Along Mississippi's coastal counties, taking to the water to pursue diving ducks is a different kind of wingshooting. Here's a look at the action. (October 2008)
Jeff McAllister and his son Austin head in from an evening hunt on the Mississippi Sound with a mixed bag of redheads and greater scaup.
Photo by Capt. Robert Brodie.
Stiff southeast winds had turned the Mississippi Sound into a froth of whitecaps, overcast skies giving an eerie look to the early-morning rays of sunlight just appearing on the horizon. With such rough conditions in the open water, we decided to conduct our morning hunt along the shoreline.
Here, we set out our large set of 100-plus decoys strategically in four long parallel lines designed to leave landing zones for interested ducks as well as shooting lanes for low incoming birds. Our intended quarry: diving ducks, it being the big crimson-headed redheads that we most desired. We simply lay down flat on the marsh, remaining motionless, eyes scanning for any sort of movement either high in the sky or just above the water's surface. Our guest on this outing was Randy Patrolia of Hattiesburg.
The morning started off extremely slowly, a few birds working the horizon while shorebirds and mergansers caused neck-wrenching false alarms. However, since our focus was mainly on bagging a couple of trophy redheads, we knew to remain patient, especially late into the morning.
Right at 10:00 a.m., we stood to stretch our legs. Behind us, framed against the sun on a large sandbar covered with huge white pelicans, hundreds of shorebirds kept lifting up into the air and then quickly setting back down. However, one glance back toward the birds left us caught off guard.
At first, what was coming toward us from the land over the sand spit didn't register -- but then we realized that a huge flock of redheads was approaching from behind, coming out of the sun. Needless to say, it was a mad scramble back into the prone position. Although the redheads had to have seen us getting into position, it didn't matter to them: They made one big circle out in front of us as my son-in-law Van Clark and I hit the calls hard. The ducks banked instantly, pitching directly toward our decoy spread.
The 50-plus birds zeroed in on the bobbing decoys with reckless abandon, wings back, breasts exposed, feet dangling; the moment of truth had arrived. Patrolia rose first, eyes focused on the big dark-headed drakes. His shots were true, sending two heavy redheads crashing into the sound.
As I rose, ducks were still taking wing, offering skeet-like shots as they rose out of the decoys in all directions, and soon two more birds splashed down into the salty water. Our patience had paid off, and the late-morning flight of redheads had delivered another magnificent shotgunning memory.
A VAST SOUND
The Mississippi Sound is an extremely large body of water running approximately 60 miles in length and bordering the entire Mississippi coast from the Louisiana border to the state line with Alabama. To the south it is separated from the Gulf of Mexico by Mississippi's barrier islands: east to west, Petit Bois, Horn, East Ship, West Ship and Cat.
Though, speaking historically, few dyed-in-the wool diving-duck hunters work the Mississippi Sound, this massive body of saltwater is the wintering grounds to thousands upon thousands of the birds. Redheads, buffleheads, lesser scaup, greater scaup, canvasbacks, and sea ducks like scoters and oldsquaws all use these southern waters as their wintertime haven. However, puddle ducks like mallards, gadwalls, widgeon and shovelers can be taken on the sound at times, while both blue- and green-wing teal frequent the shoreline marsh areas.
However, the sound's three most plentiful species are the buffleheads, scaups and redheads, with the redheads being the prominent trophy bird on the sound. Canvasbacks frequent these waters too, but they seem to be less common in the sound in recent years. Some of the best areas to hunt divers in the Mississippi Sound lie to the west in the Heron Bay area just east of the mouth of the Pearl River, in the midsection off the east end of Deer Island at Biloxi, to the east off the mouth of the West Pascagoula River in the Pascagoula Bay area, and near the Mississippi/Alabama state line south of Moss Point.
For best results, of course, hunters have to put in time scouting before the season. Large numbers of these birds do seem to move up and down the sound throughout the season. Knowing their exact whereabouts when the legal shooting starts is important.
Having hunted divers in the Mississippi Sound for the past 40 years, logging more than 600 hunts, I've seen that the best hunts coincide with the approach of a cold front. Ahead of a strong front, generally, strong southeast winds churn up the sound, sending divers on the move and closer to the shorelines. At these times, hunters who've done their pre-season work know where to find the shoreline points and coves that divers will be looking to take refuge in. Of course, the chilling winds of cold fronts bring down new birds, too. These bits of knowledge are the key to some great gunning.
Bear in mind that hunting during these periods of nasty weather calls for the utmost in caution. The Mississippi Sound can get really rough really fast, and all waterfowlers must know the limitations of their boats, and have all the necessary safety equipment aboard.
Basics like a cell phone, rain gear, lifejackets, flares, a proper anchor and anchor line, a signaling mirror, a GPS unit, flashlights, a bailing can, oars or paddles, a VHF marine radio, waterproof matches, and a change of dry clothes are musts. Also, let friends and family know where you'll be hunting -- just in case of an emergency.
Besides taking rough and cold weather into consideration, an eye should always be kept on the tides. During a cold front the north and west winds can quickly blow the water out of the coastal shallows, and if you're unaware of the situation, your boat can be left stranded with a high and dry.
PLENTY OF DECOYS DELIVER
Although the Mississippi Sound attracts thousands of ducks during the course of the winter, the hunter employing a large spread of decoys will ordinarily meet with the best success. For example, in our usual setup are just over 100 diving decoys, mostly redheads and scaups but including two dozen canvasbacks for high-visibility color and a smattering of hand-carved buffleheads decoys.
Since our primary targets are redheads, dekes portraying them make up approximately 50 percent of the setup. Depending on your hunt location and the species most prevalent there, your mix could be different. Quickly setting out
and picking up such a large set of decoys is eased by the use of a "longline" or "gang-rig" system.
The basis of a longline rig: four 110-foot lengths of 1/4-inch nylon rope that serve as the main lines. To each of these, 25 to 30 decoys are attached. Avoid using white line, since it shows up to well in shallow water. (You might have to dye the line black, since line in that color is uncommon.)
On each end of the main lines is a large brass snap used to attach an extremely heavy anchor. My lead weights were molded in a wok, and heavy-gauge brass grounding wire was used to make snap eyes. These are actually formed in a size big enough to be used as handles.
These big disk-shaped weights weigh 6 to 12 pounds, but no matter how rough it gets, our decoys don't drag, even on a hard sand bottom. The heaviest weights are used on the front end, while a lighter weight can be used at the tail end to keep the decoy line from swinging about.
Crimped onto each decoy is a 5-foot length of 400-pound-test clear monofilament leader material; on the tag end a stainless-steel longline clip is crimped with No. 12 sleeves. If you like, substitute large snap swivels on the end of the leader that goes to the decoy, thus enabling you to change a specific type of decoy on that line.
Once the longline system is complete, you can use five-gallon buckets to store the lines neatly for deployment and retrieval. First, coil one line in the bucket, attach the next line to that one by their snaps, and then coil them on top of one another; do the same with the last two lines. The last snap is attached to the bucket handle for quick access. Then all you have to do is clip on a weight, drop it to the bottom, and snap on a decoy leader every couple of feet. Once you come to the end snap, attach the tail weight and set it in position; repeat the process with the other lines.
The longline rig enables a three-man crew to put out or pick up 100 decoys with ease in less than 20 minutes. The advantage of using longline rigs is that hunters can set up quickly in practically any depth of water, even getting to birds in open water.
Most hunters in this region still go with the traditional single line and weight on each decoy. However, if you going to pursue diving ducks on a regular basis, keep the lines quite long -- 8 to 10 feet in length -- so that you're able to hunt in various depths.
Also, use heavy weights, at least 1 pound. Since some of the best diving-duck hunts occur during extremely windy conditions, a heavy weight is needed to keep each decoy in place. Having to leave the blind to chase dragging decoys is extremely annoying, and wading into the decoy spread after a dragger can scare away a flock of incoming birds. Finally, to make wrapping and handling of the single lines easier, go with the likes of parachute cord in a black, brown, or olive hue if you can find it.
GUNS & AMMO
Diving ducks are extremely hardy birds, and can be tough to take down, especially when you're shooting into stiff crosswinds. Wounded birds have a knack for diving rapidly underwater, and then coming up out of gun range. In heavy seas, trying to time the finishing shot at a wounded bird on top of a cresting wave can be quite difficult, and use up a lot of shells.
To ensure sufficient knockdown power, it's always smart to hunt with a 12-gauge 3-inch Magnum load. Depending on the conditions and your hunting location, a modified or full choke is generally required.
As for your ammo, go with No. 4 or 2 nontoxic shot; on extremely windy days, No. 2 seems to works better. If a ducks hitting the water shows any sign of life, promptly pepper the bird with a finishing shot.
Be sure to keep your weapon well oiled while hunting in south Mississippi's salty environs. The waters of the Mississippi Sound are brutal on a gun's finish, and it doesn't take much exposure to turn a new gun into a well-worn veteran. Some old-school hunters do like the rusty look on the outside, as it provides a sort of natural camouflage finish -- but the sound's salt water can mess up moving parts if not kept lubricated.
Your choice of the many ways to hunt diving ducks in the Mississippi Sound will ordinarily depend on weather conditions. For example, if it isn't too rough, you can use layout boats or boats equipped with pop-up blinds to reach birds working or rafting up well into the open waters of the sound.
Lying flat in a low-profile layout boat surrounded by 100 or more decoys is an incredibly effective way of taking divers; at times, ducks land practically on top of you. Speaking from experience, my one-man layout boat has delivered breathtaking duck hunting experiences as huge flocks commit at point-blank ranges.
Not as effective as layout boats, but still quite serviceable are vessels equipped with pop-up blinds. Although pop-up blinds offer somewhat less concealment than does a layout boat, hunters sporting a big decoy setup can shoot their fill of birds.
Of course, if you've done your scouting, and the weather's in your favor, it's quite possible to take your share of divers while hiding along the shoreline. Many of our hunts are conducted by simply lying flat on our backs along the edge of the marsh. The key here is remaining perfectly still. It's easy to camouflage yourself by sprinkling a bit of tideline marsh grass over your body -- a quick and easy way to help you blend into your surroundings. Or, better yet, you can invest in some of those portable low-profile ground blinds, and dress them in the tidal marsh debris, too.
Bottom line: Hunters who do their homework will find that the Mississippi Sound offers plenty of potential for great diving-duck hunting.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Capt. Robert Brodie specializes in professionally guided diving duck hunts on the Mississippi Sound with an emphasis on trophy redheads.
For more information call him via his cell phone at (228) 697-7707.