Photo by Dick Larson.
In duck hunting — as in life generally — opportunities can emerge from the least expected places.
To a bass aficionado, Louisiana’s hallmark lakes — Toledo Bend Reservoir, Lake D’Arbonne and their like — represent largemouth paradise. Punctuated with swaths of grassy, stump-laden water and cypress sloughs, each big-water bend seems to offer a perfect window through which to lure bucketmouths.
As it turns out, they’re not half bad for knocking down ducks, either.
I used to recognize only one season on the outdoors calendar: bassin’ season. Each winter I’d fish a circuit of tournaments with a local north Louisiana angling association called the Winter Club, laughing all the while at those who’d duck out on the club (so to speak) in favor of waterfowling. After all, who in his or her right mind would miss a bass tournament just to go shoot a few ducks?
One particular year, the second Winter Club tournament was held at Lake D’Arbonne in Farmerville during November. The forecast called for snow and sleet all day long, but to me, a fanatical bass angler, it was of little consequence, as a bit of winter weather simply meant substituting a buzzbait for a Carolina rig. While burning my buzzbait by the edge of some grass in the back of Corney Bayou, I turned to discover several ducks about 100 yards behind my boat, with four more cupped up to join the crowd. (Continued)
My road-to-Damascus-style conversion to duck hunting came not long after that. As I searched for somewhere to hunt, I thought of that November day at Corney Bayou and the gadwalls that spooled behind my boat.
The first time I tried my hand at the ducks of D’Arbonne, I immediately discovered that I wasn’t the only one with such thoughts. Boats were launching at the Gill’s Ferry Landing up the Little D’Arbonne arm of the lake and scattering north and south into the darkness.
Lake D’Arbonne is hardly unique. Robbie Howard, an avid duck hunter and regional biologist with the Louisiana office of Ducks Unlimited, observed that the state’s public inland lakes — and particularly those that pool alongside major rivers — have for years been consistently productive waterfowl destinations whose excellence has been eclipsed by their stellar reputations for bass fishing.
“They have historically been fairly good hunting . . . the reason being that they usually have enough deeper water to attract the diving ducks and enough shallow water to attract the puddle ducks,” he said, adding that while Louisiana’s inland lakes, like the state’s more-frequented waterfowling grounds, are often crowded in the opening days of duck season, open-water opportunity increases as the season wears on.
“Later on in the season, I’ve hunted these lakes and almost been the only gun out there,” Howard noted. “In my opinion, these public lakes give you an opportunity to certainly get closer to the true definition of hunting, which is to locate game, determine why it’s there and attempt to harvest it.”
The next time you’re set on hitting Louisiana’s big public water during duck season, consider forgoing rod and reel in exchange for a shot at waterfowl. Following: a roster of Louisiana bass lakes that double as duck venues.
Lying amid the forests and hills of Union Parish, 15,250-acre Lake D’Arbonne epitomizes the concept of “the Sportsman’s Paradise.” Tremendously popular with bass, crappie, catfish and bream anglers, Lake D’Arbonne is also one of a kind when it comes to big-water duck hunting.
The lake is divided into two sections by the state Route 33 bridge that crosses the water near its midsection. Locals call the part below the bridge the “big lake” and the section above the bridge — which consists of two main creek channels that fuse into one main channel running all the way to the dam — the “arms.”
Moving up the lake, Corney Creek splits to the right and Little D’Arbonne splits to the left. Duck hunters make good use of both of the arms, which are a maze of grass flats, brushy islands and cypress sloughs.
“I mainly launch at Gill’s Ferry up the D’Arbonne arm,” said Sid Havard, a professional bass angler and waterfowl enthusiast from Simsboro. “I know a lot of people go up the Corney arm and kill a bunch of teal, which should be especially good this year, as there is more grass up there than normal. I’d rather stay in the D’Arbonne arm, though, because I know it a little better, and I tend to kill more big ducks up there.”
More often than not, Havard points his boat south from Gill’s Ferry and runs until the main bayou begins to open up in an area known as “the mixing hole.” He has killed a lot of ducks by pushing his boat up into one end of the brushy islands and wading to the other end to hunt.
“I’ll cover up the boat with some camo netting and move to the other side and toss out my decoys,” Havard said. “It usually doesn’t take too many decoys; you should be all right with a dozen or so. Most of the ducks I kill in this part of the lake are the gadwall that we call ‘gray ducks.’ You’ll get mallards, but not many. You also get a lot of blackjacks. The great thing about them is that you can shoot a couple of them, and it won’t be five minutes before the entire bunch of them are coming right back at you.”
If he’s looking for mallards, Havard heads north from the Gill’s Ferry Landing and motors into a sprawling backwater slough called Middle Fork, a maze of bayous, creek channels, grass flats and cypress trees. Havard most frequently hunts its rim, which is lined with buckbrush.
The key to hunting D’Arbonne, according to Havard, is to hunt it at the right time. In his view, some of his best duck hunts at Louisiana’s inland lakes have taken place after most of the water in Arkansas has frozen over, sending ducks in search of new landing zones.
Lake Claiborne is very much a miniature version Lake D’Arbonne, its neighbor just a few miles to the east, and is just as popular with residents of North Louisiana, although it doesn’t get the same statewide recognition.
“In my opinion, these public lakes give you an opportunity to certainly get closer to the true definition of hunting, which is to locate game, determine why it’s there and attempt to harvest it.”
–DU biologist Robbie Howard
Its full-pool surface area 6,400 acres, Claiborne is sandwiched between state Route 2 to the north and state Route 146 to its south, and to many it looks more like an Arkansas highland lake than it does a lowland Louisiana lake. Complete with rocky bluff banks, deep, clear water and long, tapering points, Claiborne offers a lot of opportunities to catch any kind of fish.
The two largest arms to the northwest attract all of the duck hunters’ attention. Launching at Lisbon Landing off Route 2 into Beaver Creek, Havard frequently finds everything he needs within just a few yards. “Beaver has a ton of bushy islands, scattered brush and cypress trees,” he offered. “The last time I went hunting up there I saw a few blinds already built around the bushes. That didn’t stop me, though, because there are plenty of spots to set up. Most of that area up there at the back of Beaver is shallow enough to wade around in the bushes, so it makes for a pretty easy hunt.”
Havard most frequently takes mallards and gray ducks there in the back of Beaver Creek. However, when he decides to run the boat over to the arm of the lake stemming from Little D’Arbonne just around the long point that separates the two creeks, he’s more likely to find a variety of ducks.
Maneuvering around on Claiborne may be a little more difficult this season, as it was drawn down late in 2007 in order to improve the marking of the boat lanes. If it’s still low in January, hunters will need to be more cautious when motoring from site to site, but do your best to stay in the channel, and you should be all right.
TOLEDO BEND RESERVOIR
The largest artificial body of water in the South — surface area 181,600 acres, maximum depth 110 feet, 65 miles in length from its north end to the dam — this massive lake easily intimidates everybody on a first viewing. Accordingly, getting around on “T-Bend” to fish or to hunt is nothing to take lightly. Conditions can change in a hurry, and anglers can get caught far from shore during bad weather.
Often thought to rival some of the best leases in the state when it comes to shooting ducks, Toledo Bend offers duck hunters lots of options. Most of the better action is found north of the Pendleton Bridge, which basically cuts the lake in half.
Havard likes to launch at the landings in the Converse area, the section of the lake with which he’s most familiar. He’s had his banner duck hunting days there, and sees no reason to expand beyond what he thinks of as his home turf.
Around Converse, stay on the lookout for giant rafts of
coots ganged up in their hundreds to feed on the grass remaining on the shallow ridges so plentiful up north. “The reason you want to find the coots is because the big ducks will come down wherever they see the coots,” said Havard. “I guess they know enough to realize that coots feed on shallow grass and that they can get in there and do the same. I’m not sure if they get in there to eat the standing grass or to pick off the remains that the coots leave — and I really don’t care why they’re there; that they love the coots is all I need to know.”
No matter which of your favorite fishing lakes you decide to hunt this year, suggested pro basser and avid waterfowler Sid Havard, use angling time to scout for ducks.
According to Havard, the grass attracting the coots grows in water shallow enough to walk through. With all due caution, Havard idles his boat as far away from the coots as he can and ties it up before draping it with netting. “Then I just wade across the ridge and toss out my decoys wherever I saw the coots,” he offered. “All you’ve got to do then is squat down beside a stump and wait on the big ducks to arrive.”
Toledo Bend attracts a wide variety of ducks, and Havard has bagged everything from mallards to canvasbacks there. However, his strap is most often filled with mallards, gray ducks, teal and pintails.
Though not considered a bass fishing location, Catahoula Lake, northeast of Alexandria off state Route 28, warrants mention. Perhaps the linchpin in Louisiana’s network of waterfowl lakes, Catahoula Lake is managed jointly by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, It’s dewatered each July and maintained at a 5,000-acre pool throughout the summer. Between 10 and 15 days before the start of waterfowl season, the water level is increased by 2 feet to provide habitat for migratory birds and to improve hunting opportunities. During waterfowl season, its area can swell to more than 20,000 acres.
“Catahoula is the key for Louisiana’s waterfowl,” said Robert Helm, the LDWF’s chief duck biologist. He reported that the lake has drawn as many as 500,000 ducks in some years, with species including canvasbacks, pintails, ringnecks, teal, gadwalls, mallards, widgeon and scaup.
Catahoula is anything but a secret; blinds pepper the lake. Thousands of hunters flock to Catahoula on opening day, but later stages of the waterfowl season can provide more shooting room.
Helm noted that duck hunters would also do well to consider both Saline Lake and Lake Larto, two of Catahoula’s neighbors to the southeast.
No matter which of your favorite fishing lakes you decide to hunt this year, suggested Havard, use angling time to scout for ducks. “I actually start scouting back in the fall, when I’m trying to catch some bass,” he said. “If you’re out there enough, you’ll see ducks going to the same spots over and over again.”
Since much of this style of hunting puts you more out in the open than does a blind, Havard advised that you make sure to be as still as possible. A piece of brush or a short stump doesn’t provide a lot of cover, so it’s vitally important to stay still when ducks are circling. You may be where they want to be, but if you’re moving around and gawking at them, they’ll never get close enough to shoot.
“I’ve come to love hunting the same places I fish so much that I’ve given up on the leases and hunting clubs,” said Havard. “If you play your cards right and hunt them when the ducks are there, you won’t be able to tell any difference between a lake and a lease. In fact, you’ll probably come to love the lake even more.”