Bama Coast Duck Roundup
September 28, 2010
What is the outlook for the upcoming waterfowl season? Let's take a look at what influences the shooting in south Alabama and some places where you can join in the action this year.
By Mike Thompson
Hunting Alabama's coastal ducks can be rewarding beyond words, or more frustrating than an income tax form. Unlike their inland cousins, which are hunted on water influenced primarily by rainfall, coastal ducks are deeply affected by tidal flow. Tidal flow is a factor regarding when food is available in depths that puddle ducks prefer. It can also be a factor as to where diving ducks spend the day before or after a feeding session.
Learning the effects of tidal flow is just another part of the puzzle that south Bama hunters must master to be successful. While this component is a key to success, there are a lot of other factors involved that coastal hunters must be knowledgeable about if they are to enjoy a solid season.
A BIOLOGIST'S VIEW James Masek is an area biologist working for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Masek is assigned to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and the W.L. Holland Wildlife Management areas (WMAs). Located south of Interstate 65, this area is commonly referred to as the lower Delta.
Masek is besieged by waterfowl hunters each year requesting improved habitat and food supplies in the area. The hunters think that these things would attract more ducks to the lower Delta and thereby give them better hunting opportunities in the area. Unfortunately, it's just not that simple.
"The greatest variable that impacts waterfowl hunters in the southern part of the state is going to be the weather north of us. If we don't have cold weather in the Northern states, coupled with snow to cover the available food, it won't matter at all what kind of habitat we have down here," Masek explained.
Last season was a very good example. Ducks had plenty of available food farther north and no reason to move once they found it. Farmers in the Midwest and Northern states had good growing seasons, and the ducks benefited accordingly. Meanwhile, south Alabama hunters suffered.
"Last year was the lowest hunter success we have had in the 12 years I've collected data on the lower Delta," Masek opined. "Rates as low as 0.9 ducks per hunter day prove it. We just had little or no migration into our area.
Photo by Mike Thompson
"We have plenty of food available for ducks in south Alabama. The ducks just aren't getting here to find it. Ducks don't send a group ahead to find a food source when they have all they can eat at their present location. If they did, they would find out we have lots of feed waiting on them."
To have a successful season, several things have to fall in place. Masek believes that for things to be good for south Alabama hunters, other folks will have to suffer.
"You don't want to root against the farmers, but a lack of food will force ducks further south. Dry conditions also cause the ducks to come to the coast. Four years ago when there was a lack of water in states above us, we had an excellent season," Masek noted.
When asked for predictions on this year's duck season for south Alabama, Masek thought long and hard.
"I don't have any real predictions, but I do have hopes. I would like to believe this season will better than the last. I say that mainly because last season was so poor. It almost has to be better this year, because getting any worse would be hard to imagine," he mused.
"I've had some preliminary information that the conditions of the breeding grounds are better than last year. Based on that I would look to see some sort of increase in hunter success this year."
Masek, who enjoys the sport of duck hunting as much as the next hunter, hopes that another poor season won't cause folks to give up on the sport.
"I sure hope this season is a rebound year. The one thing we don't need is to lose any hunters. With fewer hunters there will be less money collected through licenses and via the conservation organizations. The ducks need the money too much for that to happen. I just hope we as hunters can weather these lean times," said Masek.
SPECIES TO HUNT South Alabama's coast is the annual winter destination for a variety of species of ducks. In the puddle duck category, gadwalls, blue- and green-winged teal, and shovelers are the most abundant ducks likely to be in a hunter's bag. Other puddler species routinely taken are widgeon, pintails and the occasional mallard.
With grass being the primary food available in the brackish marshes, mallards are noticeably thin in numbers there. Mallards do winter on the Bama coast, but they prefer to stay in the flooded timber of the upper Tensaw Delta. The abundance of acorns in that region makes it an ideal winter habitat for the greenheads and the fairly abundant wood ducks.
PLACES TO TRY There are three specific areas in which to hunt waterfowl in coastal Alabama. The first is the Upper Delta WMA. This area is composed of state-owned land that routinely floods in winter. This area can be a hotspot for mallards, widgeon, teal and wood ducks.
The hunting in the Upper Delta WMA can be great at times, depending on water levels. Too much rain and flooding can be a curse. Should the area be severely flooded, the ducks scatter out and are tough to hunt. Should the area flood and then recede, leaving multiple ponds, the hunting can be fantastic.
To hunt this area you must possess a wildlife management area permit. This permit is free and contains a detailed map with the boundaries of management lands and private land clearly defined. The permit also has rules and regulations on the back.
You also need to purchase a WMA license for $16, but it allows you to hunt any of the WMAs in the Cotton State. Finally, you must have a regular Alabama hunting license.
The next area in south Alabama is the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta WMA. This area contains one of the largest delta systems in the United States. The tract consists of many shallow-water bays, creeks and potholes that marsh ducks love.
In certain years, when the saltwater intrusion from Mobile Bay is minimal, the lower Delta is lush with aquatic grasses. This attracts and holds hordes of ducks during winter. But the area can be a treacherous place for hunters unfamiliar with tidal hunting. Many wingshoot
ers have spent a cold night waiting for the tide to return high enough to float their duck boats again.
The hunting in the lower Mobile Delta is very popular with local residents. At the present time the area is open on a first-come, first-served hunting basis. Getting up extra early to get a prime location is common.
The third area is the Bama coastline, which receives the least amount of hunting pressure. The main reason for this lack of interest is that the primary species in the area will be divers. The most prevalent species taken are scaup, both lesser and greater. Coastal hunters also see redheads, canvasbacks, goldeneyes, buffleheads and ringnecks. Although rare, sometimes an occasional puddle duck is spotted, usually right after a hard cold front.
This hunting in the extreme coastal region is done around grassbeds, islands and shorelines. Large numbers of decoys are required. One of the benefits of this type of hunting is that it's not necessary to be out at daybreak to be successful. In fact, sometimes the best hunting occurs when commercial fishermen stir up the ducks, putting them on the wing.
TIPS AND TACTICS The tactics for hunting south Bama ducks are as varied as the areas themselves. Let's look at a few different ways to be successful in each of the three different locations.
Ross Hutchisson has been hunting ducks in south Alabama for over 30 years. While most of his earlier hunting was done on the lower Delta, Ross and his hunting buddies now restrict their waterfowl efforts to the Upper Delta WMA.
"I finally got tired of getting up before 3 o'clock in the morning to go kill a few ducks in the lower Delta," he noted. "The heavy hunting pressure got me to thinking that there had to be a better way. So when the state bought up thousands of acres of prime woodlands and wetlands, allowing the average guy a place to go, I was there."
The main draw for Hutchisson is still the lack of hunting pressure, but there were other benefits.
"The area is huge and when conditions are right it holds lots of ducks. It has not only quantity, but it also has quality. Most of the ducks you see will be mallards and wood ducks," Hutchisson said.
"The key to success is thorough scouting," the hunter continued. "We start our scouting by being out at daylight, watching for duck activity. When we saw ducks working an area, we would set out on foot to find the holes they were using. Most of the holes were in clearcuts done by the paper companies that previously owned the land. It was tough walking, but the rewards were great."
A great help in locating other good duck holes in the Upper Delta WMA is other hunters, not necessarily duck hunters either. The majority of the land was previously leased by the paper companies to hunting clubs. Most of these clubs were deer-oriented. Shooting of ducks was considered taboo, because it might scare the deer off.
"Former hunting club members who lost their leases when the state took over the property knew where a lot of the prime duck holes were. If you could find one of these guys, who really knew the lay of the land, you just hit the jackpot! The fact that the ducks were left alone for so many years allowed many generations of ducks to imprint on the area. I believe this is why there is such a healthy population in good duck years," Hutchisson explained.
The walk in may be tough, but the setup is quite easy, according Hutchisson.
"All you need is a dozen and a half decoys and a duck call. Once you get to your spot in the clearcut, place out your blocks and start scanning the skies. When you see ducks, start calling. Because the hunting pressure is low, the ducks respond well to calling."
Hutchisson doesn't reveal his best spots, but he did offer a little direction that could help someone new to the area.
"There always seems to be a concentration of ducks near the Barry Steam plant. Behind the plant there is a secure area off-limits to hunting. This area, combined with a warmwater discharge, gives the ducks a stable area to stage from."
The next area to cover is the Mobile-Tensaw Delta WMA. This is the most heavily pressured area in south Alabama. The reasons for this are its location near Mobile and the fact that lots of ducks use this as a wintering area.
Most of the hunting here is done from boat blinds. These blinds are constructed of roseu canes that are abundant in the marsh. It's necessary for a hunter to have lots of decoys in order to compete with other hunters using the area.
It doesn't take the ducks long to figure out that a new cane island means danger. With that in mind, you will have better success hunting from the bank, preferably on a point that sticks out into a body of water.
Less calling is better in the lower Delta. In fact, some of the more successful hunters don't even use a duck call. Instead they use a whistle to imitate the sounds of pintails, teal and widgeon.
Being mobile is a plus when hunting the lower Delta. Often hunters set up before daylight for the morning flight, only to see that the ducks want to work an area several hundred yards away. Portable boat blinds can be a blessing when this situation occurs, as you are able to move quickly to where the ducks are congregating.
Because the ducks are pressured so hard, having them pitch into the decoys is a rarity. Long shots are often required.
One of the most critical aspects of lower Delta hunting is dealing with tides. South winds push water into the Delta, allowing ducks to feed in different areas rather than in their ordinary foraging sites. Learning these areas can pay off big when the winds change.
North winds usually mean ducks can be found almost anyplace, but on the lower Delta it also means low water and mud! Water can leave a bay so quickly when pushed by a north wind that boat hunters can be stranded till the tide returns. Be sure to carry a mud paddle or push pole to avoid such situations.
The final region to cover is the saltwater area of extreme south Bama. Although the area receives minimal pressure, the results there can be maximum.
Keith McGraw lives on Dauphin Island, the southernmost land in Alabama. An avid duck hunter, McGraw pays close attention to daily increases or decreases of ducks on his commute to his job in Mobile during the winter months.
McGraw does most of his hunting in the Mississippi Sound area of Alabama's western coastline. Over the years, McGraw has learned a few tricks for taking coastal ducks.
"The key to taking divers in the Mississippi Sound is location. Setting up on a point extending out into the water and then setting out several dozen decoys does the job. Using the natural brush to ma
ke a stand-up blind on the shore works best for us," McGraw said.
He went on to explain that hunting the coastal divers can be challenging shooting. Some of the bigger divers, like redheads and greater scaup, can be tough to bring down.
"Once set up along the bank of an island or the marsh, we start looking upwind. The big flights of divers like to fly with a good tail wind. They normally spot your decoys on the fly-by. Then they turn into the wind to get a closer inspection of the decoys. It's easy to underestimate the speed of these ducks, so I suggest plenty of lead on the shot."
McGraw also advised learning the habits of the ducks in flight. This will help determine when to take the shot.
"One of the things we have learned is which ducks will drop in the decoys and the ones that just fly by. Redheads, scaup and ringnecks all decoy pretty well, offering easier shots. On the other hand, buffleheads and mergansers rarely drop in. If you want to take these birds, be prepared to pass-shoot them right over the dekes," McGraw recommended.
While the hunting can be exciting, McGraw offered up one final piece of advice.
"The weather can get really nasty out in the Mississippi Sound. Waves can grow to 3 to 4 feet in an hour. While this gets the ducks on the move, safety should be your top priority. With very few folks on the water in winter, getting help might not be an option," McGraw emphasized.
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