Health Club Ducks

You have to be in shape for this style of hunting, but the dividends are greater than a mere six-pack abs.

What’s more exasperating than watching flock after flock after flock of ducks (mostly greys) land far out into the open water 300 yards away from your decoy spread, which was lovingly placed in a sheltered little cove and strategically set out from 20 to 35 yards downwind of where you huddle, perfectly hidden, in a grove of marsh alders blowing yourself hoarse on a duck call? The only thing more exasperating than this is watching ducks in pairs and smaller groups landing almost as regularly in what appears to be solid marsh to your right. These include small flocks of teal that constantly buzz the area, pairs of mottled ducks that drop almost straight down and disappear behind the marsh grass along with pairs of mallards, a relative rarity in the Venice area marshes. But the morning sun flashing off some green heads confirms their pedigree.

“We picked the PERFECT spot!” Pelayo kept snorting as flock after flock snubbed us. “The PERFECT spot!” he kept rubbing in the phrase, which was my own description of this little cove during a scouting trip the week before.

“With a north wind, it’ll be PERFECT!” I’d gushed while surveying the landscape and the multitude of ducks a few days before. “We can set up in those bushes right over THERE!” I pointed and whooped just as a flock of pintail buzzed overhead.

And here we were, five days later, right after a front and in those very bushes — and with one teal and one dos gris to show for almost an hour and a half of hunting, while surrounded by puddle-duck multitudes, none of which came anywhere near range despite our most heartfelt entreaties on whistles and quackers.

“Getting tired of this!” Pelayo blurted. “For me, hunting ain’t no spectator sport! We’re hunters, not birdwatchers — got that?!?”

We were in the brackish section of the Baptiste Collette marsh, where the duck potato, bulrushes and elephant ears give way to cordgrass and roseau. No millfoil mats these ponds and coves. No duck potato or wild millet sprouts from the mud banks. That stuff grows closer to the river. Most feed here is widgeon grass and dwarf spikerush.

Tides are everything when hunting feeding areas for puddlers — and not just in the river deltas. Find that 6 to 10 inches of water with the food, and you’ll find the ducks. This is why flooded soybean and corn fields — and even pastures — pack in so many puddlers. They’re the perfect depth, and they’ve got the food.

It used to baffle us. How can the greys go on a flying and feeding frenzy during a vicious front when we’re hunting near Lafitte, LaBranche or St. Bernard while disappearing from the skies over the delta? Then they go into a similar flying frenzy in the deltas (both Mississippi and Atchafalaya) with those balmy southeast gales three days after a front.

Tides, that’s why. The tidal fluctuations in the delta marshes (Mississippi and Atchafalaya) are simply a fast-forward version of what happens throughout the brackish tidal marshes. With high tides, the puddlers swarm into the flooded shallows to feed. It’s the perfect depth. With a low tide, they raft out on the open deeper water (or deeper potholes that retain water, as we learned).

In the delta, this happens almost daily. But it happens throughout the southeast marshes — only it’s over two months. Early season high tides find the puddlers in the upper interior marshes. After the fronts, they migrate out to the deeper exterior marsh, which is now the right depth for dabbling and which gets much less hunting pressure.

The whole early season/late season debate used to center around tides. In the southeast, we claim we can’t hunt late because of the fronts. They blow out all the water. And yes they do — but primarily out of the upper, fresher marshes. The ponds and bays in the lower, more brackish marshes are then reduced to 10 inches or so. The dwarf spikerush and widgeon grass then come into beak range — and the ducks swarm in.

Fact is, usually there are more ducks down in our southeast marshes in December and January than in November. But in different places. So we move with the ducks. We follow them, and often get the hottest shooting of the year as a result.

Dabbling ducks (pintail, greys, widgeon, teal, mallards) like it shallow, usually a foot or less. Here they can tip up with their butts in the air to reach the seeds, grasses and assorted muck from the bottom. Greys and widgeon swarm into deeper ponds in the brackish marshes, but that’s usually if the milfoil is matting on the surface or the widgeon grass is bunching up around the edges.

Some of these ponds are resting sites. The birds drop in late in the morning, sometimes near noon. We’ve seen this happen around Bob’s Lakes and Lake Eugenie in the Biloxi Marsh, Shell Lake and Shrimp Lagoon near Delacroix and “The Prairie” out from Manchac.

And now we were watching it almost on the very edge of Breton Sound just northeast of Venice. Unreal — and infuriating. There seemed no way to get near them.

“Wonder what the heck’s attracting them into the marsh on the left?” Pelayo kept pointing and growling.

“Probably a pond in there,” I said. “Think I saw it on the aerial photos.”

“Can’t be much of a pond,” Pelayo snorted. “Looks like solid marsh back there — what little is left around here.”

Another hour went by as both the bay on our right and the pond on our left kept filling with ducks.

“How many more ducks can possibly FIT in there?!” Pelayo asked as another pair of mottled ducks dropped in.

“Well!” I finally jerked myself from the my shell bucket seat. “I’m gonna find out. Let’s grab a dozen dekes, drag the little flat-bottomed ’rogue back there and get serious about hunting. I’m tired of bird watching.”

“You must be nuts!” Pelayo laughed. “That’s a good 200 yards back to that so-called pond. You’ll kill yourself.”

“Not with you helping,” I smirked. “And PLEASE don’t tell me you can’t use the exercise,” I said while poking his belly. “I see you started accompanying Doc Fontaine to that fancy health club. So come on, why not get some exercise doing something you like?”

The ground was semi-walkable. The proximity to Breton Sound and silt deposits from a high river the previous spring made it sandy and semi-hard. Still, a hundred yards into tromping and dragging I was huffing and pouring sweat.

“Don’t this beat running around the track with those ankle weights at the health club?” I huffed.

Pelayo glared as he adjusted his shotgun sling and got a better grip on the decoy sack over his shoulder.

“Beats all those fancy contraptions in the weight room too. And heck — here you’re sweating for a reason!” I raved.

Pelayo glared again, but suddenly dropped the decoy sack and pointed as his eyes bugged. I jerked my head around and saw that the pond ahead had exploded with ducks. Probably a hundred were airborne. The mottleds and mallards quacked their raspy alarm. Three bands of greenwings buzzed and weaved in that crazy pattern of theirs, as if they can’t decide which direction to go. The gadwall lifted straight up and started breaking up into ragged groups.

A good portion of those ducks would filter back in singles, pairs and small groups all morning. Pelayo and I looked at each other with crazy grins.

“They’ll be back!” we whooped almost in unison as our pace to the pond greatly quickened.

We finally got to the edge of the pond, huffing, puffing, covered with sweat but seriously pumped.

“This thing’s landlocked,” Pelayo said as we surveyed the edges of the pond for good cover. It was around 60 yards wide and a hundred long. I hurled a roseau cane like a javelin into the water. When it landed point first, we estimated the pond held almost 2 feet of water near the middle. Only two little ditches (they couldn’t properly be called trenasses) connected the pond to the pass and to the bay that was already surrounded by huge mud flats.

“No wonder they’re in here,” Pelayo said. “Looks like this thing never completely drains. Don’t see much grass in it. But they got enough water to land and play around in.”

“And here they’ve also got safety,” I added. “Think about it. They’re landing here for the same reason they’re landing out in the open water. They’ve got water to land in plus they’re surrounded by terrain that repels danger. It’s obvious nobody has ever hunted this pond. The expanse of marsh we just killed ourselves tromping through repels most hunters the same way those mud flats repel them in the bays. The ducks feel safe.

“I have a hunch this is a resting area rather than a feeding area. So more and more will drop in as the morning wears on.”

“Alright, Mr. Duck WIZ!” Pelayo cackled. “A bit early to start with your theorizing, don’t you think? Anyway, now we’ll see just how safe they are in here.”

Pelayo laughed as he pushed off in the ’rogue and started chunking out dekes — just as the first contingent returned.

They looked like greys. I ducked in the grass and gave a loud hail. Their wings slowed down on the first pass, then they started circling, slower on the second pass. The circles got smaller, smaller. Finally, they saw Pelayo and veered off. But I took it as a harbinger of things to come, minus the final veering off.

Movement caught my eye again, and I looked up. A pair of widgeon were drifting overhead, and I gawked — a drake and hen, their late-winter plumage gleaming in the sun. Gorgeous. They cupped while directly overhead, banked and set a gliding course for the place they’d probably lifted from a few minutes before. Then they saw Pelayo chunking out the dekes and flapped off horrified.

“Hurry up!” I shrieked. “They’re already buzzing back!”

With all the targets in sight, I was getting antsy. But Pelayo refused to acknowledge me as he threw out the last deke, which landed on its side.

“The decoy!” I yelled and pointed.

He reversed his paddling and rectified the matter just as some greenwings buzzed over — sswwuuuuush. Up, back down, a quick bank, another run to my right. They seemed hell-bent on landing where they’d probably just erupted from. Then they saw Pelayo and rocketed skyward, in their classic manner, like a fireworks display —shooting up then spreading out. Pelayo pointed his finger gun at them and blasted away as I implored him to HURRY UP!!

Ernest Hemingway and Robert Ruark failed, so I won’t even try to explain the magic. And they were in the best position to judge. These gentlemen had hunted practically every animal worth hunting on any continent. They’d looked down the barrel at charging lions and buffalo, stalked kudu with Kilimanjaro as a backdrop, climbed after wild sheep through the clouds at the summit of the Rockies. Descending a bit, they’d stalked mule deer and bugled up elk.

They chronicled these hunts in some of the most enduring prose of the century. Yet their most heartfelt writing was inspired by decoying mallards and twisting squadrons of teal. Hemingway hunted ducks even on Safari. He wrote about it in The Green Hills of Africa. Even on the Serengeti, surrounded by the biggest concentrations of game animals on earth, the bug wouldn’t leave him. Any duck hunter would understand why. For the afflicted, there is no cure.

But even these masters of the language threw up their hands when asked to explain the burning appeal of duck hunting. Couched in the code of Hemingway’s and Ruark’s prose, the message reads: “It’s a duck hunter thing. You wouldn’t understand.”

“Yeah, you right!” is all I can add.

A flock of four was circling just as we dragged the pirogue behind the makeshift brush and marsh-alder blind. They turned, and their white underwings flashed against their dark bellies.

“Mottleds!” I gasped.

We weren’t even loaded up yet so we ducked and watched …. spliiissshh. They ACTUALLY LANDED. Boy, was that a good sign. You don’t see that very often — except during teal season, of course. They loved this place. Pelayo grabbed my sleeve and pointed with his chin. Another six were right behind, cupped-up beautifully, the sun shining off their white underwings. Then the first noticed something wrong and took off, quacking.

We were in a trance. Suddenly a pair of bluewings plopped down not 20 feet from the blind and started looking around nervously. The drake was gorgeous in his winter plumage. The white crescent on his face flashed in the sunlight. We knew we had a winner of a spot.

Five minutes after we finally hid the ’rogue in the ditch and ducked into the marsh alders, a flock appeared as specks in the sky, winging in from the north. I started with a loud hail, and they seemed to react, slightly. Another hail, and they dropped a little lower. Pelayo added to the cacophony with his whistle, which generally works like a charm.

In minutes, our symphony transformed this flock from specks in the sky to fat, white-bellied targets (greys, this time) zooming into the decoys. Or maybe they just wanted to land here? Maybe they were some of those we spooked? Who knows? Who cares?

We could only marvel as they dropped. They were hovering over the decoys … NOW!

BLAM! BLAM!

Limits of greys, mottleds, mallards and teal came in exactly 45 minutes by my watch. They were still buzzing as we tromped back to the big boat.

And while most health clubs can match the physical benefits of getting in and out of this place, none could match the thrill in-between.

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