Round out your duck season right by targetting wood ducks using these “out of the box” tactics.
I opened the email and started to read. “And, like a drug pusher,” it began, “he eased the intoxicating liquor of waterfowl feather to his friend. ‘Take a sip,’ he said. ‘If you don’t like it, that’s okay.’ Duck hunters are a strange lot and it’s not for everybody.
“His friend tasted and it was good. The gaudy drake colors, the touch of the feathers, the effort of the outing on a cold morning; like a smoke filled bar, with favorite song and a first love girl friend, it became apparent — perhaps he is a waterfowl hunter.”
My good friend and Sportsman contributing writer John Flores had hit on something. Flores and I regularly exchanged emails during last year’s hunting season, and I often told him about the large number of wood ducks I saw in Dugdemona swamp while chasing deer.
Flores, an avid duck hunter, encouraged me to go after the woodies, and even gave me some excellent hunting tips. I hadn’t hunted ducks since I was a teenager, but Flores’ enthusiasm convinced me to give it a try.
Not only was I successful on my first couple of hunts, it reminded me of the fun we used to have back in the day. I emailed Flores about the outings and joked that he had slyly lured me into another hobby — and the last thing I needed was a new hobby. His response was the eloquent email above.
When I was a teenager in Winn Parish back in the 1960s, duck hunting was limited to the wood ducks that called Dugdemona River home. But bagging them was more like stalking deer or squirrels than traditional duck hunting. There were no blinds or decoys or retrievers, and the only duck call we used was made from a fired shotgun shell.
A typical hunt for “squealers” was to set up before daylight on a pipeline or back road and take passing shots as they streaked overhead. After the ducks settled down for the morning, we’d head to the creek and try to slip up on them while they fed. The real fun began on those rare occasions when we actually shot one and had to retrieve it without a boat.
Today, those old tactics still work when hunting North Louisiana’s “bottoms.” Small streams such as Dugdemona, Saline, Castor, De Loutre and Corney are common in the piney hills, and they wind through narrow floodplains that have permanent squealer populations. When the winter rains arrive and the pin-oak flats flood in January, there can be large numbers of wood ducks.
One can have a good duck hunt in these bottoms by either stalking them on foot in chest waders or using a small johnboat or pirogue. In either case, the best shooting will occur very early in the morning.
If hunting on foot, look for pipelines, logging roads or other rights-of-way that cross a creek or slough. Wood ducks routinely fly back and forth along these waterways between their roosting areas and feeding grounds. Each time you hunt, you’ll learn more about the flight patterns and be able to fine tune your setup.
Proper positioning is critical because squealers streak overhead like F-18s on bombing runs. If you’re facing the right direction and see them coming, you’ll have just enough time for a quick passing shot. If they come in from behind or the side, you’ll never even raise your shotgun.
The shooting can be fast and furious for a short period of time, and then, suddenly, it’s all over. Flores had warned me about this.
“Woodies,” he declared, “are early birds. You’re only going to get 20 or maybe 30 minutes at daylight when they’re flying.”
By the time the sun comes up, the ducks have reached their feeding areas, and usually won’t come back over that particular spot until after legal shooting hours.
Early morning pass shooting, whether it is on a pipeline or along a creek deep in the woods, works best if there are two people hunting together because there will always be some ducks that come in from an unexpected direction. Spread out about 50 yards apart, and watch in opposite directions. If one person gets a shot, the other will have time to turn around and get a bead on them as they pass over head.
Once the squealers have settled down to feed, it’s time to start stalking. Wood ducks might be found anywhere on a small stream, but they particularly like to hang out at the mouths of sloughs and inlets, in flooded timber and on the downstream side of a sharp bend. In the latter case, they will be holding along the inside bank where the current is slack. Brushy banks along bigger pools of water can also be good.
If on foot, wear chest waders so you can easily cross sloughs and retrieve ducks shot down in the water. It’s also essential to be completely camouflaged. Leafy suits with head pieces are excellent because they break up your outline very well.
As you approach the spots that are likely to hold ducks, move as slowly and carefully as you would when stalking a deer because wood ducks have eagle eyes and keep a wary watch for predators. If possible, keep a big tree between you and the duck hole. Before you become visible to any ducks, get down on your hands and knees to cover the last few yards.
When you get close enough to peep over the bank, have your shotgun ready because if the ducks are there, they will flush immediately. Afterward, cut through the woods to the next good spot, and repeat the process.
Sometimes it’s just too dry or the woods too open to sneak up on ducks. In those cases, different tactics are called for. If you are familiar with your hunting area and know the ducks’ hangouts, simply sitting on the edge of a creek or slough and patiently waiting for them can be effective.
On my hunting lease, wood ducks regularly cruise up and down the sloughs to access flooded pin-oak flats to feed. I have often had a steady stream of them swim nonchalantly past me while sitting against a tree deer hunting.
If you choose to ambush ducks in this manner, a call helps lure them within range. When I spot ducks some distance up the creek I sit down and blow my call rather than try to sneak up on them. Quite frequently, they turn and make their way toward me and give me a good shot.
Stalking and sitting can be productive ways to hunt bottomland wood ducks, but the easiest, and most enjoyable, way to go after them is from a small boat. I usually hunt by myself out of a 12-foot Water Moccasin pirogue with a bow-mounted trolling motor. On those occasions when I hunt with a partner, I use a 14-foot johnboat with a trolling motor and 8-horse Mercury motor.
One weekend last year, Flores came up to hunt with me out of my johnboat. We set up before daylight in some brush where Dugdemona spreads out into a low-lying flat in which the ducks like to feed. During the first 20 minutes of light, several singles and doubles came zipping down the creek within gun range. I missed on two separate occasions, but Flores managed to down one that came in from behind him with an impressive quick-draw shot.
As the sun began to rise, Flores studied the area and suggested I invest in some decoys to catch the squealers’ attention as they flew over the open water we were set up on.
“They’re looking all the time so you don’t need a lot of decoys, maybe a half dozen,” he said. “You just need enough to get their attention and bring them into places like this where they want to come anyhow.”
Flores later explained that the decoys don’t even have to be wood ducks.
“Teal, widgeon and small mallard decoys would work just as well,” he said. “At that time of the morning, they’re looking for a place to feed, and at the speed they are moving above the trees, they don’t see any detail. The shadows below won’t reveal the decoy you’re using is not a woody. That decoy silhouette is just fine — they’ll glide in there and don’t know they’ve been duped until the shotgun goes off.
About two weeks before the end of the season, I took Flores’ advice, made a run to Simmons Sporting Goods in Bastrop and bought a half dozen wood duck decoys. A couple of days later, I went back to the same place he and I had hunted.
It had been bitterly cold for several days, and a quick check with the Weather Channel before I left home showed it to be a shivering 18 degrees. In addition to bundling up, I also grabbed my propane camping heater and stuck it in the pirogue.
Pulling up to my landing spot deep in the woods, I saw something I had never seen before — thick ice had formed along the banks of Dugdemona. It extended out to the edge of the current, but with a little effort I was able to break open a hole with the boat trailer and launch the pirogue.
Motoring upstream in the dark, I reached the shallow, cypress-studded flat and set out the decoys. I then hid the boat behind a small island, got out and stood at a spot on the water’s edge that provided a good view of the decoys and both directions up and down the creek.
At shooting light, I began blowing my shotgun shell whistle and slapping the water with my paddle to get the attention of any ducks flying nearby. Suddenly, eight squealers dropped down through the big cypress trees, and flared like they were going to land. I held my fire to let them settle, but they glided past the decoys and plopped down out of range.
“Dang!” I thought, “I should have taken a shot when I had the chance.”
In the next 20 minutes, four more groups of ducks flew in over the decoys, but all of them came in from behind me and hit the water out of range. I never fired a shot, but my first experience with decoys in the bottomlands convinced me that they really do get the attention of squealers despite the dense timber and low light conditions.
I continued to use the decoys for the rest of the season, both on Dugdemona and a slough in the Boeuf Wildlife Management Area. Numerous woodies fell victim to the combination of decoys, shotgun shell call and paddle slapping. On one memorable occasion on Boeuf, I even downed two ducks with one shot as they came in low over the decoys.
When the early morning shooting comes to an end at sunrise, it’s time either to drift downstream to jump the ducks or head into a slough or the flooded timber to sit and wait for some to swim by.
When I first began hunting wood ducks out of my pirogue, I tried drifting through the flooded pin-oak flats to jump-shoot them, but quickly gave up on that. While there was enough current to carry the boat, the flats were too open, and the wood ducks flew off long before I got into shooting range. I learned that it’s much better to just hide in some brush, use my call and let them come to me.
When drifting the main creek, most shooting opportunities will occur when you round a sharp bend and surprise the ducks. Thus, it’s important to have your shotgun on your shoulder and ready to shoot when you approach such bends. Experience has also taught me to use 3-inch 12-gauge shells because many shots will be at fairly long range.
Ducks that are jumped while drifting will usually only fly a short distance downstream before settling again. Often, a hunter can get repeated shots at the same flock of squealers by simply following them down the creek.
On one mid-morning hunt, I jumped several ducks in a bend, but only knocked a few feathers out of one of them. I soon jumped them again, but they were too far off for a shot. Then I saw something flopping in a clump of brush close to the bank.
At first I thought it was the squealer I had dusted earlier, but as I was closing in on the spot, I realized it really didn’t look like a duck. When I got within about 30 yards, I saw that it was a hawk on the back of a wood duck hen pecking away at her head and neck. The hawk then spotted me and flew off, and the hen just swam out into the creek like nothing had happened. Although I never knew for sure, I assumed it was the duck I had shot at earlier and that the hawk had targeted it because it was injured.
Farther along the creek, I jumped the same flock of ducks at another bend, and the hawk screeched loudly overhead as they flushed from the water. That was the last I saw of him.
Wood ducks rank second only to mallards in the number taken each season, and you can bet they’ll be thick on North Louisiana’s creeks this time of year. Whether you choose pass shooting, drifting or stalking, hunting late-season squealers in the bottoms can be the perfect way to end your season.
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