Mother Nature, that vicious harridan, smacked Southeast Louisiana duck hunters with a serious double whammy this season. Even the duck potato in the delta marshes was browning up during teal season. A low river might be good for fishing, but the intruding salt water devastates the duck food.
Widgeon and grays (gadwall) thrive on leafy underwater vegetation, like Eurasian milfoil (the stuff that mats up in the fresher areas of our marshes, and most of us call hydrilla), widgeon grass and coontail. That's why in the southeast marshes, they're our bread-and-butter big ducks —grays especially.
In the Mississippi delta, with its orchards of duck potato and three-cornered grass, pintail often predominate, to the frustration and despair of those of us forced to sit and watch flock after flock swing in like huge shorebirds and hover over the dekes — after having shot the one allowed by law.
I've been given to understand by greenie types that I'm supposed to enjoy this. I'm supposed to be satiated merely watching the natural majesty of Mother Nature's offspring on the wing. Fine, but I'd much rather blast them. That's the whole point of bringing a shotgun and — lately — taking out a second mortgage to afford shotgun shells.
It's an instinct. I watched my young nieces and nephews on the beach recently. The seagulls appeared, and my little nieces shrieked with glee, smiling and tossing them potato chips. My little nephews frowned maliciously, and immediately started rummaging for the nearest projectiles.
In seconds, the gulls were under a shower of driftwood chunks, watermelon slices and sand-filled beer cans. My brother, brothers-in-law and myself all smiled with joy and gratification. Their grandad, especially, beamed with pride. Naturally, within seconds, the women moved in to spoil their fun.
Anyway, in Southwest Louisiana with its rice fields and in North Louisiana with its flooded soybean fields, mallards and pintail usually form a large portion of the bag.
Lately widgeon numbers have been low continent-wide. And what a shame. On top of being colorful and tasty, widgeon tend to be cooperative. A few toots on the whistle, a short hail, and they're usually cupping up and banking in.
Grays cooperate too, but usually in early season and when a good hatch up north brings plenty of young ones down. Fortunately for us Southeast Louisiana hunters, this year that's exactly the case. Gadwall numbers are way up, thank goodness. We saw several flocks even during the teal season.
Point is, even with our brackish marshes barren of duck food, there's room for hope this season. Heaven knows we've had enough hurricanes, tropical storms and saltwater surges in the past decade.
Oddly enough, my log shows some of the best duck hunts on those "off" years, 1998 after Georges, 2002 after Lili. On years when the Bonnet Carre Spillway opened or the Caernarvon diversion was gushing river water for long periods, our log often shows some mediocre hunts even on great weather days.
So what's going on here?
Well, think about it. Some deer hunters detest high-mast years because it spreads the deer out. They have so much to eat in so many places, they ignore food plots and corn, and become hard to pattern. But on those same low-mast years, the public-land hunter who, through diligent scouting, finds the few oaks putting out, usually scores. Same principle with ducks.
When the Spillway opened or Caernarvon gushed, milfoil grew everywhere in huge mats, and often in the big, open bays. This made it tough to attract and ambush ducks in enclosed ponds with a few dekes. The big flocks of grays constantly descend in the open water, and there's simply no way to compete with that crowd after a few hundred have bunched up.
During the saltier-water, more food-barren years, we simply — by scouting — located the few pockets of food, often ponds or coves with widgeon grass on the bottom, dwarf spikerush sprouting on the mud banks or even algae matting the banks and bottom. Yes algae, that same stuff that cripples our spinnerbaits when casting for reds in skinny water ponds. Ducks — grays and greenwings especially — seem to love it.
Hunting public land or otherwise having the luxury of avoiding a permanent blind and actually hunting ducks made for these successful hunts.
One December day during the split, we'd been scouting the interior of the Biloxi Marsh most of the morning, spotting few ducks — and mostly pairs of mottled ducks at that. Trying to decoy these outside of the delta (which holds many migrant mottled ducks) is often an exercise in teeth-grinding futility. Duck-wise, things looked grim that day. Red and speck-wise, however, we were mopping up.
Pelayo was on the bow as we fished a point, on his tip-toes and craning his neck. I was preparing to pluck him from the frigid waters.
"Check 'em out!" he suddenly yelled while pointing his pole toward the marsh.
Climbing the bow myself, I saw a flock of something speckling the surface of an interior pond.
"Gotta be dos gris and mergansers," I said. "Plenty of 'em though."
"I'll settle for dos gris next week," said Pelayo as we tilted up the motor and made our way down a trenasse toward the pond. Forty yards into it, they erupted — and mostly straight into the air, unlike diving ducks.
"They're GRAYS, man!" Pelayo howled as they peeled off in big flocks and made for the stratosphere as several bands of teal buzzed around crazily. And yes, a few dos gris finally scurried across the surface and became airborne.
A glorious sight, and we commenced with the whoops and the high-fives while entering the pond, which looked very redfishy. We were wrong, however, and on every cast, our beetles came up covered in algae.
"Hmmmm?" Pelayo snorted while stripping it off his lure. "Haven't had this problem all morning."
"No problem at all!" I whooped. "That's why all those ducks were in here, man! Think about it — and we'll be in here ourselves next Sahhh-dy morning!"
The following Saturday, the eastern horizon and our watches signaled legal shooting time just as we'd finished sticking palmetto leaves and fluffy bamboo stalks around our 'rogue which we jammed into a little bunch of marsh alders. In seconds, a roar of wings startled me, and Rick nudged me.
"Teal!" he hissed while pointing with his chin and grabbing Pelayo's shoulder. In seconds, a flock of about 15 ducks splashed into the spread not 20 yards in front of us.
"Pretty big teal," I was thinking.
"Teal my a--!!" I hissed as we rose and shouldered the guns. They were greys, flapping off in every direction. Usually when that many ducks land that close, they're either teal or dos gris. Not here. A wild flurry of furiously flapping wings and startled quacks filled the sky ... BLAM! A big-headed drake crumpled to Pelayo's first shot. Blam! Another on my left as Rick cut loose. "Shu-wuck" went his pump — BLAM! — and another one staggered on the perimeter of the decoys while a few feathers flew from his tail.
BLAM, BLAM! Both Rick and I zeroed in on it for the kill shot. He landed with a mighty splash and a puff of feathers. A last one was still lost. He was flapping hard against the wind for some reason and the angle of his flight put him right overhead. I swung and led him about a foot, hit the trigger and kept swinging. He crumpled and missed us by about 5 feet as he thumped on the cord grass behind the 'rogue.
We sat there wide-eyed, shaking with idiot grins. Then the whoops and high-fives started — until we spotted another flock banking in from the right. Four widgeon were winging in. That short beak, those short wings and that long rump makes them look almost like woodies at a distance.
Looking right, I noticed they were racing another flock of greys to the decoys. Pelayo hadn't seen them, turned his head quickly while reaching for a Slim Jim, and both groups started flaring.
The whistle was in my mouth, and I tooted softly. Everyone knows a widgeon whistles, but so does a gadwall drake. Pelayo finally caught on and chuckled. Rick quacked softly. I guess we sounded like a flock, because the ducks turned sharply toward us again. It was heavenly. They turned to face the sun, every feather glistening. I dropped the call, and fingered the safety.
They were barely flapping now, but still not in range. They were cupping. Those longs necks were craning back and forth. At 70 yards, the three in the lead started veering off.
"NO!" I thought, and we started tooting in unison again.
They swung back on course ... closer ... closer ... the landing gear started going down — NOW! — and we stood.
BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!! Three shots, and two greys crumpled. A third staggered off to the left.
I followed him with the bead — led him about 2 feet (this steel shot in the wind) — BLAM! His neck sagged, and he splashed down, clobbering the farthest decoy.
More whoops, more high-fives. Then another jet-like roar of wings from behind. A flock of greenwings rushed in over the marsh alders behind us, practically knocking off our caps, swerved just at the edge of the pond and started blazing in. Pelayo, Rick and I looked at each other trying to stifle guffaws.
But not for long. Again, it was shooting time. NOW! We emptied our shotguns into the madly flapping and swerving flock. One came down dead, another wounded. BLAM! Pelayo peppered him on the edge of the dekes.
A few minutes later, I'd just stepped out the 'rogue for a retrieval run with the small 'rogue when I was yanked down and saw Rick pointing with his chin as he ducked his head.
Ah yes, a pair of greys were almost directly overhead, too high to shoot but cupped and looking down. He gave a short hail — four quick, sharp notes, the way ducks (especially hen gadwall) do it, not Mariachi trumpeters — and they started spiralling down. I like the way they rock back and forth as they glide down.
And I mean almost straight down. I was slightly behind the blind, so I just watched this time. They were hovering over the dekes in seconds — not landing, just hovering like they weren't sure. Then they started drifting off — too late. BLAM! BLAM! And both folded.
"Look!" Rick pointed, laughing. Our shooting had startled another flock of greenwings that scattered overhead like a swarm of bees.
Just as things quieted down, something blocked the sun for a split-second, and I looked up expecting to see pelicans. Instead I saw a half-dozen greys that had just passed overt. They were cupped — tightly cupped — the wind rushing through their wings as they scrambled to hit the place they'd been gorging on algae probably for weeks.
Sadly I was just shoving the pirogue out of the alders, and they spotted me.
"They'll be back," I laughed as Pelayo and Rick berated me from our makeshift blind.
We'd been hunting all of an hour. Actually we'd been shooting all of an hour. The hunting was done the weekend before.