Twas cold and shivering, all through that pit blind in the heart of Mississippi’s Delta. The low, early morning sky spit a bit of sleet, rain and even snow through the light fog.
For sane people, it would be classified as a miserable morning.
But for duck hunters ….
“Man, this is great — icy cold, and a touch of fog that will keep them flying to flooded fields and not to the timber brakes …,” Oxford’s James Washington said
His sentence was interrupted by a distant quack. Or was it close?
It was hard to tell in the fog.
“Ducks,” came a unified response, as spirits lifted with the excitement of the first hint of action, followed by the cacophony of duck calls from at least two of the hunters.
They paused and listened, and got no response.
This time only Washington, our leader and host, called.
He got a response — a solitary mallard call from somewhere above, as in right over us.
All heads slowly turned up to look, as Washington lightly called again, mixing a little bit of quacking with what he called chattering.
Not one, not two, not three and not even 10 ducks, but a cloud of ducks was suddenly in sight. They were circling, emerging silently below the cloud layer.
It looked like a ducknado, a cyclone of waterfowl slowly dropping out of the sky. Lower and closer they came, until they eventually formed a funnel down to the water right in front of the blind.
“Wait on ’em! Wait on ’em! Wait on ’em!” Washington whispered, his call replaced in his hand by his 12-gauge over-and-under.
“NOW!” he bellowed.
Four shotguns roared to my right, all being emptied of their non-toxic shot.
I ducked. Heck, even the ducks ducked.
Five or six didn’t do so fast enough.
When all the guns silenced, I jumped up and shot at the only two greenheads still in the area.
They died where they swam.
With my third shell, I popped an injured duck trying to swim away.
Though scorned by the others, who thought it unsporting to kill ducks on the water, I knew I would learn a lot that day about duck hunting — beginning with you get funny looks from serious duck hunters for shooting mallards in the water.
But another lesson was more important, and led to a better understanding of duck hunting in the Mississippi Delta, where many hunters have the option of hunting timber or open fields.
Fields: Where the groceries are
Given a choice of hunting flooded timber or flooded grain fields, I’d take flooded timber any day. Duck flight paths to the water are limited, giving hunters the opportunity to position near those open routes to get some up-close, in-your-face action.
Plus, it’s just prettier.
“But, what if the ducks aren’t there?” asked Washington, a veteran waterfowler who would have made a great professional guide. “Take today, with the low clouds, spitting weather and fog. Ducks don’t like timber in those conditions because it’s difficult to see. They don’t like flying at all, really, but they have to eat and that means going to where the food is.
“Flooded grain fields are what they are looking for.”
Being successful in these open areas isn’t as easy as in timber.
“It’s tough hunting, because without a good pit blind most people have a hard time hiding from the ducks’ eyes,” Washington said. “And a hard rain can take a small duck hole and instantly turn it into a big duck hole.
“Take this hole (a corner of an ag field with only about a 60-yard-long, 40-yard-wide pool): If we had a good downpour overnight and came in here we’d find it had more than tripled in size. Give ducks that much space and I promise you they will land where you aren’t.”
That’s why Washington would prefer hunting a flooded brake.
“Ducks are going to use a flooded brake to rest and spend a few hours, in between going to the fields to feed,” he said. “I have two brakes that I lease, and I hunt them as little as I can because you can push the ducks out and they won’t come back.
“By comparison, I have six or seven flooded fields that I can pump full of water and that I can drain after a heavy rain. I don’t hunt the same field two days in a row, unless I get a fast shoot in the morning early and the ducks are still coming to the field as I am leaving. Otherwise, I never shoot a field more that once a week.”
Washington doesn’t limit his field hunting to cloudy days, often going to a pit blind when it’s clear with a light breeze.
“The thing you have to remember is that ducks have to eat,” he said. “And here in the Delta that means the grain fields. That’s where the groceries are. Later in the season, I do a lot more field hunting than I do in the early season. Seems early in the season, once they arrive, they hang close to the timber until they get comfortable. Then they start looking for food sources, and as they find spots they start spending more time feeding.”
Timber: The circle of death
Several years ago, I learned to enjoy hunting the timber while hunting with a good friend from Jackson in the Delta in a brake near Lake Washington.
Dr. Bob Tarver had this huge blind built around one of the biggest cypress trees I’d ever seen.
Tarver pulled his small boat in a slot cut for that purpose at the rear of the blind, and, after we unloaded, he threw some netting over the aluminum craft to hide it.
“Most of the time, ducks don’t live long enough to see the boat, but I like to keep it covered just in case,” he said. “Once the ducks enter the circle of death, it’s over for them.”
For years, I’d heard him talk about that magical ring, and I couldn’t wait for the sun to climb high enough to see it for myself. We took seats in the blind in the dark, while Tarver turned on the quite propane burner that provided a nice heat source and, in 10 minutes, a cup of hot coffee.
There were two of us there with the doctor, and we were peppering him with questions about the setup.
“Just wait; you’ll see,” Tarver kept saying.
Thirty minutes later, we understood why he so valued this hole.
It was a huge cypress brake, with wall-to-wall trees for hundreds of yards, plus tons of undergrowth that looked like thickets scattered throughout the view.
The only opening was about a round, 70-yard area right in front of the blind — the circle of death. In it sat about 50 decoys.
The blind was on the east side of the hole, putting the sun at the hunters’ backs.
“Once they commit and drop into that opening, they are in trouble,” Tarver said while scanning the skies. “You’ve got to stay ready because they will just appear without warning. We get a lot of singles, doubles and small groups. That’s the way it is most years when the Delta just isn’t overloaded with ducks.
“But, because of this setup, if they come to this brake, they are coming into gun range. The shooting is pretty easy.”
A minute or two later, we heard a couple of ducks in the distance and I expected to hear Tarver call. Instead, he just sat watching.
“The hole does the work for me most of the time,” he said. “I call — actually I call a lot — but first I give the hole time to see if it will pull them in on its own.
“Look; there’s two now.”
A couple of green-headed mallards made one circle around the edge of the opening, cupped up and dropped into the circle.
Tarver got them both with one shot each, both at about 20 yards.
The circle of death claimed two more victims.
“This was mostly a natural opening, but I think there were few trees felled to open it up,” Tarver said. “Best setup I’ve ever seen.”
“Best season … ever”
Being retired, James Washington can hunt as many days as he wants — and in the 2014-15 season he wanted to hunt a lot.
“Best season I ever had in 30 years,” the former banker said, “even better than the year before, which was second best. We had excellent hunting two years ago, with that extremely cold winter. Ducks came early, and we took care to make them last.
“Last year, it was cold extremely early here in November and even more so in the upper Midwest. Best migration I’ve ever seen, long and steady. We did a lot of timber and a lot of field hunting.
“We had one really cold, really clear morning that we started in a pit blind in a field. Four of us limited on mallards and filled out with some green-wings (teal) and gadwall. We were through by 7:15. We left and drove back to camp, and I saw a group of deer hunters coming back from their stands, and I grabbed three of them, put them in waders and took them to the timber in a brake. It was loaded with ducks when we got there and we bumped them out.”
Washington said his new hunters were a bit disappointed, but he knew better. These were ducks that had already filled their bellies with grain, and were looking for a place to raft up and rest for a while.
“I told them to get in the timber, get tight to a tree and ducks would come,” he said. “And, I was right. They got their limits in under an hour. I don’t know if it was the ducks that had been there that were coming back or just new ducks. The Delta was so full of ducks I just knew we’d get some.
“Honestly, I don’t know if there would have been a bad place to be that day. The ducks were just flying.”