Few duck hunters will argue that Mississippi's alluvial valley offers the best duck hunting in the state. The heart of the Mississippi flyway, the Delta area provides the three most important things to migrating ducks: food, water and cover.

Ducks of all species flock to the area - especially prized species such as mallards, teal and wood ducks. Many hunters come to the area to hunt private land that is manipulated and maintained for the sole purpose of drawing these birds, but they aren't the only successful duck hunters in the area - not by a long shot.

Thanks to intense management practices by the MDWFP, even hunters who don't have access to exclusive private land can enjoy some of the best duck hunting in the state on a number of wildlife management areas.

Kevin Brunke is a waterfowl biologist with the MDWFP, and from his office in Jackson, he works to improve the state's waterfowl habitat and increase hunting opportunities on both private and public hunting lands.

Mississippi Sportsman asked Brunke to rank the best public duck hunting opportunities in the state. The biologist provided his top three picks for the upcoming season.


Mahannah WMA

Of the 12,695 acres that comprise the Mahannah Wildlife Management Area, only 10 percent, or 1,200 acres, is flooded agriculture land. This makes Mahannah a mecca for waterfowlers who want to experience the thrill of hunting flooded timber in bottomland hardwoods and cypress swamps. No blinds or stands are maintained at Mahannah, so hunters must bring their own concealment or make use of available natural cover.

The WMA is hunted only four days a week - Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday - and hunters who are selected by drawing for hunts on a reserved basis get priority. Afterwards, standby hunters are allowed to draw for available spaces.

"Mahannah typically has a good percentage of timber that doesn't flood in normal years," said Brunke. "With the high water levels we've experienced through the summer and fall, it looks like a lot of timber in Mahannah that has been dry in past seasons will have water. This demonstrates the need for scouting out areas and knowing where the ducks are before you select where to hunt."

Access to hunt areas at Mahannah is more difficult than many of the state's other WMAs. Hunters have options of using ATVs in some areas and small boats to others, and some extended walking or wading often takes place to reach a selected site.

Brunke said that the flooded fields offer a bit easier access, and hunters will find planted millet for food and various sudan grasses for cover. In normal years, up to 32 parties can be accommodated within the 27 field positions available and five roaming positions within the standing timber.

"That number may be adjusted with the expected higher water levels this season," said Brunke. "Some of our fields were already underwater when it was time to plant, but they do maintain a certain level of native vegetation that will attract ducks. On the other end, we may shift more of our parties to timber hunting depending on the acreage that opens up with the higher water."


Howard Miller WMA

At nearly twice the size of Mahannah, Howard Miller WMA is a 2,400-acre state property with nearly 2,100 acres of flooded fields. Located southwest of the town of Rolling Fork in Issaquena County, Howard Miller is bordered on three sides by duck refuge areas that help keep the human pressure low and the duck numbers high. Typically easier access to the 24 hunt sites, which were once part of a soybean and rice plantation, is available through a series of ATV access roads. Four wheel drive is highly recommended as these ATV trails can become slick as the season progresses.

"Howard Miller is growing in popularity, owing to the high success rates there with nearly three birds per gun every day averaged over the entire season," said Brunke. "That's an average of three birds in hand every day for every hunter who steps foot in there. When you consider the lulls in migrations, the bad-weather days, the fact that not all duck hunters shoot as well as others, a three-bird average is pretty amazing."

Howard Miller is hunted on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Like Mahannah, it is also a draw hunt for reserved spaces with standby hunts available afterward. Brunke reported that no standby hunter has been turned away over the last two seasons at this WMA.

"After a morning briefing at the old house headquarters where sites are drawn and standbys are filled in, hunters report to one of 24 units, which are roughly ¼ mile wide and ½ mile long and comprise nearly 80-acre flooded fields," said the biologist. "Parties of up to four hunters per party are allowed to hunt on each unit until noon. Afterwards, hunters must vacate by 1 p.m., and scouting may take place afterwards."


Malmaison WMA

In contrast to both Mahannah and Howard Miller, Malmaison maintains its position as a top pick on Brunke's list despite not being regulated by drawing. In addition, Malmaison is open for waterfowl hunting every day of the week. Hunting is allowed on a first-come, first-served basis with the understanding that hunters will allow fellow hunters courtesy and space without overcrowding. In addition, a couple of additional regulations are in place to reduce overhunting.

"One benefit to Malmaison is that there are a number of access points, depending on where the hunter wants to hunt," said Brunke. "The two primary areas are Greentree Reservoir, which is a mixture of cypress brakes and flooded timber, and the McIntyre Scatters, a large cypress brake that covers a few hundred acres and is bordered by private land. This means some areas have to be accessed by boat while others offer walk-in or ATV access on authorized trails.

"Hunters cannot access these areas prior to 5 a.m., and hunting stops at noon. All hunters, boats and waterfowl gear must vacate the hunt area by 1 p.m. This allows scouting for the following day's hunt. In addition, waterfowlers are limited to carrying only 25 shells per person during the hunt."

According to Brunke, the success rate on Malmaison still averages just over 1.5 birds per hunter, which ranks high considering the area is hunted every day of the season.


Mississippi River

Though not a state-regulated wildlife area, the Mississippi River within the natural banks of the waterway is open to the public for waterfowl hunting. No listing of the top public hunting opportunities in the state would be complete without including the Mississippi.

The river is the heart of the Mississippi flyway, and longtime hunters claim that many species of ducks, like fish, migrate the same exact routes along its path every year. Hunting on the Mississippi River is not for the novice hunter.

"You have got to have a good, reliable boat with deep gunnels on it to hunt safely on the river," said duck guide Torch Tindle, who regularly takes parties out on the Mississippi. "I don't recommend that somebody who's never been out here try it without first scouting out every inch of where you intend to hunt, especially the way in and the way out.

"I once tried to lead a guy in right behind my boat, and he tucked in too close to a rock dike and tore off his lower unit. If you don't know the water, it can be a dangerous place."

Buck Burroughs agreed. He has hunted the Mississippi River since he was a youngster.

"It's a great place to hunt, and there's a ton of ducks on the river but you need to have experience out here," he said. "There's limited cellphone coverage out here, so if you get in trouble, it's hard to call for help."

With appropriate precautions, such as advanced knowledge by scouting and mapping routes, the river guides kill their ducks by zeroing in on slack water areas such as willow flats, sand bars and flooded hardwood bottoms. The guides suggest patience if the morning flights come a little later on the river."

"A lot of times we don't see a mallard on the river until after 8 a.m. because they feed somewhere inland and then come back here to preen and loaf until evening," said Tindle. "Being in the right place helps, but we also use a lot of decoys and put a lot of motion into our spreads. You've got to get their attention and that means they need to see water moving around the decoys.

"After all, from up there in the sky, the Mississippi River is an awful big place."