Previewing the Magnolia Waterfowl Season
September 30, 2010
With the approach of fall, it's time to start thinking about some wingshooting. Let's hear what the experts thought of last year's shooting and what they predict for this year.
Photo by Albert Lavallee
By Jill J. Easton
Ducks - thousands of ducks - exploded into the sky as Chad Duncan drove his truck up to a pit blind in the side of the pond levee. It was after sunrise, but strong east winds mixed with rain and sleet kept the large flocks of mallards from leaving the shelter of his pond. He quickly threw out a few dozen decoys to add to his spread, got his sons settled and then jumped into the blind himself.
As big snowflakes drifted down, they could hear legions of ducks passing in the clouds that hung low overhead. As soon as a group of those birds spotted the decoys, they cupped their wings and came coasting in, ignoring the vehicle parked by the edge of the water. Once shots were fired, Duncan's Chesapeake Bay retriever, named Sweets, was bringing in the first mallards of the day.
"It was a near-perfect hunt," recalled the avid waterfowler from Robert. "Ducks would spiral down out of the clouds. In a couple of hours we had our limits, and I hardly made a call the whole time. When it was over it was hard to leave off watching the ducks and go back to the house."
THE CURRENT SITUATION
Unfortunately, in Mississippi as in many southern states, hunts like the one above have become increasingly rare. Finding ducks - especially lots of ducks - has been a hit or miss proposition of late.
During the last two winters more ducks have remained north of our state - living off the bounty of the work of waterfowl groups, warmer winters, Conservation Reserve Program acreage and wildfowl-minded farmers. These sportsmen, waterfowl managers and landowners plant extra grain to be left in the fields for ducks, and also flood fields to provide safe resting areas.
Ducks need food, unfrozen water and reasonable temperatures to survive winter. When those factors are present in the midsection of the country, they have no reason to head farther south. The birds act like most of us when we're comfortable on the couch watching a ball game. It's much easier to stay there than go outside for entertainment.
"Mallards hang at the freeze line, especially in states like Missouri and Illinois," explained Richard Wells, Waterfowl Coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks. "They have additional reasons to hang there after the (hunting) season is closed."
But he stresses that weather is the deciding factor in whether ducks head south. He warned that if the birds follow their usual pattern of the last few years and the weather does not change substantially, there would be another slow duck season no matter how many waterfowl start the migration in our direction.
"For ducks to migrate into Mississippi in substantial numbers there must be a major freeze from the Missouri boot heel north."
Then there's the Louisiana problem. If ducks are pushed south by winter storms, many flocks fly over Mississippi entirely and head for south Louisiana. There are thousands of acres of marsh and wildlife refuges down there that come close to being a duck paradise, so why stop somewhere in the middle and run the chance of getting shot?
It is these mild winters, along with changes in farming and hunting practices, that have been keeping waterfowl from heading south. Some duck hunters worry that in a few more years there won't be ducks left who remember the way to Mississippi's rivers, greentree areas and the Delta region. The flocks may simply overwinter in Arkansas or Missouri, leaving us scratching our heads and wondering what happened.
If the nesting season is successful, a large part of the flocks making their way south are ducks that were born this year in the prairie provinces of Canada and the pothole ponds of the Midwest. These ducks start the trip south young, curious and dumb. They've never heard a hunter on a duck call or seen a decoy spread.
In the north, these young birds make up 20 to 65 percent of the harvest, but the numbers get lower as the flocks travel down the flyway toward the south. When there are large numbers of inexperienced ducks, it is much easier for even novice waterfowlers to call ducks and get a limit.
Obviously, one of the more important questions for waterfowlers this time of year is how the summer went for ducks. Was the hatch successful and did a good proportion of this year's hatch make it through the summer?
Factors like weather and rainfall are very important to nesting success. Late snow and freezing rain can kill eggs and ducklings as well as starve adult ducks. Too much rain at the wrong time can also be a problem. The excess water floods nests or the good nesting sites are underwater until the essential window of opportunity has passed.
Then there are other problems. Predators like skunks, foxes, mink and hawks kill and eat nesting females while they are defenselessly sitting on the nest. They also gobble down eggs and young ducklings, so there are fewer novice ducks making the trip south.
New technology also takes a toll on these innocents. Duck hunters who traveled to Saskatchewan and the other Canadian prairie provinces last season reported a large percentage of ducks were shot over electronic and battery-operated decoys early in the season. Most of these easily decoyed innocents were young-of-the-year. Losing these youngsters has a ripple effect. Fewer young ducks mean lower numbers in the flocks finding their way to Mississippi and more educated ducks who can avoid blinds, decoy spreads and calls.
The news is mixed regarding the last breeding season in both Canada and the northern United States this year. Overall, the population of ducks was estimated to have dropped 11 percent below the previous year to 32.2 million birds.
Although it was dry early in the season, conditions did improve, but did not make up for earlier problems. Duck counts were down 29 percent in Prairie Canada and 16 percent in the Prairie. But as noted, the news was mixed. In Manitoba the counts were up 10 percent, while Montana and the western Dakotas registered 25 percent increases.
Regardless of the quality of the breeding season, there is always a question as to whether the ducks will find their way to Mississippi. The main thing Magnolia State hunters need to hope for is that the early rains continue through the fall, except during grain harvests. That w
ould make it easier to flood fields and greentree areas to provide ducks with plenty of Mississippi locations to eat and rest.
Spring was early this year, so an early fall is probable. All we will need is a few days of hard freeze or a lot of snow in the north to push birds our way.
"History indicates the future. The last few seasons have pointed to a poor hunting season, or a fair one at best," said Scott Baker, MDWFP Migratory Bird Program leader. "The best situation would be a cold winter in the north combined with plenty of water in the south."
Keep your fingers crossed - that looks like what we are getting.
WHERE TO GO FOR DUCKS IN THE MAGNOLIA STATE
Overwintering migratory ducks won't hang out just anywhere. They need water to rest in and access to food that suits their needs, so quantities of ducks are only found in a few areas of the state. The primary regions are the south Delta, those wildlife management areas with grain crops, or those with farms nearby and suitable water for resting.
"Mississippi offers all the different habitats ducks use and need," Baker noted. "There is a wealth of public lands to hunt and a lot of work has been done to improve habitat."
The WMAs that have farm crops incorporated into the area management plans are the most consistent places to find ducks, he added.
Since grain prices have increased substantially in the last year, not only the WMAs but much more privately-owned land is being returned to grain production. Ducks love soybeans and corn, so fields that are planted in those are excellent places for ducks to feed.
"O'Keefe WMA is planted with rice and soybeans, and Mahannah WMA was planted with soybeans," Baker said. "That makes them particular favorites of overwintering ducks."
The former of these WMAs is located near Lambert, while Mahannah is close to Rolling Fork.
The biologist also is hopeful about finding ducks at Malmaison WMA near Greenwood, Lake George, Twin Oaks and Sunflower WMAs near Rolling Fork.
For those hunters near the coast, Baker recommends hunting the marshes, especially those on the west side of the state. Ducks that winter in Louisiana overflow into our marshes and spend much of their time feeding in the tidal areas and amid the tall grasses. An added advantage of hunting these areas is the chance to shoot a mottled duck. These strange, dark mallard-like ducks don't go far upstate.
THE GREENTREE ADVANTAGE
Greentree reservoirs are shallow impoundments with living hardwoods. They are flooded in the fall or winter to furnish food and sheltered resting places for waterfowl.
Providing flooded timber for ducks started in the low areas close to the White River near Stuttgart, Arkansas and was so successful that other duck areas have followed the practice. Mississippi and Louisiana have joined Arkansas in flooding thousands of acres that ducks use. Most of these waters are also open to hunting. Before you hunt at any of the WMAs, however, be sure to check regulations for the area. Many require a permit to be filled out before and after each day's shooting. Some also have other special regulations, close shooting at 12 noon or 1:00 p.m., close the areas to hunters until 5 a.m. or close hunting one or more days a week. It sounds like a lot of exceptions, but the end result is healthy, rested ducks that can give you a challenge.
"Prime green timber hunting is known for close, fast action," explained Baker. "Most hunters wade the areas since they are shallow. Many bring dogs along to retrieve ducks. Most bring along dog stands or use the bottom of an old deer stand to hang on a tree so the dog can get out of the water."
If you decide to wade a flooded timber area, make sure you have sturdy waders with plenty of insulation. A leak in the waders can cause a miserable hunt when you are breaking ice or pushing through thigh-deep 40-degree water. Also make sure that the belt on your waders is fastened tight around your waist before entering the water. If you slip and fall, which is very easy to do with all the underwater branches and brush, the belt prevents most of the water from getting into the waders. Hypothermia is a very real possibility if you get wet and can't get warm on days that are below freezing. If an accident happens and you do go down in the cold, go back to your vehicle and get warm. Several Mississippi hunters have had severe damage and in one case, toes amputated from the effects of frostbite.
The best places to hunt in flooded timber are natural openings where the ducks can see water without having to navigate through trees. Then find a downed tree to sit or lean on so you can get out of the water. If no root balls are available, locate a big tree to lean against, then start calling.
Your most common green timber ducks are mallards and wood ducks, although a surprising variety of waterfowl use these places. It's rare to see waterfowlers using decoy spreads in greentree areas since the ducks are flying by fast and have a limited view of the water.
Mississippi has six important greentree areas that have been adopted by thousands of migrating birds to avoid predators. These are on O'Keefe WMA at Lambert; John Bell Williams WMA near Booneville; Malmaison WMA at Greenwood; Twin Oaks and Sunflower WMAs near Rolling Fork; and Pearl River WMA near Canton.
WHERE ARE THE DUCKS?
There are dozens of excellent duck hunting guides in the Delta and various other part of the state. Although many of these operations can empty the average hunter's bank account, they offer first-rate opportunities for excellent duck hunting. A list of outfitters and guides can be found in a booklet put out by the state of Mississippi that can be found at most MDWFP offices. Or simply type, "Mississippi duck guides" in your computer's search engine.
It may not be as hard as you think to find information on where ducks are hanging out and whether your lake, reservoir or backwater section of a river has ducks. Sure, you could drive out to your spot on Friday afternoon, but the flock you see may be a fluke and the water would be empty before first light Saturday.
The best place to get up-to-date surveys of duck activity is from the MDWFP Web site. The Weekly Hunting Report is informative and usually online by Wednesday afternoon. It combines reports by refuge officials, wildlife biologists and other trained observers on where the ducks are and the success rates of hunters on state lakes and waterways.
THE BOTTOM LINE
For some of us it really doesn't matter whether the majority of the ducks make it down here or no
t. The first cold day when ducks or geese appear overhead is a signal to us as strong as the duck's urge to migrate. We will be pulling out gear, checking waders for leaks, annoying non-hunters with the incessant wac-wac-wacs of a practicing caller and sitting down with maps and regulation booklets.
At the bottom of what we call a soul there is something primitive, beautiful and necessary in rising long before a freezing dawn and pitting ourselves against these modest birds of great beauty and power that represent all that is wild and free.
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