Atchafalaya Delta WMA is primed for one of its best duck seasons in years.
I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I accepted retired LSU biologist Jerald Horst’s invitation to spend a couple days hunting the Atchafalaya Delta WMA with him. If there were ducks and there was hunting, I was there.I didn’t really care about the where.
Along the way to his houseboat camp, I started realizing that this wasn’t going to be like any of the hunts I was used to. The first sign was when we stopped along the side of the road to gather several giant palmetto fronds.
The second sign was the 20-mile-plus trip down the Wax Lake Outlet after launching just north of the Highway 90 bridge. I knew there wasn’t anything to the south of us but a big open delta that opened into an even bigger Gulf of Mexico. It seemed like we would fall off the face of the earth at any moment.
As Horst neared his camp, I noticed that his wasn’t alone. Several houseboats lined the edges of the canal, and residents were busy readying their gear for the next day, firing up their grills to cook a little supper or lounging around in lawn chairs.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I got my third sign that this hunt was going to be just a little bit different than any I had been on before. I had no clue where we were heading in Horst’s boat, but I knew something was up when the black shadows of trees on the banks turned into the flickering lights of oil wells in the Gulf.
Horst’s boat zigzagged almost instinctively from waypoint to waypoint, cane pole to cane pole or whatever else Horst was using as reference points. He had to have had something guiding his way other than his memory.
When the boat finally came to a rest, Horst instructed me to get out and secure the boat so he could start jobbing his anchors into the bottom.
“Get out?” I asked. “Jerald, it looks like we’re in the middle of the dad-gum Gulf of Mexico — I ain’t getting out.”
He grabbed one of his long metal anchors, and stuck it over the side of the boat until it hit bottom. It didn’t take very long as the anchor stopped at about a foot and a half.
“We’re on top of a big sand bar,” Horst reassured. “It stretches for several hundred feet in any direction, so you’re in no danger of drowning — unless you fall or get swept away by the tide.”
After setting the decoys while trying to maintain my balance in a swiftly moving tide, I realized as the night turned to dawn that there wasn’t a stitch of cover anywhere. It looked like we were hunting in the middle of the ocean.
I didn’t worry so much about sticking out like a sore thumb because I didn’t see any way that passing ducks would even take notice of our little speck of a spread as they flew high overhead.
After setting out or decoys, Horst and I got to work setting up his boat blind. I soon found out what the palmettos were for as he directed me, from inside the boat mind you, how and where to slide each frond through the camouflage netting.
“These are what provides our overhead cover,” Horst explained. “I like to put them thicker and taller on our backs so we can hide from ducks that are circling. The ones up front are lower so we can peek over them to see the ducks in front. You’ll also notice when you get back in that they provide a very effective wind-break.”
The first thing I noticed about shooting ducks in the wide open was that they are harder than usual to hit. Every bird I missed added to my carefully crafted excuse for why I couldn’t shoot ducks out here. It was the same reason a basketball player would have difficulty making a basket in a large arena after playing several games in a small, high-school gym.
“My perspective is off,” I whispered to Horst as he yanked off a shot right by my ear at a duck I determined was way to far to hit. As the duck crippled and fell to the water, Horst apologized for ringing my ears, and validated my excuse by explaining the intricacies of shooting ducks over wide-open water.
“You can’t really think about your shot too much,” he said. “These ducks are moving fast out here, and most of our shots this morning have been passing shots because none of them are giving us more than one or two looks. Take that into consideration with the wind, and you really have to lead these ducks a pretty good way. It just takes some getting used to.”
In fact, hunting the Atchafalaya Delta WMA itself takes some getting used to. One of the only actively growing deltas in the nation, this 137,695-acre jewel is approximately 70 percent open water.
That’s a lot of water for ducks to use, but, according to Mike Carloss, LDWF biologist program manager of coastal operations, it’s not all the open water that makes this WMA a duck magnet.
“Atchafalaya Delta WMA actually includes two deltas,” he said. “It has the Atchafalaya River Delta and the Wax Lake Outlet Delta. Both offer a smorgasbord of things that ducks find attractive. The area has the open-bay habitat, but more importantly it has food. The combination of the two makes this an ideal place for birds that want to feed and rest.”
The ample food available to ducks includes what is known as delta duck potato. This top food source produces white tubers covered with a purplish skin under the mother plant. Ducks will pull up the leafy part of the plant to get at the succulent tubers underneath.
“You can look out on the flats while they are vegetated, and see where the ducks have been feeding,” Carloss said. “Find spots where the leafy parts are lying around with duck feathers nearby, and you’ll find where ducks are eating. The good thing about delta duck potato is that they all love it — divers and dabblers.”
Atchafalaya Delta WMA also has an abundance of submerged aquatics, which are gray duck and widgeon magnets, and annual grasses that combine with the delta duck potato to make this one of the richest and most diverse duck habitats in South Louisiana.
The fact that the Atchafalaya Delta is actively growing may seem inconsequential to some, but Carloss believes that this growth is one of the reasons ducks find so much to eat.
“Duck potato grows well in a building marsh,” he said. “Take the Mississippi River, for instance. It’s a degrading delta with primarily roseau cane and submerged aquatics. There is still sediment, but it’s can’t keep up with the rate of land loss. This growing land gives the duck potato a place to thrive.”
The hurricanes of 2005 damaged Atchafalaya Delta from the saltwater intrusion, which killed back a lot of the duck food. This affected the duck hunting the following season, but it came back strong last season. And even though some are still complaining that is hasn’t come back yet, Carloss says there is a ton of food plants on the WMA for this season.
While Atchafalaya Delta WMA is one of the most consistently good public duck hunting areas in Louisiana, Carloss says it is experiencing some changes that hunters need to keep in mind.
“First, the ducks are moving farther out into open water,” he explained. “They raft outside to get away from the pressure. This delta opens up into the Gulf of Mexico, and with the exception of some old reef remnants, there isn’t any break between the delta and the Gulf.
“Second, we’re starting to find that the ducks are becoming nocturnal at Atchafalaya Delta. We’re seeing them coming in to feed at night and returning to roost in the open water during the day.”
What this means to hunters is that they have to become more mobile. While you can’t hunt Atchafalaya Delta without a boat, most hunters used to stake their boats off so they could wade to makeshift blinds. Now, hunters are moving more to the boat blinds that allow them to hunt wherever the ducks want to be.
“We’re also seeing lower duck numbers overall there,” Carloss added. “I don’t know if it’s due to continental changes, state changes or if the birds are just moving so far offshore that we aren’t picking them up in our counts.
“With fewer ducks in the area, success is falling. That’s one of the reasons we pushed to make Atchafalaya Delta just like most of the others in that you could only hunt until 2 p.m.”
This measure was killed, though, and hunting hours continue as they always have — from 30 minutes before sunrise until sunset. Carloss explained the reasoning behind the longer days on Atchafalaya Delta is to allow hunters to more effectively hunt the tides. Hunting the incoming and high tides provides for a cleaner hunt without all the problems associated with low tides. If that tide is later in the day, the extended hours give hunters the opportunity to hunt it.
“Our argument was that cutting it back to 2:00 would only take about three hours out of the hunting day,” Carloss explained.
One way to adjust to the changes at Atchafalaya Delta is to do what Horst did on our hunt, which was to put his boat in position between the food and the roosting areas. Whether they’re flying to roost after feeding or flying in to eat, he was positioned to take advantage of either flight.
The only problem with this approach with all the changes taking place is that the rafting ducks are going to go farther and farther out with increasing pressure.
“They’ll just roll away from you,” Carloss said. “But being in that flight path can pay off if you can get them interested in your spread.”
Another bit of age-old duck wisdom is also being tested at Atchafalaya Delta nowadays. Horst explained during our hunt that the decision to hunt inside or outside is best predicated on the weather.
The theory is that windy weather will make the birds leave the open water, and head to the more protected inside areas. While this is still a great idea to put into practice, Carloss says that even this isn’t as rock solid as it used to be.
“Rough days do make the inside hunting better,” he said, “because they don’t want to raft out in open water. More recently, though, we’re seeing that the birds, even the dabblers, will stay out when it’s rough. I’ve seen this myself from the air. Yes, more birds are moving in the wind, but it’s not like it was five years ago where a strong south wind would almost guarantee a good hunt.”
With so many places to hunt at Atchafalaya Delta WMA, hunters can sometimes get confused as to where to hunt. Safety also becomes a huge issue with the influence of the tide, fog and the potential for storms.
“Where to go is the million-dollar question,” Carloss said. “Historically, it’s been pretty easy to pick a spot because all the pressure kept the ducks moving. You could pick a spot, the ducks would move out, but they would come back in. With fewer people hunting, they don’t have anything pushing them back up to move again. Less hunting pressure is a Catch 22 out here.”
Ducks now have the opportunity to sit out in the open water without having to move. And understand that just because you see birds in an area doesn’t mean they’re coming back. Carloss hunts the area, and he picks his hunting spots based on food and tide.
“I want a place where I know I’m going to have water if the tide drops but that isn’t too deep if it comes up,” he explained. “Give me a spot like that with some good food nearby and as far away from other hunters as I can get, and I’ll feel pretty confident I’ll kill some ducks.”
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