Pearly Gates

Duck hunters who can pick their days on this WMA will feel like they’ve died and gone to heaven.

Let’s face it — hunting ducks on public land can be about as much fun as sliding down a razor blade into a pool full of rubbing alcohol. If you think that’s too extreme a comparison, you haven’t spent very much time hunting public land lately.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Public lands are great, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries should be lauded for the effort they have put into creating opportunities for hunters who don’t have expansive tracts of land or even more expansive pockets.

Public lands can even be productive. I’ve killed scores of ducks from Ouachita and Russell Sage WMAs in Northeast Louisiana.

However, I’ve also witnessed firsthand the curse of public lands.

I have pulled into the parking lot at 2 a.m. to be the first hunter on the scene only to see several pairs of red taillights blinking back at me. I have beaten the crowd to a hotspot only to watch a late-arriving group of hunters toss out their decoys within 20 yards of mine. I have also watched an inexperienced Labrador get tangled in my decoys then proudly take one of them to his master.

And while the LDWF can’t be charged with a crime of having no ducks on the WMAs, I have knelt in the water beside a tree and waited and watched, and watched … and watched. Those were the days that made me wonder why I set my alarm for 1:30. Was it worth enduring this kind of hell on earth just to come up empty-handed?

Through the years, some of Louisiana’s WMAs have proven to be more productive for duck hunters than others. Ouachita and Russell Sage are two of those because, while action can sometimes be spotty, they usually hold ducks and are worth the hassle.

While there are others that are worth enduring the torture of hunting them, there is one in Southeast Louisiana that will make you think you’ve just died and are heading through the pearly gates. It took a direct hit from Hurricane Katrina, but is quickly rising from the dead.

Pearl River WMA located near Slidell is one of the most unique WMAs in the state because it contains such a wide variety of habitat. This 35,000-acre management area has three distinct types of terrain. The northern 60 percent features a mixture of pines/hardwoods and bottomland hardwoods. The central 25 percent is a cypress/tupelo swamp, and the lower 15 percent is a combination of fresh and brackish marsh.

The main water source for the area is the Pearl River. The management area is actually located between the East Pearl River and the West Pearl River. There are also numerous streams and bayous in the area, which provide a maze of waterways for duck hunters to search for ducks and a little solitude.

Granted, there is enormous amount of hunting pressure, but hunters willing to go the extra mile can often get somewhat away from the crowds.

LDWF Region 7 manager Randy Myers believes this could be a really good year for ducks at Pearl River WMA. Barring any unforeseen storms, he expects hunter efforts to pay off.

“Pearl River WMA took a hard lick from Katrina,” he said. “The storm did some considerable damage to the marsh area and the duck habitat associated with it, but it also created some new areas in what was scrub marsh. Now we’ve got a few more shallow potholes that will wind up providing additional habitat.”

LDWF biologist Mike Perot agreed with Myers, and added that Hurricane Katrina was actually beneficial for Pearl River WMA.

“If you look at aerial photographs since the storm, you can see the newly scoured ponds that were left as the storm surge receded,” Perot said.

Perot added that he is also seeing a lot of seed-producing plants like smart weed and different kinds of cyperus, neither of which would be as good as an explosion of pig weed, but they are forms of food that will attract and hold ducks.

Since Pearl River WMA has three distinct types of habitat, it only stands to reason that each habitat zone offers waterfowlers a little something different in the form of duck species present and productive hunting methods. The southern 15 percent below Highway 90 gets most of the attention, but hunters should explore the entire area to reap its benefits.

No matter which section of the WMA you plan to hunt, you’d better plan on pulling a boat with you. Pearl River hunters need a boat to access the many miles and acres of water. Most hunters load a pirogue into a flat boat and pull it out after they go as far as they can go in the flat. Some get where they’re going with a mud boat or a Go-Devil.

The northernmost portion of Pearl River is made up mainly of flooded woods and swamps, and that means it’s home to a good population of wood ducks. Hunters in the flooded woods also encounter some good groups of mallards falling into the holes in the treetops.

“The main problem with hunting that section of Pearl River right now is that there was a lot of timber blown over during the storm,” said Perot. “In fact, Katrina pretty much wiped out the flooded timber hunting up there. Access to some of the traditional areas is almost non-existent.”

Things start to open up a little the farther south you go, though. Perot said one of the promising aftereffects of Katrina was that the cypress tupelo swamp section between I-10 and Highway 90 has a few more ponds off the West Pearl than it did before.

“We’ve got a few scours in that section that have opened up previously congested areas,” he said. “That may open up things a bit and give hunters some more room to spread out.”

Hunters can still expect to find some woodies and mallards in the middle section of Pearl River, but they’ll also notice an increase in ducks like gadwall, widgeon and teal as they move closer to the marsh.

As good as the top two sections of Pearl River WMA can be, it is the bottom section that gets most of the attention. This is the area that is made up mainly of freshwater and brackish marsh, and it has all the ingredients to be a world-class duck hole.

“The shallow ponds are in good shape,” Perot said. “I don’t know what happened after the storm, but the marsh below Highway 90 is in as good a shape as it’s ever been. The area is full of lush, green vegetation and lots of flowers.”

One hunter who had some success hunting after the storm last year is Darren Digby from Mandeville. Digby, a senior at LSU majoring in environmental engineering, is most familiar with the marsh south of Highway 90. His perception of Pearl River WMA is that it’s a great place to kill a few ducks with the opportunity to have some banner days.

“I don’t slay them every time I go out,” Digby said, “but I do have some days that make it seem like I’m hunting private land.

“One of the biggest drawbacks is that it does get a lot of pressure being so close to New Orleans, but Pearl River WMA is good enough to make putting up with he pressure worthwhile.”

For the most part, Digby believes that the farther south you go from the launches along Highway 90, the farther you’re going to get from the pressure. He also combats the pressure by hunting all the way to the end of the season when the pressure tends to loosen up a bit. And if he can get away from his classes, he prefers to hunt during the middle of the week when everybody else is at work.

“Opening weekend is the worst,” he said. “And they’ll hit it pretty hard for the first week, but after that it kind of slacks off during the week. It’ll pick up again all week long around Thanksgiving and Christmas. If you were going to hunt during those times, I’d recommend getting there early. The well-known hotspots get full pretty quick, and there aren’t that many secrets out there anymore.”

Still, Digby believes that some advance scouting before a hunt can pay off in a big way. He always tries to scout the area the evening before he’s going to hunt, and he says that being quiet and observing through a distance with binoculars is the way to go.

“Some hunters will roar through there trying to jump up some ducks so they can see where they are,” Digby said. “I’ve found it’s better if I get out there in my pirogue and quietly paddle around. That gives me a chance to see where the ducks are loafing and what kind of ducks are mixing together, how big the groups are, and what part of the pond they’re using.”

All this work gives Digby a leg up on those who scout by flushing the birds because he knows exactly where to set up and how to set up the next morning. He imitates exactly what he saw the day before with the decoys and puts them in the sections of the ponds that the birds seem to be favoring.

“I take everything into account that I learned the day before, and combine it with the prevailing wind conditions to determine how I’m going to set up,” Digby said. “I’m one of those that carry their pirogue in a flat boat. The small boat lets me get back in the more remote ponds. These ponds are all connected in a series, so I usually try to paddle a little farther back than where Average Joe would stop.”

Once at his chosen spot, Digby throws out a collection of gadwall and teal decoys, and he rarely throws out more than 24. He does make minor adjustments to his spread based on the groupings of ducks he saw the day before. These adjustments can range from the number of different species he throws out to the size of the groupings he throws out.

“Overall, it’s hard to beat a spread where you put eight to 10 on one side with another eight to 10 on the other with a little landing lane in the middle,” Digby said. “I usually throw a little pocket of teal decoys off to one side unless I’ve been seeing big bands of teal on the water.

“One little thing I do that I think pays off is throw out a few coot decoys right in front of my little makeshift blind where I pulled my pirogue into the cover.”

Hunters on public land typically don’t have the luxury of picking up and moving to where the ducks want to be, but Digby said hunters may find the opportunity to do just that on the less-pressured days.

“If you see them falling into another pond and you don’t hear any shooting over there, it might be worth a look,” he said. “More often than not, though, it’s going to already be taken if it’s a spot worth hunting.”

Digby said he’s had more success over the years by laying off the calling. He relies mainly on whistles to get the job done. About the only time he uses a mallard hen call is to imitate the cackle of gray ducks flying overhead.

“It’s also real important to watch the tide and wind direction,” Digby added. “A falling tide with a strong north wind is a bad combination. I’ve paddled back to my flat boat before only to find it half stranded on a mud flat. A strong north wind after a front will push all that water straight to the Rigolets.”

Digby’s favorite time to hunt Pearl River WMA is the days before a front when there is a pretty strong south wind blowing. That will push some water into his holes, and it keeps the ducks from rafting out in Lake Borgne. Many of those ducks will move into the protected marsh to escape the wind, and unfortunately for them, right into the sights of Digby’s shotgun.

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About Chris Ginn 778 Articles
Chris Ginn has been covering hunting and fishing in Louisiana since 1998. He lives with his wife Jennifer and children Matthew and Rebecca along the Bogue Chitto River in rural Washington Parish. His blog can be found at chrisginn.com.

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