North Mississippi Duck Action
September 30, 2010
Plan to visit a duck blind in the northern half of the state this winter? These locations just might provide you with some fast shooting. (December 2007)
Iuka's Roger Stegall shows off a mixed bag of quackers taken from Pickwick Lake.
Photo courtesy of Larry Self.
Successfully hunting ducks in north Mississippi requires that you find the birds and get away from the other hunters. You also need to be sure that you reach the places that the ducks want to go to before they arrive.
Needless to say, weather plays a major role in the choice of sites made by the ducks. But unlike the case in many other areas, you need rising water levels here, as well as cold weather, for productive duck hunting. High water floods otherwise dry feeding areas, bringing the ducks in shallow, where they're easier to take.
The best way to figure out these conditions and the tactics needed to cope with them is talk with folks who have experience in this type hunting -- so let's look at the techniques of some of north Mississippi's best watermen.
GO TO COLLEGE ON DUCKS
There are probably some members of the Ole Miss student body who picked the university for reasons other than its outstanding educational opportunities and its party scene. One of those motives could have been the proximity of top-quality duck hunting, such that it's possible to bag a limit of birds and still make it to that 9:00 a.m. class.
That's certainly part of the appeal of the University of Mississippi for Oxford's Alex Littlejohn, who's pursuing a wildlife management degree, and, when not in classes full-time, working on projects with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, planting food plots and conducting quail and turkey brood surveys in the summer. And during the winter, he splits his time between classrooms and hunting ducks on Sardis Lake.
"If you spend time scouting, you usually can find a really nice honeyhole where you can take ducks, when the birds start coming down the flyway," he said.
Sardis Lake, which covers parts of three counties -- Marshall, Lafayette and Panola -- is primarily open water with some sloughs off the main body. When Littlejohn plans a morning hunt, he assumes that the ducks have fed in the agricultural fields all night, so he searches for spots where the ducks are resting.
"You have to remember that Oxford's a college town," he explained. "So every student who's ever thought about duck hunting will be on Sardis Lake in the mornings. The first thing I look for is a region where I can get away from the other hunters, and where a small creek comes out into the lake and forms a little slough. I call these places 'breakaways.'
"Most of the college students will be running up and down the open water, setting up their blinds and decoys where they can see ducks coming in, and the ducks can see them. I search for little pockets that everyone else overlooks."
Of course, the scenario of the birds being in resting areas may not always hold true in the mornings. But even if the ducks are feeding, the sloughs can still be worthwhile places to check out. "When the water rises, the ducks move into the breakaways," Littlejohn said, "because there will be food in those sloughs that's not been available to the ducks until the water has started to rise."
Speaking of marsh vegetation in the buckwheat family, he added, "I look for smartweed sloughs. Sardis also floods into some nearby agricultural fields. These fields and the sloughs are normally dry during the summer months."
Littlejohn attributes his success with the waterfowl of Sardis Lake to his intimate knowledge of the reservoir, which he gained that insight by spending a lot of time scouting.
FIND THE DUCKS
To pinpoint the best locations for finding ducks, first buy a topographic map of the reservoir and study it. Where are the shallow sloughs that are likely to be dry when the fall drawdown occurs on the impoundment? Once you have an idea of those locations, some pre-hunt scouting, via a 4-wheeler on the shore or by boat on the water, can solidify your knowledge of which fingers off the main lake do go dry. Those are the places you want to have your blind set up on when the season opens and water is rising on Sardis.
"Most of the hunters who come to Sardis get in their boats and ride the lake, looking for big cypress breaks, because everyone knows that's where the ducks are supposed to be," Littlejohn pointed out.
But on the other hand, he's headed to the areas newly flooded by winter rainfall. "The real secret to successfully hunting Sardis is to reach a spot no one else has hunted, whether you see ducks there or not," he said.
At Sardis, instead of scouting for ducks as you would on most lakes, look for hunters; once you know where they are, hunt somewhere else. But, of course, you do want to cross-reference their locations with the sites you've pinpointed through scouting. In other words, find the promising locations that other folks are missing!
ADJUST YOUR TACTICS
Littlejohn not only searches for sites with unstressed ducks but also tries to give those birds something new to look at.
"I don't use the traditional decoys other hunters use," he noted. "I have one dozen oversized hand-carved, hand-painted Autumn Wings decoys I use when I hunt. I got my first Autumn Wings decoy as a Christmas present. These decoys cost about $60 each.
"I don't set my decoys out in the traditional 'U' or 'J' shape, like most hunters. I scatter decoys the way I see ducks sitting on the water, which makes my spread appear much more natural than everybody else's."
Littlejohn's penchant for going his own way also extends to his calling techniques. "I make my own duck calls out of cocobolo wood like my dad taught me," he explained. "Dad constructed his first duck call out of bamboo, put a reed in it and started calling ducks."
A good duck caller has an idea of what the birds are thinking and gets inside the mind of the ducks. It is by becoming "bird-brained" that you can figure out what the ducks want to do, and thus outthink the hunters with whom you're competing as well.
NOWING THE AREA
"Most hunters on watch outdoor waterfowling TV shows to learn how to call to ducks," Littlejohn said. "When these hunters see the pros blowing those loud hail calls to get the ducks' attention, they decide that that's exactly what they need to do."
At Sardis, Littlejohn
does just the opposite. "I rarely blow loud, ringing hail calls when I see ducks," he emphasized. "I give a normal greeting call of two or three quacks, and then I shut up and watch the ducks. Once I see what effect my calls have on the ducks, I decide how much and what type of calls to use. Each day I let the ducks tell me how they want to be called, and I try really hard not to call as much as everyone else does."
Late in the season in particular, Littlejohn knows that he's hunting ducks that have been called, decoyed and shot at all the way down the flyway. That's why he's confronting the birds with decoys and calls that they've probably not encountered on the move south. He also hunts from a portable boat blind that he can set up quickly, enabling him to move about in a hurry to adjust to the ducks' changing moods.
From time to time, Littlejohn also applies his techniques to Grenada and Arkabutla lakes. "You'll find some good hunting on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes," he said.
But you need to know the policy regarding water levels, and to scout them as well. These lakes are very productive when the water is up. "You have to learn the lakes, the hunters and the ducks," Littlejohn concluded.
HUNT THE RIVER
Kent Driscoll lives in Cordova, Tenn., but does his duck hunting in the Magnolia State. Though he does visit Grenada and Sardis lakes occasionally, those are not his regular haunts.
"I primarily hunt the oxbow lakes off the Mississippi River," the hunter reported. "Two of my favorite lakes are Tunica and DeSoto." The Tunica Cutoff is, of course, in Tunica County, while DeSoto Lake is farther south in Coahoma County.
If the Mississippi River registers 12 feet or higher on the Memphis gauge, Driscoll hunts the Tunica Cutoff.
"When the river's up, it pushes the water back into the willow trees at the Tunica Cutoff, and when the willow flats flood, the ducks really start coming into that area," he explained. "Prime time for ducks at Tunica is when the water on the Memphis gauge reaches 18 to 24 feet high. This type of high water means the ducks will be in the willow flats along any of the oxbows on the Mississippi River."
When the fields along the Delta portion of Old Man River freeze, duck hunting at the Tunica Cutoff really heats up. "This freezing type of weather and high water means the Tunica Cutoff will load up with ducks, especially on clear, sunny days," Driscoll pointed out.
Driscoll also does some hunting at Moon Lake, about 20 miles south of Tunica. He uses a 17-foot War Eagle boat with a 50-horsepower motor and an Avery Quick-Set Waterfowl Blind attached to it. Driscoll ordinarily puts out 50 to 70 decoys in his spread. "If you scout and get in the right place, you don't have to be a really good duck caller to get the birds down," he admitted.
Driscoll also has some ideas on where and when to target the ducks. "I don't worry about getting out on the water before daylight if there's not a lot of hunting pressure," he offered. I'd rather stay mobile, see where the ducks are landing, and then set up in the places the ducks are using.
"This tactic's much more productive than setting up in the dark, not knowing whether the ducks are coming or not. If you run the lake with your boat, you'll see the ducks getting up out of the willow flats or dropping into particular spots. That's where you want to set up your blind."
THE PICKWICK OPTION
A lot Mississippians know Iuka's Roger Stegall as a topnotch fishing guide, but in the winter, he also takes to the water with a shotgun in hand. And just as Pickwick Lake is his home water for angling, it provides him a place to duck hunt, too.
"On Pickwick, you see diving and puddle ducks," he said. "We get mallards, scaup, gadwalls and teal, and I've even killed a common merganser."
Stegall usually puts out 100 or more decoys on the reservoir, because the ducks need to see plenty of potential company to lure them in when they are flying over big, open water. Stegall uses both magnum and standard decoys in his spread in either a "J" form or scattered out in front of the blind with a hole for the ducks to land between the blind and the decoys.
"When you're hunting Pickwick, you have to remember that this lake shares boundaries with Alabama and Tennessee," Stegall cautioned. "All three of these states are particular about where you hunt. If you hunt the Alabama or the Tennessee sides of the lake, you need a hunting license for those states."
Stegall also hunts two of Mississippi's best-known waterfowl wildlife management areas -- Malmaison and McIntyre Scatters, both near Greenwood. Either can provide excellent public duck hunts.
"At Malmaison, you find plenty of stumpy flooded-beaver-pond type of hunting," Stegall said. "If you've never hunted there before, make sure you take a hand-held GPS receiver with you. Much of the terrain looks the same; you easily can get lost.