Move it or Lose it

Keeping your duck stand or deer blind in one spot will mean lots of boring hunts and empty bags.

Doc Fontaine’s got a dandy camp and duck lease near Cocodrie. It’s got “beautiful” blinds in “beautiful” ponds with “beautiful” spreads of decoys (that stay out most of the season). All three blinds are also fronted by two robo-decoys. All are accessed via mudboats with finely calibrated engines that crank-up immediately.

Doc routinely entertains his skiing chums at his “camp,” where they coo and gush at the amenities, often mentioning how they rival the ones at his bungalow in Aspen. Unreal.

So why was Pelayo whining the whole Christmas party long about our annual duck hunt at Doc’s camp?

“Duck season’s too short for fooling around,” he snorted in my ear while pointing with his chin at one of Doc’s leasemates walking up.

“Man, we slaughtered ’em last week!” the rotund fellow crowed while snorking down an oyster patty. “We shot seven out of our blind alone!”

“Seven WHAT?” Pelayo frowned.

“Well, let’s see. We had those … those … those…?”

“Dos gris?” Pelayo offered.

“Yeah, I think it was some a them, with the black heads, chubby little suckers … and we had those … those … those little…”

“Teal?” I blurted.

“Yeah, yeah, those little teal. Fast ducks, man. And great eating.”

“But the other blinds also got a few of those … those … those…”

“Ringnecks?” I snapped. “Black jacks I think y’all call them around there.”

“Yeah, yeah! Black jacks, black jacks! They look kinda like those dos gris.”

Pelayo looked at me smirking as we moved off.

“Cheer up, man,” I laughed. “It’s only one weekend. We’ll have a good ol’ time chumming it up, plenty food, booze, booray, etc. — and probably slaughter the specks and reds too.”

“I can do that year-round,” Pelayo snorted. “Like I said — duck season’s too short for wasting.”

The following weekend, we found ourselves in one of Doc’s blinds, an impressive structure indeed — seats, shelf for the shells, platform for the dog, dry.

By 8:30, we’d downed two dos gris and a teal. Big ducks were in the area, but avoided the “beautiful” pond like the plague.

“How long you had this blind here?” I asked Fontaine.

“Oh shoot,” Doc snorted while looking at his brother Fred. “Uncle Val had it here before we did — I’d say, probably, what, 30 years? Been rebuilt several times after hurricanes, but always in the same place. We always do great here on opening day.”

“Fine,” Pelayo laughed. “But the season’s 60 DAYS!”

Pelayo was unloading his gun as he moaned. Then he started shoving out the pirogue we’d dragged behind the mud-boat for duck retrieval. I was following suit, stuffing shells in my pockets as I helped Pelayo.

Some guests we are. But our nervous systems had reached the very limit of their endurance. For two hours we’d been watching big ducks dropping from the ionosphere into somewhere to our left, about a quarter mile away.

“What’s over there,” I kept asking Doc.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he’d frown. “More marsh, I guess.”

“Is that part of this lease?” I asked.

“Oh sure,” Fred said while sweeping his arm around. “This lease goes all the way to the Navigation Canal.”

“Well!” Pelayo snarled. “We’re gonna find out just what’s over there, Doc — alright?” Pelayo waved as we paddled off, trying to steady ourselves in the 14-foot ’rogue.

“You guys are crazy!” Doc shouted as the ’rogue tipped slightly and my butt got soaked with freezing slop. “You’ll never get back there. It’s too far. You’ll kill yourselves. Oh, OK, but y’all be careful now. Call us on the cell phone if you need us to pick you up later with the airboat.”

“How do you like that!” Pelayo laughed. “Now he’s got an AIRBOAT out here too! Yet they keep hunting these same old ponds!”

As we paddled, more ducks kept descending in the distance.

“I can’t believe those bozos are gonna sit in that blind with all that a quarter mile away!”

We paddled furiously against the wind for about 300 yards. Being downwind from the duck action meant the glorious gabble soon hit our ears — chuckling, gabbling, quacking, a few widgeon whistles, even what sounded like pintail whistles, rare for this area. Luckily the high tide allowed us to glide easily through a scrawny trennasse toward the action.

A pair of greys drifted overhead, and we stopped to gawk. They were a couple, drake and hen. It was late winter and they were already pairing up. They cupped while directly over, banked and set a gliding course for the feast and orgy raging up ahead. Then some green wings buzzed over, and quickly plunked into the duck gathering.

I was panting by now — but not from the exertion. The gabble was on high volume as four greys cupped overhead and started dropping into the orgy. But they must have seen the glint from my glasses. Ten yards from landing, they flapped off frantically, quacking as they turned on the afterburners. That was the signal.

At least a hundred ducks promptly took wing, and the sight and sound were glorious. As usual, they quickly split up by species. A pair of pintail split first. Their profiles were unmistakable — slender, elegant. The greys and a few widgeon started splitting up next. The teal, as usual, buzzed around like fat shorebirds, seemingly undecided on where to go.

We kept paddling, and got a glimpse at the place that attracted them. It was a huge eroded area — either from nutrias or weather — that stretched for about a hundred square yards. This combination of erosion, eat-out and a blustery southeast wind had created an open area of weedy, seedy marsh with that perfect 10 inches or so depth for puddlers. The high tides had also blown in some widgeon grass that Pelayo raised with his paddle. The place was perfect.

The ’rogue was scraping bottom as we chunked out eight decoys borrowed from the back of Doc’s permanent blind.

“Could be hell gettin’ outta here,” Pelayo frowned. “Hope the tide doesn’t fall anymore.”

“I think this southeast wind might save us from that,” I said, only semi-convinced.

We jammed the ’rogue into some bachiris bushes and gave a few quacks and whistles. Six teal buzzed in immediately, circled once, and plopped in the dekes. A pair of spoonies followed. And we opened up just as they touched down. Both stayed with us, along with a slow teal.

Off to my right, I caught movement — greys. Pelayo was pointing to his left and hunkering down as another flock of greenwings blazed our way. In seconds, we opened up at the crazily swerving targets.

We didn’t quite limit out, but came close: 10 ducks in an hour and a half. The tide was up, so we forsook the air-boat ride. We paddled back to the ancient hotel-blind, where Doc and Fred had added a wily ringneck and a coveted American merganser to their bag. They were as happy as Pelayo and I. To each his own.

A combination of hunting pressure and food availability had caused the shift in duck flyways (and duck landways) at Doc’s lease. The bushy millfoil that matted the ponds in November had now been reduced to bare spaghetti-like stems. The greys and widgeon had stripped off the good parts.

With a front and a low tide, Pelayo and I might have paddled to a deeper, more brackish pond. Widgeon grass grows on the bottom of deeper ponds. Late-season fronts that blow out the tides often shift the duck feeding areas to these brackish ponds, which are now 10 inches deep but normally 2 feet deep.

In the deltas, the puddle ducks shift from scooping up wild millet and duck potato seeds during teal season to rooting in the mud flats for duck potato tubers in December and January.

We’ve seen these shifts at every lease we’ve ever hunted. Yet it’s a rare, rare duck hunter who’ll pick up and move the blind to get the equivalent of opening-day shooting late in the season.

Even more mystifying, it doesn’t require the building of a fancy new blind. Just move and hunt from a makeshift blind, behind a few wax-myrtle branches or bamboo stalks. Always works for us.

Ducks can home in on the same nesting sites year after year. However they do it, wouldn’t you think a creature with such instincts might also remember a place where he was shot at — or saw his chums shot — a few days or weeks or a month before?

Granted, the social aspects are as important (if not more so) for many hunters than the actual hunting. Fine, nothing wrong with that. Then why not organize a “work detail” at the duck or deer lease (complete with the cooking, booze and booray) to scout and move blinds and stands during the split? Knowing you’ll be genuinely ambushing your quarry again after Christmas lets you recapture much of that opening weekend anticipation.

Ditto with deer. Late last season, the terrain around our ladder stands with their adjoining food plots and feeders looked like cow pastures. The trails leading to them looked like cattle ruts. Looking at all that sign really cranked up the nervous system. But sitting in the stands — morning and evening after morning and evening after morning and evening — without seeing so much as a button-buck sure got old.

By late season, simply finding “deer sign” is pointless. “When was it made?” is now the key.

Same as with ducks, the deer have long ago PATTERNED US. And it doesn’t take long to do. Bowhunters have been driving down the trails tromping through the woods since Oct. 1.

“Hey!” a deer concludes. “You know, I never see these bozos at night! Maybe THAT’s when I oughta go traipsing around!”

Besides using different trails because of the hunting pressure, by Christmas deer are also feeding on much different fare than they were in October or even in mid November. The big fronts and the shortest days all come around Thanksgiving. In consequence, much vegetation dies or becomes less attractive to deer by late December.

Persimmons, for instance, peter out usually by late October. Where I hunt in southwest St. Tammany, the white oak acorns are also usually gone (gobbled almost as fast as they drop). This means the food plots and feeders are even more attractive, but almost exclusively at night.

So take to the woods, I say. And crank up that scouting fever that got you so pumped back in October.

For me, the revelations and consequent shift in hunting modes have been well worth it. Poking around the thicker woods after several days of fruitless vigils over food plots during the holidays, I noticed deer were now munching out on wandering jew (a green waxy plant with pointed leaves and a little white flower that grows mat-like on the ground, especially near rivers Tchefuncte, Tangipahoa and Amite) and on Japanese privet, (a bush with little round leaves that grows like crazy all over Southeast Louisiana). Both of these stay nice and green until consistent nights of mid-20 temperatures finally shrivel them, which means they often stay green all season long.

Both, by the way, are illegal immigrants, and are cursed and vilified by the EPA as “invasive species.” But unlike the abominable salvinia, these earn their keep by feeding our deer.

Significantly, back in October none of this same wandering jew and privet had been much browsed. At the time, acorns were dropping heavily, and everything else was still lush and green. But now it looks like a lawn mower has swept it. And the shiny deer droppings that pepper the area tell the rest of the story.

During a scouting trip last year, finding a couple of scrapes pawed out of the wandering jew orchard had me whooping like a lunatic as I tromped back to the truck for my climber, which shortly went up in a nearby gum.

At 9:15 the following Saturday, I was cursing my stupidity at setting up here and preparing to clamber down when movement caught my eye.

“Good GRIEF!” I thought. “Just like in the magazines! A 6-pointer at least. And he seems in a hurry. He’s not moseying along feeding. This guy’s headed somewhere, with his nose to the ground.”

My rifle was hanging from a limb, and the deer was so preoccupied it didn’t see me fumbling for it. Finally the gun went up. Where IS he?! I can’t find him through the scope! Up … Down … Around … AHH! There he is. The crosshairs dance, then steady. Deep breath now. There’s his shoulder … squeeze, jerk — BLAM!

The recoil knocked me off balance, but my safety belt was good and tight. I looked down to see the buck on his back but kicking. Another round — FAST! Crank the bolt! CRANK IT! …. GEEZUM! He’s almost back on his feet! Still bucking! Hold on his neck. Anchor him for good. He’s still thrashing around — BLAM!

Another deafening blast, and the scope — with the rifle held awkwardly — smacked my glasses right at my nose bridge, momentarily stunning me … NO!! He’s still kicking! But more slowly … more slowly, as I cranked in another round.

There, he’s still. Now let ME try and be still before I start humping it down this tree. With my knees jerking like this, I’ll probably kill myself.

We took advantage of this new feeding area until the very end of bow season. My father nailed another nice buck with a gun and a beautiful (and delicious) doe with his crossbow on the very last weekend of January, after seeing deer on almost every hunt.

We like it this way. It’s almost like cashing in on two duck and deer seasons every year.

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