Big Easy Duck Hunting: It's All About Consistency

Hundreds of thousands of acres of prime public waterfowl habitat are available to hunters in southeast Louisiana -- where the Mississippi Flyway ends.

By Glynn Harris

The past two waterfowl seasons in Louisiana have seen hunters becoming more than simply frustrated. In addition to flinging down their camo caps and stomping on them in disgust, many have all but resolved to quit duck hunting altogether.

Drought conditions in northern breeding grounds the past few years have dried up the potholes necessary for duck production. Add to this the absence of weather cold enough to send the fewer ducks available southwards, and it's no wonder that hunters' caps have bootprints all over them.

Those who hunt the marshes of southwest Louisiana and the farmlands of east and northeast Louisiana have been especially aggrieved. Spending thousands of dollars on an annual duck lease only to endure day after day of looking at blackbirds and crows and marsh wrens but precious few ducks has been cause for no small degree of consternation. Hunters have been worried; landowners who lease land for duck hunting have been worried; sporting-goods stores with shelves stocked with steel shot, shotguns and duck hunting supplies have been worried.

Has duck hunting become a thing of the past? Will duck hunters have to find something else to occupy their time, just as quail hunters around the state have had to do over the past decade?

Maybe these frustrated duck hunters should consider relocating. While the majority of the state has experienced sporadic success with ducks, there is one section of the state that, year in and year out, remains fairly consistent. Those who regularly hunt in this area have a much better chance at consistently putting some ducks in the bag.

The vast area of southeast Louisiana within easy driving distance of New Orleans just might be the state's best-kept secret in duck hunting success. More than half a dozen public hunting areas in this region offer a smorgasbord of duck hunting opportunities. Terrain varies widely in this area - from mixed pine/hardwood forests to riverbottom hardwood tracts to freshwater and brackish marshes. It's all there in the New Orleans area, and, as you might expect, hunting methods and duck species differ tremendously.

One area that offers good duck hunting most seasons is the Pearl River Wildlife Management Area. Mike Perot, wildlife biologist with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, is responsible for wildlife management on Pearl River. He says that this area is unique, in that it contains such a wide variety of habitat types.

"Actually, Pearl River is made up of three distinct types of terrain," he explained. "The northern 60 percent of the 35,000-acre management area features mixed pine/hardwoods and bottomland hardwoods. The central 25 percent is a cypress/tupelo swamp, while the lower 15 percent is marsh, both freshwater and brackish.

"The management area is located between the East Pearl River and the West Pearl River, and these two rivers control the amount of water on the area.

"Another thing of interest about the Pearl River WMA," Perot continued, "is that Highway 90, which runs through the management area, is the dividing line between the East Zone and the West Zone for duck hunting seasons. As a result, you can hunt somewhere on the Pearl every day of duck season in Louisiana. One of the best scenarios is the opportunity to hunt the last week of season in the East Zone in the lower part of Pearl River. Getting to hunt this late in January near the end of the Mississippi flyway during a week when all the ducks are coming down are here can be pretty fantastic.

"In the two upper portions of the Pearl River area, which is the flooded woods and swamps, we see mostly mallards and wood ducks, while in the lower portions of the area, gadwall, widgeon and teal make up most of the bag.

"This area gets a lot of hunting pressure on weekends by hunters driving in from New Orleans, but on week days hunting pressure is relatively light. Obviously, the best time to go, if your schedule permits, is during the week."

Perot noted that Pearl River WMA can be affected by tropical storms and hurricanes, which can curtail the growth of plants important to ducks.

"Last year, we had two tropical systems affect this area," he said. "There was a 5- to 6-foot surge of salt water pushing far into the marsh. This year, though, we have been fortunate so far in not having any bad storms, and, as a result, there is a lot of wild rice and submerged aquatic vegetation in evidence this year. In addition, we've had plenty of rain to keep the freshwater level high enough to halt the intrusion of salt water."

There are three public launches along Highway 90 and another at Crawford Landing off Highway 11 via I-12.

When you think of Delta duck hunting, one of the most popular areas in the state is the Pass-A-Loutre WMA, a 66,000-acre swatch of land located at the mouth of the Mississippi River. As a youngster, I listened to my dad talk about this area. An employee of the LDWF, he was assigned to Pass-A-Loutre for a while. He used to come home with stories about the tremendous fishing there. He even brought home coolers of speckled trout and flounder to prove his point. Dad also expounded on the number and variety of ducks in this south Louisiana paradise. Although I never had the opportunity to visit the area when dad worked there, his singing the praises of this "end-of-the-road" piece of Heaven gave me ample material for fashioning mental images of what it was like.

Tommy Prickett, administrator of the LDWF's Wildlife Division, ranks Pass-A-Loutre as his favorite place in the world for hunting ducks.

"This is one of the most fertile areas in the country for ducks," he said, "because everything from the headwaters of the Mississippi on downriver eventually ends up down here. Add to the mix the fact that Pass-A-Loutre is where the Mississippi Flyway ends, and there are ducks down here just about every year.

"In addition to Pass-A-Loutre, Lafourche Parish owns 15,000 or so acres in scattered blocks in this area - land that is available for public use. However, it takes a good map and some knowledge of this area to locate those blocks where public hunting is allowed."

Prickett added a word of caution about planning a duck hunt to the Pass-A-Loutre area. "Just about the only way you can get down there is to launch into the Mississippi River and motor a number of miles south," he said. "Hunters motoring down the river have to contend with ocean-going freighters, other large ships, floating logs and other debris. What makes this situation especially dangerous is when there is fog on the river, which can occur regularly when the air temperature is fairly warm and it reacts with the cold r

iver water.

"As a result, I seldom put my boat in the river until daylight. It's not worth taking the chance of getting thrown overboard before daylight in the Mississippi River.

"Many hunters down there have installed radar on their duck boats. It's not unusual to see a 16-foot duck boat powered by a 25-hp motor with $2,000 worth of radar equipment on board.

"Most hunters use a big boat to reach Pass-A-Loutre, pulling a mud boat or a pirogue behind them. Once they get to the area, they park the big boat and use the smaller rigs to get back into the marsh. With so much roseau cane growing everywhere, it's a simple matter to toss your decoys out into a marsh pond, push your pirogue or mud boat back into the cane and hunt from your boat."

Prickett took note of the wide variety of duck species that a hunter is likely to see in the Pass-A-Loutre area. "Just about every duck that flies the Mississippi Flyway visits here sometime during the season," he said, "with the exception of mallards. All last season, I saw two mallards; they just don't come here. However, there are plenty of gadwall, teal, widgeon, pintail, shovelers and mottled ducks. You may not be able to shoot the species of ducks you prefer to shoot, but there will be ducks here to shoot just about every season."

Some hunters are reluctant to bring along their retriever dogs to the marsh, fearing alligator attacks. "During teal season, this can be a problem," Prickett acknowledged. "You just shouldn't take a chance of losing your valuable dog to a gator. However, once winter weather settles in, especially later in the season, the alligators are hibernating, and you seldom see one."

Pearl River and Pass-A-Loutre are good duck hunting areas, but they're not the only choice management areas in the New Orleans area. Wildlife biologist Emile Le Blanc oversees three other wildlife management areas - Joyce, Manchac and Maurepas Swamp - that are prime spots for waterfowl.

"Probably the best of the three areas I supervise is Manchac," said Le Blanc. "This area is an old-time cutover cypress swamp that borders Lake Pontchartrain. It's pretty open, and accessible to hunters from New Orleans."

According to a description appearing on the LDWF's Web site, Manchac is an 8,325-acre tract in the uppermost northern portion of St. John the Baptist Parish, about 17 miles north-northeast of Laplace. In the early 1900s, Manchac was heavily logged using pull-boat methods. Evidence of the logging operations can be seen today in the "wagon wheel" canals that provide another means of access during periods of high water.

The WMA's topography is characterized by low, flat marshland subject to flooding, especially when influenced easterly winds. The tract is only accessible by boat; a public launch is available at the North Pass bridge along state Highway 51. Boat travel into the interior is limited by the scarcity of canals and bayous.

A shallow freshwater pond known as "the Prairie" covers about 600 acres near the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline; it's one of the better duck ponds in the Lake Pontchartrain system. Pirogues and mud boats are the main means of transport here.

The predominant vegetation includes bulltongue, smartweed, alligator weed and zigzag grass. Submerged aquatics are naiads, pond weeds, fanwort and coontail. A thin strip of cypresses, willows, maples, hackberry, palmetto and various grasses stretches along the Lake Pontchartrain shoreline. Live oaks will occasionally be found along the lake's shore or on canal spoil banks. Oak and cypress seedlings have been planted on most of the available high ground.

"The most common waterfowl are teal, gadwall, scaup, widgeon, shoveler, with a few pintails and mallards," Le Blanc said.

Joyce WMA has been a good duck hunting spot in the past, but an invasion of salvinia, an invasive aquatic plant, often completely covers pond surfaces.

"Joyce WMA is a deep swamp lying some two miles north of Pass Manchac," said Le Blanc. "The salvinia covers the water so thickly that ducks often overfly the area because they can't see water. We're experimenting with the introduction of a weevil that eats salvinia, which will hopefully help alleviate this serious problem.

"Maurepas Swamp is one of our newest WMAs. It consists of about 62,000 acres, but I can tell you that is one tough piece of real estate. It's a very difficult area to traverse because it's so thick and wet and most open ponds are infiltrated with salvinia. There are a few canals where you can get a mud boat into the area, and it should offer some fair to good duck hunting, especially for wood ducks and mallards."

Hunters planning for late-season duck hunting in the New Orleans area would do well to take a look at some information provided by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regarding last season. According to a report released by the USFWS after last hunting season, anecdotal accounts of less-than-desirable results have been authenticated by their findings: More than 12.7 million ducks were harvested in the United States last season - down 8 percent from 2001's 13.9 million, the service reports.

It'll be of interest to Louisiana hunters that, with a bag of 6 million birds, states in the Mississippi Flyway took nearly half of the total national harvest. However, that was down 10 percent from the previous year.

The USFWS had some very encouraging news for hunters in the 2003-04 season. To quote from the report: "Habitat conditions for breeding ducks greatly improved last year over most of the prairie survey area and the outlook for production is good." As a result, the service proposed liberal hunting regulations again this season. This past summer, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission followed the USFWS' mandated guidelines to provide Louisiana hunters once again with a 60-day duck season and liberal bag limits this year.

In the West Zone, the first split opened Nov. 8 and closed Nov. 30; the second split opened Dec. 13 and will run until Jan. 18, 2004. In the East Zone, the first split ran from Nov. 15-30, with the second split running from Dec. 13 through Jan. 25, 2004.

"We are very encouraged by the report the Fish and Wildlife Service has given us on our ducks this year," said the LDWF's Tommy Prickett. "One thing that is especially encouraging is that the areas in Canada that had the best nesting conditions are those areas where ducks that use the Mississippi flyway are hatched."

Duck hunting may have been a crapshoot in much of the state over the past couple of years, but given the consistent success enjoyed by hunters in southeast Louisiana and the New Orleans area - even in lean years - these reports from the authorities who monitor duck nesting success are good news indeed.

A final note from Prickett: "When you add together all the thousands of acres of public la

nd in the New Orleans area with the forecast of a good duck hatch this year, plenty of fresh water and lots of duck food, this area is simply hard to beat."

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