Mississippi's January Wingshooting

Mississippi's January Wingshooting

It is late in the duck season and the hunting pressure has the quackers skittish. Where and how should you be hunting them now? Let's ask some Magnolia State experts.

Mississippi sportsmen have always begged for a late duck season, figuring the later it comes, the more ducks will have flown south and into gun range. It's a logical request, based on history.

It is usually well into January before ducks get to this end of the Mississippi River Flyway. Magnolia State duck hunters can usually count on one or two decent shoots early in December, or maybe even late November, but one weekend is usually enough to send those few early arriving birds winging off to somewhere where they won't get blasted. Then hunters have to bide their time until the main migration begins to arrive along with the new year.

All that changed with the Januarys of 2000 and 2001, two months that totally defied history. Ducks, expected in the greatest flights in over 50 years, never showed up in the numbers that we were told were coming. All those dreams of greenheads funneling down out of the sky into a spread of decoys in a Delta brake never materialized.

"Everything I knew about where and how to kill late-season ducks went right out the window," said Phillip Reems of Greenville. "I've been hunting ducks for 50 years up here, dating back to when I was 10 and growing up in Memphis. All the lessons I learned from Dad and Uncle Pete were worthless, and let me tell you, I was sure glad for once that they weren't around to see it. It would have broken their hearts.

"I tried all their old secrets about finding and fooling ducks that had been shot at from Minnesota to Mississippi, and there just weren't any. I just hope that if the birds do come back this year, I won't have forgotten any of their advice."

Photo by Bob Bledsoe

Not likely. Reems' hunting partners consider Reems, who's hunted ducks for more than half a century, the king of beating call-shy birds. Ducks that have heard and not answered calls through six or seven other states end up as dinner at Reems' table in his Leflore County home or on the communal table of one of the handful of duck hunting clubs that are constantly offering him invitations.

"Probably, the best calling lesson I ever got came from my Uncle Pete when I was about 15," Reems said. "He was a country man, a true man of the wilderness. He was 76 when he died, and he and Aunt Lois never lived within 10 miles of any town. He was the best hunter I ever knew.

"Anyway, I was staying with them one winter around New Year's so we could duck hunt together. The first morning, when we were gearing up to go to one of his holes, I picked up my lanyard of calls and started to put it around my neck. He grunted something, and I turned toward him and he had that funny look on his face. 'Boy,' he said, 'you won't be needin' them calls today. You just leave 'em here.' "

Reems laughs at the story, 40 years later.

"I figured he didn't have a lot of faith in my calling ability, even though he had taught me most of what I knew about it," he continued. "Turns out, that wasn't the case at all.

"When we got to the little brake in Tallahatchie County, the decoys were already in the water and it was dark in our ground blind. We had some coffee in a thermos and were drinking some when he spilled his down the front of his jacket. He grunted his usual grunt and I'll never forget what he said: 'I'd really be mad if I was wearing my calls and had spilled it all over them.' Turns out, he didn't bring any calls either. Not one."

Despite being call-poor that morning, Reems and his uncle carried home a limit of ducks, including the max on greenheads and pintails.

"I learned a pretty important lesson that morning, and Uncle Pete was just being Uncle Pete about making a point," Reems said. "If you got ducks that you know are call-shy, then you don't call at them. The more you call, the more they will flare away and go elsewhere. Pete told me later that he always carries calls just in case, but that morning he didn't because he wanted to stress the point to me about call-shy birds.

"He had his decoys on a string so he could keep them moving enough in the water. It was in the middle of the main migration arrival and ducks were all over the place. He knew that ducks would be flying all around the area looking for some water and some food. When a wave of ducks would fly by within sight of the brake, Uncle Pete would gently tug on the string and the decoys would bounce lightly in the water. If the ducks came, fine. If they didn't, another wave would be coming by in a few minutes. I think we limited by 8 a.m."

The point was driven home at lunch, when the two hunters met up with some of Pete's hunting buddies at a country store. The others had a slow morning and were complaining about the birds being skittish. One guy even said he had blown himself completely out of breath on his calls.

"Uncle Pete just winked at me and never said a word," Reems recalled. "I had to walk around the corner of the store and bust out laughing."

Over the years, Reems has used the strategy in several situations to beat birds. On a hunt he allowed me to join in 1998 - which is a rare treat, since he rarely hunts outside a small circle of friends and family - Reems pointed out calling sounds from nearby ponds.

"Hear that?" he said, elbowing me in the blind. "That's going to help us a lot today. They'll draw the ducks in with that cacophony and when the birds flare off of them, we'll get some of the ducks by here to check us out."

That morning, we left with eight mallards and four green-winged teal in our limit, and as we walked toward the truck, Reems stopped and hollered at me to wait. He pulled out a call and cut loose a series of hailing calls, the first sound he had made all morning.

"I had to call at least once," he said, "just for the heck of it."

Calling less frequently is a strategy that only works when birds are plentiful, Reems noted.

"Generally, I call every trip, but when birds are really call-shy like in January, when they can name just about every make and brand of call on the market, I will forget the hailing calls," he said. "You start blasting away at them on a call and they may come and check you out, but they also are very conscious of the fact that something may not be right. If anything else is out of the ordinary, like a decoy sitting crooked or any movement in the blind, they're gone. The percentage of ducks that fall into the decoy

s is very low. Any mistake is amplified.

"I usually try to be more subtle. If there are enough ducks around, there will be plenty coming by your hole. When they get close enough, I do just enough chattering (feeding call) to get their attention. I might throw in a quack or two, but it's subtle and I always do that when I'm pulling a string on the decoys. Believe me, when ducks have been called to and shot at so much, it pays to be extremely aware of every minute detail. Once they commit to my spread, or look like they are likely to, I won't make a sound."

Reems might hunt without a call, but never without decoys.

"I must own a couple thousand," he mused. "But call-shy birds are usually decoy-wise ducks, too. One mistake that I see a lot of hunters make is overdoing it with the dekes. They'll put out 50 or 60 decoys in a hole big enough for about 20 or 25 ducks. Think about that. If there's already that many ducks in a hole, ducks are smart enough to know they need to go somewhere else. If a hole can support 50 ducks, put out a dozen decoys. If it can support 20 ducks, put out five or six.

"If it can support hundreds, then put out as many as you want, but don't expect the ducks to always land in the decoys. That's a lesson I learned with Dad - not from him, but with him. We were hunting this big brake that encompassed probably three or four acres of water flooding an edge of an old bean field; it was over twice its normal size. Dad said Uncle Pete had told him that he'd seen hundreds of birds working the hole the morning before while sitting at a nearby pond. Dad couldn't believe how big the hole was and had a hard time in the swirling wind and darkness figuring out where to hunt. There were ditch banks at each end where we could build some small blinds, but we didn't know which end."

Reems said his dad finally decided to send him to the far end of the brake with about 50 decoys, while the older man put an equal number at the other end, with the idea that when the ducks started arriving they'd let the hunters know where they needed to be.

"That place wasn't in the decoys, turns out," Reems said, smiling. "We had this brake about 300 yards in length with both ends covered with decoys and about 200 yards of open water in the middle. Where do you think the ducks landed? Yep, right in the middle.

"Hundreds of them. Cloud after cloud came in, and neither of us ever got a shot. We gave up after a few hours and met back at the truck. Dad decided to leave the decoys out and said we'd hunt there the next morning. Next day, when we got there, we were wearing our waders and had all our waterproof gear. We stood next to timber in three feet of water in the middle of the lake and it was one of the greatest mornings I've ever had. You hear about the old days when ducks used to funnel into a hole, wave after wave of them? That's what it was like. The decoys were drawing the birds into the brake, but the ducks were so skittish that they landed away from them and would then swim over to feed around the decoys."

For Lee Benoist of Jackson, host to an outdoors radio show and an avid duck hunter, those same principles are put to use, only in a more modern fashion.

"Three years ago, about the time that the first mechanical ducks were circulating, we discovered that they could help us beat those call-shy birds," Benoist said. "We didn't put out decoys, just one Roboduck. If we saw ducks close enough, I would call one time to get their attention. If they turned and saw that one Roboduck, all we did was sit there and let it do the work. We wouldn't make another call."

Benoist said it was a way to beat the decoy- and call-shy birds.

"It's true that late in the season, after the ducks have been shot at all the way down the migratory route, they are very wary of fake birds and fake calls," he said. "Too much of either, or just one little mistake with either, can cause them to flare away and be gone. I think that's why the Roboduck deal worked.

"Now, understand this. That was three years ago, and now everybody from Minnesota to Arkansas has a Roboduck or one of the other mechanical decoys. I can't promise you that it will work. We didn't get to try it the last two years, because we didn't have any ducks in late January. Two years ago, we had the freeze at New Year's and the Delta froze out. The ducks left and never came back. Last year, it was so mild and warm north of here that the main migration didn't arrive here until February. We had ducks early, but after we shot them, they left and then we had the worst season we've ever had."

With Mississippi's season running through the last Sunday in January, hunters are again hopeful.

"Obviously, it just depends on the weather," Benoist cautioned. "We know now that even in years when duck numbers are at their highest, if we don't get a cold winter, we won't get ducks. Now that the duck numbers are down, conditions become more imperative."

Even on the lands of the wealthiest duck clubs, where water is pumped into flooded food crops, weather is important. If the rest of the Delta is dry or if the weather is too warm for the migration to be completed, once the clubs shoot at their ducks a few times, the birds leave. If the Delta is not wintering a lot of birds, the club waters will not get a new supply of quackers.

The two prime factors are whether the upper Midwest has an early winter, and whether Mississippi gets plenty of November and December rain. Those factors determine if a successful season lies ahead for public hunting lands in the Delta.

The best choices are the Sunflower Wildlife Management Area (WMA), in the Delta National Forest; the Mahannah and Twin Oaks WMAs, near Rolling Fork; and the backwaters of the Arkabutla Reservoir, near Coldwater. They generally have water even in the driest of years. For more information on any of the WMAs in the state, go to the Web site of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP), at www.mdwfp.com.

"One thing you need to remember about late-season hunting is the big lakes and old oxbows," Benoist said. "If we have either a total freeze-out in the Delta or a dry, cold winter, then you need to turn to open water. I grew up hunting the old oxbows, and they can really be good in dry winters. Even Barnett Reservoir, near Jackson, can be great under the right conditions.

"Two years ago, after that big freeze in the Delta, there were 50,000 ducks rafted up on Barnett Reservoir. The upper lake area was very good, back in the backwater areas."

The bottom line about late-season hunting is that you never know in advance what to expect. Still, one thing is for sure. Whatever ducks do show up are going to be smart birds. Only the wisest will have survived hunters down the flyway. They are call- and decoy-shy. By being conservative with both, you might have a good season while all around you are suffering.

"It's happened to me many years," said Phillip Reems. "Try to let Mother Nature bring ducks to you. She's a lot less likely to ma

ke mistakes than you are. Call only as much as you need to, and be stingy when putting out decoys."

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