Photo by R.E. Ilg
Daylight grew gradually, transforming indistinct shapes into a spread of decoys drifting back and forth on their tethers. The dark silhouettes eventually showed white markings and shades of gray, which stood out in sharp contrast to the reddish brown of the water flowing gently beneath them. Ducks made conversation overhead as the sky filled with a flock here and a flock there. Chased by the daylight from the weedbeds and beaver ponds where they had been feeding overnight, the ducks sought other flocks flying or resting on the water. Suddenly, a flock of the birds cupped their wings to our decoys.
Gunfire shattered the stillness. A pair of fat mallard drakes remained, upside down on the water, as the rest of the ducks departed. Like most of the other ducks flying above the nearby Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway, those escapees continued on their way to a safe landing at a refuge covering part of Columbus Lake.
“When it comes to setting up near a sanctuary, it’s darned if you do and darned if you don’t,” said Chuck Forbes. “You see plenty of ducks and hear plenty of ducks. But once they hit the water inside the refuge, they aren’t going to move much. They raft up in big flocks because they know where they’re safe.”
Forbes was hunting along the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers navigation project along the Tenn-Tom Waterway. The duck hunting can be fantastic when conditions are right, but the main reason for hunting the Tenn-Tom is that it is close to home for residents of Clay and Lowndes counties. Waterfowl hunting leases are extremely expensive everywhere, and so are daily guided hunts. However, anyone with a duck boat can explore the channels and lakes of the Tenn-Tom for free and find exciting hunting if they are willing to put in the effort it takes for success.
Forbes hunts at several of the pools formed by a series of locks and dams along the waterway. This particular hunt took place at Columbus Lake.
“The Waverly landing at Columbus Lake is a good one for launching a duck boat,” Forbes said. “Lots of times along the Tenn-Tom, you’re going to have hit-or-miss hunting. The birds use the waterway as a flyway, stick around for two or three days, then they head farther south. You have to be out here when they come through to get in on the action.
“The best hunting conditions are when there’s a freeze that locks up all the water up north,” he continued. “A 15 mph north or northwest wind that blows in on a cold front gives you the best hunting conditions.”
While the bluebird weather brought flocks of mallards and green-winged teal to Forbes’ decoys that morning, he said waves of cold fronts stir up migrant flocks of other puddle ducks like gadwall and widgeon.
“There are also lots of wood ducks,” he added. “They are here all year ’round. Resident Canada geese are also here all along, but they’ve gotten smart enough so that when the first gun goes off, they just stay inside one of the refuge areas. I’ve killed migrant Canada geese during the late part of the season, and I’ve even killed speckle-belly geese and snow geese on the Tenn-Tom.”
Forbes sets out a mixed spread of decoys for the diverse waterfowl that fly the waterway. The bulk of his spread usually consists of mallard decoys, but he makes adjustments depending upon the composition of the ducks using his hunting area. He adds a few teal, widgeon or gadwall if he notices those birds have arrived.
“I always set out some Canada goose decoys,” he noted. “Anything will likely decoy to them. Three-dozen decoys, with about half of them mallards and half of them Canada geese, will draw about any bird that flies within gun range if he’s in the mood for company. I set out more decoys if I’m going to set up all day long. But three dozen is enough for a morning hunt.”
There are times when diving ducks are concentrated along the waterway. These birds like the open flats and toll best to big decoy spreads.
“I may set out a hundred decoys if I’m on a diver hunt,” Forbes said. “The bigger the spread, the better your luck will be with the divers. Most of them arrive late in the season when it gets the coldest.”
The diving duck flocks are usually scaup and ringnecks. Occasionally a flock of canvasbacks also comes to the decoys.
Forbes uses a formula of three times the water depth for his decoy tether length. Most any style of anchor will hold them, as long as it weighs at least 4 ounces. The bottom is fairly soft, so the anchors hold even during windy conditions.
“I find a spot I want to hunt by looking around during the daylight,” he said. “Then I go back the next day. The water level can fluctuate and really throw you off on your perception. It can also be hazardous to your lower unit or propeller.”
The trees along the waterway and former creek drainages were harvested before the dams were constructed. The remaining stumps can crush a lower unit if you strike one while running the boat too fast in the dark.
“I lost a lower unit once and had to paddle my 18-foot extra-wide aluminum boat all the way back to the landing,” he recalled. “It pays to get out here and learn the water before you hunt. Always remember to go slow when you get out of the main channels where there are markers. The water depth can change from 6 feet to less than 1 foot in an instant.”
Forbes uses a push-pole to maneuver the boat across shallow bottoms. He hunts from a collapsible boat blind made of metalwork and fabric that sets up in a few minutes.
“Unless you have permission from the landowner, you can’t set up on the islands or banks,” he said. “A lot of it is privately owned, and trespassing laws are enforced. You don’t want to walk across the wrong area and ruin your hunt. The penalty for trespassing is severe and can include loss of hunting privileges along the Tenn-Tom. There are maps showing private property at the boat launches, or you can check the tax maps in the county where you are hunting to find out where the private lands and Corps lands occur.”
Besides submerged tree stumps, there are many other boating hazards to force waterfowl hunters to use caution. After floods, entire trees, boat docks, appliances, fuel tanks and old tires can float on swift current.
“You need a strong spotlight when you head out or come back in the dark.” Forbes sa
id. “It also helps you see the navigation channel markers. The main creek channels off the waterway are also marked in places. But they snake and twist, so you still have to go slow and watch the water ahead.”
Fog is another hazard. Forbes once had to wait for a fog to lift when he became disoriented.
“I was running in the dark and couldn’t find anything familiar,” he said. “I used a compass, but the fog was so dense and the water so stumpy, I couldn’t go in a straight line. After hopping from bank to bank for a time, I got smart and decided to stay put. After it got light, I saw I was only 75 yards from a spillway. If I had gotten much closer, it could have sucked me right in because there had been some heavy rains, and the water was high and fast.”
During the early parts of the season, alligators can pose a danger to dogs. There are also lots of cottonmouths in the beaver ponds in the headwater streams feeding the Tenn-Tom.
“There are also water hyacinth beds everywhere along the shallow areas,” Forbes said. “I hunt gaps between the hyacinth beds to break up the outline of the boat. A high bank behind also helps prevent ducks from spotting your silhouette. But if you get inside a hyacinth bed, it will clog the motor so it takes forever to get out. A dog can’t swim through the stuff, and he might even drown in the attempt. It’s a good idea to drop your ducks out of the thick stuff if you can.”
Still, a retriever is an asset for hunting the waterway. A dog saves the time it takes to break down a blind, crank the motor and chase downed birds before they can be blown or taken by the current for great distances. Time is everything to a duck hunter, especially at prime time during the early morning.
“The dog needs to be steady,” Forbes said. “Tenn-Tom ducks are spooky. A hunter or dog moving in the boat or a dog’s toenails scraping on aluminum will make them flare away before they are within range.
“It helps to use the best ammunition you can get,” he continued. “I shoot tungsten shot. It may be expensive, but you want to be sure to anchor any ducks you knock down. A crippled duck can get into the hyacinth before you or the dog can catch him.”
Forbes has been hunting the Tenn-Tom for about 20 years. He once harvested dozens of ducks each season. Recently, the numbers have been lower.
“For the last four seasons, we haven’t seen as many ducks on the Tenn-Tom,” Danny Hartley, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Project Biologist for the Tenn-Tom, said. “But when the weather gets cold, the hunting can still be good.”
To counter lower duck numbers, Forbes uses patience as a strategy. He stays long after other hunters have left.
“Other hunters leave after the fast action at first light,” he said. “They get bored, go scouting or head home. They flush ducks that come to my decoys because I’m usually the only hunter that stays. You’d be amazed at how many ducks I kill between 10:00 and 2:00.”
Danny Hartley also hunts waterfowl along the waterway, so he is intimately familiar with the locations of the best hunting areas and the problems posed to hunters.
“There are some refuges, and hunters must be aware of their locations,” he cautioned. “Pool A, the lake created by Amory Lock and Dam, is closed to waterfowl hunting because it is highly developed with houses along the shoreline. It’s the smallest of the 10 pools and not over a couple of thousand acres in size.”
The Corps considers the 235-mile-long project to have three sections. The North Section is the manmade canal cut from Pickwick Reservoir to Bay Springs Lake. The Canal Section consists of five locks and dams, designated as locks A, B, C, D and E between Bay Springs Lake and Amory Lake. The River Section runs from Amory Lake to Demopolis, Ala.
“Even with the refuges at Pool A and Columbus Lake, 95 percent of the waterway is open for waterfowl hunting,” Hartley said. “There are 44,000 acres of shallow water that hold waterfowl. You just need to obey the rules established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks and the Corps. Laws and regulations are enforced by all of these agencies.”
Hartley likes to use several launching points, including Becker Bottom access, which makes the Aberdeen Pool accessible, and the Camp Pratt access area to reach the Aliceville Pool.
“Permanent blinds are not allowed on the Corps of Engineers flowage easements,” Hartley warned. “Most hunters use 16-foot camouflaged boats with drop blinds on them.
“There are some active aquatic weed problems, mostly along the flats and backwaters, with water hyacinth and hydrilla the main culprits. The hydrilla can be a good source of food, but it poses problems as well. We do some aquatic weed management.”
Hartley said good waterfowl foods that hunters should be looking for include pondweeds, floating duckweed and sedges.
“There’s a lot of fluctuation in the water level, which gives quite a bit of hardwood flooding,” Hartley said. “The water can be up for two or three weeks in the hardwoods, providing some good hunting in the beaver dams within the project area.”
Hartley has seen a gamut of ducks during cold winters, including mallard, gadwall, teal, canvasback, widgeon, mergansers, ring-necked and scaup. Still, mallards and wood ducks are the bellwether species here.
“We maintain a good number of wood duck nesting boxes,” he said. “We had 2,000 at one time but lost some to flooding during the mid to late ’90s. Bad budget years since have kept us from putting up any new boxes.
“Through the years, neighborhood organizations, Eagle Scout merit badge projects and a few hunting groups have helped maintain wood duck boxes, so we still have between 1,500 and 1,700 within the project area.”
One organization that has helped out along the Tenn-Tom is Ducks Unlimited. They have helped design some of the project’s waterfowl impoundments.
Hartley sees lots of hunters along the waterway while he is working and hunting. He has definite ideas about what waterfowl hunters can do to have safe and successful hunts.
“In my opinion, nothing will help a hunter more than scouting around and looking at the different areas,” he suggested. “Hunters can mark safe pathways with reflective or surveyor’s tape as long as they remove it when they’re done. High water logs and other debris floating down the system can all be hazards. Barges usually don’t present a problem. Sometimes, large pleasure craft pose a hazard to small boats, but they don’t generally come through the system during waterfowl season.
“Hunters should have all the required safety equipment onboard and wear their flotation devices at all times. They mu
st also follow all the rules and regulations. Federal law is enforced out there, covering everything from reckless operation to littering. Everyone should just use common sense, and they will have a safe hunt,” the biologist concluded.