Southeast winds on the Mississippi Sound were building, and a thunderstorm was fast approaching, bringing ominous, dark, rain-filled clouds.
Conditions were deteriorating rapidly, but for Kevin Toncrey and me, this was the ultimate setting for our duck-hunting adventure.
Ducks were becoming more and more noticeable on the horizon with undulating lines of redheads and small flocks of wee buffleheads scooting close over the Mississippi Sound’s now disturbed waters.
Seemingly out of nowhere, four bluebills caught us by surprise hovering over the 80-block decoy spread. Throwing up our trusty Remingtons into shooting position, we fired off a couple of rounds at the ducks, and two drake bluebills fell hard into the now choppy seas.
Toncrey was quick to bail out of the boat blind to retrieve our fallen quarry. By the time he gathered up the divers and headed back to the blind, the heavy rain had found us. Now we were inundated with cold rainwater dripping down our necks, and we knew we were in for a true diving-duck hunt.
A few minutes later a large mass of ducks headed our way from the west, and from the flight pattern and size of their heavy bodies, we knew the prized ducks of the Sound were coming directly toward us.
Our eyes were now big, hands clinched tightly around our guns, and hearts raced rapidly as the flock neared. Although both of us are well-seasoned hunters having experience this sort of scenario thousands of times, a sight such as this never seems to diminish the excitement that comes with such a magnificent image.
At first, the flock of 40 or more birds circled wide, but that allowed us to spot the large crimson-headed drakes in the mass of birds. As they circled back into the wind, we whispered to each other the age-old lines like “keep down,” “don’t move,” “wait … wait” and the final cue, “take them now!”
At that precise moment, the big birds were right over the decoys, webbed feet down, wings back flapping and breasts exposed. It was a classic image. Each of us focused on a drake for the take, and another pair of diving ducks crumpled and crashed into the mass of decoys and rough seas.
As any hard-core diving duck hunter might expect, our faces were filled with wide grins, and a round of high-fives was in order.
With a great start under our belts, we settled back into the now-tossing boat blind, and continued to scan the Mississippi Sound for signs of ducks. With the turbulent weather at hand, Toncrey and I both reveled in the thought of another epic diving duck hunt on the Mississippi Sound. Our high hopes would soon be realized as another small flock of bluebills came barreling into the blob of decoys.
As we jumped up to shoot, the fast-moving birds detected our motions, and quickly gained altitude into the wind. However, two of our shots were true, and amazingly another pair of drake bluebills distorted in the air, and then splashed down hard into the turbid waters. One of the birds showed signs of life, but we were quick to burn a couple of shells to put away the dark-hued duck.
Diving ducks are extremely tough creatures, and if wounded, have a knack for quickly diving in an attempt to escape. For that very reason, once a bird hits the water it must be peppered with shot immediately if it shows signs of life. In terms of conservation this practice is extremely helpful in keeping down the number of lost and wasted waterfowl.
As the southeast winds continued to churn the Sound into a restless froth of white caps, Toncrey and I took time out to sip some hot coffee, and inspect our six beautiful drake divers, all the while a steady movement of ducks kept us wide-eyed and restless in anticipation of the next round of gunning.
The finale came when we spotted a long line of massive flocks of redheads barreling directly toward our decoys.
The first two flocks looked us over just outside of gun range, yet continued to make a beeline toward Alabama’s Grand Bay area. But lucky for us, the third flock found our set-up quite tempting. Their images became larger and larger as they neared, probably just like the wide-eyed looks on our faces. At first they passed us, but suddenly made a wide turn back toward our alluring and lifelike decoys that bobbed and weaved on the cresting waves.
Something surely looked good enough to tempt them from following the leading flocks, and moments later, the big flock was approaching our decoys once again. Just within gun range, a majority of the flock flared, but 10 or 12 birds just couldn’t resist our configuration of blocks. Knowing we were only allowed one more redhead each, our whispers were to the tune of “one bird each … pick one bird.”
So they came, swinging in low over the decoys with watchful eyes and necks pointed in our direction. At that moment, they were on to us and began to flare away, but it was to late for two of the group as my hunting compadre and I each drew a bead on a single bird. Shots rang out, and two birds went limp from clean shots. They now floated on the Sound showing their big red heads along with their distinctive black and gray body markings.
A perfect ending to a wonderful hunt, and yes we could have probably stayed and filled out our limits with four buffleheads, but we were more than satisfied with our eight fat drake birds. Anyway, we had a lot of decoys to gather in rough conditions, ducks to clean and a bumpy ride back to the mainland.
Ducks of the Sound
The aforementioned hunt was one of my many Mississippi Sound outings of last season, and one of my 600 or more such hunts accumulated on the Sound over the last 40 years. A number of these involved swamped boats and various other incidents that bordered on life-threatening situations.
But the many diving ducks that use the Mississippi Sound as their wintering and staging grounds throughout our duck season continue to draw me. Overall, very few duck hunters take advantage of the situation here in the most-southern quadrant of the Magnolia State, even though the 60-mile stretch of the Mississippi Sound holds good numbers of redheads, scaup, a.k.a “bluebills,” buffleheads and scoters, as well as a few canvasbacks, oldsquaws and goldeneyes.
Of course, shooting a puddle duck isn’t totally out of the question, and over the years, mallards, gadwalls, pintails, wood ducks, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, shovelers, ruddy ducks and widgeons have been added to the Mississippi Sound’s tally of birds. Heck, even blue and snow geese have been knocked into the Sound, and a rare eider and tiny Ross’ goose made the log of odd kills.
Bad weather & set-ups
From the Louisiana/Mississippi state line running east to the Mississippi/Alabama state line, this vast expanse of water offers plenty of gunning opportunities for those in quest of divers, but the best hunting will generally occur on days of stormy weather when seas are building, and the skies are cloudy and overcast. Some of these conditions will occur as a cold front approaches, and not only does the building sea send divers on the move, strong cold fronts will often bring in new batches of birds.
To lure the birds into close gunning range, a hunter with a big set-up of diving duck decoys will have the advantage. Ideally, the more the merrier, and a set up of 100 to 150 decoys will highly increase your odds of success. Better yet, toss in some of those magnum-sized decoys that can be detected farther off than a standard decoy, and you’re playing with an ace up your sleeve.
Since my main target is redheads, they make up more than 50 percent of my setup, with another 25 percent bluebills and 25 percent canvasbacks. Although we shoot only a few canvasbacks, the white coloration of the drakes is highly visible, and cans and redheads are known to mingle. Of course my ace in the hole is a few cork bufflehead decoys hand-carved by Capt. Todd Jones of Panama City, Fla.
A grouping of these small decoys is placed somewhere along the outside edge of the set up, and when those fast-flying “sea doves” are on the move, excellent gunning can be experienced. These birds come in low and fast, and like a drake redhead, a drake bufflehead makes a gorgeous mount for the wall.
When rigging your decoys for hunting divers, there are a few key elements to keep in mind. First, if you’re going to rig the decoys on single lines, make sure they’re going to be long enough to be used in deep water.
One never really knows how far out in the Sound ducks may be migrating and rafting up, and for this reason the hunter’s lines must be long enough to handle the shallowest depth to 10 feet or better if you intend to hunt well out into the Sound with a layout boat or boat equipped with a pop-up blind. Also, it’s important to use a line with some diameter to it because the extra circumference makes handling and wrapping much easier, and reduces the chances of tangles.
Dark-colored parachute cord or a very limp, clear monofilament in 400-pound-test works well. Once the lines are selected and tied on, it’s time to select the proper weight to keep the decoys secured above the Sound’s floor. This is a critical choice because if a hunter intends to hunt big-water for divers in rough conditions, the decoys must be heavily anchored, or they’ll drift out of position easily.
On my single-rigged decoys, a homemade weight of a pound or better is used to keep each decoy in its intended position. The last thing a hunter wants is having to leave or move the blind in chase of a runaway decoy.
Some of my decoys are magnums, extremely oversized birds, and I like to position them on the outer edge of the setup or on the end of the tail. This way the bigger blocks are sure to show up first to birds traveling off in the distance.
Remember, ducks want to land into the wind, so position your decoys accordingly. Have lanes or holes available. Most importantly, set them up in the area where your shots will be effective, say 25 to 40 yards from the blind.
Also, from the main body of decoys, try to establish a long tail or single line of decoys spaced far apart running well away from the kill zone. This way, most birds will see the long line of decoys first, and then follow them into the kill zones in the main body of the set up.
Decoys can also be rigged on gang lines that sport a big brass clip on each end of the main line. To each end, a heavy anchor weight is clipped to hold the line of decoys in place. Jones swears by using long lines, or “gang rigs,” for hunting diving ducks.
“Once you toss out one of the weighted ends of the main line, all you have to do is clip on decoys every couple of feet,” he said. “I rig my decoys on 5 feet of 400-pound-test monofilament with the large stainless snaps on the end. Personally, I like my leaders kind of long so that the decoys have a more natural movement.
“Generally, my mainlines are around 75 to 100 feet in length, but you can make them as long as you like. For weights, I like to use those old windowpane weights, and they can be dropped vertically into soft bottom, and then shoved into the mud with your foot if it’s shallow.
“For the main line, go with a dark-colored ¼-inch rope, and make sure it sinks. To keep my main lines organized, I coil them up in a 5-gallon bucket.
“I group my long line decoys together by clipping a dozen at a time to a ring, and then make a large overhand knot of the combined leaders. This helps keep them from separating, and it’s easy to handle a dozen at a time.
“By using a properly designed long-line rig, a diving duck hunter can hunt 3 or 4 miles out in the Mississippi Sound in 10 to 15 feet of water. Long ago, the hunters in the Great Lakes regions developed this type of rigging, and it allowed them to hunt in 30 to 75 feet of water. With a long-line rig, there are no limits to where you can hunt divers.”
Where to hunt
Although the Mississippi Sound holds diving ducks throughout its confines, there are a few places in particular that often deliver consistent action, and provide plenty of open water away from inhabited shorelines.
One such area is Heron Bay to the east of the Pearl River, and it can be reached by launching out of LaFrance’s Fish Camp in Ansley. Another location is the open waters of the Sound south of Biloxi off the east end of Deer Island, and launching sites are available at the Biloxi Small Craft Harbor on the south side of Highway 90 and in the Ocean Springs Small Craft Harbor on Harbor Road.
At times, the marsh and open water off the mouth of the Pascagoula River will attract numbers of divers too, and the open water and coastal marshes out of Cumbest Bayou in Moss Point are excellent areas to hunt divers on the move. The Mary Walker Fishing Camp in Gautier provides access to the lower Pascagoula River, and the Cumbest Bayou launch in Moss Point at 3020 Grand Batture Road leads to the Mississippi Sound in this hunting area just west of the Alabama state line.
For best results, it’s always wise to scout your area of interest before making a hunt. Make sure to take along a pair of binoculars to spot ducks rafting up, as well as flight patterns in the area. Also, if you know of anyone who fishes those areas, have him give you updates on duck activity. Quite often, a simple tip can steer you to some fine gunning.
For diving duck hunters in South Mississippi, there is good news because reports indicate another increase in the number of redheads, and there was a boom in the canvasback population. Although scaup numbers are well below their long-term average, there was a slight increase this year.
For these three popular divers, there is a take of two each per hunter per day, and a total limit of six ducks per hunter each day. Bottom line, it looks like another fine season for hunting divers in the Mississippi Sound.