Louisiana's Gulf Coast Ducks

Last month we explored overall prospects for deer hunting in the Bayou State; this month we've got recommendations that those looking for a wallhanger will want to check out. (Nov 2006)

After Hurricane Katrina smashed into southeast Louisiana in August 2005, and Hurricane Rita demolished southwest Louisiana three weeks later, sportsmen along the Gulf Coast kissed their duck season goodbye.

Besides destroying towns and lives, these two meteorological monsters ravaged some of the best duck habitat in a state that already loses 20 square miles of marsh per year. In places, salt water more than 25 feet deep covered considerable chunks of southern Louisiana miles from the Gulf of Mexico.

"The marshes were hit very hard," said Larry Reynolds, a waterfowl biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. "Between the scouring action from the wave energy and the high salinity, nearly all of the aquatic vegetation was killed. Before the storms hit, Louisiana was in a drought. A hurricane combined with a drought is about the worst possible combination for a marsh. The marshes looked terrible, with very high salinities staying for a long time."

With hundreds dead and millions forced to rebuild their shattered homes and lives, most people concentrated on sheer survival. Hunting ducks didn't even register as a distant priority. Debris, including wrecked ships and entire houses, would have prevented access to many areas even if people had been able to find places for launching their boats. Some normally popular public hunting properties remained closed all season. After four straight dismal waterfowl seasons, even people who could reach their hunting areas held little hope of seeing much action.

However, hurricanes can bring some good news in terms of habitat. The salty storm surge killed many noxious aquatic plants, such as water hyacinths, giant salvinia and other undesirable species. They opened new channels and ponds, although they also filled in many existing ponds. In some places, the wave action overturned marsh grass, allowing birds to get at food that they normally couldn't reach.

"In the long term, the storm probably helped the marshes," said Kirk Stansel of Hackberry Rod and Gun Club south of Lake Charles. "Marshes need a mixing of fresh and brackish water. Many ponds were choked with freshwater aquatics. The salt water opened them back up and allowed widgeon grass to grow. Widgeon grass needs some brackish water to grow. That's a primary food source for most ducks."

The storms also deposited a huge layer of new sediment. This layer of sediment helped stem the sinking of the marshes, at least temporarily. In some places, the storms actually built new land. The sediment and decaying organic matter also fertilized some areas. New plants sprouted and even some unusual species took root.

"The marsh that remains looks a lot healthier now," said Mike Herrmann of Louisiana Gulf Coast Outfitters who hunts in St. Bernard Parish, one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina. "Delacroix had virtually no aquatic grass growing all winter, but in May, the interior of the Delacroix marsh was full of freshwater plants. I found some areas with coontail, widgeon grass and other vegetation, so ducks should have food this fall."

By the time the season began, less than two months after Rita hit, some marshes looked nearly dead, devoid of ducks and nearly any type of life. Other areas held ducks, but people couldn't reach them. Some areas briefly held ducks -- until the birds consumed all available food sources and moved on to habitat whose larder was still full.

"Hunting success in the coastal zone of Louisiana was far better than anyone ever suspected," Reynolds said. "After Katrina and Rita, we were surprised at the hunting success in some areas. In our aerial surveys, we've had very poor counts for the past four years, but we received a series of good, hard cold fronts in late November and early December. The December count showed a big increase -- the highest counts in five years. Many marshes were full of ducks."

When birds arrived after the cold fronts, they found poor habitat across many areas. This forced ducks that would normally scatter over thousands of square miles to concentrate in pockets with good habitat. In addition, fewer hunters in the marshes greatly reduced the pressure on ducks. In many areas, nobody hunted for the entire season, so birds found some sanctuaries from hunters. However, sportsmen lucky enough to gain access to pockets with good habitat conditions experienced some of the best hunting in decades.

"Everybody we talked to shot ducks," Stansel said. "I heard that people who hunted around Pecan Island also had a good season. We shot the most mallards we've ever killed down here. It was incredible. We'd see flocks of 25 to 50 mallards come over the blinds. I've never seen mallards like that. We also shot a lot of pintails, gadwalls and widgeons, but few green-winged teal. Normally, we're covered up in teal and don't even shoot them. We also shot a lot of geese in the marshes."

In coastal marshes, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal and gadwalls compose about 60 percent of the harvest, according to LDWF sources. Mallards tend to prefer freshwater impoundments, river marshes or flooded timber to salty or brackish marshes. Mallards typically make up about 10 to 15 percent of the total Louisiana duck harvest. Most fall to hunters in freshwater swamps, along rivers or lakeshores and rice fields.

This year, good habitat conditions across Canada could produce more migrating ducks, according to experts from Ducks Unlimited. Spring rainfall recharged many water basins and produced "good to excellent" conditions in Saskatchewan, where many ducks that arrive in Louisiana hatch. Researchers reported good numbers of nesting blue-winged teal, pintails, mallards and shovelers.

Southwestern Manitoba received good run-off from snowmelt. DU biologists reported "very good to excellent" habitat conditions in many prime waterfowl production areas. Researchers found high pond counts and abundant waterfowl, with an exceptionally large number of pintails nesting in the region south of Brandon. Abundant grass made good natural cover for nesting birds.

Habitat conditions improved in southern Ontario and southeastern British Columbia, said DU experts. Parts of Alberta came in better than expected. Some people described conditions in southern and eastern Alberta as "the best in 30 years."

Spring habitat conditions looked good in the Northwest Territories as well. Habitat conditions remain good across Quebec with above average temperatures and rainfall. The Atlantic coast of Canada, though, received below normal precipitation that could have affected breeding ducks.

Baring an

y major environmental catastrophes, ducks arriving in coastal Louisiana this fall should find improving habitat conditions, especially in areas with abundant freshwater supplies. Of course, the state could still use more rain to replenish supplies. Access to some areas remains difficult, though.

"After Hurricane Audrey hit Cameron Parish in 1957, the old-timers said that the duck hunting was as good as it gets," said Chad Courville, a DU biologist based in Lafayette. "I think the habitat will be pretty good across the coast this fall if we get some heavy rains without hurricanes. Once we get a good flushing of fresh water, we'll have great foraging habitat for ducks. Every place that has river influence should have good duck hunting this fall."

The river systems of the Sabine, Atchafalaya, Mississippi and Pearl rivers provide an influx of fresh water to rejuvenate marshes. Three of those four areas suffered extensive damage in 2005. Situated almost halfway between landfall of Katrina and Rita, the Atchafalaya Basin suffered fringe impacts from both storms, but remained relatively untouched. With the awesome flow of the Atchafalaya River, which siphons off about 30 percent of the Mississippi River water, this area should recover quickly and continue to hold enormous populations of ducks.

Many people hunt the 137,000-acre Atchafalaya Delta Wildlife Management Area south of Morgan City. In the brown freshened shallows of Atchafalaya Bay, hunters bag plenty of mallards, green-winged teal, gadwalls, pintails and mottled ducks. The area also normally contains high concentrations of canvasbacks.

Despite travel restrictions in Plaquemines Parish, habitat damage and shattered infrastructure, many sportsmen still managed a few good hunts in parts of the Mississippi River delta, especially during the early season. In other places, ducks that normally winter in that area headed elsewhere. After ducks devoured the available food, they left. This year, though, hunters anticipate better opportunities in the delta.

"I flew over coastal Louisiana immediately after Katrina and several times since," Courville said. "In late May 2006, places in the Mississippi delta that had influence from fresh water out of the river looked about as good as it gets. The marshes were green with lots of aquatic plants. Places without freshwater influence really looked bad, mostly brown and dead. Any place along the coast with good fresh water flow should hold ducks this fall."

In good years, millions of birds flock to the usually-verdant marshes of the Mississippi River delta. Without access to private land, many hunters head to 48,800-acre Delta National Wildlife Refuge or 66,000-acre Pass-A-Loutre WMA, both about 30 miles downriver from Venice.

Birds that normally winter in delta marshes moved upriver to the Lake Salvador area or westward into Terrebonne Parish. The Salvador/Timken WMA in St. Charles Parish offers 34,520 acres of fresh to brackish marshes, open water and ponds near Lake Salvador southwest of New Orleans. The 33,480 acres of tidal marshes in the Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA near Houma largely escaped serious damage from either hurricane.

"Terrebonne Parish was stacked up with unbelievable numbers of ducks in late 2005," Reynolds said. "It was largely missed by both Rita and Katrina. The Lake Salvador area south into Terrebonne Parish held tremendous numbers of birds. Hunting reports were terrific."

Marshes on the east side of the Mississippi River between Venice and Delacroix probably suffered the most severe damage from Hurricane Katrina. Even here, though, sportsmen found some bright spots. The 39,583-acre Biloxi WMA near Hopedale on the south shore of Lake Borgne came out of Katrina in relatively good shape. These fresh to brackish marshes normally offer some of the best hunting in southeast Louisiana. A Mississippi River diversion project at Caernarvon freshens the marshes near Delacroix and should help improve habitat conditions east of the river.

"The hunts we made in the 2005-06 season in Delacroix were some of the best I've ever made in my life," Herrmann said. "We saw many clumps of drifting grass in places that were normally open water. It was almost like a broken marsh. That improved hunting substantially. We did very well in the first split, but in the second split, it was spotty. We had ducks for a week and then someone else had them for a week. When new birds came in, they ate whatever they could find and left."

Katrina obliterated much of St. Tammany Parish on the north side of Lake Borgne. Pearl River WMA, near Slidell, suffered extreme damage. The southern 10,000 acres of the 35,032-acre area consist of fresh to brackish marshes; swamp and bottomland hardwoods dominate the remaining two-thirds of the property. The storm knocked down about 70 percent of the trees in the swamp and cut a new tributary off West Pearl River just south of U.S. 90; the officially nameless cut was dubbed "Katrina Lake" by some locals.

"St. Tammany Parish took a severe hit from Katrina," Reynolds said. "The new lake actually held quite a lot of waterfowl last season. We are going to try to shore up the breach to continue the flow-through and make the pond it formed permanent waterfowl habitat."

On the northern shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain, slightly to the west of Slidell, 17,095-acre Big Branch Marsh NWR was pretty well torn into by Katrina. People hunt the mallards, pintails, wood ducks, mottled ducks, teal and gadwalls among other species it normally holds.

"I hunted Big Branch NWR for the first time during the 2005-06 season," Herrmann said. "We had some good hunts during the first split. We killed a lot of good birds. We killed mostly mallards, teal and gadwalls. In the second split, it wasn't as good."

On the far western shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain, 8,325-acre Manchac WMA near LaPlace is largely intact. Extremely popular with people from New Orleans, Baton Rouge and surrounding communities, assorted ducks are there to hunt. Many hunt the Prairie, a large, shallow open-water system. If you can escape the crowds and hunt the marsh's hidden potholes, you might attract more ducks, and a better variety.

In southwestern Louisiana, surging salt water flooded marshes all the way to the Intracoastal Waterway south of Lake Charles, Reynolds said. Subsequent storms in the Gulf of Mexico kept the tides abnormally high for a long time. Consequently, salt water "burned" much of the marsh in southwestern Louisiana. Extremely saline water also entered some rice fields, destroying crops.

With so much salt water, farmers couldn't harvest their second rice crop; thus, many fields resembled baited ponds, there being an enormous amount of waste grain available for ducks and geese. Many birds roosted in the salty marshes, but they fed on abundant grain in rice fields to the north.

"Some areas in southwest Louisiana had a lot of ducks early in the season, especially in the area close to the Intracoastal Waterway," Reynolds said. "Other areas were almost devoid of ducks. In late December and early January, duck populations declined sharply in the southeastern part of the state. We saw a huge increase

in southwest Louisiana in the same marshes that did not hold a duck in November and early December. That could be because nobody hunted in those marshes, and the ducks found refuge there."

Living in a land of expansive rice fields and marsh leases with access to few public hunting properties, many southwest Louisiana sportsmen rarely hunted last season. Some didn't even bother. Those who did hunt often found excellent shooting in areas that provided good food and roosting conditions.

Hurricane Rita closed the three federal refuges -- Sabine, Lacassine and Cameron Prairie -- near Lake Charles. The 124,500-acre Sabine National Wildlife Refuge near Hackberry usually offers some of the best public waterfowl action in southwest Louisiana, but it probably won't open during the 2006-07 season. Debris still clogs many access canals, making boating in these waters extremely treacherous. Some people reported seeing entire 18-wheel tractor-trailer rigs disappear into the muck.

"Sabine NWR was hit very hard by Rita," Reynolds said. "Cameron Prairie NWR closed last year because of some levee breaches, but those breaches were repaired. Lacassine NWR didn't really have to close for long, but officials there were concerned about the hunting pressure if they opened and Cameron Prairie and Sabine remained closed. The Lacassine headquarters was destroyed, but they should open this season."

Near Lake Arthur, Lacassine NWR provides 35,000 acres of fresh and brackish marshes. Federal officials normally allow duck hunting on about 3,300 acres north of the Intracoastal Waterway and 6,000 acres south of the waterway. With about 9,600 acres, Cameron Prairie normally only allows limited youth hunts by lottery.

For booking trips in southeast Louisiana, call Herrmann at (504) 256-7226. To hunt with Hackberry Rod and Gun Club, call 1-888-762-3391 or (337) 762-3391; on the Internet, check out www.hackberryrodandgun.com.

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