Ducks call coastal marshes home and a record forecast this winter means a bounty for the skilled hunter.
My partner and I sat in the pre-dawn darkness, ready for the marsh to awaken. Both of us securely hidden and stable in our pirogues, we eyeballed the decoys for the early arrival of real ducks. Before we could see them, we could hear the telltale whistles of wigeons approaching.
It was too dark, so I didn’t know if the hair on the back of my buddy’s neck was standing on end. I knew mine was. Wigeons are my favorite duck to hunt, not only for their beautiful plumage, but also for the unmistakable whistle that lets you know they are on the way. Soon we could hear ducks splashing as they landed on the water.
“How long till legal shooting time, Mike?” Keith McGraw asked.
“Six more minutes,” I replied.
As the ducks swam nervously among the decoys, minutes seemed like hours. And as always, just before it was time to shoot, the ducks lifted off the water as if they knew something was amiss. It didn’t matter, though, because a couple of minutes later another group of baldpates (wigeons) was keying on our decoy spread.
As the wary ducks floated closer, I wondered if I should respond with my whistle to the very vocal flock. Heck, they want this place, I thought, so it makes no sense to mess this up.
When the ducks did commit, I knew it was going to be a classic shot. After duck hunting with the same partner over the last 10 years, we had become a well-oiled machine. I knew if the ducks came in on his side, he would allow several to pass before taking a shot. This would ensure that I had an equal opportunity. And I would do the same if the situation were reversed.
Sixteen wigeons were soon in the kill zone over the decoys, some mesmerized by the Mojo decoy. Keith opened fire. From the corner of my eye, I saw feathers fly. I too had the end of my Beretta bead sight trained on a wigeon. As the wigeon folded, I pulled on another, missing once before giving the duck the “noodle-neck” treatment. When the smoke cleared, we had four ducks on the water, some doing the bicycle maneuver.
“Not a bad start there, buddy,” I remarked.
Before Keith could respond, we were bombarded by a flock of green-winged teal. Instinct took over and we both unloaded on the speedy teal. This time our bounty was three ducks on the water. It happened so fast that neither of us knew who shot the double.
“This hunt’s going to be over quick if they keep this up,” Keith said.
After I paddled out to pick up the ducks, I realized why this sport had hooked me since my teenager years. I am addicted to ducks.
The hunt slowed somewhat as the sun lifted well over the horizon. The ducks became more skittish, but we still finished with a nice limit of wigeons, teal and gadwalls. Although I would love to say it was due to my duck-hunting expertise, the success of that hunt was due to being observant. The day before, we had watched flock after flock of ducks float into the area while hunting a half-mile away. After watching most of the morning, we decided that would be our spot the next day. And as Hannibal used to say on the A-Team television show: “I love it when a plan comes together.”
Duck hunters who hit the marshes of the Gulf Coast each winter have their work cut out for them as they chase waterfowl in a difficult environment. Shallow brackish marshes, salt marshes and large grass-filled bays hold untold numbers of ducks that require different tactics to be successful. No matter the difficulty, coastal hunters have developed ways to take waterfowl in less than ideal conditions.
Each year thousands of ducks make their way to the Gulf Coast to spend the winter. Their only goal will be to fatten up to make the return journey north to the breeding grounds. Keeping alive is essential for these ducks, so they learn quickly how to avoid their top wintertime predator…man.
Due to extreme flooding in the Dakota Prairies and Canada breeding areas, ducks were able to nest just about anywhere they wanted this spring and summer. These ideal situations contributed greatly to the large number of ducks. They will be looking for the same scenario when headed south this winter. Water and food will be the two most important factors in holding ducks.
With the forecast this year for more ducks than any time since records were kept, it will be very important to know what to look for. Many species of ducks that have an affinity for marshy areas, including gadwalls, wigeons, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, pintails and shovelers, should command your attention this season.
All of the above mentioned species are referred to as puddle ducks. These ducks prefer to feed in shallow-water areas. The ideal conditions would be any area that has food within inches of the surface of the water. Look for large grass mats or grass beds to find a good concentration of ducks. These type areas will often attract coots first, followed by opportunistic ducks.
When doing your scouting, be observant. If you see a few ducks jump up nervously from the marsh, take note of their location to come back later. A good pair of binoculars comes in handy, allowing you to glass areas without disturbing the ducks. Should you locate a good number of ducks, try to tie something to their location. That could be a bush on the bank or the remnants of an old duck blind. Location is the key to success.
If river levels rise due to flooding, be on the lookout for newly-flooded marsh. Ducks love to hit a new area of sheet water flooding marsh grasses.
Most coastal marshes are greatly influenced by tides. An area that is a mud flat at daylight may be covered with six-inches of water a couple of hours later. Try and use these situations to your advantage.
Certain areas will only hold ducks when winds get up and push water into places normally unreachable. Take note of these places and your success rate will improve.
When hunting an area you are unfamiliar with, it’s best to put out a water marker. This could be a stick or a piece of cane that allows you to monitor the water level. This will help prevent your being left high and dry when the tide goes out.
Author’s Gear Tips
The most important part of your gear should be your gun and ammunition.
Many hunters use automatic shotguns for their speed and quickness of firing. Other hunters tend to go for pump shotguns, mainly due to ruggedness and reliability. Whether auto or pump, you’re going to need an effective shotshell to dispatch wary marsh ducks.
Some non-toxic shells have risen to as much as $2.50 per shell. With the economy in shambles, lots of hunters have a tough time coughing up that kind of coin to hunt ducks. However, with a little searching, you can still find deals on shotgun shells. Winchester is manufacturing an economy load that sells for as little as $ 11 per box of 25. The steel shot load lacks the density of the $2.50 per shell loads, but makes up for that with intense speed. Winchester Expert Hi-Velocity boasts speeds of at least 1,550 feet per second. There is an old saying that speed kills. I can attest that the Expert Hi-Velocity shells have been a solid producer for me the last five years. Saving all that cash is a big bonus.
Getting to out-of-the-way areas where marsh ducks like to hide is tough. The introduction of mud motors has really helped to access those ducks, but there are areas where even mud motors are useless. These areas are only accessible with a lightweight pirogue (Cajun pee-row). I have tried multiple models over the years, but finally have come up with a true winner. The Critter Gitter pirogue is manufactured in Alexandria, La. This sturdy, lightweight pirogue will get you to the skinniest of waters without taxing you to the limit. Even if you tip the scales over 200 lbs., this pirogue will help you navigate there. Try using a kayak paddle for your pirogue. It speeds up the motion and takes you where you’re going if you’re attempting to retrieve downed ducks. A good push pole is another tool you want to have to push you over mud flats.
Whether you like them or not, motion decoys work. The rotating wings of the decoys mimic the backpedaling motion of a duck landing. Mojo Decoys has been a leader in motion decoys for years. Although these decoys seem to be less effective later in the season, many hunters will not hunt without them, no matter how late the season.
Your standard decoy spread should not be ignored either. G&H Decoys, as well as Flambeau Decoys, make realistic, durable and tough decoys that will last for years.
Be sure to use the species that frequent your area. Gadwalls are a must on coastal areas, closely followed by teal and shoveler decoys. And don’t forget coot decoys. That’s right! Coot decoys will help turn wary puddle ducks to your decoy spread. Many years ago, I started using 2-litre Coke bottles to make coot decoys. You simply scuff the outside of the 2-litre bottles and then paint flat black, like a coot. Spray the inside to complete the decoy coloring.
Duck calls are important to get the attention of ducks. Less calling is best, especially in late season. After Christmas, you should employ the use of a whistle. Ducks have heard standard mallard hen calls all the way down the flyway. Try to mimic the calls of gadwalls, widgeon, teal and pintail to urge ducks to your decoys. I prefer the Wingsetter Eight-in-One call to fool late season ducks.
Finally, I know a retriever is not technically a piece of gear, but an important component nonetheless. A good dog will find ducks in high weeds and marsh grasses aided by a sense of smell. The retriever can also get to and dispatch wounded birds that swim out of your shotgun’s range. If you have a dog…bring it!
This year is stacking up as one for the record books. Let’s hope for cold weather to usher in the mother lode of ducks to the coast that we all have been waiting for.
See you in the marsh.
Critter Gitter Pirogues
Winchester Xpert Hi-Velocity Steel Shotshells