Taking to the salt water to hunt diving ducks in west Florida is often overlooked -- but an action-packed adventure. Here's how to do it! (January 2009)
Most people don't think of the Florida Panhandle as having a long heritage of duck hunting. But don't be fooled! This region of the Sunshine State draws thousands upon thousands of diving ducks that spend the winter on its clear bays and lakes.
At Panama City, a layout boat may be just the ticket for getting a limit of ducks, dominated by buffleheads.
Photo courtesy of Capt. Todd Jones.
From my past experience of gunning on those big uncrowded waters, I know just how plentiful the ducks can be at times.
Most of all, there's something special about those gorgeous bays filled with clean, clear water from the Gulf of Mexico. Along their edges, miles of eelgrass offer an abundance of food for wintering divers.
Whether you're targeting ring-necked ducks in fresh-water lakes from a moss-draped blind -- or hunkering down low in a layout boat on salt water, waiting for redheads and buffleheads to come winging into a massive setup of decoys -- Florida's Panhandle provides plenty of waterfowl action.
Capt. Todd Jones, of Back Bay Adventures out of Panama City, is one of the leading duck-hunting guides in the Panhandle. Capt. Jones specializes in taking diving ducks in that region's big open-water bays.
Depending on the weather conditions, where birds are rafting up or simply a client's preference, gunning may take place out of a pop-up blind, a layout boat or in a makeshift blind right off the bank.
THE WEATHER FACTOR
When hunting in the Panhandle, expect the weather to be unpredictable. One day it might be warm enough for a short sleeve shirt, and the next, the bays get churned up in whitecaps from a cold front pushing through.
"The nastier the weather, the better. And hunting in fog can be good too," Capt. Jones noted. "Some of our best hunts come before and during a cold front, at a time when birds are feeding and on the move. And new birds may come in with the cold weather too.
"In this area, afternoon hunts can be good. And on 'blue bird days,' you just have to tough it out and wait for boat traffic to scare up birds.
"But even on those days of poor hunting conditions," Capt. Jones said, "we've managed to have some excellent diver hunting."
He went on to add that when it comes to Florida's winter weather, one needs to be ready for anything.
"It can be really cold one day, and then the next, you'll be needing insect spray as mosquitoes and no-see-ums emerge from the marsh."
No matter what your hunting style, a wide variety of species are available on these salty waters. According to Capt. Jones, the most common species taken on the big bays are buffleheads, bluebills, redheads and a few canvasbacks.
However, other species like black scoters, white-winged scoters, goldeneyes and long-tailed ducks aren't all that uncommon.
The guide also mentioned that though it's not an everyday occurrence, an opportunity to knock down a Ross's or snow goose occurs several times a season.
From personal experience hunting with the captain, I can say that a morning spent on a windswept bay with low-flying buffleheads makes for great sport. Small birds with rapid wind beats, buffleheads can often save a hunt or fill out a limit, especially after you've bagged a couple of fat drake redheads.
Hunting buffleheads -- birds we often refer to as "sea doves" -- is sort of like a marine-style dove shoot, especially since these small waterfowl fly fast and erratically.
Drakes make beautiful trophy birds and are generally plump, which helps give them their other common nickname of "butterballs."
Though Jones takes a few ring-necked ducks on the salt marshes, he finds most of these diving ducks on local freshwater lakes. One of his favorite hunt locations is Deer Point Lake, located north of Panama City.
This scenic lake is covered in freshwater vegetation of all types and studded with moss-draped cypress trees.
When hunting there for ring-necked ducks, Capt. Jones like to set up out in the middle of the lake, away from all other hunters. Since wood ducks and coots are also common on the lake, he'll add a few wood duck decoys to his setup -- along with a couple of dozen coot decoys.
His reason for using so many coots is that they make a natural-looking sight on the water because the lake is loaded with these small black birds.
Another trick that Capt. Jones uses is to bring a cordless drill to the lake and put holes in stumps and logs.
He then puts out his own hand-carved wood duck decoys that stand up on wooden dowels. These serve as both attracting and confidence decoys, since there are wood ducks on the lake too.
PICKING A HUNTING SITE
In the Panama City area, there are numerous places that attract and hold wintertime diving ducks.
"The nastier the weather, the better. And hunting in fog can be good too," Capt. Todd Jones noted.
East Bay, West, North and St. Andrews bays all have the potential for delivering excellent hunts for diving ducks. Since all of these big bays are connected, it may take you some pre-hunt scouting to locate the best hunting grounds.
This is why Capt. Jones recommended riding about the bays and keeping tabs on where the birds are rafting up. Since these backwaters are extremely clear at this time of year, it's easy to detect the dark areas of grassbeds in the shallows.
Capt. Jones said to make sure you're hunting near grassbeds that hold small scallops, since weeds and shellfish are two favorite foods of the divers in this region.
He went on to say that in here, the winter tides can be extremely low -- a factor that you often need to consider for each trip. Plus, you don't want to destroy any of the grasses in the shallows with a churning prop.
This is where good push poles or heavy-duty oars come in handy.
Jones also suggested hunting Apalachicola Bay for great diving duck potential. Since that bay is also vast, he highly recommended that any newcomer to the area hire a well-seasoned guide -- a move that generally saves you a lot of wasted time and increases your chances of a good shoot, as well as make your outing a lot safer.
When hunting the big salt waters for divers, the captain uses slightly different tactics.
"Out on the big bays, I do most of my diver hunting with a big spread of decoys," he revealed. "For hunting divers on these waters, I'd recommend a minimum setup of 70 decoys or so. But the more, the better.
"For me, a typical setup includes 60 percent redheads, 30 percent bluebills, and 10 percent buffleheads. But depending on the hunting area, a few confidence decoys like red-breasted mergansers, hooded mergansers, scoters, long-tailed ducks, canvasbacks as well as a few snow geese may be added to the setup.
"Also," he continued, "I guide a lot of novice hunters, so I prefer to hunt with solid decoys like Styrofoam Herters and my handmade cork decoys. If these decoys get shot up, they won't sink, and it's easy to make cosmetic repairs to the cork when necessary."
FAST & EFFICIENT
To set out and retrieve such a large number of decoys quickly and efficiently, the captain has most of his decoys rigged on what are called "long lines" or "gang rigs."
To create a gang rig, each decoy is crimped to a 5-foot length of 400-pound-test monofilament line, and on the free end is a stainless long-line clip.
Since the mono line is so thick, it's basically tangle-free, and he can clip a dozen decoys at a time to a metal ring for easy handling when placing them in and out of a decoy bag.
The decoys' main long line is generally 1/4-inch nylon rope 100 to 150 feet in length, dark in color, with a brass or stainless clip on each end.
If you can find white rope only, it can easily be dyed in a 5-gallon bucket.
The weights to hold the decoys in place are attached to the clips. Those weights can be old windowpane weights such as Capt. Jones uses -- or huge 6- to 10-pound lead weights molded in an old wok and fitted with eyes of heavy-gauge wire, as in my setup.
For the long lines, a 5-gallon bucket makes an excellent storage container. Simply coil the first line into the bucket. Then attach its clip to the next line and coil it on top of the first. Continue with as many lines as the bucket will hold.
Make sure you're hunting near grassbeds that hold small scallops, since weeds and shellfish are two favorite foods of the divers in this region.
When it's time to set out decoys, take the first clip in the bucket and attach it to a weight, feed out the line and attach decoys at the desired intervals.
Once you come to the end of the line, detach it, clip on a weight and begin with another line.
To hold the decoys in place, the heaviest weight generally needs to be on the windward end. You can use a lighter weight on the tail end. Besides being easy and fast to deploy, long lines can be quickly rearranged if the wind changes and can be used in shallow to extremely deep water.
Capt. Jones uses three or four long lines at a time, attaching about 25 decoys to each line. He's found that a long cigar shape and opening at the end works well for the setup. This long-line arrangement looks similar to a flock of ducks like redheads and bluebills casually feeding along a shoreline, shoal or shallow bar.
A number of confidence decoys can also be put on single lines with weights to create a more natural look.
The captain recommended setting your bufflehead decoys the farthest out, on the outside of the main setup, and then setting your mergansers closest to the shoreline.
For hunters using decoys rigged on single lines, Jones suggested setting them out in a classic J-pattern -- or just throwing them out in bunches, leaving a landing hole in the middle.
GUNS & AMMO
To reduce the loss of wounded birds, the captain had a few more recommendations regarding shotguns and ammunition.
Because divers are extremely tough birds, he prefers a 12-gauge loaded with 3 1/2-inch magnum shells.
He also prefers No. 1 shot because of the denser pattern it delivers. Especially on days of heavy wind, he always uses at least No. 1 or No. 2 shot.
If not quickly put down, a wounded diving duck has an uncanny ability to escape in the water. Some of these birds may swim away with just the tips of their bills sticking out of the water, making it hard to finish off them off.
For this reason, it's wise to swiftly "pepper" any bird on the water's surface before it swims out of gun range.
Some hunters keep a handful of No. 7 1/2 shot at the ready and use its really dense patterns to finish off wounded birds with head shots.
Before heading out for a hunt like this with your top-of-the-line shotgun, remember that you're going to be in a saltwater environment, which can be extremely harsh on a gun's finish.
Guns should be well oiled before the hunt, wiped clean of salt spray at the end and immediately oiled again after the shooting ends.
Boat rides to and from the hunting grounds can often be wet and bumpy. Thus a watertight, floating and well-padded gun case can be a good investment for a diving duck hunter.
Capt. Jones recommended a gun with a black Parkerized finish that cuts down on glare and holds up well under Florida's saltwater conditions.
When it comes to big-water duck hunts, Capt. Todd Jones stresses safety. He emphasized always wearing a lifejacket while running to and from the hunting grounds, and pointed out it's wise to wear one even while putting out decoys -- especially in the dark.
He stated that it's easy to step into a hole or dropoff, especially during low light periods or in the dark.
A good check list of gear to take along includes flashlights, cell phones, a flare kit, lifejackets, proper anchor and line, paddles or oars, a VHF radio, boat running lights, a sound-producing device, spare food and water, a tool kit, space blanket, waterproof
matches, first-aid kit and insect repellent.
Also, be sure your transport boat is able to holding all required gear and passengers safely, because seas in big open bays can build rapidly.
Finally, Capt. Jones recommended having a good compass and GPS unit on board, especially since during the winter months, there's a lot of fog on the big bays.
While you're scouting, it would be wise to mark hunting sites on the GPS in advance. That will make it much quicker and safer to get there during foggy and rainy conditions.
LAUNCHING SITES IN PANAMA CITY
To hunt in the Panama City area, Capt. Jones recommended putting in at the Carl Grey Park boat ramp at the foot of the Hathaway Bridge for hunting in West Bay.
The bridge is on U.S. 98 between Panama City Beach and Panama City.
For North Bay, use the launch at the foot of the Bailey Bridge. It's on State Route 77 at Lynn Haven.
At the foot of the DuPont Bridge on U.S. 98 at Parker is the most convenient ramp for hunting East Bay.