Scouting to learn when and where ducks arrive in Mississippi as waterfowl season arrives is a key to hunting success.
Based on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s waterfowl population status report, released several months ago, hunters in Mississippi and along the Mississippi Flyway are forecast to have slightly lower numbers of ducks this season compared to last season, but still slightly higher numbers than the long-term average.
The biggest indicator was wetter-than-average conditions across the duck breeding grounds up north that historically supply the Mississippi Flyway. No one who lives or works anywhere near the Mississippi Delta would argue with that, but now that conditions have returned to relative normal, it’s safe to say hunters have hope for a “typical” year — at least from a 10-year perspective.
Of course, hunters in the Magnolia State who plan on killing limits of ducks this year still have a lot of work in front of them to make sure they are in the right place at the right time.
Phillip Cagle of White Oak Hunting Services in Tunica County said that once ducks begin making their way down the Mississippi Flyway, scouting is probably the No. 1 key to unlocking the duck code.
What separates his efforts from those of the average duck hunter is that he puts plenty of scouting time in before the season opens and between hunts to insure he stays in contact with migrating flocks of birds.
“I burn up a lot of diesel in my truck checking all the holes that I know are likely to hold ducks,” he said. “Scouting from a distance is great. You don’t bother the ducks, and it gives you a view of the big picture. You can see where they are coming from and where they are going to.”
Cagle said he doesn’t have the luxury of viewing his green-timber hunting spots from afar. He can’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak, and what’s worse is, he can’t see the birds for the trees.
“You gotta go in the timber to find ducks,” he said. “The bad part is, if you go in there on the afternoon before the next morning’s hunt, you’ll blow them out, and they may not get back in time for you to hunt them.”
More areas to hunt
Veteran hunter Torch Tindle from Coahoma said it’s extremely important to have a number of different 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.”
Tindle hunts places ranging from flooded crop fields to standing timber swamps, plus a variety of sloughs, breaks and ditches.
“It’s like fishing,” said Tindle, who’s also an avid crappie fisherman. “There are places they’re going to be and places they aren’t. The key is figuring out where they want to be and go there.”
Rusty Shaw of Crowder, who runs a part-time waterfowl guide service, said the available food sources for ducks that are migrating south come from local agriculture production. Rice and soybeans are produced locally, as well as some other grains that ducks use. Shaw’s strategy is to set up in locations between these feeding areas to catch ducks moving back and forth.
“Most of these sloughs or brakes are narrow and may be less than 100 acres in size,” he said. “It creates a good resting space. Ducks go out and feed in the early morning or feed all night, then they’ll come into these breaks to rest.”
Current weather patterns are also at the top of Shaw’s list in importance. It takes cold weather up north to move ducks south, but local weather is also a factor.
Shaw said that the difference between hunting a cloudy, drizzly day and a bright day is that ducks can see better in overcast conditions. Cloud cover tends to make them fly a little lower, but it also makes it hard for ducks to see his spreads. Bright sun shining off the water highlights decoy movement as well as blinding the ducks from picking out hunters.
“On a bluebird day, you don’t have to limit your movement,” he said. “The trees are creating shadows, and the ducks can’t see you as well. On a cloudy day, they can see everything. The least little movement, they can see it.”
An interesting note not officially reported in the USFWS counts was a bumper crop of wood ducks in Wisconsin observations. While wood ducks aren’t known for making predictable migrations similar to other ducks, having 25% more wood ducks than normal should be an indicator than more than a few will find their way down the flyway this season.
Build your own duck hole
Hunters who own or lease land but have no water can remedy that situation by creating their own duck impoundment.
The first step is testing the soil to see if it will hold water rather than allow it to seep back into the ground. The U.S. Geological Survey website has an online reference guide available, or landowners can take in samples for testing. Then, after reviewing a topo map of the area to determine how to lay the impoundment out, it’s just a matter of deciding how big you want to go.
Mark Shepherd owns Aquatic Weed Management, a company that specializes in the construction of ponds and small impoundments; he has completed a number of projects for landowners wanting to create their own duck hunting spots.
“We use a basic setup of a 3- to 5-foot dike on the lower end, then dig a ditch around the interior outline of the pond,” Shepherd said. “Some hunters don’t like having a ditch, but it makes it much easier to drain and dry so you can plant it. We mark crossovers so nobody steps in a hole while hunting, and having a ditch makes it necessary to pump water.”
Shepherd uses a pump-and-well system to draw water to flood his impoundments. The water fills the perimeter ditch, then spills over into a field that he prefers to plant with rows of corn and chufa. It is possible to borrow water from a nearby creek, but it’s not as reliable a water source as the well system.
“There’s nothing like going into the pump house and flipping a switch in late October,” he said. “You can go from dove field or deer stand to duck pond in just a few days.”
A private impoundment also provides the luxury of building permanent blinds. He said calling birds is more habit than necessity since ducks are coming to eat and his blinds are right in the middle of the flooded crops. Interestingly, Shepherd relies on decoys more before the season than after the shooting starts.
“We use a bunch of decoys to get them to notice our pond when they first get down to our area,’ he said. “After that, we’ll move them around before each hunt. (On) most of these impoundments, we’ll also have a couple hundred birds drop in and roost here every night. The trick with them is to try to get hunters around the pond and set before those ducks leave at daylight — if one guy steps foot in the pond before legal light, he’ll run all of them out before a shot can be fired.”