The duck action at Atchafalaya Delta WMA is often too good to fathom.
Hunt a place for a decade, and you’ll see sights known to no other man.Hunt a place as productive as the Atchafalaya Delta for a decade, and you’ll have a front-row seat to manifestations of nature too glorious to be fully appreciated by just one man.
Ask Jerald Horst. He knows.
For the last 10 years, Horst has depreciated his truck every autumn and winter driving it back and forth between his Harvey home and a private launch on the Calumet Cut, a smidgen north of Highway 90.
He’s also put his aluminum boat and 60-horsepower Mercury through unreasonable wear and tear from motoring up and down the Wax Lake Outlet to and from his houseboat “Serenity,” parked between pilings in a perfect line with others at a designated camping area on the Atchafalaya Delta Wildlife Management Area.
Horst comes because he’s a duck-hunter. But he’s not a casual hunter. He’s not one of these guys who makes an opening-day shoot with the fellas, and just can’t seem to find time to get back to the blind before the season runs out. He’s one of those poor, unfortunate souls who sees cupped birds whenever he closes his eyes. He hears quacks in horn-honks when he’s sitting in traffic. He eats seafood gumbo and thinks only of gumbo mud.
Jerald Horst, 57, is a brilliant biologist, a crotchety curmudgeon and, unequivocally, a duck die-hard.
That being the case, it’s only natural Horst would be so inextricably drawn to the Atchafalaya Delta. Louisiana has the best duck hunting in the nation, and the Atchafalaya Delta, arguably, has the best duck hunting in Louisiana.
“It’s nothing unusual to see 10,000 to 20,000 birds fly over your head in one morning. The sheer numbers will just overwhelm you,” Horst said.
Atchafalaya Delta WMA really consists of two deltas — one at the mouth of the Atchafalaya River and one at the mouth of the Wax Lake Outlet. Horst hunts the latter.
In a state that’s watching itself wash away, the Wax Lake Delta bucks the trend. It’s growing like a pubescent teen-ager. Constantly erupting sand flats eventually rise above the surface, where they collect seeds and quickly spring forth with stringy swamp willows and leggy wax myrtles. Other, younger flats stretch out for acres, and emerge only in the lowest of tides. In their flooded state, they provide the perfect nursery for pond weed and hydrilla, two favorites of dabbling ducks.
Much of the public-hunting area is in this condition. Atchafalaya Delta WMA encompasses all 125,000 acres of Atchafalaya Bay, but only 12,000 of those acres are dry land. The rest is flooded shallow flats.
It’s on these massive, submerged flats that Horst spends at least 30 days of a typical 60-day season.
“There’s a pattern that’s always evident here,” Horst said during a recent hunt at the delta. “The ducks fly out from the inside first thing in the morning in a great big giant cloud. It’s really something to see, but you don’t get any birds out of those flights. They go offshore and raft up in numbers that are hard to believe, way, way out of sight of land. You get out there and run, and you just have a rolling black cloud in front of you.
“Two game wardens a couple of years ago told me they had been in federal water that day at Block 51, and they saw a raft with more mallards than you could imagine. Think about that: You have to go three miles off of the southern edge of Atchafalaya Bay to be in federal water.”
But on most days, the ducks don’t stay in the offshore waters very long, especially when the wind starts to blow.
“Around 7 (a.m.), the birds start coming back in. You don’t get that big cloud again, but they’ll come in constant singles, doubles and small groups,” Horst said.
To intercept them, Horst parks on flats that look ridiculous to hunt. Waterfowl hunting is always land-based, or at least land-oriented. Even hunters in boat blinds set up somewhere near a shoreline.
But Horst’s flats might as well be in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. Someone given a snap shot of the man, with his boat blind surrounded by 65 decoys and not a stitch of land in sight, might think him insane — so long as they couldn’t look in his creel.
“You can kill birds inside,” Horst said, “but I like to be outside. The birds are calmer, they work better, and I get first crack at them before they get inside.”
These flats are shallow, and they’re rock-hard, which can make hunting them a challenge late in the year. But Horst is usually undaunted.
“A couple of years ago, a bluebird norther came through,” he recounted. “My hunting partner and I were pretty annoyed because this was a bad one — 35 m.p.h. winds blew out of the northwest all night. We decided we were going anyway, just to sit in a blind if nothing else. We took the boat as far as we could, then jumped in our pirogues and went as far as we could with them. Then we got out and walked. It was dry sand. We dragged our pirogues 60 yards to our blind, and there was no water. This was a bad, bad front.
“I said, ‘Let’s get a dozen magnum decoys and the motion decoy, and put them out.’ It was like walking on concrete. We laid the decoys on the sand, and didn’t even bother digging in the keels. We figured we had no chance of killing anything. We had a high sun, blue sky and the wind was whipping.
“We turned on the motion decoy, and went and kicked back in the blind, poured some coffee. I look out, and here comes a lone greenhead. It’s about 70, 80 yards away. I said, ‘He might come in. We might actually get one.’ He hovered over that stupid motion decoy. Pow! We shot him. He fell into bare sand. Can you believe that? We finished the day with eight drake mallards, two pintails and two grays.
“That’s the thing about this place: You have to put up with a lot because it’s public land, but you see things here that you don’t see anywhere else. It’s just jaw-dropping.”
In typical years, the hunting is so consistently good that Horst says he limits 80 to 90 percent of the time. Last year was an anomaly, with Horst struggling to limit 50 percent of the time.
“In a normal year, when I don’t limit it’s because I’m holding out for better birds rather than teal, dos gris, redheads, ringnecks or gray ducks,” Horst said.
Yes, Horst has gotten so spoiled by the action at the Wax Lake Delta, he considers even gadwall to be inferior ducks.
“I call them whitebreads,” he said. “They’re just ducks. They’re not rye bread, they’re not raisin bread; they’re nothing special, just white bread. They’re just a flying sack of guts. Really. They have a huge pile of viscera. It looks like nutria guts.”
Horst is so selective because the Atchafalaya Delta affords him that luxury.
“Year in and year out, 55-60 percent of what I kill is mallards on the morning hunts, and that’s with me being sometimes selective, sometimes not,” he said. “A bag consisting of, say, four greenheads, a pintail drake and a canvasback drake is what we expect. That’s not a great hunt. There are so many mallards that I might have 20 in a flock, and all 20 are within gun range, and I look through them and there’s not a drake that’s big enough for me, so I don’t shoot any of them.”
Horst has seen enormous flights of mallards at the delta, but in the outside waters in which he hunts, smaller flights are much more workable.
“Out in the open, it’s hard to get 30 or 40 mallards to drop in the decoys. We get lots of flights of eight to 10,” Horst said. “Now, pintails are another story. It’s very common to have 50 to 70 pintail drop in the decoys.”
And another species, rare to the rest of the continent, shows up here in numbers that’ll give the shakes to even the most seasoned of waterfowl hunters.
“In most places, killing a canvasback is like killing a trophy buck,” Horst said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime bird.
“But many times, we’ll have flocks of 70 lighting in the decoys.”
Horst used to do all of his hunting from makeshift blinds he’d build on the submerged sand flats. But fierce weather conditions, tight restrictions and insensitive hunters have led him this season to abandon the blinds and do all of his hunting out of a flatboat shrouded by a pop-up blind.
“You’d go through all this trouble to build a blind, and other people are so rude, they’d use machetes to make it how they like it. You’d go to hunt it, and there wouldn’t be anything left to your blind,” he said.
But there was little Horst could do about it because WMA regulations allow blinds to be hunted on a “first-come, first-served” basis.
To make matters worse, the department began enforcing strict regulations that prohibited the use of wood and nails in the construction of blinds. That left the blinds unprotected from the ravages of nature.
For Horst, maintaining a blind became a season-long prospect, so he began hunting this season out of his boat, like many of his fellow Atchafalaya Delta hunters have done for years.
He’s had good success with the technique so far, though he’s still trying to develop a better way to conceal his Labrador, Gus.
When he’s in the spot he wants to hunt, Horst anchors his boat with spud holes pushed through large grommets on both the bow and transom. He then tosses 60 to 65 decoys in “loose puddles” on the sides of the boat and downwind. He keeps his farthest decoy within shooting range.
“It’s so open out here that the birds always seem to want to light on the outside of your farthest decoy,” he said. “If you use a hook pattern, they won’t come to the bottom of your hook. They’ll light at the top of the hook.”
Because the birds aren’t exactly falling inside the blind, retrievers come in handy at the delta. When he hunted blinds, Horst used a pirogue to retrieve the birds, but when hunting open water, that can be a real pain since there’s no bank to catch the dead birds. Either you retrieve them immediately after you shoot them, or you’ll never see them again.
And if the wind’s blowing in the same direction as the tidal current, the window to retrieve a downed bird becomes even shorter.
“We have horrendous tide ranges down here, as much as 3- to 4-foot turn-arounds,” Horst said.
That causes the water to race over the flats at break-neck speeds. It also means hunters can get stranded pretty easily.
“The flats can go from bare sand to waist-deep in the span of one hunt,” Horst said. “And, of course, the opposite’s true.”
In all the years Horst has hunted down there, he’s never been stranded because he always takes the tides into account, but he’s come close a few times.
“I’ve had to work my (rear) off to get out,” he said.
Horst said as a rule, the tide is always falling in the morning, the only exception being when the area is experiencing low tidal ranges.
But even with that being the case, Horst does most of his hunting in the morning.
“People make a big deal of hunting the tides down here,” he said. “The best time to hunt here regardless of the tides, in my opinion, is early in the morning. We have a good mid-day flight of mallards and other big ducks, but there’s just something about being there in the morning and being able to see what you see.”
The productivity of the delta is clearly tied to the abundance of feed in the area.
“Early in the season, the flats look like lawns,” Horst said.
But the ducks are so plentiful that they quickly eat up the bulk of the aquatic vegetation.
That really doesn’t negatively affect the hunting, Horst said.
“I examine the stomachs of all my birds,” the biologist said. “Maybe 10 to 20 percent of what they eat is vegetation, and that’s in the first split. It’s almost all seeds after that.
“In the second split, birds aren’t necessarily coming onto these flats for the grass on them; they’re coming to eat the seeds.”
And they’re coming for the company they think they’re going to get from Horst’s decoys.
But many don’t make it out alive — unless they’re too small, or too slow or the wrong species….
Such selectivity can only be afforded on Atchafalaya Delta WMA.
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