Duck hunters have two basic, different philosophies on how to handle early arriving waterfowl in December, before the main migration finally reaches Mississippi.
The first is to be conservative, hoping not to overshoot the ducks that find their water holes, the idea being that the ducks will stick around and they can get more than one or two hunts.
The second is just the opposite; shoot them when they get the chance because there is no guarantee the ducks will stay around anyway.
None of that matters to Austin Partridge, part of the new generation of Mississippi duck hunters. He hunts public land most of the time, so he goes whenever he can, willing to take whatever nature gives him. And last year, in an oddly mild winter, it gave him enough to increase his fast-growing love of duck hunting.
Partridge, 20, from Terry, is a member of a group of seven young duck hunters who work together to stay on top of waterfowl. He is among the oldest, while his brother, Wesley, 18, is the youngest.
“There’s seven of us, and we do work together, swapping information and trying to keep up with the best WMAs and other public lands to hunt,” said Austin Partridge, who grew up an avid deer hunter.
“Deer hunting got boring. Duck hunting was a lot more exciting,” he said. “I always liked it more, and I went with my dad when I could. When I got my driver’s license at 16, that’s when I really started going duck hunting. We’d go somewhere every weekend to hunt, my friends and I. We’d try to get drawn for hunts, and if we didn’t, we’d go on standby, and depending on the WMA, we could usually count on going as standby at least two or three days a week. At Muscadine Farms WMA, we usually can hunt, but at Howard Miller WMA, you aren’t likely to get to hunt on standby.”
The group also hunts public land where draws are no necessary.
“We hunt at Delta National Forest, Sky Lake and Panther Swamp (National Wildlife Refuge), where there are no draws,” Partridge said. “Our core group, we network together and share reports. A lot of public-land hunting is trial-and-error. We may go set up on one hole where ducks have been working, but they don’t go in there that day. We will send one or two guys to another hole, and if the ducks are going in there, we’ll move.
“On a lot of places that we standby hunt, we’re in flooded fields. We pick a spot; it might be good, and it might not. If the ducks are not there, we will move. We may have to move more than once or twice in a day.”
The key is going whenever Partridge has the opportunity.
“For me, my job is in the garage-door business; if the weather was good, I would work, and if it wasn’t, I would duck hunt,” he said. “And I’d duck hunt on every day off. That’s how you have to do it to stay on top of ducks on public lands.
“You have to hunt public lands different from private lands, where the ducks might not be as pressured as they are on public lands. On public lands, we’ve learned to call less and use pull strings on the decoys. On private lands, you can pretty much toss out decoys and call whenever. Public land ducks are a lot more skittish.”
The Partridge family has a membership in a hunting camp in Claiborne County, on the banks of Bayou Pierre near its confluence with the Mississippi River. It is a deer-oriented camp but has duck-hunting opportunities.
“We can only hunt ducks on Saturday mornings,” Partridge said. “We can get a limit of wood ducks just about every day, and we can get a mallard or two or three each day.”
There are some years when it’s extremely cold when the Delta freezes over and the river gets out of its banks and floods the deer food plots, when the camp can house thousands of mallards. A bite or two of that action, and a trip to the Arkansas paradise between the White and Cache Rivers with his dad four years ago increased Partridge’s appetite for duck hunting. The impact has been life changing.
“He used to be a deer hunter, but now he eats, sleeps and thinks duck hunting all season,” said Keith Partridge. “I’d like to say I taught him a lot about it, but that kid has learned so much on his own. Boy can kill some ducks.”
Austin Partridge will become a fireman in 2018, a career that will allow plenty of duck hunting time in the winter.
“A lot of it is 24 hours on and then 48 off,” he said. “I can get some duck hunting in.”
Last season, Partridge’s go-often plan worked to perfection in December. Two freak and hard cold fronts, one early in the month and then another mid-month, pushed a lot of ducks down.
“Killed more big ducks — mallards, pintails, gadwalls and canvasback — than I ever have,” Partridge said. “They came early and they stayed as long as it was cold. They did leave when it warmed up, but they came back again when it got cold, and I think the last three weeks in January we had about as good a season as we could have.
“Even on public land, all we had to have was a cold front of any kind, and we had plenty of ducks. I hope that happens again this year."
To conserve, or to shoot?
While public-land hunters go whenever they can, hunters with access to private land and water still face the question of how much pressure they can put on ducks. Gene Thompson of Southaven leans to the conservative side.
“If we get ducks early, the last thing I want to do is hit them hard in the opening week and run them off,” said Thompson, who hunts in the north Delta in both Bolivar and Tunica counties. “We’ve got a limited amount of planted duck holes and natural brakes to hunt, and at each place, the hunting spots are close together.
“It’s not like we can shoot at Spot A on Saturday, and simply move to Spot B on Sunday and think the ducks will just go from A to B. Normally, when they decide to move, they move completely off the property and don’t come back.”
What Thompson and his camp mates do is hunt sparingly at each location until the main migration arrives.
“We are lucky in that we do have two totally different duck leases, one with all natural oxbows and brakes in Tunica County and the one in Bolivar where we have a flooded ag fields,” he said. “We can hunt one on Saturday and the other on Sunday and not have to worry about too much pressure on either one. But you know how ducks are; there are times they like timber and times they like open shallow flooded fields. Last year, our fields filled early, and we went down there in December after we had those two early Arctic fronts and found a lot of ducks — more ducks than we’d ever seen in December.
“We hammered them on Saturday and decided to hit them again on Sunday. We had a four-man limit on Saturday in an hour, and on Sunday, we had to stay until 9 a.m. to get the limit. Both days, it was a mix of mallards and (gadwall), but on Sunday the number of greenheads went down considerably. We mostly shot gadwall and green-wings (teal). It was so encouraging that we went back on Wednesday, and we didn’t get but like nine or 10 ducks between us, and after that we didn’t have any ducks on that lease until a week or 10 days into January.”
Thompson said the group decided it was a lesson learned.
“We knew the ducks were still around, because we could hear neighboring clubs blasting; they just weren’t on us anymore,” he said. “We decided right then that we’d never hammer the same hole on consecutive days again, at least not until after the main migration hits in January.”
Lenny Hall of Greenville couldn’t disagree more in philosophy.
“I’m a third-generation duck hunter, maybe even fourth or fifth, and I learned early that if you got ducks, shoot them,” he said. “December is still a transition time for a lot of the ducks that come to the Delta. Most of them are still thinking ‘go south,’ and when they aren’t thinking that, because of sudden return of warm or hot weather, they’re thinking ‘go north.’
“Because of Mississippi’s natural climate, we go from hot to cold to hot — or at least cool to warm to cool to warm — so often in December and even early January, that ducks are never very comfortable. They aren’t likely to be putting down roots for the winter in December.”
Because of that, Hall’s philosophy is to take advantage of ducks when you have ducks.
“By all means, shoot them if you’ve got them, because whether you pressure them or not, they are highly likely to get up and move on you anyway,” he said. “I don’t care what kind of land or habitat you are hunting, if you have ducks today, shoot ducks today, because there are no guarantees they are going to be there tomorrow. And once they’re gone, they’re gone, and you’re left waiting for the next group to arrive.
“I know a lot of people will say, ‘Well, it helps to have ducks in the hole when the next group arrives to attract the new ones.’ My answer to that is that whatever it was that attracted the first group to that hole still exists and will still be attractive to the next arrivals.”
Provide fresh food
It is true that keeping fresh food available will help attract ducks, and the best way to do that, if possible, is to stagger when you flood land.
Jacob Sartain manages waterfowl habitat for pleasure and for profit. He works year-round on his own property to hunt and also manages duck habitat for clients who simply don’t have the time or the “want to” to do it themselves.
Starting in November and continuing through December, Sartain said it’s important to stagger field flooding to create new, food-rich habitat.
“If you’re in a group with hundreds and hundreds of acres, you don’t flood it all at once,” he said. “Of course, if you are the average guy, with a small amount of acres, you may have to go ahead and flood it all.
“The idea is to give the ducks the moist soil for the front end of the year, in December, when that’s the kind of food they want and need. By time the season opens, Thanksgiving, you want to have no less than 25 percent and up to 40 percent of the habitat flooded. From opening day to Christmas, you want to exceed 50 percent, and after that, flood it all.”
That means setting the table for January.
“You want that fresh food later in the season,” Sartain said. “The colder it gets, in January, that’s when the most ducks come in, and ducks, especially mallards, want the freshest food supply.”
By January, all thoughts of being conservative to save ducks are out the window.
“At that point, especially by mid-January, you go hunting whenever you can and shoot whatever’s there until you get the limit,” Thompson said. “Then, you go back the next day, either to the same hole or another, and hope there’s another limit day ahead.”
Of course, there’s the Partridge way.
“Find ducks on a public land and go hunting; that’s all we do,” he said.