Hunting Mississippi's 'Stressed' Ducks

Once the shooting starts, fooling ducks with calls and decoys becomes much tougher. But these tactics and locations should improve your odds for this season's wingshooting.

Photo by Paul Tessier

By John J. Woods

Few duck hunters today have seen the phenomenon. The reports of Mississippi skies literally turned black with wave after wave of waterfowl blocking out all perceptible sunlight are generally thought to be tall duck hunters' tales.

But trust me: I know for a fact that some of those stories are true - because I was lucky enough to witness it myself as a child. Twice: Once it was ducks, once Canada geese. In both cases, the sight of those masses of feathered life created memories that have stuck with me for more than 40 years.

However, even back then there was a problem: From our vantage point, those heavy flights of assorted waterfowl were on the opposite side of the big water from our decoy layout. All we could do was sit and watch the parade, as not so much as one broke formation; neither mallards nor any other kind of duck did us the honor of giving our setup a single look-see.

DUCK FLUSTERED

After World War II, my dad came home from flying 25 bombing missions in a B-24 over Germany. Other than starting a new business and getting our family started, his biggest mission was to secure some duck hunting land. He and three other hometown war buddies joined together and bought 20 acres each in one block. The 80 acres were perfect waterfowl habitat: cottonwood timber alongside a deep, wide slough several miles long that would flood during the wet season. It was a definitely a duck honeyhole.

They collaborated to build a deluxe duck blind with all the post-war amenities, including a drop-down front shooting wall, benches, and a charcoal pot that doubled as a space heater and cooker grill; it could handle a half-dozen shooters in real comfort. The blind was supported on stilts, so the duck boats could be slipped underneath and out of sight.

Back in those days, you could walk into a hardware store and buy sticks of dynamite as if they were firecrackers. Dad and his crew used them to blow huge potholes on both sides of the duck blind, the idea being that each would start to collect water with the first fall rains, and then planted sorghum milo and wheat around the edges. By the time the winter duck season rolled around, they were set.

On opening day they heard about as much shooting as they'd heard during their time in the European theater; they quickly discovered that they weren't the only duck hunters at the slough with an identical game plan. All too soon the ducks grew wary of the slough and maintained a high altitude when passing over the area.

On one occasion, ducks en masse could be heard quacking like crazy through the thick stand of cottonwoods. We crossed the slough and, climbing up the levee, witnessed one of the sky-obscuring clouds of birds mentioned in the opening paragraph. The trouble was that we never got a shot at any of them. Disgusted, Dad packed up, and we went home that day without even the whisper of a hope for a roast duck dinner.

In talking with duck hunters here in Mississippi over the past few seasons, it became apparent that some things never change when it comes to waterfowl hunting. It's still a lot of hard work - gear-intensive, time-consuming, expensive work - and it can be terribly frustrating when few ducks show up. It's even more baffling, not to mention nerve-wracking, when ducks do show up but remain well out of shooting range.

So many factors have to work in your favor if you're to pull a successful duck hunt off that when it does happen, the action can be the most satisfying to be found. At the other end of the spectrum, though, an awful lot of duck hunters simply give up and toss in the towel - much as my dad did for a time - when things don't work out right. Still, you never bag any ducks unless you go hunting for them.

The trick to successful duck hunting today lies in hunting smart and developing several contingency plans well ahead of the season. Today's duck hunter needs a Plan B (and, sometimes, plans all the way from C through Z) to get in some shooting. A rule of thumb: When duck hunting gets stressful for both the hunter and the ducks, it's time to engage those backup plans.

BE PREPARED

When it comes to duck hunting, even the best-laid plans can quickly go awry. Either the weather up north doesn't cooperate, failing to push ducks our way, or the local situation changes at the last minute from a bluebird duck day to a horizontal rain. Or the days that you've scheduled off from work and the days on which the ducks succumb to the lure of the Arkansas bean fields off to the west are the same days.

Before your scheduled duck hunt - especially if you travel a significant distance to your hunting areas - it's critical to make a few calls the day before to see what the action and conditions are like. In the case of public hunting areas, a call to either the district wildlife office or the specific wildlife management area headquarters can yield timely information about duck flight activity. That way, at least you don't have to start out on a hunt guessing if ducks are even working the area.

"It naturally seems that, within a very few days of the opening guns, ducks start reacting to avoid the really hot hunting areas," explained Delta duck guide Tommy Green. "Then things can settle down again just as fast. Often ducks become call-shy in short order, too. This requires hunters to conduct a fast scan of the waterfowl scene to see where the ducks have moved. This also usually means being able to switch tactics perhaps from big-water, big-decoy displays maybe to tight flooded timber with few or no decoys - or vice versa."

Veteran turkey and duck hunter Glenn Lycons agrees that versatility is indispensable. "Calling ducks these days nearly requires the same diversity of calling as it does for wild turkeys," he pointed out. "Some days, certain calls work when others don't. At times, one caller can do the trick; other times, two or even three callers working together creates the magic needed to entice ducks to set their wings for a closer look. If you luck upon any combination that seems to be working then definitely stick with it as long as it brings the ducks in close enough for a round of shooting.

"Keep changing calls, calling sequences and frequencies until you hit their button. When a pass gets within gun range, then let them have it."

When it comes to setting your decoys, Delta duck man Sam Barker has some time-tested ideas. "Decoy spreads can make or break a duck hunt," he emphasized. "Keeping it simple usually turns out to be the best way to play the game. Avoid overuse of hyper-motion decoys; ducks quickly learn that a fellow duck could never thrash the water that long without resting.

"Judge the number of decoys to deploy by the size of the water. An exception might be a small spread in a small cove or inlet or a landlocked pond cut off from a nearby river. These setups can handle a small decoy display. Use confidence decoys too, in addition to floating decoys. Make the setup look natural."

DOWN-AND-DIRTY

DELTA DUCKS

Under normal circumstances, the opportunities in the Magnolia State for hunting ducks can be something to brag about. For most of the past decade, however, we've seen anything but "normal" duck conditions in Mississippi; in fact, it's hard to say what duck hunters here would consider to be "normal" anymore. Mother Nature seems to deal us a bad hand nearly every year, thus testing all the tried-and-true tactics that veteran hunters have developed.

Truth be told, duck action can be found all around this state - especially up and down the main flyway route along the Mississippi River. Still, the very best duck hunting is confined to the 19 counties of the Mississippi Delta. This area stretches from just north of Vicksburg up to Tunica, with some of the hottest spots lying in the triangle formed by Redwood, Rolling Fork, and Yazoo City.

In this region from Warren County up to Desoto County, just south of Memphis, are numerous a number of WMAs and other public-access areas that offer duck hunting - and honestly, the action at any one of these areas can (depending on each season's overall duck hunting conditions) be just as good as what's at any other area in the state.

According to Richard Wells, the waterfowl program coordinator for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, last year was not spectacular for duck hunters. "Mississippi had a below-average waterfowl season last year," he explained, 'due to warm temperatures at home as well as in the Midwest delaying duck migrations south. Public hunting areas were hit-and-miss. If weather conditions were good and ducks were there that day, hunters had some success."

That, some would say, just about sums up duck hunting in Mississippi over the past few seasons: definitely been unpredictable. But Wells offers perspective to the despairing. "The Delta is still the place to hunt during our duck season," he asserted. And duck hunters seeking public lands should translate that pronouncement as follows: For best results, hunt on one of the 14 WMAs in the MDWFP's Delta Region.

One zone of particular interest is the concentration of public areas in the Issaquena, Sharkey, and Yazoo County triangle - let's call it the "Delta Duck Cluster." In this grouping are at least four really decent public waterfowl hunting areas. The favorable situation created by the cluster arises from the diversity of options that it provides for making short moves from one area to another, depending on exactly where the ducks are working.

The largest of the four areas is the massive Sunflower WMA, which comprises almost 60,000 acres. Of course, all of this property is prime duck habitat, but a big portion of it is managed specifically for waterfowl. Sunflower's uniqueness lies in its several flooded greentree waterfowl areas, which normally attract ducks like honey lures bears. When summer and fall rains fill these holes, they represent a near-perfect draw for waterfowl.

In the northern half of Sunflower are three of these reservoir: Sunflower, Green Ash and Dowling Bayou; in the southern half, hunters can access Long Bayou and South Greentree reservoirs.

The best access to the WMA for preseason scouting is via secondary roads running east off around Rolling Fork.

Next on the list is the 12, 675-acre Mahannah WMA, near Redwood. This preserve is only a scant few miles southwest of Sunflower WMA. At Mahannah, besides regular waterfowl regulations and seasons, there are some special rules in effect. Shooting hours end daily at noon; hunters may not enter the hunting areas until 5:00 a.m. Daily access is a on a first-come, first-served basis.

One region of special interest at Mahannah is Cypress Bayou, which is in the southwest corner of the property. Also, be aware that no hunting is allowed in the waterfowl refuge area in the northwest quadrant.

In Yazoo County and adjoining the eastern edge of the Sunflower WMA is Lake George WMA. With slightly over 8,300 acres, Lake George is named for the nearby U-shaped oxbow body of water. Portions of the WMA along its western and southern edges border on the Big Sunflower River. These, plus Fifteen Mile Bayou, offer the best waterfowling options.

You can access the area using secondary roads running east from State Route 16 just south of Holly Bluff.

The final area is Twin Oaks WMA, which lies immediately west of Sunflower WMA in Sharkey County. With almost 5,700 acres, this WMA is one of the smaller public sites in the cluster, but it draws ducks to its hardwood bottoms and harvest agricultural fields. Near the WMA headquarters on the northern end of the tract is a greentree reservoir, and the Little Sunflower River borders the east edge of the property. Obviously, both of these are of interest to waterfowlers.

These four profiled areas are by no means the only options available for duck hunting in the Delta. Other areas are Okeefe WMA in Quitman County, the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge in Washington County, and Hillside, Matthew Brake and Morgan Brake NWRs in Holmes County.



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