East/West: Sportsman's Paradise Duck Divide
September 28, 2010
Which half of Louisiana's coast is primed to cough up more quackers this year? We'll find out. (November 2007)
Photo by Robert Sloan.
Louisiana's coastal region is home to some of the finest duck hunting to be found anywhere in North America. Receiving most of the Mississippi Flyway's migrants as well as getting a lot of trade over from the Central Flyway to the West, the Louisiana coastline is loaded with ducks during the fall and winter.
However, one point occasions some sharp debate -- a divide, if you will: Hunters from the east coastal zone believe their area to be the best in the state, while their counterparts to the west are quite sure that their section is the preeminent one. On top of it all, each camp is certain that the tools they use to get the job done are superior as well.
Arguments support both positions. On one hand, the eastern coast has some of the largest concentrations of mallards anywhere, and the open water near the Gulf hosts world-class diver-shooting action; on the other, hunters on the western coast take massive numbers of teal, gadwalls and pintails, and perennially find very consistent shooting.
How to choose? Well, that's your call: We'll take a look at both regions -- and then you can decide on which side is the Bayou State's duck capital.
"Over here in southwestern corner of the state, our hunting is great," said Capt. Buddy Oakes of the Hackberry Rod and Gun Club, "and to tell the truth, since the hurricane blew through, it seems to have gotten better. There is excellent hunting throughout the state especially on the coast, but you just can't beat this area. We may be biased, but we like to think it's tops."
According to Oakes, look for most of the action during the big duck season to occur after each successive cold front blasts new ducks into the area around Lake Calcasieu, the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge and along the Cameron Prairie. On the prairie, the best hunting doesn't happen when you might expect.
Most hunters much prefer days with lots of sunshine. I know that many people think of duck and goose hunting as best in terrible weather, but if we have a good wind and clear skies, they decoy much better around here. When you have high clouds, the hunting is tough on the prairies. If you only have limited days to choose, pick a clear one or if you want ducks in the prairie or marsh rain is good because it gets them moving. Again, high, cloudy days are tough.
"Hunting is good here when a lot of people think it's going to be slow. That surprise a lot of hunters," Oakes said.
Early on, the size of the decoy spread doesn't matter that much, but it's important to vary them, and have some pintails in the mix. "Pintails are light-colored, and they are a duck we have a lot of," said avid waterfowler Frank Moore, who hunts the open waters of Sabine Lake and the surrounding marsh. "They tend to get the attention of ducks real good and when you finish them off with gadwall, teal and a few geese in the spread you can do really good in the prairie or marsh."
Moore proposed something else that you might want to consider when hunting the marsh: adding confidence decoys. "I always put out a great blue heron decoy," he said. "Those herons are smart birds, and ducks know that if everything is cool with them, it should be safe. Also, I sometimes throw in coots for good measure. There are lots of coots at times."
The bays in the region offer some good hunting opportunities as well. A decoy spread in a marsh pond might consist of two dozen decoys (maybe three or four times that if the pond is big); in open water, the starting number is six dozen, and some hunters put out as many as 200 decoys at a time.
Waterfowlers should think about using as many magnum-sized decoys as possible. Besides mimicking nature, you have to get the ducks' attention, and big decoys can do that. When a duck's flying around over open water, which is often choppy, it may have a hard time seeing regular-sized decoys or a small spread. Think big to find success.
Some hunters, myself included, mix in a half-dozen or so snow goose decoys to help attract the ducks' attention. White shows up well on the chocolate-colored Louisiana bays, and occasionally helps draw in a few bonus geese. Many hunters set their decoys in a large cove, leave a landing area, and extend one long leg of the spread out into open water to attract cruising ducks. This is highly effective, especially if you have a couple of mechanical duck decoys with rotating wings in your spread.
The bottomlands just below the saltwater line on the middle coast in the Atchafalaya Basin and extending slightly west and eastward are worth mentioning here as being a sort of waterfowling Switzerland -- neutral ground. The hunting here is quite different from that on the rest of the coast.
Mallards and gadwalls also frequent the flooded timber, and hunters able to identify open areas within the timber and set up a good decoy spread along with an automated decoy like a Mojo duck can score big.
"Moving decoys are really good in the timber in the Pineywoods," Moore said. "It is not like hunting out on the open water or prairie, where ducks can see everything. Looking from the sky down through the trees, they have a limited view, so a motion decoy is important. It would be a good idea to have one with moving wings and some feeders down as well."
Moore is also a big believer in having decoys that the ducks can see. "I'm all into mixing quite a few magnums in with the standard decoys. It is all about making a good visual impression. The ducks have to see you before they have a reason to commit."
Calling is also vital, as it can be the key turning point for ducks not exactly sold on the decoys. "If you have mallards and gadwall around, call, call and call again," Moore insisted. "You can bring both in fairly easily if you are using motion decoys. Have a good facemask or paint on and good camouflage that match your surrounding. Gadwalls in particular will light like crazy if you can speak the language using this strategy."
The eastern coastal area has an almost overwhelming amount of opportunity for waterfowlers.
"The hunting down here can just get silly-good," said veteran waterfowler Kirk Lamont of New Orleans. "Once you get down past the Big Easy there is so much water and marsh it's almost hard to digest. We have the habitat here even after Katrina to draw in the ducks and our hunting is without a doubt the best in the state. The marshes around Venice and Lafitte are untouchable as far a
s I'm concerned."
According to Lamont, one problem with the area is access, as the shallowness of the bays make access to some of them problematic; major cold fronts compound this by turning skinny water into mudflats. The boats of choice here are airboats, which are loud and obtrusive but allow hunters to get into the hard to reach areas like freshwater ponds in the marshes and lightly pressured zones that hold the most birds.
"Airboats are great," he said, "but I prefer mudboats -- but that's another whole area of debate right there. Let's just say you need a boat that can get you across the mud in the really, really nasty stuff. Which we have plenty of."
The secret to bagging ducks here is to think big. A decoy spread in a marsh pond might consist of two dozen. On open water, the starting number is six dozen; some hunters put out as many as 200. Joe James knows more about open-water duck hunting than anyone I have met. He spent 20 years hunting ducks in the open waters around the country and is a big believer in putting out lots of decoys.
"If you're putting out anything less than 100, you're cheating yourself," James said. "Ducks congregate in big numbers on open water, especially redheads and bluebills (scaup). You have to mimic nature to get nature to cooperate with you, and that means going through the trouble of putting out a bunch of decoys."
James also believes that when it comes to decoys, bigger is truly better. Besides mimicking nature, you have to get the duck's attention, and using big decoys is a way to do that.
Some hunters mix in a half dozen or so snow goose imitations to help draw attention, particularly later in the season. "This time of year, ducks are showing all of their colors," James said. "There is a lot of white out there in the sky, and it seems to be seen at greater distances."
Islands, omnipresent in the bays in this region, are another good type of spot to hunt. The prime spot is toward the tail of an island, in the soft water between the tail and the main current. Usually the best duck shooting time is early and after 9 a.m. as the birds return to the main bay after a morning feed in the marsh.
Ducks typically trade back and forth and up and down the marsh most of the early morning; then, as they feed in fields, there's a lull, followed another burst of activity in late morning.
Besides the actual quality of hunting, a couple of other points are contentious along the coast -- one of them dogs. "You just can't beat a Lab," said Kenny Pigg who operates a huge lease along the Louisiana-Texas line in Cameron Parish. "There are lots of good dogs out there but Labs are the most loyal and deliver most of the time."
Labrador retrievers are indeed hard workers eager to please their owners, and they're probably the best-natured of all of the big breeds. In my time I've met a very few mean Labs, and a number of them that were maybe overprotective of their owners' vehicles -- but most of the time they're sweethearts and have more fun than even the hunters out in the field.
My father's late friend had a Lab that was so eager to get into the water; he had to tie it in the boat while riding down the river. That is not exactly desirable behavior, but you have to respect the enthusiasm.
Labs are great dogs for most hunting applications you would find in Louisiana from dry ground goose hunts to hunting ducks in the coastal marsh, which is probably why they are the top choice for hunters along the western coast.
Chesapeake Bay retrievers, which were bred to hunt in the North's most hostile conditions, have a growing cult following in Louisiana. According to owners, they're excellent retrievers whose intensity can't be matched.
"We're starting to see more Chessies in this area," Lamont said. "And they are excellent dogs, and cut out for our difficult terrain and open water."
Strong swimmers, Chesapeakes can handle multiple retrieves in deep and even current-laden waters. They are great dogs for those hunting big, open water, as their swimming skills are second to none. Not ultrafriendly dogs in the way of most Labs and goldens, they can indeed be aloof around strangers and other dogs. Their reputation as perhaps too aggressive is not necessarily deserved; they just aren't that impressed with people outside their families.
"Chessies are all about work," Lamont said, "and that's why they are such great dogs. If you want a dog to play with get a Lab, but if you want one that is going to keep going like the Energizer Bunny get a Chessie."
Another debatable point is the best type of hunting blind, which differs between the two coastal regions.
Probably the most common blind choice for hunters on the eastern coastline is their boats. If you are hunting on the main body of a reservoir on in a bay, it's not always possible to have an actual blind. Boats come in handy in these situations. Some hunters, as I mentioned earlier, simply cover their boats with cane; others use "fast grass" -- woven marsh grass or a synthetic substitute that goes around the boat to make it look like a natural structure. Another possibility: units like the Flexi-Blind, which has spring-loaded support poles that raise up camouflage netting or canvas to hide the boat. These units can be pricey, but are generally convenient.
My favorite type of blind, which is commonly used in agricultural fields and marshes, is the pit blind, which is popular on the west side. They are usually made of concrete or a hard plastic and sunk in a key waterfowl feeding area or travel route. These blinds require serious labor to install, and so are generally used on private leases on which a lot of hunting will be taking place; they're not worth the effort for other applications.
The advantages of pit blinds lie in their capacity to provide good cover by allowing you to get under the ground to an extent and they give you good footing in a normally squishy area. Their disadvantages are that they collect rainwater and sometimes the creatures of the wetlands.
I once heard a story of a Louisiana hunter who had a big nutria climb in the pit with him before daylight. As the story goes, the hunter saw the form of something in the pre-dawn light, and when he turned on the flashlight, all he could see was fur, and those nasty orange teeth. Apparently, he freaked out badly enough just to head home.
All I have to say is that the startled hunter must not have been a true Cajun -- otherwise that nutria would have become a second course to serve up with the duck!