Hope for the Hopeless

After Katrina and Rita, experts predicted several lean duck years, but the habitat has rebounded remarkably well, and this season may be one for the ages.

The birds turned at the blat of the call, pinwheeling in flight and heading straight for the spread of decoys set just outside the blind. They stayed slightly out of shotgun range and made a pass by the setup, continuing on behind the hidden hunters. And then they turned again, as if drawn on a chord to the small pond next to which the men were crouching.

It didn’t take any calling to get the ducks to come around, and all four men hunched down inside the blind with fingers snapping off safeties. As the ducks passed, the caller let out a short feed call, and the birds pulled around into the wind.

Feet popped out as the greys prepared to touch down, but their plans were interrupted as strange shapes popped out of the marsh and noise exploded over the once-quiet landscape.

Two of the five ducks never heard the gunshots, but the other three back-pedaled, clawing frantically at the air with their wings. A third duck crumpled amid the frenetic shooting, while the remaining two finally found safety in altitude.

A dog streaked out to round up the fallen birds as the men congratulated themselves on having the perfect setup and using just the right calling.

However, while calling will definitely get a duck’s attention and having decoys spread in a logical fashion isn’t a bad thing, the reason these ducks ended up dead probably had little to do with anything the hunters did.

Think about it: Why did those birds come back for a second pass? They had buzzed the pond and could easily have continued on their way. Instead, they turned without a call and gave the area another look.

Odds are it was what the pond offered: tons of grass on which ducks feast.

The pond was full of submerged vegetation, and that’s what made them curious.

Habitat (food and adequate resting areas) is what makes Louisiana so much a part of the migration of waterfowl in the Mississippi Flyway. Birds fly all the way from Canada to find the relatively mild temperatures, plentiful waterways and abundance of food in Louisiana.

It’s been that way for millennia, but two events in 2005 threw a pall over the entire equation. First, Hurricane Katrina blasted Southeast Louisiana with a huge surge of water, inundating those marshes with high salinities and ripping entire sections of marsh out to be deposited in houses in Venice, St. Bernard Parish and New Orleans.

On the heels of this disaster came Katrina’s only slightly smaller sister, Rita, which pushed untold amounts of salt water far into the Southwest Louisiana marshes. The weirs erected over the years to keep out saltwater intrusion then held this storm water inland, producing much higher salinities than normal for months.

Everyone expected the grasses upon which ducks depend to be non-existent this year, and no one really knew what that would mean for hunting.

Surprisingly, the monster storms do not seem to have had quite that effect.

“Overall, considering what happened to our coast last year, we look good,” Department of Wildlife & Fisheries’ Robert Helm said after flying the coast in September. “I was surprised.”

Helm said areas like Venice, over which the eye of Katrina passed, appear to be bouncing back.

“Grass is not in every pond, and it’s not as abundant as it was, but the Mississippi Delta looks good,” he said.

That’s an area he expected some improvement in because the Mississippi River has been flooding the area with fresh water since the storm, but he said there were signs that other areas might be more hospitable than expected when ducks arrive this year.

The question mark was still hanging over Southwest Louisiana, but signs were emerging in October that things might be turning there. And North Louisiana was simply dry, with little or no backwater resting areas to speak of but still enough water to pump into fields.

Put together with the observations of those on the ground, hunting might be better than anyone thought possible — if the ducks arrive. Here are the rundowns of how the habitat stacks up across the state.

Southeast Lousiana

The mouth of the Mississippi River north through St. Bernard Parish and into Mississippi was ground zero for Hurricane Katrina, and the entire area took a real licking.

However, Helm said he was surprised to find some isolated areas where aquatics had recovered somewhat. That being said, it’s not a uniform comeback.

“There’s grass in most of the Delta (National Wildlife Refuge) and north of the Delta, particularly around Baptiste Collette,” he said. “Not as much on Pass a Loutre (Wildlife Management Area).”

However, Ryan Lambert, who organizes hunts for the clients of his Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras, said there’s no overabundance of submerged vegetation anywhere along the river.

“Anywhere the river touched is lush,” Lambert said. “Anywhere it didn’t get that fresh water is sparse.”

Venice’s Grand Pass has enough hydrilla to hold a few ducks, along with the Baptiste Collette area, he said.

“The ducks will rest in that hydrilla,” he said.

But hunters in those areas cut off from direct river flow won’t be finding much submerged vegetation.

“There’s a big lack of hydrilla and milfoil,” Lambert said. “The storm killed it, and the river stayed so low that it didn’t flush those areas out.”

However, the good news is that the lack of tropical activity helped negate the effects of the low river.

“This is the first time in a long time we haven’t had a big saltwater tidal surge during the summer,” Lambert said.

And that has allowed peas and grain-bearing grasses to flourish. The peas, which normally are killed by saltwater surges by the time November rolls around, have spread across the marshes, and could be key to putting ducks in the bag.

“Every pod will hold about 10 seeds,” Lambert said. “The vines will grow 30 to 50 yards into the marsh. When you get that high water in the winter, the pintails will get in there and just feed on those peas.”

Those legumes, along with grains from grasses and snails in what vegetation is present, will be the primary food sources in the extreme Southeast Louisiana marshes this year.

However, Lambert said he expected the wetlands south of Houma to be the focus of some of the best duck hunting this year.

“It was spared from most of the effects of the storm, and where the aquatic grass survived is where the ducks will congregate,” he said.

Houma’s Jeff DeBlieux said just how successful hunters in his area will be depends on where their leases are located.

“Overall it’s way better than it was last year,” the avid hunter said. “We had zero grass in the brackish to saltwater areas last year, but since the rains started it has started growing back.

“I would say we’re on the comeback because we didn’t have any saltwater intrustion this year.”

With the growing season moving into November and, possibly, December, that should mean ducks find adequate food in those areas.

But it’s the waters north of the Intracoastal Waterway that should provide absolutely fantastic shooting, DeBlieux said.

“They weren’t affected hardly at all by the storm,” he said. “Those guys are looking really good this year.”

Southwest Louisiana

Helm said there are definitely concerns over the marshes in this part of the state, mainly because they are largely wiered off. That held in high-salinity water for months after Rita blew threw.

“The submerged aquatics are very important, and that’s what seems to be missing in Southwest Louisiana,” he said.

However, there were some real positive outcomes from the hurricane.

“You cannot find a water hyacinth below the Intracoastal Waterway in Cameron Parish,” Helm said.

Erik Rue, owner of Calcasieu Charter Service, said it’s a situation hunters haven’t enjoyed for years.

“The storm stripped away a lot of stuff,” he said. “What’s happened is it’s gotten rid of all that stuff that had taken over — salvinia, hyacinth, cattails and cutgrass.

“Everybody is pretty excited about the marsh hunting.”

He said reports during teal season were that hunting was excellent, and that could be because of what has replaced the duck unfriendly vegetation.

“The seed eaters should really find a lot of food,” Helm said. “We’ve got just an explosion of seed-bearing vegetation over there.

“Just like a fire creates a profusion of blooms, the storm has produced all of this natural seed-bearing vegetation.”

That’s great news, and could mean great hunting as puddle ducks swarm the interior ponds in search of nutrition-loaded seeds.

Helm worried that lack of fresh water could be a concern for field hunters, but Rue said he had heard no problems finding water to pump up fields.

“It’s fairly dry over here, but I haven’t heard a lot of issue about not being able to pump because of salt water,” he said. “It’s not like it was in the drought in ’99.”

However, there was little rice planted this year compared to past years because salinities were still high during the planting season.

That might sound like a bad thing, but Rue said he actually prefers when the rice crop is smaller.

“When you have rice, you have lots of birds for a short amount of time, and they eat it all up and leave,” he said. “Rice attracts geese, but over the long haul, those ducks spend a lot more time in fields that aren’t full of rice.”

Snow geese especially like rice, and that’s another reason why a lack of rice residue really isn’t terrible.

“You see a lot of snows and that makes everybody happy, but you can’t kill the damned things,” he said.

Less rice means fewer of them swooping in when his clients aren’t there.

“I don’t have to worry about them eating all my food,” Rue said.

The alternative, which is what Rue plans to use this year, is hunting over plowed fields.

“When you have plowed ground, you have green grass that’s constantly trying to grow up, and the birds are going to constantly be coming back to that,” he explained. “The birds go to the green fields at the end of the year, always.”

The news that the habitat hasn’t been devastated seems to have filtered out, if one can judge by Rue’s bookings.

“People are excited,” he said. “We have never been this booked up this early.”

North Louisiana

The habitat situation in North Louisiana can be summed up with one word: dry.

“Most of our areas that you would depend upon for natural supplies of water are either bone dry or very low,” DWF’s Jerald Owens said of his area tucked in the northeast.

The rivers that normally flood and provide thousands of acres of backwater resting and feeding areas for ducks probably won’t be a big factor in that region unless some serious rains fall north of the state.

“We need a considerable amount of rain,” Owens said.

DWF’s John Leslie, who manages wildlife in east-central Louisiana, said the situation is dire there.

“It’s very dry, extremely dry, bone dry,” Leslie said. “We’ve literally got woods lakes that have dried up this year that have never been dry before.

“We can’t buy a rain drop up here.”

The two agreed that bayous and rivers still held water, but there simply would be no backwaters — at least during the early season — for ducks to rest in.

“There are no sloughs this year,” Owens said. “We just don’t have the backwaters.”

Leslie agreed.

“We’ve had no Mississippi River flooding, no backwater flooding. Nothing,” he said. “The Boeuf River, the Ouachita River, all of the rivers are very low.”

That’s terrible news for those hunters who rely on flooded timber, brakes and potholes for their hunting.

But it sets up a great situation for ag-field hunters.

“We can still pump,” Leslie said. “The early split in managed water is going to be real hot, if we have ducks in the state.”

That means green-tree reservoirs and moist-soil units located on public lands should be magnets for ducks, but the biologists agreed the expense could be more than individual hunters or clubs can bear.

“When the bayous are low, you’ve got a higher lift to your pump, and it taxes your pump more,” Owens said. “That generally means smaller streams of water, and that means running your pump longer. With the cost of diesel, that means it will cost them more to pump.”

Leslie said in his area, that probably will mean more fields left dry during the duck season.

“Most of the farmers in our area farm cotton and corn,” he said. “Those farmers cut corn back in July, and as soon as those fields don’t need to be wet, they turn those pumps off.”

That has resulted in ground that would require extreme amounts of water before becoming inundated.

“We’ve got 6-inch cracks we have to fill before the dirt will even get moist,” Leslie said.

The lack of water will, of course, concentrate birds, but it also could mean they will move south much quicker than normal.

“The ducks we’ll get in the first split will stay a short amount of time, and then they’ll be in the coastal zone,” Leslie said. “Hunting pressure will push them south to the coastal zone in a matter of days.”

Of course, all of this is predicated on the assumption that waves of ducks will fly into the state at all. That’s something Leslie said is in the hands of Mother Nature.

“If we don’t get the weather up north, the ducks will sit in Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota just like they did three or four years ago,” he said.

But if they want to come for dinner, it’s looking more and more like Louisiana will have the table set.

About Andy Crawford 863 Articles
Andy Crawford has spent nearly his entire career writing about and photographing Louisiana’s hunting and fishing community. While he has written for national publications, even spending four years as a senior writer for B.A.S.S., Crawford never strayed far from the pages of Louisiana Sportsman. Learn more about his work at www.AndyCrawford.Photography.

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