By Chester Moore Jr.
The last couple of duck seasons have been tough for hunters on the Upper Texas Coast. In fact, most hunters I’ve talked with on my Beaumont-based radio program have called the last two seasons the worst they’ve ever had.
The blame has fallen everywhere from a lack of cold weather at the right time (true) to conservation organizations short-stopping ducks in the north (not true), but the end result is the same: Duck hunting has been tough.
But nothing will stop diehard duck hunters from going into the field when the season opens, and for many of them, that means heading for the public lands on the Gulf Coast. With competition on public lands higher than ever, and this year’s waterfowl forecast no better than last year’s, hunters should study the public areas they want to hunt to maximize their time in the field.
Here’s a preview of the top public areas for the early season.
This is one of the best-known public duck-hunting destinations, especially during the early season. Located near Port Arthur off Highway 73, it offers access to thousands of acres of freshwater marsh.
Hunters hit the area heavily on weekends, but it doesn’t get a lot of attention during the week in the early part of the season. Some of the top areas to hunt are along the levees in the Hillebrandt Bayou area as well as small ponds in the Salt Bayou Unit.
Murphree WMA marshes hold good numbers of gadwalls and green-winged teal, along with a lot of shovelers and scaup. Look for teal to make up most of the bag in the early season. Decoy with small spreads; huge spreads tend to spook the birds there.
Officials will charge an access fee for each hunter 17 or older unless the hunter holds an Annual Public Hunting Permit. Hunters younger than 17 must be accompanied by an adult.
This overlooked 7,000-acre piece of tidal marsh located between Bridge City and Port Arthur offers prime opportunities for early-season hunting. Hunting is allowed on both sides of Highway 87.
The hunting over the last couple of years has been difficult. Hunters wanting to try it should use the East side of Highway 87 and concentrate on the area around the big canal running east and the levee there.
That area, a flyway from ducks from the Bessie Heights Marsh area toward Louisiana, regularly offers good low pass-shooting on foggy mornings, with consistent action for hunters using good camouflage and small- to medium-sized spreads.
Here’s a hot tip: Don’t overcall. There’s a hunting club on the backside of this area, and the waterfowlers there call all day long. The birds tend to shy away from almost anything but teal whistles.
Hunting requires the same permits as the Murphree WMA. For more information on the J.D. Murphree or Lower Neches WMAs, call (409) 736-2551.
AND McFADDIN NWR
Located near Sabine Pass, these twin refuges will be open to boat-in and walk-in morning-only hunts. Hunting is allowed in designated areas only.
McFaddin was stingy in the early season, but some of the distant water in Texas Point was excellent.
Look for divers to trade between the marsh and nearby Gulf, and to get a fair influx of ducks coming over from the Louisiana marsh when the hunters there start firing away. A good tip for Texas Point is to expect action to pick up around 9 a.m. after hunters in other areas have pushed ducks your way.
For more information, call (409) 971-2909.
At press time, Anahuac officials had not decided on which areas would be open to hunting as a result of boat-ramp conditions. The Pace Tract is usually open every day; the Middleton Tract of the refuge is open to morning-only hunting on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays.
Anahauc NWR held good numbers of ducks last season and is likely to do the same this year. Scout early and find areas off the beaten path, as they are usually the spots that hold most of this area’s ducks.
For more information, call (409) 267-3337.
Designated public-hunting areas in the Brazoria County refuge will be open to duck hunting.
This refuge offers a good mix of ducks from gadwalls and green-winged teal to ruddy ducks and canvasbacks. On the more-open water on the edges of the big marsh, use big spreads to attract the skittish divers and puddle ducks that get pounded by surrounding hunting clubs.
No fee is required. Access is available both by boat and on foot.
Galveston and Trinity Bay, as well as Sabine Lake, offer good free public duck hunting. The law allows hunters to hunt from anchored boats on public waters, and even during the early season the hunting can be good.
Ducks, particularly redheads and bluebills (scaup), congregate in big numbers on open water. You have to mimic nature to get nature to cooperate with, you, and that means going through the trouble of putting out a bunch of decoys.
The secret to bagging ducks on the bay is to think big: A decoy spread in a marsh pond might consist of two dozen decoys (maybe three or four times that if the pond is big), but in open water, the starting number is six dozen, and some hunters put out as many as 200 decoys at a time.
Another factor anglers should consider is using as many magnum-sized decoys as possible. Besides mimicking nature, you have to get the ducks’ attention, and using big decoys is a way to do that. When a duck is flying around over open water, which is often choppy, it may have a hard time seeing regular-sized decoys or a small spread. Think big and you will find success.
Some hunters, myself included, mix in a half-dozen or so snow goose decoys to help attract the ducks’ attention. White shows up well on the chocolate-colored Texas bays, and occasionally helps draw in a few bonus geese.
Many hunters set their decoys in a large cove, leave a landing area, and extend one long leg of the spread out into open water to attract cruising ducks. This is highly effective, especially if you have in your spread a couple of mechanical duck decoys with rotating wings.
I prefer hunting around islands. The prime decoy spot is toward the tail of an island, in the soft water between the tail and the main current. Islands in Texas generally have enough cover that, coupled with a well-camouflaged boat, should work to hide hunters.
Usually the best duck shooting time comes as the birds return to the main bay after their morning feed in the marsh. Ducks typically trade back and forth up and down the marsh most of the early morning; then, there’s a lull as they feed in fields, and then another burst of activity in late morning.
Jess Curlew of Corpus Christi targets the main points of bays early in the morning and says ducks there are highly patternable. “When the ducks are coming off the bay to feed out toward the marsh, they usually enter at a point – or at least the biggest flocks do,” he said. “Conversely, ducks leaving the marsh to go toward the bay follow points as well. I don’t know what it is about these areas, but they serve as a sort of travel route for ducks.”
Curlew likes to start his decoying with what he calls the “water droplet” or “teardrop” formation. “This consists of decoys set up in the shape of a water droplet, with one end tapering off sharply,” he explained. “You can camouflage the boat greatly and set up in the middle of the set or hunt just off of the edges.”
The advantage here is that, with the wind in his face, a hunter can remain well hidden among the sea of white. With the end tapering off, it looks like a natural landing, inviting more birds to set down.
A set commonly used in northern states is the “wings” formation, which consists of one big mass of regular-sized decoys with two thin strips of magnums coming off the side.
“This spread is also huntable within the spread,” Curlew said, “but it’s probably best to camouflage up and hunt the outside edges where the birds come from. This will allow you to get a shot in before the birds flare up and leave.
“This is done by setting out four or five decoys out in a cluster and making 20 or more groups like this. Spread the decoys out in a 150- to 200-yard area to create the natural appearance of how birds behave on clear days.”
The jury is still out on what kind of duck season we’re going to have, but if you follow these tips, your chances of scoring on ducks, even during another difficult season, should increase.
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