The primary purpose of these facilities spread around the state is to provide fishing opportunities to the public. But their waters also attract ducks and offer some wingshooting action! (December 2008)
Photo by Mark Fike
While not exactly on par with duck hunting paradises like those along the Mississippi Flyway, Georgia does offer some worthy waterfowl hunting opportunity. Although the best is often found on private lands, some public lands offer good possibilities, but these may get overlooked, being better known as perfect places for casting a plastic worm up next to a stump than as sites good for calling a flight of mallards into a decoy spread.
In an effort to offer the most opportunity on state-managed lands, some facilities operated by the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division's Fisheries Management Section are also open to waterfowl hunting. It just makes sense: Fish like water; ducks do, too. So it's not surprising that what's good for one can attract the other.
ROCKY MOUNTAIN PFA
Our first fishing hole for duck hunting is the state's largest public fishing area. Rocky Mountain Public Fishing Area is a few miles north of Rome in Floyd County. The tract is part of Plant Rocky Mountain, an Oglethorpe Power Corporation hydropower project. Two lakes on the area are open to the public. Heath Lake covers 202 acres, and Antioch Lake spreads across 357 acres.
These lakes are the centerpiece of the recreational facilities at Rocky Mountain, which also include paved boat ramps, fishing jetties, hiking trails, an archery range, picnic facilities, and both tent and RV camping.
Antioch Lake is open during the statewide season waterfowl season on Monday through Saturday in January only, requiring that hunters sign in. Heath Lake is open during the entire statewide season; hunters must sign in.
Both lakes are popular with waterfowl, and Canada geese, gadwalls, ringnecks, American widgeon and mallards can all be found on the lakes. Also, thousands of coots make Rocky Mountain their winter home every year. Other species that show up in the harvest are wood ducks and green-winged teal. Throw in the occasional diver like redheads or bluebills and the waterfowling at Rocky Mountain offers quite a mixed bag.
Although both lakes are open to waterfowl hunting, Antioch and Heath lakes are different in several ways. A road divides Antioch Lake into east and west sub-impoundments. Both of these pools are mostly open water with a few coves and several acres of standing timber. On the other hand, standing timber covers 58 of Heath Lake's 202 acres, and the lake has two islands. One island is very small, but the other is large and has plenty of room for several hunting parties to set up and not be in each other's way.
Although ducks and geese frequent both lakes, Heath Lake is probably the favorite with both the hunters and the hunted. Regulars who use the area have learned to hunt conservatively by keeping the decoy spread small. A dozen or so decoys, mostly mallards with a few wood ducks thrown in, is a good set up.
Resist the temptation to call too much. Give them "Hi — how ya doin'?" and leave it at that. The area gets moderate but steady hunting pressure, and most of the birds you see are residents. Try getting too cute with these birds and they'll just blow on by.
The best hunting is on the worst days, weather-wise. On sunny days, hunt the morning flight; then, pack up and make a late appearance at work. As the season progresses, fewer hunters are afield, especially on weekdays, and you can have a good steady hunt if the weather keeps the ducks flying and you'll probably have the area mostly to yourself.
Good places to set up are pockets of open water in the shoreline standing timber, and areas that are natural funnel points. There is another lake that is just over the spillway from both Heath and Antioch and called the lower operating pool. This lake is part of the power plant operation and fluctuates drastically each day, so it is not open to the public. The smartest birds have figured out the operating pool is where they want to be once the first shots are fired each morning, but if you nail down what route they like to use for their escape, you can outfox them.
Rocky Mountain PFA is open 365 days a year. During hunting seasons, the area opens an hour before sunrise and closes at sunset. All vehicles parked on the area must have a valid Rocky Mountain parking permit. To reach Rocky Mountain PFA from Rome, take U.S. Highway 27 north 10.4 miles to Sike Storey Road on the left. Take this road two-fifths of a mile to Big Texas Valley Road on the left. Travel a little less than five and a half miles on Big Texas Valley Road to the area. For more information, contact the Area manager's office at (706) 802-5087.
Moving to northeast Georgia brings us to another duck hunting PFA.
"Hunters of any age can hunt on the days the area is open for hunting," said area manager George Atnip. "Our hunts have been good to fair so far. Hunters have better success in December as opposed to January. The most common species harvested are wood ducks and Canada geese."
Regarding tips for hunting the area, Atnip had this to offer: "Most experienced duck hunters already know this, but it is important. From legal shooting hours to an hour after opening is the best time to harvest birds. Cold, dreary mornings that remain overcast provide for extended shooting opportunities. Shooting is only open until noon on days that the PFA is open for hunting, which are Wednesdays and Saturdays in December and January only, in accordance with statewide open dates for these two months. So, you don't want to oversleep. Get here early for the best shooting.
"Past experience has shown that when the ducks and geese are using the area they are here in good numbers, especially in December. We have been open to waterfowl hunting over the past three years at McDuffie, and there have been birds here in all three years.
"Hunting pressure has been moderate at best," he continued. "We do not plant anything or flood any planted pond basins to attract birds. They utilize what ponds and lakes that are available. Hunters need to check our information booth to see what ponds are open to hunting, as these lakes are subject to change each year.
"Scouting is always an important part of waterfowl hunting, so a few visits before the hunts to check which ponds are open and how the birds are flying would be a good idea."
To reach the area from Thomson, take U.S. 76 east for a little more than five and a half miles to Ellingto
n Airline Road on the right. Travel two and four-fifths miles, take a right onto Fish Hatchery Road and follow it into the area.
EVANS COUNTY PFA
To the south, near Claxton, is Evans County PFA. Regional fisheries supervisor Bert Deener said the waterfowl hunts here are quota events, as the pond is only 30 acres in area. Hunters must register ahead of time for one of three slots for each hunt. The season includes several parent/child hunts, as well as an open hunt.
Last season, fifteen hunters (nine adults, six kids) visited Evans County PFA. The harvest was six wood ducks, although there was shooting for mallards, too.
"Folks get to see ducks," Deener pointed out. "At Evans County we manipulate the water levels to encourage ducks, and there is great food there. Hunters see quite a few wood ducks, but they are hard to hit. There is lots of shooting, but not too many leave the pond with the hunters.
"It's a good idea to let a kid have some practice on clays before bringing them out for the actual hunt," he suggested. "Plenty of practice will help them learn to lead their target and result in a more successful hunt. Ducks fly fast and do a lot of zigging and zagging, so connecting with one is a challenge, especially for a child who isn't practiced in that type of shooting."
From Claxton take U.S. 280 east for 8.5 miles to Old Sunbury Road on the right. Travel a mile to Area Line Road on the left and the PFA is about 1/2 mile down the road on the right.
This facility near Tifton covers approximately 1,300 acres and holds numerous ponds and lakes. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in designated areas, so be sure to check to see what lakes are open to hunting.
According to Bert Deener, the waterfowl dates at Paradise are open hunts with sign-in. Shooting hours are from legal opening until noon. Regarding management of the area for waterfowl, he said, "Since our budget cuts a few years ago, we aren't able to intensively manage for waterfowl. With all the water we have on the site, we still pull in some ducks. We have folks that enjoy hunting the area and are successful at it. Wood ducks are the most common species harvested."
Paradise is a large area with many ponds in proximity to each other. Since there aren't a lot of natural funnel points to direct the birds to one particular pond, scouting before the hunt is very important to learn the birds' habits and what particular area they are favoring at that time. Try to scout at least a couple days immediately before the hunt. The birds are always moving as they look for new feeding and resting areas, so scouting weeks prior to the morning of the hunt may not be worth anything.
To reach Paradise from Tifton take U.S. 82 east for 8 miles to Brookfield. Turn right on Whitley Road and take the first left onto Brookfield-Nashville Road. Travel a mile and a half to the PFA on the left.
CORDELE FISH HATCHERY
Public fishing areas aren't the only options, when it comes to Fisheries Section facilities open for public waterfowl hunting. The primary mission of Cordele Hatchery, a few miles west of Cordele in Crisp County, is producing channel catfish, striped bass, and hybrid striped bass for stocking. But, according to WRD game biologist Julie Robbins, the Cordele Fish Hatchery also offers good wingshooting opportunities. The facility has the only state-owned waterfowl impoundment in southwest Georgia.
"The 40-acre waterfowl impoundment is located on the northeastern side of the hatchery," Robbins pointed out. "The impoundment was once part of the former Williams PFA, but was abandoned and drained in 1992 due to water quality problems. In 2005 the state began the process of replacing the existing water control structure and creating a waterfowl impoundment. Funds for this project came from Ducks Unlimited, DNR's Nongame and Natural Heritage Section, and the Game Management Section.
"The first hunts were two quota adult/child hunts during the 2006-2007 hunting season," she continued. "We currently offer four quota waterfowl hunts on the hatchery. Two are adult/child quota hunts and two are general quota hunts. For each hunt we draw three parties of up to three individuals per party. Children must be 16 and under to be considered for the quota waterfowl hunts."
Applications for the hunts must be submitted by mail to the Region V Game Management office by the mid-October deadline. Parties are randomly drawn and then notified by letter.
"We have anywhere from 10 to 20 applicants for the adult/child hunts and a similar number for the general quota hunts," Robbins reported.
"The most commonly harvested waterfowl are wood ducks and hooded mergansers. Other species harvested include mallards and blue-winged teal, although these ducks are not always present on the impoundment. Success is generally good on all the hunts with most hunters harvesting at least one duck and getting multiple shots."
Robbins also had some hunting tips. "We don't provide blinds on this impoundment," she said, "and hunters can expect to be hunting in flooded timber and open areas that vary from knee-deep to chest deep in places. In the past, we have planted crops such as grain sorghum and corn in patches around the impoundment."
To reach the Cordele Hatchery, take U.S. 280 west of town to Fish Hatchery Road on the right. Follow this road a mile and a half to the hatchery office.
SILVER LAKE WMA
Robbins also mentioned another waterfowl hunting opportunity on other state-managed land in the southwest region.
"Waterfowl hunting opportunities will be available at Silver Lake WMA near Bainbridge," she offered. "Silver Lake will be open to waterfowl hunting during small game dates concurrent with the waterfowl season. Wood ducks and ring-necked ducks are the most commonly encountered species on the 300-acre Silver Lake and the 300-plus acres of ponds located on the 9,700-acre WMA."
Completing the circle back to northwest Georgia, the 400-acre Arrowhead WMA is a former PFA and fish hatchery. The facility now serves as the Northwest Region Game Management office, in addition to being an Outdoor Education Center. According to WRD game biologist David Gregory, the area provides good waterfowling opportunities.
"Arrowhead is an adult/child quota hunt generally held the first Saturday in December and January. The quota is 30 children," he explained. "Only the child can hunt, however the adult can bring decoys and call for ducks. Wood ducks have historically offered the most opportunity, and I expect that will continue to be the case.
"Success is quite variable depending on available water, duck migration, and so on," the biologist continued. "The past few years, we have not had as much water as usual since two of our lakes have been drained for dam repairs. The main lake dam construc
tion is almost complete and we will hopefully begin filling the lake this winter. As for the other lower lake, it still may be a couple years before construction is complete as we are working with Ducks Unlimited to turn it into a managed waterfowl impoundment."
To reach Arrowhead from Rome, take U.S. 27 north to State Route 156. Travel east 2.3 miles to Floyd Springs Road on the left. Follow this road two miles to the area.
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This duck season, don't overlook the opportunities offered by the state facilities that you typically visit in the summer with a fishing pole in your hand. Besides offering good fishing, PFA lakes can provide good hunting as well.