When you mention diving ducks to most Mississippi hunters, especially in the Delta, most will give you a weird look and say a few choice words. The scaup and other divers that are prize waterfowl in some parts of the country just aren't that popular in the Magnolia State.

Well, at least not many people will admit they are.

Virtually no one hunted divers in the Delta region until duck hunting grew in popularity in the mid-1990s. At that time, the commercial catfish industry was thriving, and there were tens of thousands of acres of "deep-water" habitat in the Delta that wintered hundreds of thousands of diving ducks. Canvasback, scaup, redhead, bufflehead, ring-necked ducks and others could be found in abundance in the Delta.

Some diver hunting could be found on the Mississippi River and associated oxbow lakes, but quite possibly the most-important diver habitat in the state was adjacent the sandy beaches of the Gulf Coast.

Mississippi's coastal waterfowling habitat can possibly be split into two important areas - the coastal marsh and the Mississippi Sound. Different duck species favor each and sometimes a mixture of the two. The puddlers like mallards, widgeon and pintail are more likely to be found in the freshwater habitats of the marsh. Diving ducks such as bufflehead, redhead and scaup can be found in the saltwater areas of the sound. And then sometimes you get species like the canvasback and ring-necked duck that will inhabit areas with a fresh/saltwater mixture, but more than likely prefer fresh over saline conditions.

 

Sound tactics

"When it's good, it's good, but when it's bad, it's bad," said Saucier resident Mark Wright, who has been hunting the sound all of his life. "Weather fronts dictate just about all divers on the Gulf. You get some birds that hang around, but to truly hunt the good flights of bluebills, redheads and buffleheads, you've got to hunt the fronts.

"Typically right before and during a front is when the hunting is at its best. The birds are looking for places to raft up, and stronger fronts seem to bring more birds."

Hunting gets better as the season moves along, according to Johnny Rutherford of Bay St. Louis.

"The turn of the year tends to be the best time to start pursuing ducks in the sound," he said. "At this point, several cold fronts have pushed some birds to the wintering grounds, and the large flocks are just beginning to congregate. From Jan. 1 to the close of the season, the diver hunter will put all his hard work into action."

Scouting helps, even on the day of the hunt, advised Tom Moorman, director of Conservation Planning in Ducks Unlimited's Southern Region.

"I'd put the time in on the boat ride to find foraging flocks of birds, and then go back and set up in that area and see what happened," he said. "Unfortunately, with a two-scaup limit, one would have to hope for some redheads too.

"In that case, I'd also be looking for shoalgrass flats since that is the primary food for redheads along the Gulf Coast. Find both shoalgrass and scaup feeding on clams, and you have a decent chance to kill maybe two scaup, two redheads and then fill in the bag with a couple buffleheads or if you are lucky maybe a scoter or long-tailed duck, but numbers of both of those are pretty low on the Gulf Coast."

But you'll have to earn the ducks, according to Rutherford.

"Decoys are the ticket!" he said. "When hunting the sound, the hunter wants to imitate a large flock. Divers feel at home with other divers. Old mallard decoys can be utilized for the diver hunt. We just paint them black and put a touch of white on the sides. Ten dozen decoys should be the minimum amount a hunter has in his spread."

Wright typically uses a dozen decoys per line, rigged with a swivel clip to a longline for simplicity. A half cinder block can be used for a weight.

"Diver ducks normally raft up in large groups, and you should try to recreate this look with your decoys," said Matt Perkins from Diamondhead, who routinely hunts Bay St. Louis and Heron Bay as well as the sound. "Many hunters use 50 or more decoys. Since your main target will be scaup, bufflehead and redheads, try to include all three species in your spread.

"I like to separate the buffleheads from the other species; they seem to concentrate directly on their species decoys.

"Decoy weight is very important. Tides run hard, and you don't want to be chasing decoys in the sound instead of hunting. Many hunters utilize longline rigs, nylon line with heavy 2-pound anchor weights on each end. Then 20-25 decoys are attached.

"On average we bring two boats, one for decoys and one for gear. I use a minimum of four dozen decoys and have used as many as 300 decoys. My average spread is 100 to 120 decoys. I use high visibility colors like magnum bluebills and cans, but I have used old decoys painted black and white for high contrast. We put the more realistic ones farther out and the black/white painted ones closer to the hunters."

Both Wright and Rutherford suggest that calling is not as important as is getting the attention of the birds on the open water.

"Some of the old-timers never even called," Rutherford said. "They would just wave their handkerchiefs in the air similar to flagging geese. I have seen this work as well.

"When setting out the diver spread I like to have the wind at my back, and I utilize the old check mark style spread."

Wright sometimes heads to the south side of Deer Island, where the shoalgrass beds were plentiful before Hurricane Katrina. He also suggests hunting the oyster reefs.

"We stand on the sandy, mud bottom next to the edge of the grass, in water 2 to 4 feet deep," he said. "I'll take a pirogue, cover it with burlap camo and put the dog in it and make him lay down. We flag to the rafts of birds off in the distance. They will usually come in and run the V-line of decoys. Then you just jump up and shoot."

While divers don't seem to be as wary as most puddle ducks, don't forego all common sense when it comes to camouflage, advises Rutherford.

"When hunting points of marsh, pay close attention to camouflage," he said. "Yes, we will be hunting divers, and for the most part the common species are not very wary. However, you never know when a large flock of pintails will show up to the party. Even worse, Mr. Can shows up, and he is timid to commit because the camouflaging job had been neglected."

Also resist the temptation to flock shoot. Divers are the agile acrobats of the waterfowl world. They often fly in tight groups making hard banks into the wind creating misery to the novice shooter.

Divers may not be recognized as great table fare when compared to their green-headed cousins, but they can fly absolute circles around them in the air.

"Hunting on the open sound or bays means you will normally encounter high winds, and this will dictate the use of 12-gauge shotguns with No. 2 or 3 steel shot," Perkins said. "Diver ducks are very tough waterfowl, and if you don't kill them dead in the air, quickly shoot them one more time before or when they hit the water. They are known to dive and surface hundreds of yards from your location."

 

Valuable habitat

According to a 2002 report by the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the Gulf Coast is the terminus of the Central and Mississippi Flyways, and is therefore one of the most important waterfowl areas in North America, providing both wintering and migration habitat for significant numbers of the continental duck and goose populations that use both flyways.

The Gulf Coast Joint Venture (GCJV) is an area comprised of coastal marshes in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The coastal marshes of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama regularly hold half of the wintering duck population of the Mississippi Flyway.

The GCJV also provides year-round habitat for over 90 percent of the continental population of mottled ducks, and serves as a key breeding area for whistling ducks. In addition, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl use the Gulf Coast as stopover habitat while migrating to and from Mexico and Central and South America.

The GCJV region is the primary wintering range for several species of ducks and geese, and is a major wintering area for every other North American duck except wood ducks, American black ducks, cinnamon teal and some sea ducks.

The Mississippi Sound is the region of the Gulf that lies between the mainland counties of Harrison, Hancock and Jackson and the barrier islands. Flanked on the east by Mobile Bay and the west by Lake Pontchartrain, this area is approximately 70 miles in width from the Louisiana to the Alabama borders.

Four drainage basins bisect the coastline, and they are the Pearl River, Pascagoula River, Biloxi Bay and St. Louis Bay. Nearly 40,000 acres of coastal marsh can be found in these four basins, which gives the area a blend of freshwater, brackish and saltwater habitats. Another 29,000 acres of coastal marsh are contained in the Grand Bay/ Bangs Lake marsh, Graveline Bay marsh, Biloxi River marsh, Jourdan River marsh and the Wolf River marsh.

Moorman said that the Mississippi Sound and associated coastal marshes are very important wintering areas for ducks.

"The North American Waterfowl Management Plan has a winter habitat population objective for the Mississippi Coast (basically Mississippi Sound) of about 23,700 ducks," he said. "Of that amount, about 13,800 are lesser/greater scaup that winter on the sound proper.

"In recent years, I don't think the sound has wintered that number of birds though. Partly that could be weather driven with the mostly mild winters we've had (except last winter). There are also scattered flocks in low numbers of buffleheads and redheads, and even a few long-tailed ducks and surf scoters (but not very many of either of those two species).

"More inland fresher marsh areas may winter up to about 6,000 ring-necked ducks and a handful of canvasbacks, but both of those species have a decided preference for more freshwater habitats so are less likely to be found by hunters out on the sound proper."

Louisiana State University's Alan Afton has been conducting important research on lesser scaup for many years. The continental lesser scaup population has seen a dramatic decrease since 1978, and reached an all-time low in 2006.

Afton has headed a pilot project for several seasons that involves capturing female scaup on Pool 19 of the Mississippi River, and outfitting them with satellite transmitters. The birds can then be monitored to see which areas they prefer for nesting and migration.

Incidentally, wintering areas can also be observed using the transmitters, and some interesting results have been discovered. Most of these birds travel back south down the Mississippi Flyway each fall. Many have been located and/or harvested on Mississippi Delta catfish ponds, but the most obvious wintering areas are Lake Pontchartrain and Mobile Bay. Some birds have been observed flying south to Lake Pontchartrain, then back north to catfish pond complexes in the Delta.

One of the most interesting migrations was a southbound scaup that crossed the Gulf Coast and defected to Cuba. There she remained for the duration of the winter!

"I don't know much about numbers of scaup or other divers in the area off Gulfport/Biloxi, but have heard that the area off Pascagoula often holds good numbers of scaup," Afton said. "Mobile Bay is very important for scaup."

When asked about the shrinking acreage of catfish ponds in Northwest Mississippi, Afton said most of the diving ducks that have traditionally wintered there would probably winter farther south. This could mean that Gulf Coast hunters may see an increase in diving duck numbers in the coming years, as thousands of acres of Delta fish ponds have been drained for farming or enrollment in the CRP and WRP programs in the last year, with water acreage continuing to decrease.

"As per loss of diver habitat in the catfish pond region of the MS Delta, I would expect cans and some scaup to head to Catahoula Lake (in Louisiana)," Afto said. "Also, some scaup probably would go to Lake Pontchartrain and Southeast Louisiana. I had a couple of scaup go to Lake Pontchartrain first and then back north to the Mississippi Delta during fall, so I know there is a connection between those areas. I suppose some also would go to the Mississippi Sound area and Mobile Bay."