280,700 ducks: 46,400 mallards, 163,800 dabbling ducks, and 70,500 diving ducks.

"We have been able to take the information from years of surveys and compare that to other factors," said Scott Baker, a biologist with Ducks Unlimited. "We are able to survey with accuracy to determine the kind of season Mississippi waterfowl hunters might have if all the other factors come into play in their favor."

The Canadian spring habitat conditions did not paint a rosy picture for the coming season. Most of the Canadian prairie was reported as being average to below average for nesting ducks, according to early reports from Ducks Unlimited Canada. However, updates in the early summer gave a more optimistic outlook, citing areas of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba as above average.

According to Dr. Rob Olsen, president of the Delta Waterfowl Foundation, prairie nesting conditions continue to be overwhelmingly critical to the overall success of waterfowl hunting. A series of poor nesting seasons naturally results in fewer ducks and. thus, fewer opportunities. While hunters can't control the weather, they can exert some control over nesting habitat. Money raised by groups such as Delta Waterfowl and Ducks Unlimited has been and continues to be used to preserve and to protect nesting areas.

Hunters traveling to the Delta region have a number of excellent public venues to choose from. The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks operates several wildlife management areas at which duck hunting is permitted: Lake George WMA in Yazoo County, Leroy Percy WMA in Washington County, Mahannah WMA in Issaquena County, Malmaison WMA in Leflore County, Sunflower WMA in Sharkey County, Twin Oaks WMA in Sharkey County and Muscadine Farms WMA in Washington County. (A special permit is needed for hunting the last area on the list.)

Some of the Magnolia State's better-known waterfowl areas are on federal property managed by the USFWS. These national wildlife refuges are Hillside NWR and Morgan Brake NWR in Holmes County, Matthews Brake in Leflore County and Panther Swamp NWR in Yazoo County. Out of the Delta Region, but still along the Mississippi River is St. Catherine's Creek NWR near Natchez in Adams County. A complete listing of public wa

terfowl areas is available in the 2005-2006 Digest of Migratory Game Birds.

Keep in mind that the area of the survey mentioned above was along the Mississippi River. Waterfowl hunters are also finding ducks along the Tennessee-Tombigbee waterway in northeast Mississippi. The backwaters along the Tenn-Tom offer chances to build blinds and to use decoys for working ducks.

Much of the land bordering the Tenn-Tom in the Magnolia State has been incorporated into WMAs, one example being Canal Section WMA in Itawamba County. The shallow backwaters created by Columbus Lake and Bay Springs Lake also offer some interesting duck hunting possibilities for those willing to take the time requires to make a decoy set look realistic and to blend in well.

"We had some very good days and some very mediocre days on the Waterway last season," Earl Smith of Noxubee County said regarding the Tenn-Tom. "We found the more decoys we had out, the better. At one point we had a spread of close to 60 scattered across a half-acre of the flats on the east side at Columbus.

"The middle of the day was dead, but late in the evening we had pretty good shooting. I don't think we ever hunted a day when we were completed skunked."

WATERFOWLING DETAILS
Waterfowl hunters in the Magnolia State are required to have a Mississippi hunting license as well as evidence of the purchase of a Mississippi state duck stamp and a federal duck stamp. National wildlife refuges may also require that an annual permit be purchased.

All public waters are open to hunting unless otherwise posted. Be aware, however, that encroaching on private land that has been flooded by bedwater is considered trespassing. It's the hunter's responsibility to know where the "mean high water mark" is located.

A quick look at public areas makes it clear that the Mississippi River Delta region has fewer acres of land to offer. However, with rice farmers in the Delta looking to produce 6,900 pounds of rice per acre, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where duck hunting will be the best. Delta farmland -- especially rice and bean land -- demands a high price from those wanting to lease the land for private use.

The Migratory Bird Digest lists the telephone numbers of the contacts for those public areas offering waterfowl hunting. As regulations may change, it's always best to confer with an area's manager prior to your traveling to that area to hunt.

The lands along the remainder of the rivers in the heart of the state can't compare to the Mighty Muddy in scale, but they sometimes have what it takes in quality. One instance that comes to mind takes me back to an afternoon I spent hunting wild hogs on the edge of a partly flooded bean field in Noxubee County.

From midafternoon, ducks were busy feeding in the grasses and stalks of the flooded field. Starting at about 5 p.m., ducks of every kind boiled into the hole in an impressive show of force. I identified mallards, gadwalls, pintails, mergansers, and wood ducks, just to name a few -- a true representation of the ducks that hill-country pothole hunters can find during the season. The shooting at locations such as this might not rival that afforded by the massive rafts of ducks along the Mississippi, but the quality of the birds present when shooting does occur is not negligible.

Looking at the latest information, Mississippi duck hunters could see that they had fewer ducks to shoot at than in years past because of problems primarily in the nesting country. According to a spokesman for the National Weather Service, 2005 is expected to be a busy hurricane season, with average to above-average rainfall across the southern region -- so we should at least have decent water conditions. But that doesn't necessarily help the nesting grounds to our north.

With no forecast for a summer drought in sight, natural and cultivated food sources are expected to be plentiful. That leaves just the weather and the ducks as the question marks in the forecast.

MISSISSIPPI'S WOOD DUCKS

Wood ducks have been among the beneficiaries of the wet summers and heavy mast crops that Mississippi has experienced over the past few years. Woodie numbers may be at an all-time high, bringing hill-country hunters an opportunity for duck gumbo on a cold winter's evening.

MDWFP personnel banded over 400 wood ducks in the summer of 2004; more than half of those were done by Art Bradshaw, co-manager of the Caney Creek WMA in Scott and Smith counties. Himself a duck hunter, Bradshaw was recognized by the MDWFP for his efforts at boosting wood duck populations in central Mississippi. According to him, the banded ducks made up just a small percentage of those harvested in the area.

"We have a lot of beaver ponds and little creeks in the area," said Bradshaw. "With last summer as wet as it was, the ducks were able to reproduce with a fair to good survival rate. Of the woodies we killed, only a few were banded."

Bradshaw went on to say that the best wood duck hunting was very early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when the birds are coming to feed and going to roost.

Wood ducks are no more immune to predators than are their northern-nesting next-of-kin. Raccoons, rat snakes, hawks, owls, alligators, turtles, bobcats and mink take their toll on the colorful native duck. Happily, this is the one duck in whose propagation Mississippians can have a direct hand: Wood duck nesting boxes are easy to construct and to set up. Take a few simple precautions -- houses should be protected with varmint guards consisting of a cone of metal or metal wrapped tightly around the pole, should be kept in good repair and should be positioned to allow easy access by nesting ducks -- and a house can enable a hen to have two hatches a year. And these ducks stay close to home in our state.

Greentree reservoirs, which can be flooded after the mast crop begins to fall, allow woodies a place to stuff their crops with acorns. The same can be done with low, open areas planted with a variety of crops such as soybeans, millet, or sorghum. The water doesn't have to be very deep -- just 8 to 12 inches. Beaver ponds do a fine job of attracting wood ducks, as long as a dependable food source remains.

And there you have it: the duck forecast for the coming season. In a sense, it all amounts to little more than a roll of the dice. Rain, cold weather to the north and sufficient water and food here to attract the ducks are the keys to the success of the season. If it all comes together, with ducks darkening the Delta skies, and squadrons of gadwalls, wings cupped, coming in to the decoys, just think about Bill Ramsey and his permanent pothole vacation -- and smile.

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