Light has barely begun to leak over the horizon when the hunters hear the first ducks hurtling past their blind.

Air is ripped by the birds' fast wing beats, and the hunters' hearts are thrown into their throats.

Moments later, they hear a soft splash. Ducks are in their dekes, but it's still too early to make them out.

Dawn begins to overtake the area, and more ducks whiz overhead.

Finally, a shot rings out in the distance.

And then the hunters see silhouettes passing their pond.

One of the hidden men grabs a call.

Quack, quack, quack.

The ducks dip and turn for a second pass at the pond.

Quack, quack, dttt, dttt.

The flight of five ducks pirouette as one, and head straight for the set of decoys arrayed in front of the blind.

Dttttt, dtttt, dtttt.

The ducks cup and stick their legs out, slowing their descent and bringing them all the closer to shotgun range.

And then it happens.

 

The lead duck tucks its legs back under it, beating the air for altitude.

The rest of the crew follow suit, grabbing the morning's slight breeze and streaking out of range.

The first flight of greys that had hit the pond in the pre-dawn darkness join the retreat.

The calling hunter panics.

Quack, quack, quack. Quack, quuuaaack, quuuaaack.

The ducks don't even pause: They continue across the marsh and disappear into another pond.

What went wrong? These ducks were brand new to the Louisiana marsh. There hadn't been a shot fired at them.

But still they spooked.

Was it the calling? Was it the blind? Was it the decoy set?

Those are the questions that trouble hunters long after ducks have refused their ponds.

To help maximize the efforts on opening morning, we've consulted experts around the state to discover how they approach the first shoot of the season.

In addition, the three main regions of the state will be examined for predictors for the season's success.

 

Southeast

All of the marsh east of the Mississippi River was dunked in pure Gulf of Mexico salt water when Hurricane Katrina rolled through the area, and then Hurricane Rita put the marshes between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya marshes under salt water.

That's likely to mean slim pickings for hunters in the entire region.

"The salinity's going to kill everything a duck likes to eat," Department of Wildlife & Fisheries biologist Robert Helm said. "I heard the Biloxi Marsh did well, but you'd think the salinity (in that marsh) had to go through the roof."

Helm said the key will be to find isolated waters in good shape, which will be a challenge this year.

"If you can find those ponds with grass, you can be pretty sure that they'll hold ducks, but you're not going to find a pond like that this year," he said.

Species such as gadwall and wigeon, which rely on larger bodies of water, will be particularly hard hit because the larger bodies of water often aren't as protected by marsh.

The only two real prospects in the entire region of the state can be found at the mouth of the two major rivers.

"The Mississippi River is a good source of fresh water," Helm said.

The same is true of the Atchafalaya, although to a lesser degree.

Helm said these rivers should help flush out the ponds, and provide the opportunity for vegetation to grow.

"Last year, when (Hurricane) Ivan came through that area, all of the vegetation was killed," he said. "By mid winter, I was seeing a lot of fresh growth."

Of course, both deltas are packed with duck potato, and Helm said he didn't think the storms would have made a huge difference there.

"The above-ground part of the plant always dies, but those tubers should be fine," he explained. "We could even see some regrowth."

The key will be rainfall.

"If we can get abundant rain between now and (opening day), we'll do better," Helm said. "The more rain we get and the higher the rivers, the better we'll be."

However, Helm was quick to caution hunters venturing into the hurricane-stricken areas, particularly those ravaged by Katrina.

"There's no infrastructure," he said. "Navigation is certainly a concern. They have to be very cautious."

For those die-hards who insist on hunting Southeast Louisiana, Helm said scouting would probably be the key.

"Nothing's the same," he said. "Guys who may have been hunting an area for years may go in and recognize nothing.

"It's a new day."

That means many hunters won't be able to find their regular ponds. In some cases, such as in the Delacroix/Caernarvon marshes, entire bayous might be silted or blocked by floating marsh.

"Chances are they'll have to go through the process of choosing where to place their blinds again," Helm said.

The quickest way to figure that out is to spend time in the marshes as birds begin filtering in.

"That first week of November, you should get out and see where the ducks are congregating," Helm explained. "They're there for a reason, so focus on those areas."

Houma hunter Jeff DeBlieux said the storm surge pushed salt water all the way to Houma.

"There are jumbo shrimp popping in old Bayou Black, just north of where the Navigation Canal and the Intracoastal meet," he said. "Every levee flooded: Pointe Aux Chenes, Montegut, Grand Bayou, Bayou Black.

"All the little drainage levees are plus 6 feet. They got hit by 8 feet of water. Once they were overtopped, they were cut."

That means that grass is going to be a rare commodity.

"In years past, as soon as that salt water hit, the grass was gone," DeBlieux explained.

However, he believes there will be ducks to kill in Southeast Louisiana.

"Last year was probably the worst year ever," DeBlieux said of his lease near Terrebonne Parish's Lake Decade. "Those saltwater areas south of us, the pure saltwater areas, did much better than they normally do.

"The worst areas were the best."

DeBlieux's lease fared poorly because of a lack of grass due to saltwater intrusion, so that pushed ducks into the saltwater areas looking for food.

"The food they had didn't rely on the grass: There were snails and other things for the ducks to eat," he said.

That's what he expects to happen this year.

Those who have ducks probably will fare best if they focus on small ponds (about two acres) to medium-sized ponds (five or six acres).

His favorite setup is a pond with an island in the middle of it, where he places his blind. This is how he hunts on his lease, with his pond being about five acres in size.

"I have water on all sides," he said. "I can shoot 360 degrees."

To make the most of the situation, DeBlieux puts out four dozen decoys for his opening-day shoot.

"I set them up in small groups around the blind," he said. "I use family groups — eight to 10 dekes in each group."

Each of these "families" is arrayed in a circle.

"Each decoy is about 2 feet apart," he said.

The circles of decoys are placed about 3 yards apart.

"The birds are going to land in the gaps between the groups of decoys," DeBlieux said.

The hunter also believes in setting his decoys close to his blind.

"I hunt a lot of kids in the blind, so I'm not putting them far out," DeBlieux said. "I want the birds right there.

"I put the decoys out about 15 to 20 yards from the blind."

Calling isn't a big issue for him early in the season.

"It usually doesn't take much calling," DeBlieux said. "Early in the season the teal don't take anything — you don't need to call at all.

"They are flying low to the marsh, and they see the decoys and land."

The big ducks, mainly greys and wigeon in his area, don't need much more.

"Usually it doesn't take much," DeBlieux said. "You just want to make them see your spread.

"Do as little as it takes; you don't want to over-call."

And while some hunters might weigh themselves down with calls, DeBlieux said he only relies on a couple.

"I have a custom call, and I've got a backup," he said.

The former is a mallard call.

"I use one mallard call for everything," DeBlieux said.

His backup is a pintail whistle, which he uses sparingly.

 

Southwest

Until Sept. 24, the marshes west of the Atchafalaya River looked to be the odds-on bet for fantastic hunting.

And then Hurricane Rita rolled into the area and covered much of the wetlands in salt water.

Helm said that will be an issue for the same reasons Southeast Louisiana will suffer, but he was optimistic that there might be some areas that could be productive.

"Maybe that surge didn't get north of the Intracoastal Waterway," he said.

For instance, he said reports indicate that White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area didn't get hit by the wall of salt water.

Capt. Erik Rue of Calcasieu Charter Service said that could indicate places like Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge could have escaped devastation, as well.

However, it's a slam-dunk that the agricultural fields in that area will be swarming with ducks looking for food.

That's where Rue will be waiting.

He said birds always seem to take a few days to settle down before responding well to calling.

"Typically, the birds don't decoy very well," Rue said. "If you have a fair number of birds in your area, you'll have birds dive-bombing you, but they won't work very well."

So he really doesn't worry about calling a lot.

"You have some people who want to show off and say they limited quick because of their calling, but I don't think it's that effective," he said. "It's more a matter of whether you have what they want."

That changes within days, as the birds get acclimated to the hunting activity.

But even then, Rue doesn't lay on the calls hard.

The most-important key to opening-day limits is to be in the blind when the sun comes up.

"Never, ever be late on opening day," Rue said. "I think that all the good, surefire hunting happens when the sun starts coming up, when birds start moving around. When shooting time comes along, you start laying them down.

"As the light comes up, they get shy of calls because they're so shocked by all the shooting."

After ducks settle down and calling becomes a bit more important, however, Rue relies mainly on making his decoy spreads visible and his blinds invisible.

Rue once used dozens of decoys to attract birds, but he said over the years he and the guides working with him have learned that numbers aren't all that important.

"We've cut down our spreads tremendously," he said. "Last year, I never had a blind with more than a dozen goose decoys, and we mixed in full-bodied decoys."

Some spreads were even smaller.

"You'd be surprised what you can do with three speckled-bellied decoys and some duck decoys," Rue said.

The goose decoys do a couple of things for Rue: They draw in geese, which flock to the fields; and they attract the attention of ducks.

"Ducks can see those goose decoys, so they really help," he said.

A typical spread in front of one of Rue's blinds numbers no more than five to eight dozen decoys, depending upon the situation.

"The key is to be able to see them," Rue said. "If you've got a lot of stubble, you may need more.

"If your ground is plowed and doesn't have a lot of stubble, you don't need as many."

There are times, however, when he uses only two or three dozen duck decoys.

"Some blinds, we have as few as a dozen," Rue said.

The decoys that are used are distributed in small groups of three to five dekes each.

"I don't like to bunch them up," he said. "I just put them out in groups, with lanes between them."

The landing zones should all point directly at the blind.

"If you've got one point right at the center of the blind, you want to be able to shoot a lane to the left and a lane to the right," Rue said.

Pintail decoys are favored because of their visibility.

"We like to use a lot of pintail decoys because of the white on them," he said. "They see them better."

That strategy also works well for the predominant species in the area.

"We kill mostly mallards, pintails and teal," Rue said.

The groups of decoys are spread out according to the size of the field.

"If the levees are spread a long way apart, I like to put the decoys as far away from the blind as possible and still be able to shoot," he explained. "If you put them too close, I think that pulls more attention to your blind."

But his blind is pretty hard to see.

"We're always real careful of our cover," Rue said. "It's not as important on the first day because there are always dumb ducks that will fly in, but it's very important as the season progresses."

Rue's first rule is not to stick out like a sore thumb.

"We try our best to promote that new growth around our blinds," he said.

If that doesn't work, then he'll move live bushes and grasses around the blind to hide it for opening day, as long as the levee in which the pit is located isn't barren.

"We try to blend in with the surroundings," Rue said.

To do that, he also digs his blinds deep.

"They're basically the same level as the levee," he said. "You don't want to be sticking up 3 feet on a new levee: It looks like a hotel sticking out there."

He also uses a tarp imprinted with Mossy Oak Shadow Grass to cover the top.

"We use that tarp, and attach grass and bushes on the top of it," Rue said.

Small shooting holes and camo covers are manufactured out of small-gauge wire.

"I don't like the flip-top or spring-loaded blinds," Rue said. "When you use those, you're always shooting at birds that are flaring. You lose 10 yards on them.

"If you use these little covers, the hunters pop out of a hole, and the birds don't know what hit them."

 

Central and North

Northern Louisiana should be in pretty good shape, although the rains that fell during Hurricane Rita probably won't make much difference to the backwaters.

"Before Rita came through, we were about 15 inches below normal," Duck Commander's Phil Robertson said. "So no backwater will come from (the storm).

"That ground was dry, and it soaked up all that rain. There won't be any backwater unless something happens."

But Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did combine to produce a situation that Robertson said could result in spectacular hunting in the ag fields from Alexandria to Arkansas.

First, it destroyed the rice fields in Arkansas.

"When Rita came through, it went right up the Texas/Louisiana border, and it made a curve across Arkansas," Robertson said. "When it made that little curve, it laid a lot of the rice down in the fields.

"The word I'm getting is the farmers didn't think they would be able to get more than about 50 percent of that rice."

And, of course, the two storms combined to kill most, if not all, of the marsh grasses along coastal Louisiana.

"I don't think the ducks are going to be drawn to the coast," Robertson said. "This may be the very worst year the boys on the coast have had."

That means the ducks will stop in the ruined Arkansas fields, and overflow into the North Louisiana agricultural areas.

"Everybody who pumps up this year will do good," Robertson said. "The old cypress brakes and old lakes that have permanent pools might also do good."

One potential problem could be water control on one of those old lakes — Catahoula.

Helm and Robertson said Rita did dump a lot of water onto that area, and Catahoula received much of that runoff.

"They didn't have electricity, so they couldn't open the water-control structures to let some of that water out," Helm said in late September. "If they don't get the water off, a lot of that grass could be killed."

But the rest of the central and northern portions of the state should offer great hunting, Robertson said.

Hunters looking for quick limits should worry more about their spreads and blinds than with calling during the early days of the season.

"You don't have to do that much calling," Robertson said. "The less the better."

The only calls he does use are a mallard hen, a whistle and, occasionally, a drake mallard or gadwall call.

"I usually end up with just two calls on my neck," he said. "And then I'll have that mallard or gadwall drake call hanging on a string."

But for the most part, Robertson begins the season relying on his decoy spread to attract ducks while field hunting.

And he needs a spread to put his dekes out.

"I wouldn't go out with less than 100 decoys," he said. "Two hundred or 300 is better.

"The bigger the field, the bigger the spread."

The decoys represent a mix of species.

"On those fields, especially, I've seen all kinds of ducks mixing together," Robertson said.

However, he doesn't recommend mixing magnum and standard sizes.

"Stick with one size: If you use magnums, use all magnums; if you use standards, use all standards," Robertson said. "I just don't think it looks natural."

Robertson said his preference is standard-sized decoys.

His spreads are almost always set up in a traditional horseshoe.

"The bigger the spread, the bigger the horseshoe," he said.

The key is to position the horseshoe according to the wind.

"If you've got a wind blowing straight away from the blind, the open end is pointing in the direction of the wind," Robertson said. "You've got a big hole right in front of you."

When the wind blows across the front of the blind, simply turn the horseshoe.

"If the wind is left to right, all you do is turn the horseshoe to the left," he said. "If the wind blows from right to left, turn to the right.

"The ducks are going to come into the wind, so that keeps that opening right in front of you."

The only time he abandons the horseshoe spread is when the wind is blowing into the front of his blind.

"We just put all the decoys right in front of the blind, he said. "Hopefully, they come over you and light right in front of you.

"It's butt shooting, which is tough, but maybe you can get them coming in from the side a little bit."

To add some life to the set, Robertson said he likes to use a few swimming decoys.

"The ducks see this big raft of ducks and all this activity," he said. "They come right in."

For those who have some flooded timber, decoy setup is even easier.

"We find that if you put the decoys in the bushes right on the edge of the hole that you do better," Robertson said. "We put the Mojo (duck) right in the bushes, and we use a jerk string or one of those swimming ducks. The ducks just see glimpses of movement in that brush.

"They fall right into the hole. We're basically killing them because of what they don't see."

Robertson approaches his blind-building as scientifically as his spread placement.

While timber hunting is simply a matter of standing in brush or behind trees, successful hunting in fields mandates hunters hunker down in levees.

"You've got to get in the ground," Robertson said.

His blinds have shooting porches providing openings for hunters, but he said it's critical to camouflage these gaping holes.

"Even if they can't see the hunters, they can see the big black openings," he said. "It just doesn't look natural."

So Robertson uses boards to help disguise the opening.

"We've got that broken up with a 2x4 every 30 inches, and we attach brush to the 2x4s," he said. "So you've got a series of holes instead of a wide shooting porch.

"In a 20-foot blind, you can still shoot five or six men."

The benefits of this setup go beyond hiding the opening from ducks.

"When you have a structure between the men, you don't tend to ring your buddies' ears as much," Robertson said.