The Georgia coast holds some good options for waterfowl, and none are better than the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area. Let's take a closer look at the area and its hunts. (December 2009)
Georgia's Colonial Coast hosts many cold-weather outdoor traditions: oyster roasts, striper and seatrout fishing, and waterfowling. The epicenter of this waterfowling tradition is the Altamaha River Delta with its abundant and diverse wetlands. Fortunately for sportsmen, joint ventures between private interests and government protect much of the delta's lands and waters while making them available for compatible uses such as duck hunts.
Jake Haymans, Colby Adams and Hershey teamed up for this mixed bag of ducks on Butler Island.
Photo by Capt. Spud Woodward.
In the midst of this sprawling region lies the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area, operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. This 30,000-acre property is a mix of duck-attracting wetland habitats ranging from freshwater river swamps to brackish tidal marshes to plantation-era impoundments.
These impoundments, once used to grow rice, now provide habitat for resident and visiting waterfowl. Water-level manipulation encourages the growth of native moist-soil vegetation offering a smorgasbord not only to ducks, but also other wading birds. Where feasible, agricultural plantings enhance the attractiveness of the area.
Area manager Wayne Hubbard and his staff stay busy throughout the year with a myriad of traditional wildlife management chores -- planting, cutting and burning -- but one of the most challenging is ensuring that water-control structures don't succumb to the erosive effects of widely fluctuating river levels and the twice-a-day tides that range from 6 to 9 feet. More than $1 million has been spent in the last couple of years repairing large breaches in the dike surrounding Rhett's Island, a prominent feature of the management area.
Altamaha WMA is made possible by a partnership between the Georgia DNR, Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration, and Ducks Unlimited, which annually contributes in excess of $100,000 for operation of the area.
The wood duck has traditionally been the only waterfowl species to make the Altamaha WMA its yearlong home. However, a couple of non-native species have also taken up housekeeping recently. Mottled ducks and black-bellied whistling ducks are now established residents.
"Although mottled ducks are native to Florida, most of our resident population was jump-started by southerly migrants from South Carolina, where they were transplanted in an attempt to establish a resident population," said Brooks Good, the senior wildlife biologist who oversees the area.
Biologists first found black-bellied whistling ducklings during a 2007 spring waterfowl census. The appearance of this species was a surprise.
"Whistling ducks typically nest in tree cavities like our native wood ducks, but for some reason, they've built nests in the marsh on Rhetts Island," Good said, then chuckled. "It's a testimony to their survival skills that they've managed to live amongst the 'gators, snakes and raccoons."
Black-bellied whistling ducks are not afforded any special protection, explained Good, so hunters can legally harvest them if they come into areas open for hunting.
The first migrants to Altamaha WMA each fall are blue-winged teal, fleeing the chilly winds sweeping across the prairie pothole region. Most are bound for over-wintering grounds in Florida or even Central America, but some will loiter in the area for weeks or months. A few impatient green-winged teal also arrive in September, just in time for Georgia's early waterfowl season.
By October, the management area is home to a mix of resident wood ducks and marsh lovers from the far north: more teal, ringed-neck ducks, mergansers and widgeons. Gadwalls, shovelers, pintails and usually a few mallards and black ducks arrive by November. Migratory duck abundance fluctuates yearly depending on breeding-ground conditions and regional weather patterns.
Good, a lifelong resident of nearby St. Simons Island who grew up hunting the Altamaha WMA, has a unique perspective on duck migration and movement in the area.
"For many years, we thought cold fronts coming from Canada were the largest influence on duck numbers in coastal Georgia," he said. "Nowadays, it seems like we get a push of ducks in the early autumn and not too much afterward unless there's a record-breaking cold snap from the mid-Atlantic down into the Carolinas. Then, we'll probably see more ducks than normal during the late season."
Many waterfowl addicts making the pilgrimage to Altamaha WMA do so for the Saturday-only quota-hunts at Butler Island. It's as close to a private duck-club experience as you can have on a public-hunting area in Georgia and one particularly suited for novices and youngsters. If selected, you and your party have exclusive access to an area of managed waterfowl impoundment from 15 to 40 acres in size.
Selections are made based on applications received by the Oct. 15 deadline. There are 20 designated hunting areas with a limit of three hunters per area. Hubbard is flexible with this latter rule, so don't disqualify yourself for next year if you'd like to bring a couple of youngsters with you and another adult.
Hunting-area assignments are made in a drawing the morning of the hunt. If quota-hunt applicants don't fill all available spots, stand-by hunters are selected on a first-come, first-served basis. Plan to arrive at the check station no later than 4:30 a.m. so you can get on the stand-by list.
"We usually have a good showing of quota-hunt folks for the first hunt of each season split, but even then we can accommodate most of our stand-by hunters since we hold a few areas open for them. From mid-December through the end of the season, we rarely turn away any stand-by hunters," Good explained.
After the hunt-area drawing, the lucky group hustles off to gather decoys, guns, retrievers and hunting-party members. Management area staff, flashlights in hand, direct the camouflaged mob to large trailers connected to pickup trucks. Once everyone is loaded and accounted for, the caravan departs the check station parking lot for the managed impoundments.
Following a short and bumpy ride, the caravan splits up, and drivers begin dropping passengers at designated access points. A small aluminum johnboat and two paddles are provided as a means to cross the deep perimeter ditch. The boat also makes a goo
d, dry platform for gear, dogs, and youngsters. Water depths in the impoundments vary from shin to thigh deep, so chest waders are the best choice.
There are no permanent blinds in the impoundments, so hunters must use available cover to hide from the sharp eyes of passing ducks. All areas will have been mowed or burned, but there are usually spots with head-high cut grass and other vegetation. Some even have high ground with trees.
Head nets like those commonly used in turkey hunting are a great way to cover the face while also protecting oneself from the insects that can be a nuisance on warmer days. Another accessory that's quite handy is a marsh seat like the Surf n' Swamp model sold by Cabela's. It may seem pricey and a bit bulky, but after a couple of hours standing in the flooded marsh, it's worth the price to have a dry spot to sit.
A typical hunt on Butler Island offers a mix of decoying birds and pass-shooting. When the delta is holding lots of ducks, the action is usually intense for an hour or so following legal shooting time. Afterward, the number of birds in the air depends on the weather -- cold and windy are best -- and the amount of hunting activity on and around other parts of the management area, with more being better.
The same trailers that transport hunters to the blinds makes periodic trips around the perimeter of the Butler Island impoundments throughout the morning.
"We take you from the check station parking lot to your hunting area, and we'll make sure you get back," said Good.
A public boat ramp is conveniently located within the borders of the WMA on the Champney River. It makes a perfect starting point for trips upriver, downriver and to nearby Rhett's Island. The multi-lane ramp is well lit and offers plenty of parking spaces for vehicles and trailers, but lacks any other amenities.
If you're a hardcore hunter with a seaworthy boat, in the 17- to 20-foot length range that is capable of handling choppy water, sacks full of diver decoys and plenty of WD-40, you can venture east and try your hand at scaup, scoters or mergansers in the big salty water.
If you've got a smaller boat, but still want to hunt open water, head west to the sloughs and backwater areas for wood ducks and teal. In either direction, you deal with tidal changes, so keep that in mind when making plans.
If you prefer something just as adventurous, but different, then a foray into the impoundments on Rhett's Island is a good choice. This area is open Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and state holidays during the waterfowl season. No check-in is required, and there's no limit on the number of hunters. Shooting hours last until noon, except on the final day of the season when they extend to sunset.
After a short ride from the ramp, hunters must use one of the two designated areas to pull their boats across the perimeter dike. One is located on the Champney River side of the island, and the other is located in General's Cut, a manmade waterway that connects the Darien and Butler rivers.
"We've eliminated some of the other crossovers in Rhett's Island out of concern for the integrity of the perimeter dike," Good said. "Each crossover becomes a weak point where the dike could fail. When this happens, we lose our ability to regulate water levels for waterfowl management."
The distance from the water's edge to the perimeter dike varies considerably depending on tide stage. Hunters should consult tide tables when planning their trips so they'll be prepared. Both crossovers feature a post outfitted with a hand-operated winch to facilitate moving boats in and out of the impoundment.
Rhett's Island is divided into three impoundments totaling about 2,100 acres. The aforementioned crossovers take you into Pool 1, the westernmost impoundment. Two designated crossovers at the east end of Pool 1 offer access to Pool 2, and another two crossovers at the eastern end of Pool 2 lead into Pool 3. Water levels are usually similar in adjacent pools, so crossing the dike is not difficult.
A deep ditch borders the inside of the perimeter dike, offering a convenient travel corridor. Outboards of 25 horsepower or less may be operated within the impoundments. A push pole comes in handy since most areas of the impoundments outside the perimeter ditch are too shallow for outboards. Airboats are prohibited inside the waterfowl impoundments.
"Typically, Pool 1 has the most open water for duck hunters, and that's where the majority of hunters set up. This year, we're using a mixture of herbicides and burning to open up more areas in the other pools. Hunters need to give some thought to spreading out into those areas," Good suggested.
He also advised that first-time visitors to Rhett's Island spend a day getting familiar with the area. Fluctuating tide levels, sandbars and snags make for potentially hazardous conditions in the waterways outside the island. Inside the impoundments, everything looks the same in the dark.
Hunters are not assigned specific areas, so it's first-come, first-served for the best spots. The area can get crowded, especially on Saturdays, but when folks use good manners and sportsmanship, there's usually enough room for everyone.
Veteran hunters start a Rhett's Island adventure about 3 a.m. just to be sure they can be in position at shooting time. Latecomers should respect these early risers, making sure they allow plenty of room between their blinds and those of other hunters.
Walk-in duck hunting is available on Champney Island, which is separated into three impoundments: Old Snipe Pool, New Snipe Pool and West Champney. All you need are chest waders and the other usual gear. No check-in is required, and the area is open the same days and hours as Rhett's Island. There is no limit on the number of hunters, but the Champney impoundments are rarely crowded.
"Hunters willing to walk a bit can find great action on Champney Island, particularly on Saturdays when the other impoundments on Rhett's and Butler islands are being hunted," Good said. "Last year, we were able to keep the water level just right, and hunters did exceptionally well. Lots of teal, ringnecks and wood ducks came from the walk-in areas."
Two well-maintained roads off U.S. Highway 17 lead to access points in the waterfowl impoundments. Massman Road goes across the southern end of Champney Island, terminating at a dirt parking area adjacent to Interstate 95. Hunters enter the southeast corner of the triangle-shaped West Champney impoundment.
Champney Road is opposite the public boat ramp and marked with a sign for the Ansley-Hodges Memorial, a waterfowl rest area with a wildlife-viewing platform. This road follows the northeast side of the island before terminating at I-95. There is ample parking near the access points into New Snipe Pool and Old Snipe Pool. Be sure to visit the area in daylight so you can be familiar with the exact locat
ion of these access points.
Just like the other areas on Altamaha WMA, there are no permanent blinds in the impoundments, so be prepared to hide in available cover. Don't forget that camo head net! You'll be trudging considerable distances through knee-deep water, so pack light. I carry a dozen teal decoys rigged with 30-inch lines and 4-ounce weights, a marsh seat and my over-the-shoulder gear bag loaded with the other essentials. Last, make sure you have a sling on your shotgun.
Checking the Stats
In recent years, teal, ring-necks, and wood ducks comprised the majority of birds harvested on Altamaha WMA. Shovelers, gadwalls, widgeons, and pintails round out the bag. A few mallards, mottled ducks and black ducks are taken each year.
Hunter success waxes and wanes with the weather and the number of birds on the area. Duck harvest records for Butler Island date back to 1965, giving Good and his fellow biologists a valuable historical perspective.
"Overall, total duck and hunter numbers have fluctuated through the years based on season length and bag-limit changes," he explained. "As hunters, we all remember times when waterfowl were more abundant, but the data shows fluctuations in hunter success throughout the 40-year span. Based strictly on duck harvest at Butler Island, it's hard to make a strong argument that duck hunting has gotten worse over the past 40 years, although we do see fewer big ducks like mallards, blacks and pintails compared to those early years."
According to the Georgia DNR information, duck harvest on Butler Island peaked during the 1998-1999 season with an overall average of 2.62 birds per hunter. The record high number of hunters came during the 2007-2008 season, with 606 hunters participating in 10 quota hunts.
"Last year, 580 hunters harvested 576 ducks during the Butler Island hunts. That's down a bit from the previous season, but we did have some great early hunts with 3 1/2 ducks per hunter during the opening day hunt and two ducks per hunter the Saturday after Thanksgiving."
Good does weekly aerial surveys during the season to gather real-time information on duck numbers and distribution. He encourages hunters to call the coastal region Game Management Section office at (912) 262-3173 for up-to-date reports.
Hunters visiting the Altamaha Waterfowl Management Area need a hunting license, state and federal duck stamps, a WMA permit, and a free migratory bird Harvest Information Program or HIP permit. Current migratory-bird hunting regulations and bag limits are available at www.georgiawildlife.com.