South Bama's Other Wingshooting
September 28, 2010
Beginning with the early goose season this month, you can work your way through the early teal, dove and snipe hunting before the action for ducks even gets started! (September 2006)
Photo by R.E. ILG
Beginning with the early goose season this month, you can work your way through teal, dove and snipe hunting -- all before the action for traditional duck season even gets started! Here's how it goes.
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TO START WITH, GEESE
When the call came from a good friend inviting me to hunt during Alabama's early goose season a few years back, I was at the same time skeptical and excited. Seasonal September temperatures are usually in the mid-70s at daylight, which is not exactly considered prime waterfowl hunting conditions.
In the face of the humid conditions, we decided to meet at a local truck stop to get our plan together before the hunt. While enjoying a typical truck-stop breakfast, we agreed that, after the last piece of greasy bacon was devoured, heartburn would be on the agenda for the day.
My friend Steve Lyda filled me in on a large flock of resident Canada geese that he had stumbled on in a freshly turned field. The geese were nosing around looking for worms, grubs or whatever else they might find. Fortunately for us, Steve knew the owner of the field, who was all too happy to give us permission to dispatch or at least disperse the nuisance Canadas.
We arrived at the field about 40 minutes before daylight. Steve walked me around the field with a flashlight to show me the fresh droppings of the huge birds. Having never hunted resident Canadas before, I was amazed at the mess that these birds make.
Before Steve put out some decoys in the field, he gave me a shovel and instructed me to dig out a couple of depressions in the field that we could recline in to keep a low profile. Next, we placed some tarps in the depressions to lie on. Finally, we covered ourselves with camouflage netting.
When the sky started to turn pink with its morning glow, we could hear the large flock of geese starting to sound off from the roosting lake, almost a half-mile away. For at least 10 minutes the geese honked loudly as they readied themselves to lift off the lake en route to our location.
Straining to see the first of the big birds, we looked off in the distance towards the sound. While concentrating on the racket, we almost missed the bullet-like entrance of a large group of doves that had also discovered the freshly tilled field. A pity that dove season was weeks away, as doves continued blasting into the field -- but big Canadas were our targets. And soon, they appeared.
A string of 12 Canadas was methodically approaching the field in a ragged line. Even from a distance they were huge! As they flew into the edge of the field, the big birds seemed locked on our decoy spread. However, before coming into gun range they veered off, apparently having seen something that just wasn't right. Perhaps it was the "lumps" that hadn't been there in the middle of the field yesterday? Despite some sweet pleading on a goose call, the birds refused to commit and flew on -- and the next group of eight was just as spooky.
We then decided to move some of the decoys closer to the edge of the field where there was some cover in which we could hide. This turned out to be a wise move.
The third group was at least 20 in number. With the "lumps" gone, the birds made their first pass. After finding all things to their liking, the huge Canadas started gliding into the decoys. The nod to shoot was given, we opened fire, and we both managed to connect on a bird, putting two in the bag.
While I hurried out to pick up the geese, we heard the honking of another flock. This group of 10 circled the field twice, each time looking as though they were leaving. Fortunately for us, they decided to drop in. As the flock floated lower, I was mesmerized by the sheer size of the geese. When they were almost on top of us, the signal to shoot was given, and we both crumpled a bird. The geese hit with two heavy thuds, and the dry ground erupted in small plumes of dust. These birds were heavyweights!
Our limit of birds bagged, it was off to the farmer's house to extend a proper thank-you and to receive further hospitality in the form of a welcome cup of coffee. After seeing the geese, the landowner asked if we would mind taking his grandson the next morning; without hesitation, we agreed.
The next morning, we positioned ourselves into deeper cover, and when the first flock of the day came over our heads, we were able to drop four of the monsters. I sat out the second wave in an effort to get some good pictures. My two hunting partners dispatched two more geese, and our hunt was done.
As we walked back towards the truck, we passed a small slough. Walking down the edge, I flushed three blue-winged teal and a wood duck. We all agreed that an early teal hunt would be our next mission.
At the beginning of September, the level of waterfowling activity starts to increase by leaps and bounds in the Mobile Delta. Small duck boats full of roseau cane are running around the small bays of the Delta, looking for just the right place in which to build blinds for the early teal season.
Every September, flights of bluewings descend on the Mobile Delta for a much-needed pit stop on their migration to the Yucatan and South America. The Delta is sort of a bed-and-breakfast for the diminutive travelers -- and much like humans using a bed-and-breakfast, they don't typically stay all that long.
Unlike the hunting for big ducks, in which scouting is crucial, teal hunting has a pattern based on the birds' arrival just before most September weather fronts, which always makes heading for a particular location to intercept them a crapshoot at best. An area that had no teal in it one day can be crawling with the birds two days later. Knowing with some precision the type of places that teal prefer gives you the only edge you'll have in finding them.
Teal like very shallow water, and the more difficult a site is for a hunter to get into it, the better the little ducks seem to like it; at least, that's the way it seems. Successful hunters concentrate on shallow bays that have flats right off feeder channels. Boat blinds are positioned on the edge of the channels so that falling tides won't leave them stranded.
Early teal are looking for nourishment with which to sustain themselves in their long migration; decoys simulate birds that have located a source of that nourishment. By pla
cing your decoys out on the nearby flats, you can lure the teal into lethal gun range.
The type of decoys doesn't seem to matter to early teal -- you can use teal or regular duck decoys. If you opt for big duck decoys, try to limit your spread to hens only. Teal aren't in full plumage in September, so the drab hen decoys are more realistic. Nor is the number of decoys critical; a spread of two dozen will suffice to get the birds' attention.
Calling can help in getting early teal either to notice your decoys or, at least, to give them a fly-by. Short quacks on a call can get the attention of teal that are just passing through. You can also take the calling process a little further with a specialized teal call such as the very convincing blue-winged teal model made by Haydel's Game Calls. Its higher-pitched quacks can pay dividends when you're hunting early teal.
Blue-winged teal won't be the only waterfowl you'll encounter during early teal season. Green-winged teal normally migrate later but are sometimes are present during the early season and can legally be taken. Not legal game at the time, however, are the other early migrants such as pintails and shovelers; other birds to be avoided are the hundreds of mottled ducks that live year 'round in the Delta. Shoot nothing but teal during the early season, or you can earn yourself a hefty fine.
Teal seem to do most of their moving in early morning, and once they find a place to feed unmolested, they're set for the day. Afternoons are good for scouting the locations of these sneaky flocks. With the aid of binoculars you can ascertain the teal's whereabouts without disturbing the birds, and then return to the same spot the next morning; this can pay off in hot shooting.
In South Bama outside the Mobile Delta, teal can also be found on farm ponds and in beaver swamps. These diminutive ducks are particularly fond of areas containing smartweed, and cattle ponds are likely sites for finding both smartweed and huntable numbers of teal during September.
While blue-winged teal prefer freshwater marsh areas, they also frequent coastal salt marshes, which can provide high-percentage opportunities.
SOUTH BAMA DOVES
Dove hunting has long been a tradition in South Bama. Dove shoots are probably the form of hunting that most thoroughly blends the camaraderie of the field and general good-fellowship. Large groups gather for the hunt, which is usually followed by a cookout or bull session immediately afterwards.
Dove hunting also allows parents a chance to break their kids into the hunting world. Most children are brought along at an early age to observe, and many of them serve as human retrievers; picking up doves makes them feel more a part of the proceedings. Lots of adult hunters cheerfully recall their first experience of fetching downed birds in the dove field, and the pride they felt at having been included in the hunt.
Victims of urban sprawl, agricultural lands are disappearing rapidly in South Alabama, but wonderful opportunities are yet available to wingshooters. Most dove hunting is now done through clubs: Interested parties pool money and lease several fields, paying someone to disk, plant and maintain the shooting sites. Shooting rotates from field to field to avoid dispersing the birds through exerting too much pressure. Most hunting is done on Saturdays, but some weekday action occurs as well.
When shooting early-season doves, it pays to know what kind of food will attract the most birds. While some of the greatest dove hunts I've ever been on were made over cornfields, doves are rarely attracted to larger grains when the weather's still hot. Warmer weather usually sees the birds hankering for smaller seeds like those of millet and wheat.
After the first couple of weeks of the season, the doves become quite wary. Instead of impetuously dive-bombing a field, they'll make a few passes on the edge to check it out. When the birds' caution increases, you have to restrict your movement and improve your concealment, possibly with the aid of a blind. Most sporting goods stores carry portable blinds. Or, you can stop by the building materials store and buy some small wooden stakes or PVC pipe to shove into the ground and drape with camo material.
While holding movement to a minimum is overall a must for the pursuit of wary doves, one sort of movement can be beneficial: Dove decoys made with spinning wings have been shown to be highly effective. Standard dove decoys placed on the ground or a nearby tree or fence can be well complemented by a motion decoy. The Mojo Dove, a battery-powered motion decoy, sits on a short metal stand, its spinning wings simulating a dove flapping its wings. This motion can be seen at a considerable distance, and actually works to attract birds into range.
Not all dove hunting is restricted to dove clubs. Many charitable organizations put together hunts known as "pay shoots." Usually a fee is charged for the hunt, which is followed up with a fish fry or barbecue afterwards, the cost of the meal being included in the hunt charge. These types of hunts are advertised in local newspapers several weeks in advance. And sometimes the action can be red-hot!
Most farmers now realize that dove hunting has value, so nowadays, the notion of getting access a farmer's field for free may be wishful thinking. Even though they don't farm their land with dove hunting in mind, these farmlands may hold doves at times. One of the best ways to run into these farmers is to stop by the local feed and farm supply warehouse. Putting out the information to people at the store that you're looking for a place to hunt may result in a low-cost hunt that you and your buddies can afford.
SLIP UP ON SNIPE
Snipe offer wingshooters yet another option in South Alabama. The small marsh bird can be found in wetlands and areas with soft mud. The birds use their needle-like bills to probe for their food, which includes worms, other invertebrates and plant material.
The snipe is a very challenging bird to bring down. In the days of market hunting, shooters who brought in lots of snipe were referred to as "snipers." This was a term of respect, because of the extreme difficulty of hitting the erratic flying bird.
The southern half of Alabama contains loads of areas in which snipe are present. However, none can match the Mobile Delta for snipe habitat. The tidal-influenced Delta's thousands of acres of marsh are covered with water for a certain periods and then are exposed as the tide recedes, providing the snipe many places replete with the soft mud that they probe for food.
Although the pressure on snipe increases appreciably after waterfowl season has ended, many hunters use the birds as a way to fill in the gaps between early teal and regular duck seasons. This also allows duck hunters a way to scout possible duck hunting spots while enjoying some gunning as well.
Hunting snipe requires very little equipment. Of course, you'll have to have a boat to move from place to place on the Delta. Besides that, a shotgun, a box of No. 8 shot and hip waders will be all that you'll need. But be perfectly clear on this p
oint: You must have hip waders; knee boots won't be enough. The sorts of areas that snipe like are very soft marshes. You'll often sink thigh-deep in some spots, so make sure to have the hip boots!
Snipe hunting is best done in groups: Several hunters spread out on a chosen piece of marsh and walk forward slowly; the snipe are usually hidden in the grass, and flush as you approach. If you don't get a shot, or miss, be aware that snipe are notorious for flying in a circular pattern. Stay put till the bird's out of sight, because it may fly right back by you, offering you a second chance