A combination of Mother Nature and state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries technicians and biologists has left coastal Wildlife Management Areas in fair to good condition for hunters before the 2017-18 seasons.
The Coastal and Nongame Resources Division’s coastal operations program manager Lance Campbell reported that’s the case from Atchafalaya Delta WMA to Pass-a-Loutre WMA. Barring an unwelcome visit from a major tropical weather system, conditions on the ground, in the marsh and in the swamp should be just about average or above average on the seven WMAs. Ditto for the quantity and quality of submerged aquatic vegetation ducks love to eat when they get to at least one WMA.
Campbell, a 22-year LDWF veteran who earned a bachelor’s degree from McNeese State University and master’s degree from LSU, and biologist manager Shane Granier, who has 15-plus years with the state agency, checked habitat conditions and SAV production in mid-summer on the WMAs. They chronicled their findings in an annual report submitted to Louisiana Sportsman.
Overall, Campbell said, habitat conditions are favorable due to the lack of extreme weather events (tropical storms, hurricanes, drought, flooding, abnormally cold winter, etc.). As a result, he expects successful hunting —weather and water conditions permitting — in the upcoming season.
Campbell pointed out that rainfall in the late spring and early summer months has been beneficial for vegetation growth. High river stages in the Mississippi River and Atchafalaya River, plus extremely high tides, carried sediment to build and sustain the deltas. The river stages also contributed to keeping salinities fairly low in some areas.
Campbell and Granier realize better than anyone else the impact tropical storm systems have had on coastal WMAs. Fortunately, Campbell said, there hasn’t been a significant storm impact the coastal WMAs since Hurricane Isaac in 2012.
The state biologists and hundreds of hunters who go after deer, squirrel, rabbits, doves and, especially, ducks, are keeping their fingers crossed hopeful the tropical weather systems steer clear of the Sportsman’s Paradise.
There is more to the good condition of the coastal WMAs than a cooperating Mother Nature. Campbell said he can’t praise the LDWF’s 15 technicians who maintain and service the coastal WMAs enough. There are always two on site in the three major areas as they work a rotation, the program manager said.
Five are assigned to Pass-a-Loutre and Biloxi WMAs, four are assigned to the Atchafalaya Delta and six take care of Pointe-aux-Chenes, Salvador, Timken and Lake Boeuf WMAs, he said. They work year-round in weather good and bad and in some of the most remote environments possible, he said.
“Our guys, that’s the most important guys in the program. They keep everything up. They keep things posted. They keep campgrounds cut and maintained. They do a lot of things on the areas to prepare the areas for public use,” Campbell said the third week of July from his New Iberia office, adding those technicians also bush hog, clear shooting lanes, weed eat, maintain self-clearing permit stations, clean bathrooms, including filling toilet paper rolls, etc.
“There are a lot of logistics involved. Their work takes place at places like Pass-a-Loutre, which is a long way from Venice, a long way from anywhere,” he said.
“I’ve got to commend them. Our guys are committed to what they do on the areas. They’re committed,” he said.
Deer hunting and duck hunting are the main draws to the coastal WMAs.
Big-bodied deer, some with immense racks, can be found on the Atchafalaya Delta WMA in south central Louisiana west of Morgan City. The WMA’s deer herd is known for its quality as well as quality, which makes it very popular.
Approximately 130 deer were harvested by bowhunters and youth hunters (of which only eight deer were killed by youth hunters using firearms) there in 2016-17 based on self-clearing permits, mandatory check-in stations and/or hunter surveys and interviews, Campbell said in his report, noting actual hunter harvest may be greater than reported. The harvest rate was one deer per 26.4 hunter efforts (130/3,435).
Atchafalaya Delta WMA is a favorite because of the numerous areas of higher elevation “spoil islands” at the Main Delta, he said.
“A lot of habitat is beneficially used material dredged from the river (Atchafalaya River) and pumped into the islands and different areas. There are a lot of low ridges and high ridges, a bunch of different elevations. The cool thing is you get higher ridges. Big Island was built back in the ’80s. They pumped it 8 feet high (building such heights was discontinued later), so you have more of an upland, semi-upland hunting environment. It’s really unique,” Campbell said from his office.
The deer have responded well. The Atchafalaya Delta WMA’s five-year average deer harvest per season is 170 deer and Campbell believes the upcoming harvest will be at least average.
Compared to other WMAs, monstrous deer come off the Atchafalaya Delta WMA. For example, last season, Campbell wrote in his report, more than 10 deer had at least one main antler beam length of 15 inches or more; two deer had at least one antler base circumference of 5-plus inches, and more than 10 deer were 8- to 12-pointers.
Those statistics may leave some deer hunters with buck fever. But there are more numbers to salivate over because a handful of the harvested bucks last season included:
* 180-pound, 8-point buck with an 11 ½-inch inside spread.
* 165-pound, 8 point buck with a 14 ½-inch inside spread.
* 160-pound, 12-point buck with a 15-inch inside spread.
* 160-pound, 8-point buck with a 13-inch inside spread.
* 155-pound, 9-point buck with a 14 ½-inch inside spread.
There is more to deer hunting on the coastal WMAs than the Atchafalaya Delta WMA. Pass-a-Loutre WMA is the second-best bet for harvesting a trophy buck.
And a higher deer per hunter effort is the norm on the distant WMA as well as on Salvador WMA.
“There is a flip side to all this,” Campbell said in his conversation. “You don’t typically think about deer hunting in the marsh but we have some areas with really good deer hunting.”
At Pass-a-Loutre WMA in 2017-18, there were nine deer harvested per 95 hunter efforts, or one deer per 10.6 efforts, and at Salvador WMA, there were 14 deer harvested per 181 hunter efforts, or one deer per 12.9 hunter efforts, Campbell and Granier reported, noting those are very good averages for coastal WMAs.
“Participation can be a bit low at times at Pass-a-Loutre WMA due to its remoteness and accessibility (users must travel the Mississippi River). However, it is a great place to hunt deer for hunters who are willing to put in the effort,” Campbell wrote in the report. Technicians constantly maintain shooting lanes at the Reservoir, which improves conditions for deer and deer hunters, he wrote.
Duck hunters, too, have a choice for destinations on coastal WMAs. It depends on what the waterfowler wants.
The most popular duck hunting public hunting areas along the coast with traditionally high duck harvest numbers are Atchafalaya Delta WMA, particularly the Wax Lake area, and Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA. Based on 11 bag checks in 2016-17, here are the numbers for those coastal WMAs:
* Atchafalaya Delta WMA – 2.1 ducks per hunter effort (4,260 hunter efforts).
* Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA – 1.3 ducks per hunter effort (1,535 hunter efforts).
Those WMAs, particularly Atchafalaya Delta WMA, are great destinations, especially if a duck hunter wants to be back before 10:30 a.m. or 11 a.m.
However, two other coastal WMAs usually hold plenty of ducks but receive much less duck hunting pressure, notably at the distant Pass-a-Loutre WMA. It’s a more productive duck hunting experience in general, Campbell wrote in his report.
Those who venture to Pass-a-Loutre WMA, a deltaic marsh like Atchafalaya Delta WMA, typically are hard-core duck hunters who don’t mind going to an area with five campgrounds and no running water. They know the odds are in their favor to limit out.
Here are the duck harvest numbers, based on 11 bag checks, for those two coastal WMAs in 2016-17:
* Pass-a-Loutre WMA – 3.6 ducks per hunter effort (655 hunter efforts).
* Salvador WMA – 2.1 ducks per hunter effort (145 hunter efforts).
Duck hunting success on any of the coastal WMAs hinges on the availability of SAVs. Campbell and Granier’s report told it like it is, which isn’t overly encouraging before the ducks come down starting in September.
“For us, typically, most foods on the WMAs we are responsible are SAVs. That’s our go-to: SAV production. In general SAV production probably is a little below average for all the coastal WMAs except for Biloxi WMA,” Campbell said from his office.
As a result, Campbell and Granier anticipate an average waterfowl hunting season in 2017-18. Sure, overall habitat conditions were good this summer due to steady rainfall, high river stages and tides, plus a lack of tropical storm activity the past five years, but increased water turbidity during high river stages can temporarily reduce SAV production and SAVs are key food sources for ducks, they wrote in the report.
A look at the Atchafalaya Delta WMA
SAV production here is below average. The WMA’s southernmost delta splays have less than average SAV. However, this shouldn’t impact waterfowl use of the WMA. Remaining portions of the delta splays show average production of SAVs. Waterfowl habitat conditions should be average.
A look at the Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA
Overall SAV production here is below average but varies greatly between management unit/areas. The Pointe-aux-Chenes Unit and western portions of the Montegut Unit have less than average SAVs. Suspected causes include increased water turbidity and salinities caused by strong south winds and Tropical Storm Cindy in mid-June. Unmanaged areas (east of Grand Bayou) have average SAV production. That area continues to deteriorate and has little protection from salinities and high tides. Grand Bayou Units No. 1 and No. 2 and unmanaged areas west of Grand Bayou have slightly above average SAV production. Waterfowl usage is suspected to be the lowest in the Pointe-aux-Chenes Unit this season due to reduced amounts of available waterfowl food.
A look at the Salvador/Timken WMA
SAV production on Salvador/Timken WMA is slightly below average to average. Overall, waterfowl habitat has continued to decline for the past several years on Salvador WMA. Increasing water hyacinth and emergent vegetation growth continue to reduce shallow open water habitats used by ducks. The steady decline likely will lead to a reduction in waterfowl numbers there this season, although water hyacinths have been reduced in some of the larger ponds, possibly due to TS Cindy and herbicide application efforts. SAV growth should be good in those ponds if environmental conditions and water hyacinth levels are favorable. Average waterfowl habitat conditions are expected this season on the WMA.
A look at the Pass-a-Loutre WMA
SAV production here was below average in July, particularly noticeable in the Sawdust Bend and South Pass areas. High river stages and TS Cindy probably contributed to this year’s loss of SAV. SAV growth could recover if conditions remain favorable through the late summer. Waterfowl habitat conditions are expected to be average to possibly slight below average this season. However, barring major changes, there should be no significant effect on waterfowl usage.
A look at the Biloxi WMA
SAV production is average this year. As expected, there are very dense areas of SAV in some of the more isolated/smaller ponds and less in the deeper, open water areas. Marsh conditions appear to be healthy. Habitat conditions should be normal for this waterfowl hunting season.
While deer hunters and duck hunters flock to the coastal WMAs, there are some dove hunting opportunities every season, Campbell and Granier wrote in their report.
Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA is the prime example. Technicians there plant dove fields every year at the Point Farms Unit. Dove hunters who utilized the dove fields on opening day 2016-17 averaged 4.4 doves per hunt.
Below average dove use on the planted fields last season resulted in lower than average dove harvests on the WMA.
Millet growth in the dove fields was good in July. The 2017-18 dove hunting outlook is good because the dove fields received adequate rainfall after being planted.
Coastal WMA waterfowl hunters often harvest coots, gallinules, mergansers and geese during the waterfowl hunting season, the biologists reported. For example, on bag check days last season, there was a total of more than 3,800 coots and approximately 205 gallinules harvested last season, proving coastal WMAs offer a variety of game bird hunting opportunities.