Nooner Ducks

Get a good night’s sleep and hunt the mid-day hours at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The action’s best at this time of day.

Poor Zach. Maybe I should have warned him. This was the first Louisiana duck hunt for Pelayo’s brother-in-law, and he was dressed like a male model for Cabela’s catalog. His camo outfit was spanking new with the creases razor sharp. His hat even had a price tag still dangling from the back. And around his neck dangled a shiny wooden duck call about the size of a small baseball bat.This might be appropriate attire at Chesapeake Bay, Stuttgart or California’s Central Valley, near Zach’s home in Sacramento. But not here.

Zach fancies himself a worldly fellow. Fifteen years with a major multinational corporation had shown him the world from New Jersey to California, from Caracas to Buenos Aires and from Paris to Singapore. Well-traveled, he considered himself versed in exotic cultures, strange dialects, bizarre habits and grotesque apparel.

But nothing had prepared him for this. We were in a convenience store in Belle Chasse. Zach seemed oblivious to the snickers erupting all around him as he stood in line clutching a bottle of Vitamin Water, two granola bars and a pack of sunflower seeds. Most of the people around him held Styrofoam cups of coffee and honey buns. One guy held a beer.

Then the guy in front of Zach turned around, flipped back his welder’s cap and finally addressed him.

“Y’all got ’em?” he rasped.

“I beg your pardon?” Zach stuttered.

Good grief, I thought while looking over at Pelayo. Zach needs a translator.

“Y’all got ’em?” the fellow continued. “Got the ducks? Shot some ducks?”

“Oh, oh … no!” Zach finally blurted after recovering his composure. “Not yet. We haven’t hunted yet. We’re just going out.”

“Just going out?” the welder snorted while looking at his watch. “It’s 9:15, man! Dem ducks done stopped flying by now!”

“That’s what I thought too,” Zach said with a chuckle. “But my hosts insist that there’s no point in setting up at dawn where we’re going. Something about the tides and the wind coming up later in the day. I guess they know what they’re talking about?”

He pointed at us as the welder took a drag from his cigarette, and looked over nodding.

“They’ve been hunting this area for years,” Zach smiled and shrugged.

“You see me,” the welder said with a grimace, “I don’t fool wit dem ducks no more, you unnerstan’?”

“I beg your pardon?” Zach stuttered.

“I said, ‘I don’t FOOL WIT DEM DUCKS NO MORE.’ You follow me?”

“Sure. I’d be happy to help,” Zach shrugged. “Now, follow you where?”

Pelayo looked heavenward and sighed.

“All that woyk for a few birds? Uh uh, not me. You follow me?”

“I said I’d be happy to follow you?” Zach’s smile was looking bent. “Now just where…”

“It ain’t worth it,” said the welder-capped gent. True to form, he paid no attention to Zach. His rhetorical repertoire didn’t usually provoke actual answers, much less rebuttals. “Now got me a deer lease in Mississippi, you follow me?”

Zach was making a valiant attempt, but his face was a mask of pure bewilderment by now.

“Oh yes, yes. I understand,” he said while finally reaching the cashier, who rescued him with a dialect that seemed semi-comprehensible.

“Well, good luck,” the fellow offered as we walked out. “Y’all have a good one.”

An hour and a half later, we launched at Venice, as several boats returned from the morning’s hunt.

“Not much flying this morning,” was a common lament. “Ain’t barely had no wawda to hunt in,” was another.

“Getting a late start, huh?” a mud-splattered hunter asked from the dock as I cranked the engine.

“Or an early one,” said his chum. “We’ll be going out again for an evening hunt.”

“We’re gonna try some fishing and scout for ducks,” Pelayo shrugged. “Maybe set up later, when the tide comes up, if we find some ducks.”

“See that?” I pointed at a flag atop a big Hatteras. “That winds finally picking up.”

“And outta the southeast,” Pelayo said with a wide grin.

Evening hunts are fairly routine in the Mississippi Delta. As luck would have it, the high tide always seems to come in the evening down here during the duck season. Many (but based on my observation, not most) duck hunters who hunt down here have adapted to these conditions and forsaken that dawn hunt (fight the mudflats for a few shots at teal) for more sleep, some leisurely fishing, then some furious shooting as the tides rise, flood the duck potato flats and the greys, pintail, mottleds (along with swarms of teal) flock in to feast with the sun setting in the west.

But even down here, for most hunters, the prospect of a midday hunt still provokes mainly frowns and snorts. By January, however, the river’s high, water muddy and the midday fishing trip often a thing of the past. Ducks have wised up to our hunting patterns by late season. In the higher hunting pressure area of the delta (and elsewhere) this means they’ve often caught on even to evening hunts and become nocturnal, much as deer.

During midday, however, they rarely encounter hunters, and especially during windy conditions, we often have our best delta hunts during the period from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. or so. Strange but true.

This timetable also saves us a harrowing trip in the dark if the infamous Delta fog closes in — as it usually does under the conditions that make for high tides in the Delta: southeast winds.

Even outside the delta, we started noticing a late-morning pattern to duck flights. In the Delacroix/Hopedale area, we attributed it to fishermen returning and putting up ducks, which no doubt accounts for some of it, or surveying crews cranking up the airboats and putting up ducks, which also no doubt accounts for some.

This was especially true in the more salt to brackish outlying marsh. And there’s nothing new to this phenomenon. Legendary outdoor author Robert Ruark wrote about a duck hunt in lower Terrebonne Parish where he picked and ate oysters from his blind!

“Oysters?” I thought. “This was in 1951. Plenty fresh marsh back then. Why would he be hunting salt marsh?”

Ruark went on to mention how by late in the morning, huge flocks of puddle ducks would wing south into the brackish-salt marsh to rest after feeding in the fresh marshes to the north around Houma.

Well, the same thing applies all along our coast. We’ve often witnessed the St. Bernard and Plaquemines versions of what Ruark saw in Terrebonne. And for whatever reason (probably because of low tides from fronts plus hunting pressure close to the launches), we notice more ducks in the outlying marsh during late season.

Much like deer, ducks have their feeding and their resting (roosting) areas. Think about it. Rice field hunting is typically early morning, crack-of-dawn stuff, the ducks buzzing all around even before legal shooting hours. Ditto for the hunting in fresh marshes like Lake Salvador, La Branche, upper Lafitte, Reggio and Spanish Lake. These are all freshwater feeding areas.

Up in the Midwest, duck hunters know that ducks feed in the crop fields early morning then fly into the reservoirs, lakes and flooded timber later on to rest. Here’s where they ambush them.

We decided to ambush by hanging a right about midway down South Pass. These natural spillways let the river water rush through every spring and build sandbars. By duck season, they’re sprouting in duck potato and other tubers. The leaves and seeds are gone by January, but those luscious (and nutritious) tubers remain just underground. Best of all, that new sediment every year means sandy, semi-firm, walkable marsh.

“Tides already coming up,” I said pointing at the little foam edge to the water half covering the mud bank. “We’re in good shape.”

We’d just beached the boat when a jet-like roar passed over, and we jerked our heads up in time to see a band of greenwing teal almost decapitate us then circle and plop into a cove about 200 yards ahead.

“You saw how fast they went down?” Pelayo croaked. “I bet that place is full of ducks. Look at all that duck potato.”

Almost on cue, mixed flocks of pintails and greys started peeling off from directly in front of us. Then a loose group of mallards and mottled ducks flapped off quacking from behind some bulrushes to our left.

We were pumped.

“WOW!” was all Zach could manage as we started setting out the decoys while walking. We’d just put out the 23rd decoy when Zach yelped, “Look … in the decoys!”

Teal were landing in them even as we stood jamming palmetto leaves and bamboo into the mud around the pirogue.

“SKIP the teal, man!” I gasped as we all started shucking in shells. “We’ll limit out in three minutes with them. Let’s wait for …”

I stopped in mid sentence when I saw the colossal pintail drake eyeing the dekes cautiously from about 80 yards out. He flapped his wings and craned his neck cautiously. He was in the middle of his second circle around the decoys when I grabbed my whistle, and gave a shrill blast just as Zach opened up with a feeding chuckle on his wooden trombone. It was magic.

The pintail cupped his wings, curved that long neck and started gliding in. No other duck can touch this guy. It was a spectacle of sheer elegance on the wing. But he wasn’t coming in to land. At about 30 yards, he started gaining a little altitude and veering right.

Too late buddy. Pelayo and Zach rose, their guns boomed as one and the pintail crumpled, splashing down in a puff of feathers just outside the dekes.

Pelayo suddenly pointed left, and ducked. A flock of six were winging in from 200 yards out. We hunkered down in the ’rogue, and watched them close the distance through the cracks in the bamboo and palmetto shroud. Their wings beat steadily. Their path was unwavering. None of that craning of the neck and looking around for company or a place to land. They knew where they were going.

At my first hail, they slowed and banked. Zach and Pelayo chimed in with more quacks and whistles, and they cupped. We plastered our faces against the bamboo, and fingered the safeties. Uh-oh, at about a hundred yards, the lead duck started veering. The others followed. They’d no longer be in range. We mouthed the calls in desperation just as they swerved, and we saw the white of the underwings contrasting against the dark bellies.

“Blacks,” I snorted.

Pelayo let fly with a short, sharp hail (the way ducks, not mariachi trumpeters, do it) and the mottled ducks swerved back toward us. I chimed in, and they cupped. You expect this response during teal season. In the remote regions of the Delta, you see it even in January. Unreal.

By the second circle, it looked like they’d consummate. What a sight. These had their wings spread wide, exposing their dark brown bellies as they hovered over the farthest decoys. Big orange feet started to dangle.

My heart was in my throat as we rose to greet them at point-blank range. Blam!! Zach beat me to the draw, and I saw one fold on the left. BLAM! BLAM!! Pelayo and I shot almost as one, and two more cartwheeled into the dekes. I was drawing a bead on the last one but held off.

Mottled ducks are tough, really tough. They’re heavily plumed, heavily skinned, heavily boned and fat. Pick one up alongside a grey or widgeon. It weighs almost twice as much. They usually weigh even more than their first cousins, the mallards. At any rate, I’d probably have hit him. And almost as probably lost him.

But all three of these were down for good. The 6s had riddled them with fatal head and neck hits. We stood there admiring the carnage.

Another flock of four appeared from behind, heading straight for us. Again, we hunkered, turning our faces slightly to watch their approach. Again, they looked like blacks — big-bodied, deliberate wingbeats. They passed about 80 yards to the left, and I gave a short (three-note) hail.

One cupped immediately, and started banking. The others flew on. I called again and again. After another hundred yards, the remaining trio decided to join the first.

What a picture. We had one circling directly behind — he’d probably appear in range over the dekes in seconds — and we had three others gliding in from the front, still 150 yards out. Quite a dilemma.

“A bird in the hand,” they say. A mottled in the hand, however, is worth about 50 in the bush. Hunkering down, we traded looks; we couldn’t even risk a whisper. Our eyes and grimaces said it all.

“Do we blast this one that’s almost on top of us? Or wait for the trio?”

Then the first actually landed near the farthest deke, while the trio glided in on cupped wings. It didn’t seem possible. But these weren’t landing, just looking. And what the …? Yes! One’s actually a mallard! They often hang out together — mallards and mottleds. They even interbreed. We shot one last year with the curly tail feathers of a greenhead but the body of a mottled duck.

They were well in range as we rose. BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!! The greenhead and the one to his left folded. The other mottled duck faltered but regained his altitude. BLAM BLAM!! Now he crumpled. We forgot about the one that landed.

By 2:30 p.m., we were four short of a limit but decided to head in. With this warm weather, the fog, no doubt, was on its way. Besides, we’d already had a spectacular hunt.

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