The reasons are not far to seek.
Here's the very tip of the Mississippi Flyway funnel, the continent's main thoroughfare for migrating waterfowl. For millennia, the Mississippi and its tributaries have served as a network of highways for migrating ducks. Almost a third of North America's wildfowl winter in these marshes every year.
They find the place — to quote Robert Palmer — "simply irresistible." And with good reason. Maps show how Louisiana juts out into the Gulf below the coasts of Texas and Mississippi. A little sliver of a peninsula bordering the river below New Orleans juts out even farther.
That was the river's doing — at least until the levees shackled it. For 10,000 years, this "father of all waters," as the Indians called it, whipped back and forth across the landscape like a huge (but somewhat lethargic) water wiggle, depositing its fertile cargo of sediment. The river robs Peter to pay Paul in a sense. Iowa's loss is our gain — until the levees went up that is. Most of Louisiana below Interstate 12 thus sprouted. In geological terms, something "sprouts" in 10,000 years.
These fertile mudflats sprout in thick orchards of prime waterfowl fodder every spring, and stay thick and green practically year-round (barring hurricanes).
According to figures from Ducks Unlimited, Louisiana hunters kill more ducks than those of the next three states in the rankings combined.
The "Birdfoot Delta," they call this area where the levees that straightjacket the Mississippi finally stop and the main river splits into channels like the toes of a chicken. That fertile cargo of sediment spreads out here to build marsh — or "wetlands" in fashionable lingo. Alas, this marsh-building process got a serious whammy last September with Hurricane Katrina.
But it'll take more than a direct hit from the most destructive hurricane in U.S. history to destroy these wetlands, believe me. Anyone who's fished the area below Venice lately knows it was by no means a permanent setback.
The powers of rejuvenation this father of all waters brings to marshes with its fertile, sediment-rich cargo is truly something to behold. Never did we dream — after last August's heartbreak — that the Delta marshes would be in such good shape less than a year later.
The rejuvenation is abundantly evident even for the marshes around and below the Ostrica locks, which have remained open since the storm. For months, that Mississippi marsh-building elixir has been pouring through the locks and working its magic.
The spoil banks and ridges are lush and green with peavine and bachiris. The roseau stands are sprouting anew. The shallow deltas off Romere and South passes are sprouting in fresh orchards of delta duck potato, and the nearby ridges are thick with wild millet — both of which are prime teal fodder, the equivalent for deer of white oak and honeysuckle.
We have it on good authortiy that teal were already attracted to the area a mere seven months after the storm. On spring fishing trips, flocks of teal were buzzing us as we fished. Shoulda heard our whoops and seen our high-fives at the sight.
Teal prefer shallow fresh marsh, and like most puddle ducks (except gadwall) prefer feeding on seeds rather than underwater vegetation.
In September in the Delta, teal find the best of both. Vast orchards of duck potato and three square sprout from the new sandbars. The older and taller duck potato provides little bouquets of seeds with the flowers.
By the big season, the duck potato plants have mostly wilted, and the pintail and geese flock to the sites to root for the tubers in the mud. In September, they're providing seeds for the teal, mottled ducks and impatient pintail.
But even better, thick stands of wild millet still stand in September. This stuff is like corn, wheat or rice for wild ducks. When that tide comes up, all those little seeds float to the surface, and the teal pour in to feast. You want to be near one of these spots when it happens, believe me. You won't get this type of duck shooting even in Mexico.
Alas, the entire Delta is not uniformly blanketed with teal. For whatever reason (my guess is the prevalence of new, shallow mini-deltas that sprout), the legally huntable areas in the Delta National Wildlife Refuge contain the most teal — by far. I've hunted one day at Delta the following at Pass-A-Loutre WMA, and the difference in duck numbers was staggering. Ten times as many in Delta.
The last couple of years, one problem at Delta had been that much of the open shallow water had vanished — vegetation had covered it. The teal didn't mind. On a high tide they could still pour in and pig out on the seeds.
But it made setting up with the dekes difficult — the paddling in, the setting up and getting the teal to notice the dekes (the mottled ducks were no problem, as usual!). I dare say one benefit of Katrina was to create more open shallow water down there. Heaven knows, it's a high price to pay. But since we've paid it — best to make the most out of it.
Last year was a bust, obviously. But let's pop a cold one and visit regarding our hunt in 2003 — which, by the way, was considered a lousy year for teal statewide. Not in the Delta!
At 7:30, we were just turning into Main Pass from the river. A glorious sight, my friends — the morning sun rimming the clouds to the east with a red glow, the duck potato and three square sprouting in vivid green from the fresh sandbars near the bank, the darker elephant ears on the older, higher bars behind, the leafy roseau and willows swaying in the southeast breeze, mullet, reds and gar pushing their distinctive wakes through the weedy shallows. A vibrant marsh. A living marsh. A marsh rejuvenated every spring by the sediments gleaned from the fertile heartland of our continent by the father of all waters. The end of the flyway for close to half a million ducks. The air fragrant with peavine and elephant ears. A smell that says "teal season and reds" to those of us who come down in September — the peak season for both.
And YES! Flocks of teal fluttering through the skies above the marsh — dipping, rising swerving, now shooting skyward — blam!-blam! — as the distant shots echo across the marsh. The bigger mottled ducks, mostly in pairs, are almost as numerous. And way up there ... looks like, yep — pintail, in a ragged V formation.
A glorious ambiance, my friends. We were enraptured as we turned into the pass. Teal were everywhere. Rick was in the bow pointing toward the marsh.
"Yes!" I howled. Magnificent! They're everywhere!"
He pointed a little more forcefully.
"Yes!" I grinned. "I SEE them! Limits by nine!" I beamed.
Still he pointed, now even more emphatically.
"YES, YES!" I nodded. "They DARKEN the skies in their multitudes! It's GLORIOUS!!"
"NO! YOU FOOL!" Rick finally blurted. "THE SANDBAR!!! THE SANDB——-!"
WAAAARRRRRRRR!!!! We lurched to a stop with a ghastly roar. Slop from the prop showered us. Everyone was plastered over the decoy sacks near the bow in various poses. (You want to hang a left into Main Pass from the river kinda close to its southern shore. The sand flats are generally along its northern shore.)
We disembarked and pushed ... and pushed. A shrimp boat came by and started slowing down. "NO!" we waved. "Keep going!" we motioned.
And he did. Those waves from his wake gave us just the depth we needed to finally shove it off.
We waved to four boats of returning hunters on the way up the pass. That's another thing we like about our unorthodox timetable: By setting up after 8, we miss the crowds. And the teal still fly. In fact, experience has shown us time and again that they fly better in late morning around here. Hear me out.
Without one of those freak September fronts or a low pressure system in the gulf to create wind, the best shooting for teal generally occurs after 9 a.m. That's when the wind starts. We've seen it time and again. At dawn, it's still and sweltering. Sure, some teal are flying around. And sure, you'll get some shots — probably a two-man limit in no time. But we need a six-man limit, from one place. And we have never failed to get it from 9 to 11 a.m.
We turned left off Main Pass, and set up no more than a quarter mile down a skinny pass. No need to hunt the big expanses of water with the roseau islands for teal. We hunt these on low tide situations for sprig and greys during the big season. No reason for that now.
Like I said, teal like the shallow, weedy, seedy ponds surrounded by wild millet, three-square and duck potato. These are created by the new mini-deltas just off the main passes.
Robbie and I set out the 20 decoys as the rest of the gang was pass shooting from the palmetto-shrouded 'rogue.
"Nice shot!" I howled as Andre' folded a single flying directly overhead. He almost landed in our 'rogue. They downed three by the time we joined them.
"DOWN!" Rick immediately motioned as I shoved the little 'rogue into the weeds. Yep — a huge flock, maybe 30, had seen the dekes and were making a wide circle. Geezum, what a sight. Eight months of anticipation glowed from every face. Trigger fingers tapped safeties. Anxious eyes followed the flock as it neared. As it swerved. Back. Forth. It was too much for the nervous system. I had to stifle a guffaw.
Not yet ... Not yet ... O.K. — NOW!! Blam-blam-blam! Blam-blaam! They rocketed skyward above us, and we wrenched our necks trying to follow them. Blam! Blam!
Two fell from the fusillade. We were in hysterics.
"We waited too long!" I howled. "Geezum! Will we never LEARN!!"
Moral of the story: Let big ducks get as close as possible before rising. They backpeddle with the wind and are out of range in seconds. Teal, on the other hand, rocket skyward right over you. It's best to get up before they hit the edge of the dekes. But no time for recriminations.
"On the left!" Mickey pointed.
Ah yes, five winging in low ... gliding ... wings just cupping.
"NOW!" I hissed.
We got up, and they shot skyward. But at 20 yards, they presented perfect targets — like a shooting gallery. Blam-blam! BLAAM!!
"Now we're getting somewhere!" Rick howled.
The whoops and high fives lasted another two minutes. Then more shooting. More flocks. A single now. A double. Sure enough — those roseaus were swaying. That late-morning wind had them stirred up. By 10:27, we'd limited out — 24 teal. Time for the reds.