With the approach of the winter hunting season, our state's waterfowlers turn their eyes to the sky and to the Mississippi Delta. What should they expect from this year's shooting? Let's have a closer look.
By Jill J. Easton
The awakened ducks mumble-quacked their annoyance and flew away as we stumbled and slopped our way through the icy rice field in the pre-dawn darkness, heading for the blind that was out there somewhere. We found it, and half an hour later, the ducks became legal targets.
That morning not far north of Rolling Fork turned out to be one of the most exciting days of shooting I ever experienced. At first, mallards came by in singles and pairs. Later, as the sun rose, groups ranging from half a dozen to 50 or more circled, responding to the combination of quacks and feeding calls coming from our blind. Some looked and went away, but others broke into that graceful landing pattern that only ducks can pull off, settling toward our decoys like huge, noisy drifting leaves.
By 7:30 a.m., each of us had a limit, mostly mallards, and we were making the hike back across the field to warm coffee and breakfast.
Unfortunately, scenes like this have been rare in the Deep South for the last few years. A combination of milder weather, less successful hatches and changes in farming practices made huge concentrations of ducks in Mississippi a near-forgotten myth. Most of the mallards, the king of the dabbling ducks and favorite quarry of hunters in Mississippi, have spent the last two winters farther north. We've had some, but not the numbers we've been used to seeing.
Although they are less popular, diving ducks such as scaup and ringnecks, with a few redheads thrown in, have still been coming to Mississippi in quantity, especially to Delta catfish ponds and the large oxbows along the Mississippi River. However, few hunters care much about taking these fish-eating species, and they generally go under-hunted in our state.
However, even for the mallard hunters, this could be the year to dust off the duck boat or re-brush those old blinds. According to a variety of experts, this might be the year when huntable numbers of ducks return to the Delta.
The author shows off one of the rare mallards to fall during the scarce duck days of the last two seasons in the Delta. Photo by Jim Spencer
Perhaps the best of many snippets of good news last spring was that the May pond-count numbers and breeding duck populations were both up substantially from last year in most of the important duck nesting areas.
Each year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts aerial surveys in cooperation with the Canadian Wildlife Service. The early reports were dry and discouraging. A lack of rain and snow through the winter caused waterfowl biologists to predict most areas would have fewer nesting ducks. But the rains and late blizzards came in time to provide abundant water for nesting season.
In 2003, there was a startling 91 percent increase in the number of prairie ponds. They increased from 2.7 million ponds last year, to 5.2 million this year, enough so ducks could find plenty of choice nesting areas.
As of early summer, there were about 5 million more birds than in last year's count. Shovelers increased 56 percent; pintails were up 43 percent and mallards increased from 7 1/2 million to almost 8 million, a 6 percent gain. Overall duck numbers are at 36.2 million birds, up from 31.2 million in 2002.
Last summer the pond count numbers only proved what wildfowl experts already knew.
"These results pretty well confirm what our staff and others in the breeding areas observed last spring," said Dr. Bruce Batt, chief biologist for Ducks Unlimited. Batt pointed to the increases in numbers of nests and ducklings as the result of much better nesting conditions after two years of drought.
"These increases are mostly the result of much better conditions on the prairies, which stimulated the birds to stop and breed," Batt explained. "Upland nesting habitat is a critical element that drives nesting success. It improved this year because of the generous rains but, for the long-term, we still have a great deal to do to secure improved nesting conditions, especially in Canada."
Ducks Unlimited, along with Delta Waterfowl and several other waterfowl groups, have staged massive initiatives funded by millions of sportsmen to save prairie potholes, encourage farmers to plant duck-friendly crops and increase the acreage in wetland and conservation plans.
Unfortunately for the ducks, farming practices are constantly being modified because farmers, as well as ducks, have to make a living. Lately, government subsidies have been lowered on soybeans and rice, while being raised on cotton. This has been bad for Mississippi's winter duck numbers. In addition, Brazilian farmers cleared massive areas in the rain forest and started planting soybeans, so the price of Delta beans dropped to the point that they don't make a profit. All of these factors have caused cutbacks in grain acreage, which ordinarily supports Mississippi winter ducks.
But even if an inviting rice field is flooded for winter ducks, there's no guarantee that the waste rice is available for the ducks. Mississippi State University investigated available rice by taking coring of soil in fields in September and December. More than 70 percent of the rice was gone by the time ducks began to show up in December. Burning the fields after harvest, researchers found, made the largest amount of rice available to waterfowl.
Many of the Delta counties, that over-wintered high concentrations of ducks in the past, have maxed out on the number of acres allowed in the Waterfowl Reserve Program and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), according to Scott Baker, a waterfowl biologist with the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (MDWFP).
"The older CRP land has been planted in trees, lessening the number of flooded grain fields that provide the main staple of duck's winter diet," Baker noted.
Of course, all sorts of good management north of us won't make a flicker of difference if ducks have no reason to go the extra miles and fly in to the vast stretches of Mississippi Delta acreage. The main factors that determine whether ducks arrive in the Delta are temperature, a safe place to rest and available food.
"We don't have a crystal ball that predicts when the ducks will come, or if they will come this far south," said Baker. "Ducks like to stay right around the freeze line, so a cold northern winter means more ducks at least pass through Mississippi. But ducks also need food and re
sting areas. The habitat has changed tremendously in the last 10 years."
Because of the changes in farming, Baker said ducks are shifting their wintering areas. Many are staying in Missouri, which has a lot of farmland that is managed cooperatively between the owners and the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC). Farmers plant corn or other grain, which is left in the fields for wildlife, and the MDC subsidizes the farmers for that grain.
Still the questions remain - will we get ducks this winter and if so, when? Cold weather up north, coupled with a relatively warm winter in Mississippi would do a lot to make waterfowl hunters happy.
Not that we wish them blizzards in Wisconsin and the Dakotas, but they've been hogging the ducks for too long after their own seasons have long been closed. We need a winter that's cold enough to push the ducks down to us, but not cold enough in our area to flush them down to the Louisiana marshes.
Finding ducks on public land even when they are in Mississippi is still an iffy situation in the Delta, where most of the acreage is tied up by big farms or by hunting clubs that have leased the land for generations. Still, there are wildlife management areas (WMA) along the Mississippi River floodplain that can provide an exciting day of shooting.
WATERFOWL HUNTING Most of the best public access spots are in the south Delta, according to the MDWFP's Baker. He favors the refuges that are clustered in the counties near Greenville, which is undisputedly "duck central" for Mississippi.
Regulations on the WMAs are different than private-land hunting. Most of the WMAs require a filled-out permit before leaving your vehicle. Many close hunting at noon, and several require that hunters carry only 25 shells.
Many of the refuges that have duck hunting have green timber areas or scatters, which are flooded to provide shelter for the ducks. Most waterfowlers hunt these areas from camouflaged boats. Boat ramps are marked on the WMA maps that can be downloaded from the MDWFP Web site or obtained from the area headquarters.
Other favorite tactics are to use coffin blinds, where hunters lie down in a camouflage tent and wait for ducks to pass over or use some form of a permanent above-ground or pit blind.
The MDWFP district offices keep close track of what is happening in the individual WMAs. If you are planning a duck hunt, call the district office nearest your destination to find out about water conditions and whether there are ducks at a particular WMA. One long-distance phone call can prevent a long haul to a duckless impoundment.
Waterfowlers who hunt from duck camps and other base camps need to be very careful about the number of ducks in the camp. Make sure that there are enough hunters actually present at all times to account for the number of ducks there. If a camp doesn't have a processing permit and all ducks are not recorded, any hunter found in residence by the conservation officer is considered the owner of the total number of ducks. The ticket is generally $50 for each duck over the possession limit, plus a minimum $1,500 fine. A hunter may also lose hunting privileges for up to three years.
Camouflage in a rice field is very different from what is needed in flooded timber. Carry dark patterns for woodland and grass patterns with lots of yellow for field hunting.
Since weather can change rapidly during a duck hunt, be prepared. If it is a multi-day hunt, pack clothes for both warm and cold weather. One of the coldest places in the world is a duck blind before dawn, but by 10 a.m., you may be pulling off clothes and sweating.
Make sure mosquito repellent is included in your daypack. Mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus have been detected in the Delta, so spray well and renew your bug spray as it gets washed or sweated off.
NORTH DELTA The hot spots in the northern Delta are in Tallahatchie, Tunica and Quitman counties, according to Jim McNeely, District II Law Enforcement Manager. He said last year was good for duck hunters in this area.
"Sardis and Grenada Lake waterfowl refuge areas are loaded with ducks every winter," biologist Baker said. "Unfortunately for hunters, these waters are off-limits to duck hunters. Most of the other land in the area is leased up or in private land. Farmer leave standing crops and floodwaters cover the fields. Ducks overnight on the reservoir and leave in the morning to fly out to feed."
The best public hunting spots around these big reservoirs are areas where the standing timber has been flooded and has died, especially those that are close to grain fields.
"Migrating ducks fly in to these areas to rest," Baker noted. "It's never a sure thing that they'll be there, and often, if they're shot at, they don't stay."
Other public lands that generally hold ducks when conditions are right are O'Keefe WMA, the Mississippi River - especially when icy conditions persist so ponds and flooded fields freeze - and the Graham Lake Marsh Project. Baker also suggested trying the Tallahatchie and Cold Water rrivers in Tallahatchie County.
"Private lands south of O'Keefe had a 5- to 7-square-mile area that held thousands of ducks last year," McNeely noted. "It's hard to believe the number of ducks you can see there on a winter afternoon."
Most of the refuges have beaver ponds or streams that are great places to find wood ducks. If ducks are scarce, try an early-morning hunt on some of these less-utilized waterways. Many mornings during deer season, I've spent hours watching wood ducks wander around on patches of water that don't look like they would support a crawfish.
SOUTH DELTA The counties located around Greenville have duck hunting that rivals the best anywhere. There are dozens of outfitters and guide services and a surprising amount of public land that is planted and flooded for ducks. Most of the locals become duck experts, and during the season it seems every table in Greenville restaurants buzzes with talk of where to find ducks and how the season is going.
"McKintyre Scatters is world famous for its duck hunting," said Sergeant Scott Dean, conservation officer in District III, which includes most of the best duck hunting in the Delta. "Matthews Brake in Leflore County has public hunting, and the Mississippi River often produces. Malmaison, Twin Oaks, Sunflower and Mahannah WMAs are all planted and flooded for ducks."
Unfortunately, that information is not a great secret. Many of these WMAs and refuges are crowded, especially on weekends.
"Last year the best hunting was the first and last week of the season," Dean said.
FOR MORE INFORMATION For information on outfitte
rs and duck guides in Mississippi, check out www.outfiters.org or call (800) 270-3358. For information on whether the ducks are in Mississippi, contact the Mississippi Department of Wildlife Fisheries and Parks District II office at (662) 563-6330 for north Delta, or the District III office at (662) 459-9759 for the southern Delta.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Mississippi Game & Fish