As I wrote in my last post, Travis and I had set up in a little slime pond hoping to bust a few beaks the morning after Christmas. We’d known of the spot, as we knew mottled ducks and whistlers knew of the spot. Our hope was a few teal would swing through, as well.
It didn’t happen. We spooked the whistling ducks early and had a few woodies fly overhead but it was pretty lame - which made it all that much better that I was able to bust a gorgeous mottled drake. I guess you could say I limited out since the bag for mottleds is one, but it wasn’t the duck hunt we’d hoped for. But, if you did read my last post, a little additional scouting remedied this problem as that evening a pile of whistling ducks and a few teal met their demise. For the record, my personal bag for the day was the one mottled duck, a bluewing teal, and 4 whistlers - awesome for this style of hunting.
Over the last three weeks I’ve about run gamut of Florida ducking hunting opportunities. Hunted the bigger lakes of central Florida for ringers and teal. Per usual, there were plenty of ducks and a few have died, but as also typical of a mid-December hunt for these birds on public waters, they were rather shore-shy from being blasted at for a few weeks especially having had no recent cold fronts blow down fresh birds. I hunted Lake Okeechobee one afternoon and was perplexed by the lack of birds I saw there, though a party did well the next morning, blasting ringers and teal.
From there, I hunted STA ¾ and had an exciting shoot, again increasing my bag of ringers and teal. December 26th will go down as a memorable day for all the whistling ducks, but a few days later, I hunted up by Cedar Key for sea ducks – bluebills and bufflehead. What a neat place to give waterfowling a go! I scratched down one hen bluebill – my first - and a common merganser, but the action was limited. That’s a lot of water out there, and it didn’t seem a lot of these ducks had arrived south yet. When you don’t have many sea ducks in that expanse, the shooting is typically limited.
It’s been fun, though, my limited knowledge of duck hunting increasing with each venture. I don’t want to disparage hunting from a boat with a large spread of decoys, mostly because I really, really enjoy a boat full of buddies emptying to their plugs on passing ringers. And I really, really want to continue to be invited on these hunts. With all the rivers, lakes and shorelines in the state, the ease of opportunity is there, but the most successful hunts I’ve been on have involved no motorized boats and far less hunting pressure. And that’s what I want to focus on today: increasing duck hunting opportunities through walk-in hunts on private and public lands, not only in Florida, but really anywhere you may want to pop a duck or three away from the crowds. These places are shallow water venues that require merely a pair of waders to retrieve birds and are fine spots to innoculate that Duck Hunting Disease
So, let’s delve through this spectrum of possibilities. The whistling ducks and mottled duck died on private land. The land is largely South Florida prairie pockmarked with sloughs, wet-weather ponds, flag lily ponds, and cattle ponds. All of these features are attractive to puddle ducks including the aforementioned mottled, but also whistlers, wood ducks and teal. The duck hunting has been fickle over the last several years due to drought that allowed tall dog fennels and other weeds to thrive in these depressions, choking out the ducks. The main trick to success has been finding where the ducks want to be and adjusting accordingly, as my opening tale related.
To take it out of the state of Florida, we did something similar in Montana last year. We hunted flooded shallows on the edges of wheat fields. Ducks rafted on the nearby river would shuffle over in the mornings and evenings to feed. 2010 was sort of a down year for our trip, but a group this year pounded mallards and other puddlers that came into water barely ankle deep.
I mentioned wood ducks earlier; they are extremely conducive to walk-in hunting. Here, they’ll settle in cypress swamps and creeks surrounded by oaks. In Georgia, I’ve blasted them in beaver ponds and probably could when I visit North Carolina each year if I weren’t so fixated on deer. It’s quite an experience to have a flock of woodies whistle down through the treetops first thing in the morning. Like above, the trick is figuring out where they want to be. I believe woodies - even more so than other waterfowl - wake up in the morning knowing exactly where they’re headed and little will sway the stubborn buggers, so not each puddle will hold them.
This all translates on public land, as well. You know, mottled and whistlers are largely unique to Florida, and many WMA’s share the same features of the private ranch I’ve hunted. And duck hunting is allowed on most WMA's during open seasons for deer, hogs, or small game hunts. Many more WMA's have an abundance of cypress swamp land that woodies call home. The Green Swamp, Chassahowitzka, and Lake Panasofkee are a trio of public lands where I’ve noticed a plenty of wood ducks recently. And since most folks are concentrating on deer and hogs, the potential is there for great shoots.
For the ultimate walk-in hunts on public land in the state, the STA’s are the cat’s meow. These lands are designed to clean runoff water before it reaches the Everglades and is loaded with a variety of ducks. If you live anywhere outside of South Florida, it is a haul to get down there, but it is worth a trip or two a year if you draw the tags.
The STA’s require a touch more planning than a few of the other options. Last year, we waded through the hydrilla to a line of cattails. We got a limit easily but ached like Hell after slogging through that mess, dragging weeds behind us like wet wedding dresses. This year we toted kayaks down which made it a lot easier to get hunters and gear in and out.
But that’s as complicated as these hunts should go. Typically we’ve hunted with few decoys, if any, in the case of wood ducks. If you’ve done your scouting and know – or reasonably hope – the birds will be there, tons of dekes are burdensome. A couple decoys and a Mojo Duck never hurt mallards or teal, but sea duck-like spreads of them are unreasonable. For blinds, just cut surrounding vegetation (check regulations on WMA’s!) and put those Boy Scout badges to work. In Florida, cutting long palm fronds and planting the stalks in the mush is a popular method of concealment. Of course, care must be taken on where you splash the birds; most of these joints are wader-friendly, but the deep spots may require a retriever - either by canine or by a fishing pole with a snatch of some variety.
Duck hunting, oftentimes, is what you want to make of it. As I said, I certainly enjoy hunting from a boat on the lake with buddies and hoping for a limit of teal and ringers. It does happen, especially early in the season and after cold fronts when new birds wing South. There is something to be said for going beyond this formula, though. Not everyone is gonna get excited about that one bird limit of mottled ducks. Or even three wood ducks.
But it’s reasonable to expect, with a little scouting and luck, to enjoy a day of waterfowling without worry about other hunters or hauling a boat around.