Put out a nice spread and call correctly, and a wide variety of ducks will be putty in your hands when you forsake the fields and timber to hunt the marsh.
I withdrew into my parka as Kirk Stansel buzzed his way through the narrow maze of ditches that ran through the marsh. The mix of stinging raindrops and the slapping reeds was a bit too much for the senses at such an early hour. Behind me, Guy Stansel was busy restraining his brother’s dog, and he seemed to pay no mind to anything else that was going on around him. He had been stung by unseen rain too many times to count, and the reeds that brushed his side were nothing more than the marsh’s way of welcoming him to another morning in paradise.
Guy Stansel instinctively leaned into every turn as we raced through the darkness with only Kirk Stansel’s experience guiding the way. As I withdrew from the marsh, these two duck-hunting veterans seemed to relish it. Perhaps they knew something I didn’t.
The ditches finally came to an end as Kirk Stansel came off plane and approached a seemingly innocuous clump of reeds and marsh grass. Still not willing to expose my face to the elements, I felt the boat hit something and lift up. The motor revved, and the boat lurched up and forward. I had never hunted the marsh before, but I had felt that feeling enough to know that we were finally positioned in a boat blind. I freed my face.
As it turned out, this wasn’t the end of our trip. We gathered our gear and stepped out onto prepared planks that led to another clump of grass. The planks gave a little under the added weight of waders, guns and gear, but the strain wasn’t enough to snap them. While I uncertainly tiptoed toward the blind, the Stansel brothers were already settling in for another daybreak in their marshy backyard.
Kirk and Guy Stansel, along with their brother Bobby, were introduced to duck hunting in the marsh by their step-dad Terry Shaughnessy almost 40 years ago. Shaughnessy opened Hackberry Rod & Gun in 1975 with his wife Martha, and the Stansel brothers became heirs to one of the most respected hunting and fishing operations in the nation.
“I’ve been out here since I was 9,” Kirk Stansel said as the clocked ticked closer to shooting time. “I’m 49 now, so that’s been 40 years of duck hunting this marsh. I’ve probably hunted the rice fields 10 times in that time, and I’ve never hunted flooded timber — it’s strictly the marsh, and more exclusively the marsh here in Southwest Louisiana.”
What Kirk and Guy Stansel have learned is that the marsh in Southwest Louisiana is a venerable magnet for ducks that travel the Central and Mississippi flyways. And unlike flooded timber or rice fields, ducks find everything they need in the marsh. It’s no wonder then that both the ducks and the Stansels are reluctant to leave.
Wanting to make me feel right at home, Guy Stansel insisted that I sit on the end of the blind while he took a spot in the middle. While I welcomed the offer, I loathed the responsibility that came along with it. I was going to have to shoot as well as I had ever shot to meet the expectations that came with my spot. I met the first challenge of the morning, a lone teal that buzzed in from nowhere, with an unhealthy dose of steel shot, and my behind began to feel more comfortable in my seat.
“One of the reasons I love the marsh so much is that it’s in my backyard here in Hackberry,” Kirk Stansel said. “It’s convenient and easy for us, but that’s not what makes marsh hunting so good. I find that marsh hunting is more consistent than other kinds of habitat because everything doesn’t have to be just right for the birds to be here.”
Within the broad confines of a Southwest Louisiana marsh, ducks are able to find a place to eat and a place to rest, the two driving forces of all ducks in Louisiana throughout duck season. Seldom are the times when ducks have to leave to find one or the other.
After a couple gray ducks fell in front of Guy Stansel, I scanned the water immediately to our front and saw nothing but gray sky and gray water to go along with the gray ducks. I asked what it was that was drawing these particular ducks to our blind.
“This marsh has a lot of shallow water, and the ducks come to the big ponds with submerged aquatics to eat,” Guy Stansel said. “Their primary food in the early part of the season is widgeon grass. By the time the end of the season rolls around, though, most of the aquatics are gone, and the ducks turn to invertebrates.”
It wasn’t long into our hunt that I began to notice that our duck straps were filling with gray ducks, widgeon and teal. Fittingly for such a gray day, there weren’t any green heads in there to add a little color. The Stansel’s weren’t surprised at all. They know what to expect in the marsh, and this day was beginning to look like all the other days.
“The kinds of ducks we get here are a little different than what you might get in a rice field,” Kirk Stansel said. “We typically shoot a lot of widgeon and gadwall, whereas you don’t see them a lot in the rice fields. Of course, they get a lot of mallards and pintail. We get some of those, too, but not nearly as many. We get such a wide variety of ducks that we probably shoot from 16 to 20 different species every season. That’s one of the reasons hunters from all over the country want to come down here to hunt — the variety.”
While we were hunting out of the comfortable confines of a fiberglass pit-blind, I began to wonder how successful I could be if I were not hunting in the lap of luxury with only my instincts and a boat at my disposal.
“I’ve hunted the marsh out of a boat and been very successful,” Kirk Stansel said. “The reasons the ducks are here in our marsh are the same reasons they’re in other marshes. How you hunt out of a boat is dependent on what kind of marsh you’re hunting, though.”
He went on to explain that the differences between a salt marsh, an intermediate marsh and a fresh marsh are what determine how you hunt the marsh out of a boat. Ducks use all three marshes throughout the season; however, the saltwater marsh provides far less cover in which to hide than the intermediate and fresh marsh.
According to Kirk Stansel, the best thing to do in the salt marsh is to park the boat and get out on an island or on a point. The farther into the intermediate and fresh marsh a hunter gets the better the opportunity to just pull the boat up and hunker down in the grass.
The rain continued to fall, as the only indication of a sunrise was that the dark gray clouds turned light gray. Most of the far-away flying silhouettes didn’t stay far away for very long once they spotted the fake raft of birds bobbing gracefully in the breeze. A few expert notes from the Stansels’ calls were just enough to make the dark silhouettes turn into targets.
“Our decoy placement is important because we hunt the same blinds every day of the season,” Kirk Stansel said. “We use a lot of decoys here because we’re hunting more open water. The bigger the water the more decoys you need. We also use some motion decoys, and have found that they work best early rather than late in the year. In fact, last season we turned them completely off the last three weeks of the season because we found that, while they attract birds from a distance, they actually flare them once the ducks get close.”
The closer we got to our limit, the more difficult it became to get the birds within range. Probably most at fault, I just couldn’t help myself when the ducks started circling the blind. I just had to take it all in and see what was going on, and the last thing the ducks wanted to see was me looking at them.
Kirk and Guy Stansel tried to put me at ease by telling me that they get busted in the marsh because movement, or lack thereof, is such a big component of getting the ducks within range.
“The most important thing to do when the ducks are close is to stay still,” said Kirk Stansel. “We have some overhead cover in this blind, but there’s still enough room for them to look down in here on us. Keep your head down and look out under the bill of your cap only if you have to. The beauty of the marsh, though, is that if you do get busted it probably won’t be very long until you get another chance.”
The ride back to the truck was punctuated again with stinging drops and slapping reeds. It was one of those cold wet mornings that chills you to the bone. It was one of those cold wet mornings that was perfect for ducks. And it was one of those cold wet mornings the effects of which could only be shaken by a steaming hot bowl of duck gumbo back at the lodge.
Stansel pulled up a chair beside me and threw some duck calls down on the table beside my lunch.
“We didn’t get to talk much about calls out there this morning,” he said, “but knowing when to call in the marsh and when not to is important. The main things to remember is that you can overcall and you can call too soon.
“I use this Haydel variable double reed call quite a bit for a five-tone greet call and comeback call. I also use the chuckle some, but not as much as the other two. When the ducks are coming to me, I let them pass without bothering them. I’ll blow a comeback at their behinds. I also carry soft and loud calls that I use based on how much the wind is blowing.”
That very morning, not too far to our east, another hunter was trying his luck in the marsh. Dale Logan grew up hunting Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee, but now he leases a blind in the marsh near Creole south of the Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge. His hunt, like many marsh hunts, began somewhat slowly. If it had not been for his experience with marsh ducks, he might have called it a day before the ducks started flying.
“One thing about marsh hunting, especially in open water like that around my blind, is that you kill a lot of ducks that are coming in off the rice fields to rest,” said Logan. “That means they arrive later in the morning. The main thing to remember about marsh hunting is to stay put in the blind after the initial early flight of ducks because there are going to be a lot more birds coming in that aren’t dependent on the crack of dawn.”
Having hunted places like Reelfoot in Tennessee and the rice fields of Southwest Louisiana, one thing that stands out to Logan about marsh hunting is its consistency. They aren’t as affected by constant pressure from the same blind, and they aren’t nearly as weather dependent as the puddle ducks that frequent the rice fields.
“There are a lot of times you’re waiting on that perfect drizzling, low-light kind of day in the rice fields,” Logan explained. “Out in the marsh, we don’t have to worry so much about that. In fact, the clearer the day, the better marsh hunting seems to be.”
Like the Stansels, Logan depends heavily on a large spread of decoys to attract ducks. Ducks that are flying over his blind on their way from Cameron Prairie to Grand Cheniere see thousands of blinds along the way with four or five dozen decoys out. That’s why Logan puts out upwards of 300 decoys.
“I want them to see me in all that open water,” he said. “I’m hunting a resting spot, so I want to make it look like there is a large raft of ducks down here. I also use the magnum-sized decoys to make my spread even more visible.”
While the Stansels and Logan aren’t hunting public land, Logan said the opportunity is there for hunters without access to private land. He spent many years killing ducks at Sabine NWR along with the rest of the crowd before he leased his blind.
Any of the public lands along the coast that offer marsh-style duck hunting can be just as productive. Give them a try this season, and you’ll be just as reluctant as the ducks to ever leave the marsh.
For more information about Hackberry Rod & Gun, call 888-762-3391 or visit www.hackberryrodandgun.com.