Altamaha WMA Coming Off Best Duck Season Ever

Hurry! Deadline to apply for a WMA quota waterfowl hunt on Altamaha WMA's Butler Island is Oct. 15.

If you’ve never duck hunted in the coastal marshes of Altamaha WMA Waterfowl Management Area, where you’ve got a better-than-average chance to fill your limit with a variety of different duck species, you have been missing out. Last year’s Altamaha WMA duck hunters on Butler Island had the best season ever, according to records that have been kept since the early 1960s. This season, the area will host 10 quota duck hunts on Butler, and you’ve got until Oct. 15 to sign up. Don’t miss your chance!

In the mid-1950s, the impoundments on Altamaha WMA were created. With a total of 32,000 WMA acres, more than 3,000 acres of it are impoundments. Altamaha WMA is home to thousands of ducks each year, including black ducks, mallards, Northern pintails, redheads and canvasbacks.

During the 2011-2012 waterfowl season, the quota area, Butler Island, had a total of 1,669 ducks harvested by 759 hunters. A total of 17 species were harvested, with the largest numbers in green-winged teal, blue-winged teal and ring-necked ducks.

Although records are not kept on Champney and Rhetts islands, the hunting was outstanding. Hunters came in with mottled ducks, mallards, black ducks, gadwalls, redheads and pintails, among other species. Also, the Altamaha Sound was full of sea ducks last season, including lesser scaup, surf scoters, black scoters, white-winged scoters and buffleheads.

There are three main factors that attributed to last year being the best year ever. First, it was a very dry winter throughout coastal Georgia. This pushed species such as wood ducks to leave the dry swamps and move into the Altamaha impoundments and surrounding rivers.

Second, waterfowl population trends for most species are positive, and quality habitat is increasing in the breeding grounds.

Most importantly, the hard work and dedication of the Altamaha staff helped the WMA to have some of the best habitat it’s seen in history. The beneficial waterfowl habitat, which was found on the Altamaha freshwater flooded impoundments, was very attractive for migrating and resident waterfowl throughout the season.

Information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s North American Waterfowl Management Plan shows breeding population estimates are at a record high. Estimates are 43 percent above the long-term average. This information is very positive and hopefully will help us have another excellent waterfowl season.

This summer Game Management staff banded three species of waterfowl—black-bellied whistling ducks, mottled ducks and wood ducks. These bands will help us better understand waterfowl movements within and outside the state.

Altamaha is fortunate to have three resident waterfowl species. Wood duck and mottled duck populations have been consistent since the state began airboat trapping efforts in 2006. The black-bellied whistling ducks have expanded their range from Texas and Mexico around the Gulf to Florida and are now expanding up the southern Atlantic coast. There has been a significant increase in the black-bellied whistling duck population since 2006. The Altamaha WMA provides great habitat for black bellies for both breeding and overwintering. Each season hunters are finding black bellies a part of their limits, and we expect to see this to continue in the future.

Waterfowl hunting on Altamaha WMA can provide one of the best hunting experiences in the state. Before you plan your trip, however, there are several things you need to know to make your outing more productive and safe. Waterfowl impoundments allow managers to control water levels to encourage native plant growth based on varying levels of soil saturation. This allows the Altamaha staff to keep a good balance of good seed-producing annuals along with ample open water which brings the ducks back year after year.

The managed impoundments on Altamaha WMA are scattered across three management units, Butler, Champney and Rhetts islands. Now let’s get into more detail on how to hunt these impoundments.

Butler Island: Butler Island offers a quota hunt every Saturday during the waterfowl season until 12 p.m. There are 30 blind areas ranging from 4 to 16 acres in size that are randomly selected through a lottery-style drawing. These blind areas do not have physical duck blinds but are rather a mix of open water, potholes, emergent grasses and trees. Hunters use the natural cover to hide themselves from approaching waterfowl.

Each week, there are 20 blind areas reserved for the quota hunters. That leaves at least 10 blinds open for stand-by hunting opportunity. Stand-by hunters draw for the remaining blinds after the quota-hunt drawing has occurred.

Hunters on Butler Island should arrive at the check station, located 1 mile south of Darien, between 4:30 and 4:45 a.m. Quota and stand-by hunters will need to go inside the check station and sign in with Game Management personnel upon arrival. Drawing for blinds for the quota hunters will begin at 5 a.m. The stand-by hunters will then be given the opportunity to draw for the remaining blind areas. Once the blinds are selected, hunters and their gear are loaded onto trailers pulled behind pick-up trucks and are taken out to the hunting area.

Hunters are dropped off at their blinds, where they will find a small boat. This boat is designed exclusively to get hunters and gear across a narrow perimeter ditch. Once this ditch is crossed, hunters can get out of the boat in waders and wade through the blind area. Water levels are normally between 8 and 24 inches deep in the impoundment.

Hunters can put out decoys and hide in the natural cover in the blind area. Large decoy spreads are not needed on Butler Island. Six to 12 decoys is appropriate. Pack wisely to minimize extra gear and bulky decoy bags. Other hunters on the trailers will appreciate it, and it will make the walk easier when packing gear in and out of the blind areas.

Hunting ends at 12 p.m., but Game Management staff will drive around the dikes periodically to pick up hunters. Hunters can also walk to the cross dike. This is a central location in the impoundment where the trailers are parked. Maps of this area are located in the check station. For those wishing to hunt until 12 p.m., staff will pick those hunters up at their blinds where they were dropped off that morning.

Champney Island:
Champney Island offers hunters a walk-in hunting opportunity on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and state holidays during waterfowl season until 12 p.m. This is a first-come, first-serve area that can be very productive. Hunters will often try and draw a stand-by blind on Butler Island but keep Champney Island as an option in case they are not drawn.

Champney Island is broken up into three huntable impoundments, New Snipe, Old Snipe and West Champney. New Snipe and Old Snipe pools can be accessed from Champney Road or Massman Road, while West Champney can only be accessed by Massman Road. A canoe or small boat can be useful to get into the impoundments and to move around within the impoundments. Similar to Butler Island, hunters need to wear waders and can expect water levels to range between 8-24 inches across the impoundment.

Rhetts Island: Rhetts Island is boat accessible only and is open to hunting Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and state holidays during waterfowl season until 12 p.m. It is a large impoundment broken up into three pools. Pool 1 is the westernmost pool and Pool 3 is the easternmost pool.

Pool 1 has two access points into it from the Champney and Butler rivers. The pull-over site allows hunters to cross the perimeter dike with a small boat to access the impoundment. Because the Champney and Butler rivers are tidally influenced, there can between 6 to 9 feet of difference between high and low tide depending on moon phase and wind. This can create a large mud flat in front of the pull-over sites, so be aware of the tide stage when planning your trip. A push-pole is a great tool to navigate through the soupy mud that leads up to the pullover points.

Consistent with the other impoundments, Rhetts Island has a perimeter ditch around each pool and water depths range from 8-24 inches deep. Hunters can hunt out of waders or out of their boat using natural cover in the impoundment as camouflage. Hunters are strongly advised to scout Rhetts Island in the daylight prior to making a trip over in the dark the morning of the hunt. This will help increase your chances for a safe and successful hunt.

Other Altamaha Opportunities:
Outside of the impoundments, there are other places on Altamaha WMA that can prove to be very valuable for waterfowl hunting. These areas are open during statewide waterfowl season.

Lewis Island and the surrounding swamps are great places to shoot a limit of wood ducks. The newest piece of property, the McGowan Lake Tract, has a large lake with many different species throughout the year. All in all Altamaha WMA offers a wide variety of hunting opportunities for many different species throughout the waterfowl season.

Last year, after the waterfowl season was complete, the snipe and rabbit hunters had a great season on Butler and Champney islands. Some hunters came out with limits, while other hunters came close.

Special hog hunts provide an excellent hog-hunting opportunity on the WMA. Hunter orange is required, and dogs may be used during the special feral hog firearms hunt. Also, the Altamaha WMA is a great area for deer and small-game hunters.

But for now, we’re coming off the best waterfowl season ever on Altamaha WMA, and you’ve got a chance to participate in one of these hunts. The deadline to sign up for one of the quota hunts on Butler Island is Oct. 15. Go to www.gohuntgeorgia.com to get started.

Editor’s Note: The author is WRD’s Region 7 assistant supervisor for Game Management. For detailed instructions on setting up your online account to sign up for the quota duck hunts at Altamaha WMA, refer back to the August issue of GON. Also, there are instructions on page 63 of the Georgia Hunting Seasons and Regulations booklet.

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