The lonely, wailing cry of a wood duck hen greeted the morning as pink daylight edged farther across the sky.

Still cloaked in the pitch darkness of night, four young hunters shivered in sync with the two retrievers poised at their feet, anticipating the first flight of ducks that could be heard whistling high overhead.

From off behind the group, duck guide Torch Tindle hailed the unseen birds with his friendliest acrylic greeting through the duck call grasped in his hand.

Suddenly from stage left, an acrobatic flight of greenwing teal cartwheeled across the spread of decoys displayed in front of the hunters.

“Take ‘em !” commanded Tindle.

With the go ahead, the four young men pushed back the concealment of the blind and rose to greet the day in a hail of steel and feathers.

Across our state, duck hunters get a taste of duck hunting in two doses before the long season comes in. Thanksgiving weekend and another three-day weekend during early December break the ice for Mississippi waterfowlers before the main season opens on Dec. 9 and runs until Jan. 31, 2010. For waterfowlers who hunt along Mississippi’s delta region, this year has the makings of being one of the best on record.

Located in Shelby, Tindle and Buck Burroughs operate Dixie Ducks Guide Service from the parking lot of Tindle’s NAPA Auto Parts store. The two hunters have lived in and hunted the area their entire lives. According to these guides, this year’s forecast is a good one.

“I have a dog trainer who goes up to South Dakota and trains dogs through the summer,” said Tindle. “He’s right in the middle of the prairie pothole region, where we get most of our ducks, and he said he hasn’t seen this much water and this many ducks in the 15 years he’s been going up here.”

According to Tindle, water, ducks and weather are the three main ingredients that vary year to year across his hunting area, which spans Coahoma, Bolivar and Sunflower counties. Water up north means the prairie potholes, the nursery areas that spread across the northern U.S. and Canada, will produce good numbers of ducks. Water is also necessary in the Mississippi River to provide resting and feeding areas for migrating birds. That means weather — colder weather up north that will push the ducks south — is the final ingredient.

“We got plenty of food and water here now,” said Burroughs, who has been guiding with Tindle for more than 15 years. “I’ve talked with many of the local farmers, and there are crops out in the fields now that they can’t get up. Some have told me they expect to lose 50 to 80 percent of their beans and rice because they’ve been under water too long.”

With the table set for an easy duck barbecue, many hunters would think it’s just a matter of heading out and bringing plenty of shells. The pair of hunters has some advice for waterfowlers preparing to go it alone.

Where to hunt

There are a number of options both public and private for local and visiting Mississippi waterfowlers. The state provides a series of draw hunts, stand-by hunts and first-come, first-served hunts on state-managed public lands. Private landowners and farmers often lease waterfowl rich land to clubs or individuals on a seasonal basis, and there are also guides and outfitters who do all the work of scouting and preparing sites beforehand for a daily guide fee. Some public land, such as the backwaters of the Mississippi River, are also available, but times have changed for most freelance waterfowlers.

“The days of coming out, finding birds working on a piece of property and going to the landowner and getting permission to hunt are pretty much a thing of the past,” said Burroughs. “Used to be we didn’t really have to ask permission to go lay in somebody’s muddy field and shoot birds that were eating their crops. Nowadays, it’s like golf — everybody wants to do it, whether they’re good at it or not, and there’s only so much unpressured land to go round.”

Getting that land under lease is a high priority.

“Buck and I have probably four dozen properties that we lease in these three counties,” said Tindle. “Some of them we’ve hunted all our lives, and some we pick up because other hunters don’t take care of the property and consider the landowner’s requests when hunting there.”

Tindle indicates it’s extremely important to have a number of areas to hunt because not all areas will hold birds and not all areas will hold birds the entire season.

“We hunt what I call the local birds the first couple of weekends,” he said. “Mostly gadwall, late-season teal and a few mallards will stay in some of our deep-water timber holes year round. Then right before Christmas, we’ll start to get the migratory greenheads once the fronts start pushing them down. Later, we’ll get some pintails, redheads and an assortment of just about everything.”

Other than the Mississippi River, Tindle and Burroughs hunt lands that range from flooded crop fields to standing timber holes, plus a variety of sloughs, breaks and ditches. The one thing they’ve never been successful at, however, is creating a duck hole.

“Only God can make a duck go where he doesn’t want to,” said Burroughs. “I’ve known several groups of guys who have bought a patch of timber over here, clear cut it, planted it and flooded it with water and tried to hunt it, and they just never kill that many ducks. We’ve even tried it, and it never worked out. Ducks go where they want to go, and I believe that has to do with places they migrate to every year.”

That’s not a unique trait in nature.

“It’s like fishing,” said Tindle, who also guides for crappie through the spring and summer. “There are places they’re going to be and places they aren’t. The key is figuring out where they want to be.”

Scouting

Having a variety of places to hunt is both a virtue and a hindrance for the Dixie Ducks guides. They hunt just about every day of the season, which means after they come out of the blind at noon, they get in the truck and go looking for birds to hunt the next day. Tindle says the hunting is the easy part.

“I have about a 50-mile loop I run everyday,” he said. “Once our group of hunters has left, I go check other places we didn’t hunt because ducks are constantly flying in and a new group of ducks may not come to the hole you hunted today.”

One thing that both Tindle and Burroughs can depend on is their own eyes once they’re out of the blind and behind the wheel of the truck.

“We never go into a place we might want to hunt the next day,” said Tindle. “Most of the time I can get close enough on a gravel road to watch the sky or look at the water with binoculars to tell if ducks are in there. If they are in a hole one afternoon, they’ll go somewhere to roost at night, but unless there’s a major weather event coming, you can be pretty sure they’ll be back in there the next day at first light.”

Burroughs agreed.

“Hunters who aren’t down here during the season think ducks just hop from spot to spot, and it just doesn’t work that way,” he said. “There may be 300 birds in a brake or slough and fewer than 10 birds in another one that looks exactly the same only a half mile away. That’s why we have to scout every day — to know which spots hold ducks and which don’t.”

Getting set up

Once a spot is decided on, it’s up to the outfitters to get ready to hunt them the next morning. They never disturb birds they see in a field or in a flooded hole, but they do make notes if the birds are showing a preference for one side of the area or the other.

“We have a number of skid blinds that we keep on most of our leases,” said Tindle. “The first thing when we get to the hunt is move that blind over to where we saw birds. I take hunters out to the area in a Yamaha Rhino and then use it to pull the blind into position.

“Another option if we don’t have much cover to hide the blind is to use an Avery layout blind. Their Final Approach blinds work great, and we can stack those up on the Rhino, carry them in and have everybody hid in just a few minutes.”

Unlike some other regularly hunted areas, Tindle and Burroughs don’t leave decoys in their holes between hunts.

“Most of the time I’ll put out two- or three-dozen decoys,” said Tindle. “I use the Rig ‘Em Right anchors, and they just don’t tangle up. They have weights that slide and when you’re done, they clip to a carabiner, and that keeps them all organized.”

When it comes to decoy spreads, Tindle is pretty adamant about their placement. You won’t find him tossing them out at random.

“What many hunters don’t get about decoy spreads is you got to have the wind blowing into your back. Ducks land into the wind, so with the wind at my back and a hole between the decoys for them to land in right out front, they’ll land within gun range,” he said. “Then it’s time to let them have it.”