Venerable gadwall dominate the marshes of South Louisiana during the annual waterfowl season.
Every hunter has a specialty.
He may hunt for everything from antelopes to zebras, but there’s one animal that holds his fancy more than the rest.
He talks about this particular order of beast, and his eyes twinkle and gaze unfocused toward the distance, and the corners of his mouth curl up in an involuntary grin.
For me, that animal is ducks. I love to deer hunt, thoroughly enjoy shooting rabbits that burst from bushes, and have even wasted away days staring at the tops of trees for bushytails.
But calling at a reluctant duck, crouching deeper in the marsh as the bird circles to get a better look, calling some more and then watching as it locks its wings to commit to the spread I painstakingly arranged is as close to heaven as I’ll ever come on earth.
I wasn’t raised as a duck hunter. In fact, it wasn’t until December 1994, when I made my first marsh duck hunt to Pointe au Chien WMA with Sportsman Publisher Tony Taylor, that I became hooked.
It was a cloudy day with crisp winds, the kind seemingly created for duck hunting. It was as if we had the impoundment to ourselves, and the unpressured ducks responded eagerly to Taylor’s calling.
We ended with mixed bags that would have been joke fodder for a mallard-purist timber die-hard, but the variety only increased the charm for me.
I was hooked.
That week, I bought eight decoys (it was all I could afford) and two boxes of shells. What more could a duck hunter need? I already owned a flat boat, so as far as I was concerned, I was now a legitimate duck hunter.
I called a family friend who owned some marsh land near Pointe a la Hache, and asked if it’d be alright if I hunted it. He couldn’t have cared less about ducks and only held the land for the mineral rights.
After getting the go-ahead, I anxiously planned the trip for the next day.
I arrived at Beshel’s Hoist at 6:30 that morning with the anticipation of a young groom on his wedding night.
The launch operator slid the hoist straps under my flat boat and glanced at the shotgun and eight decoys lying unceremoniously on the floor.
“Getting kind of a late start, aren’t you?” he asked.
I was too embarrassed to tell him my boat didn’t have running lights so it wouldn’t have done me any good to have gotten there before dawn.
“The ducks don’t fly into my spot until late in the morning,” I said, lying through my teeth.
Actually, I didn’t even know enough to know whether or not I was lying. On prior outings, I had fished all around the pond I intended to hunt, and always saw ducks packed in it, but I didn’t have a clue as to when the best time was to hunt it.
I thanked the operator and headed on my way. The sky was high and blue, giving the rising sun an unobstructed view of the Earth. A sharp wind blew night-chilled air across my face and through my feeble coat.
I easily found my way to the acre-sized pond through marsh that I knew like my own neighborhood. I trimmed up my 25-horsepower Mercury to get into the shallow water, and a flock of ducks erupted to protest my intrusion.
With ungloved, numb fingers, I tossed the decoys out haphazardly, and could hardly contain the joy and excitement that was welling up inside of me. In mere moments, I would be taking my position for my first-ever solo duck hunt.
I didn’t own a pirogue, so I motored my flat boat out of the pond and anchored it in a small crease along the marsh. I then walked 100 yards stepping atop cord-grass bunches and slipping and sloshing through gumbo mud with my eye ever on my destination at the edge of my pond. I wore nothing for water-protection but knee boots.
It was a miserable hike that would have earned a war-crimes conviction for any general that forced it on prisoners, and it all could have been avoided with the purchase — or even borrowing — of a pirogue.
But I couldn’t have cared less. Negligence is the offspring of the exuberance of inexperience, and comfort is a requirement only for veteran hunters.
I was in considerably better shape back then, but I still collapsed to my knees when I reached the edge of the pond, sucking air like a man held underwater for five minutes. The decoys — all eight of them — bobbed irrhythmically on the water before me, dance partners of the breeze blowing in peppered gusts at my back.
I made half-hearted attempts to prop up the cordgrass all around me, but my sides were terribly exposed. No bother. I’d just have to keep still when the ducks were around.
I hadn’t yet fired the gun, but I was having a ball. The anticipation of the coming events was almost too much for the human heart to bear.
I injected my Winchester 12-gauge automatic with three loads of steel No. 4s, and waited with my duck call in hand.
Several flocks moved about, waking from nighttime naps wrapped in the protection of open lakes and stretching their wings to look for breakfast. I called at everything I saw.
I hadn’t been hunting for 10 minutes when I looked directly in front of me, and a duck of unknown species was locked up and coasting into my feeble decoy spread. Where did this bird come from? How could I not have seen it?
I clutched the cold throat of my shotgun with trembling fingers and held as still as a statue. Seconds seemed like minutes, as I waited until the duck was almost on the water, then rose and dropped it with one shot. It fell crippled to the water, and I unloaded another couple of shells on it to make sure it was fully mine and wouldn’t become a marsh escapee.
It wasn’t the first duck I had ever shot, but it was definitely the most special. It came into decoys that I set out on a pond that I picked out, and there was nobody else there to fire at the same time as me and lay claim to what was obviously mine. And although I hadn’t been calling to that particular bird, I was convinced that it heard me calling to other ducks, and it was that sweet melody that brought it in.
Believe it or not, I went on to limit that day, and every bird in the bag was a gray duck. I was hooked on duck hunting before this trip, but after it, I was a skid-row junkie.
Since that day, gray ducks — more properly called gadwall — have been my favorite waterfowl. I enjoy shooting pintails for the wariness, mallards for their ostentatiousness, teal for the swiftness and wigeon for the loquaciousness, but there’s just something about the common gray duck that connects with me. It’s the duck of the Louisiana marshes.
Ask a hunter from Missouri or Arkansas or any other state if he kills many gadwall, and he’ll likely tell you they’re a rare part of his bag.
That’s because gadwall don’t make up a very large percentage of the overall waterfowl numbers in North America. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that the breeding population of gadwall this spring was 2.5 million. By comparison, the USFWS counted 5.5 million bluewing teal and 8 million mallards.
But in South Louisiana — particularly Southeast Louisiana — gadwall reign. A hunter from the Bayou State might report to buddies that he killed “two teal and four big ducks,” and that’s colloquially understood to mean he took four gray ducks.
Louisiana’s brackish marshes with their lush aquatic vegetation offer perfect habitat for wintering gadwall.
“We see it in the fall when we fly over the marshes in a plane,” said Robert Helm, waterfowl study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. “You can look down and see a pond that’s choked with submergent vegetation, and you just know when winter comes, it’s going to be full of gadwall.”
The algae that drives shallow-water redfish anglers nuts by wrapping relentlessly around their spinnerbaits is adored by gadwall.
In fact, according to research published in The Birds of North America (No. 283, 1997), algae makes up 37 percent of the diet of gadwall overwintering in Louisiana. While they’re here, the birds also eat dwarf spike rush (16 percent of diet), widgeon grass (16 percent), Eurasian milfoil (7 percent) and coontail (5 percent).
The Louisiana marshes offer a true smorgasbord of the foods gadwall prefer.
The birds feed in loose groups of up to several hundred while swimming and picking at the water’s surface, submerging their heads or tipping up, according to the research. They also “kleptoparasitize” food harvested and brought to the surface by coots, which probably explains why gadwall will sometimes pass up a meticulously placed spread of decoys to alight in a group of live coots.
Availability of food is the driving factor in range and distribution of any animal, but it’s especially important to overwintering ducks, who must maintain and even build fat reserves during the lean winter months to gain strength for the rigorous flight back north and subsequent breeding season.
During their time in Louisiana from November through March, gadwall spend more than 60 percent of every 24-hour period feeding. They feed both during the day and at night, although they do seem to feed slightly more at night than during the day.
Voracious feeders though they may be, gadwall aren’t among the biggest ducks that visit Louisiana. The average male gadwall measures 21 inches and weighs 2 pounds, which is considerably less than mallards (24.7 inches and 2.7 pounds), pintail (25 inches and 2.26 pounds) and black ducks (22 inches and 2.7 pounds).
Although they dominate the marsh landscape here in the winter, just getting to the marshes of South Louisiana even once in its life isn’t a sure thing for any gadwall duckling. The birds are hatched in Central Canada and the Plains States during the summer months, when predators are prowling about to take advantage of a short season of bounty. After a lean winter of slim pickings or even hibernation, foxes, skunks, raccoons, owls and other small predators look at the return of the ducks to the breeding grounds the same way a 425-pound man might the buffet bar at Shoney’s.
After selecting a mate, the female is fertilized and lays seven to 12 eggs in a nest as close to a pond or temporary pothole as possible. During this time, as the female uses her body to incubate the eggs, she is literally a “sitting duck.” Like most ducks, a gadwall hen will not leave her nest when it’s threatened by a predator, which, unfortunately, greatly increases the vulnerability of her and the nest. Even if the predator overlooks the eggs as it drags off the mother, an untended nest has no chance of being successful.
An astounding 80 percent of duck nests prove to be unsuccessful for one reason or another, but a female duck will court, mate and lay eggs repeatedly during the course of a breeding season. She’ll give up only after she accomplishes her task or runs out of time before the fall flight.
When incubated eggs in unraided nests mature into ducklings, the mother will within 48 hours lead them to the nearest waterbody, according to Helm.
“That may be a far hike because the pond the duck nested on may have dried up during the time it took for the ducks to hatch,” he said.
The ducklings and their mother are far safer in the water because land-based predators can’t move through water without making noise. The birds hang along the edges of the ponds to escape detection from birds of prey.
Though gadwall are drawn to the aquatic grasses of South Louisiana during the winter, the young ducklings feast almost entirely upon insects and other invertebrates on the breeding grounds.
“The protein (in the invertebrates) is real important,” Helm said. “The hen will eat them too. She’s trying to teach the ducklings how to survive.”
In fact, one study showed that the breeding-season diets of adult gadwall in North Dakota consisted of more than 30 percent invertebrates, including crustaceans, midges and aquatic beetles.
With this high-protein diet, the young birds mature rapidly, and within six to eight weeks are ready for flight. At this point, the mother’s work is done, and her offspring leave her to prepare for the fall migration to the wintering grounds.
How nature gives the signal it’s time for the new ducks and their mothers and fathers to leave the breeding grounds is debatable, even among scientists, but most believe photoperiod plays a greater role with gadwall than it does with some other ducks.
“Gadwall aren’t as cold-tolerant. Their migration is more consistent. It seems they get the cue, and they go,” Helm said.
But that doesn’t mean the flight to the Louisiana marshes is necessarily a rapid one. If gadwall don’t have a cold front to ride on the way down, they may migrate more slowly, choosing to stop several times along the way to feed and rest.
On most occasions, however, the birds will ride the north winds of a front and complete their migration to Louisiana in a night or two.
The first substantial numbers of gadwall typically arrive in South Louisiana during the last week of October, Helm said.
If nature was kind to the birds on the breeding grounds, many of the ducks in the migration will be young-of-the-year birds, which are the ones hunters love because they think every decoy is a real live duck and every clump of weeds is really just a clump of weeds.
These are the birds that were in short supply last season because nesting success was so low. A larger percentage of the migrating ducks than normal were veterans of at least one hunting season, and hunters could tell the difference from opening day on.
But really, even older gadwall aren’t among the wariest of ducks.
“They decoy real well when compared to other ducks,” said Helm, who is an avid waterfowl hunter. “They’ll fold up their wings from way high, and dive right into your decoys. They make you feel confident, like you really know what you’re doing.”
That’s even more true when large numbers of young birds are thrown into the mix, as will be the case this year due to the remarkable success gadwall had on the breeding grounds. The number of breeding gadwall increased 14 percent over last year, meaning more of the resultant offspring will be heading to the marshes of the Bayou State toward the end of this month.
I’ll be watching for them while casting baits to redfish in that Pointe a la Hache pond, and counting the days to Nov. 8.