About this time of year, thoughts of a sagging-bellied, wide-racked mature buck begin to wane for me. My neck starts to hurt from looking up, and my Georgia friends stop answering my phone calls. They know what I’m going to ask, “Seen any ducks?”
My passion for duck hunting is fostered from a lineage straight from the fertile, gumbo mud of the Mississippi Delta and was fertilized by formative years growing up in Memphis.
I’ve lived in Georgia for 23 years, and my quest for close-to-home duck hunting begins anew each year. I’ve shot ducks on the Coosa River above Weiss, on Lake Seminole, on Clarks Hill, above Lake Oconee, on a cow-pasture pond in Bartow County, on a little flooded corn patch in Stephens County, and on flooded millet in Monroe County. For me, the Georgia quest usually involves a search for big ducks. Woodies are great, but there’s something about working a nice group of big ducks, mallards preferably.
Three years ago I had recently moved to Morgan County. One afternoon I grabbed fellow GON editor Brad Gill and we slipped in to see what was sitting on a duck hole I had received permission to hunt. Boys, there were ducks. And a couple dozen of them were quacking.
A little background about Brad. Two weeks before he went on his very first duck hunt — and I use that term loosely. Brad and I and my Lab, Dee, stood next to a creek and waited on daylight. Lo and behold just after shooting hours we heard a wood duck squeal. A pair flew over, and Brad shot his first duck. That was it, but from the smile on Brad’s face and the wagging of my dog’s tail, you’d think we’d just had a limit-filled morning in Arkansas.
Fast-forward to two weeks later, and Brad, my dog, and Weyman Hunt of Madison waded out into the swamp, which was on Weyman’s hunting club.
Five minutes before legal shooting hours the first group of woodies peeled into the swamp and landed. Then another group, and another. Legal shooting hours came and went, and still more woodies poured in.
“I didn’t know what was going on,” Brad said later. “There were wood ducks flying in, I had them swimming in front of me, then a pair landed right behind me — almost on my head.”
What we were waiting on soon appeared. These mallards knew they wanted in that swamp, but they put on a good show for Brad, circling a half dozen times before finally committing, wings cupped and feet out. Brad got his first greenhead — and also a wood duck trying to make an escape. As Dee went after Brad’s mallard, we heard honking and looked up to see a group of two-dozen geese already dumping air on their way in. Brad got his first goose that morning as well.
That hunt ranks as one of my most memorable in Georgia, not just for the number of ducks that fell into the swamp that morning, but because it gave my friend a true taste of real duck hunting.
Georgia ain’t Arkansas. The memorable hunts are fewer and farther between here, but for those of us who love duck hunting, even the Peach State can produce waterfowling memories.
Here are a few memories from fellow Georgia duck hunters.
Shrimp Boats, a Salty Sunrise, and a Sky Full of Bluebills
You have to really love duck hunting to go after them at Rhetts Island on the Georgia coast.
For this gang, a Rhetts Island hunt begins at 2 a.m., a blurry-eyed drive through the deserted streets of Tifton. Three hunters in a truck loaded with camo, decoys, shotguns, shell belts, a Chesapeake named River, the truck heading east on 82 for two hours and 15 minutes of nothing but headlights on blacktop.
Jay Daniell, Patrick Atwater and Jay Phillips have a passion for ducks. They hunt ’em anywhere — Mississippi, Arkansas — but there’s something about the Georgia coast that draws Jay Daniell a half-dozen times every season.
“That ocean sunrise… that’s the reason I love to go over there. It’s just different, a different atmosphere… saltwater, the smells, the marsh,” Jay said.
They arrive in Darien at 4:15 a.m. and turn toward a downtown ramp near a fish market. The little duck boat backed into the Darien River alongside a shrimp trawler.
“A couple of weeks before that morning, we had hunted over there in Pond 2 and hadn’t done very good. Pond 2 is pretty much a puddle-duck hole. On the way out, we noticed some ducks on the sound, and then we ran into some guys at the ramp who had killed some bluebills,” Jay said. “When we hunted 2, there was nothing. It was dead. After deciding the ducks we saw before on the sound were bluebills, we decided to hunt 1, which is much more open water and generally a diver-type hunting scenario. I had scouted out an island that had open water all the way around it, and I thought it would be a good place to hunt.”
It was late December, and the temperatures had dipped to just below freezing. The outboard cranked, and the little boat turns out toward the ocean.
“It’s a 10-minute boat ride tops, it’s not far,” Jay said.
But there’s the levee to negotiate. The reason Rhetts Island holds ducks is because there are a series of levees that hold water in the marsh.
“Dragging over is always a chore. Depending on what the tide is, it could be 20 minutes or two minutes. At low tide there’s 30 or 40 yards of mud. You can shoot it up there with a good motor. Once you get there, you have to set up your decoys, get your boat hid. By the time you do all that, you only have 20 minutes or so of doing nothing.”
For any true waterfowler, there’s nothing like that feeling when the spread is set. Time for a cup of coffee from the thermos. The dog’s tail thumping as wings whistle overhead in the black sky. For this Tifton trio, it’s been four hours getting there.
“We started hearing some shots here and there,” Jay said. “Somebody always shoots before shooting light. We had some silhouettes fly over early about five or 10 minutes before shooting light. It couldn’t have been 10 minutes after shooting light, and that’s when we started getting on them.
“You can see them from a distance, and that morning it was almost like you had a feeling they were coming in — they would get low. They were flying in groups of 10 to 12. Bluebills are going to buzz the decoys, but on this hunt, they were going to light. They were setting down in the decoys, coming right in.
“It was almost like Arkansas, the way they were flying in Vs. There were just so many bluebills moving back and forth from the sounds to the impoundments. It was probably the most ducks I’ve ever seen over there.
“You’d look up and there were just hundreds of bluebills flying high. Big Vs. We all had limits before we knew it.
“Went every week for three weekends, and we stayed on them. We were tickled to death to be shooting ducks like that.”
Limitless Limits of Seminole Cans
Taxidermist Scott Hodges of Byron is a duck nut. I asked for his most memorable Georgia hunt, and Scott began to wade through bits and pieces of various stories before settling on a trip to Lake Seminole in 1997. Instead of just telling me his story, Scott wrote it down for us:
“After a long-awaited opening day of duck season, it finally arrived. Not the bitter cold, freezing-rain kind of opening day that we all hope for, but a balmy 70-degree south Georgia forecast. That’s usually how it comes though; every year we hope for that great ‘arctic blast,’ that miracle weather forecast that sends every duck, goose and crane from anywhere north of here on down to their warm place in the sun. But this year was just like all the rest — warm, foggy and just downright miserable. I was somewhere waist deep in a beaver swamp waiting on that magic time — 30 minutes before sunrise, which always just happens to be about five minutes after every wood duck in the swamp decides to go somewhere else and have breakfast. After the usual lull in the action, I hear that familiar whine of a woody hen coming through the trees, and then it’s on; a volley of shots that echo through the swamp. Well, we all know how it goes from there, a few minutes later, and it’s all over. We wait for a while hoping and praying that maybe, just maybe, a stray mallard, or anything other than a woody, will decide to make an appearance. But this morning it never happens, just another Georgia duck hunt.
“A few more weekends like that came and went, and then it’s early January, and the word was that the cans were at Seminole. My good friend Tommy Henson called me up and said ‘let’s go,’ so that’s exactly what we did. After a few phone calls, we packed up and headed south. The usual group, Larry Younis, Bobby Hodges, Clint Shipman, David Sams, Donnie Johnson, Tommy Henson and I took off on the three-hour drive to Seminole State Park. We arrived after dark and didn’t have a chance to do any scouting, so it was decided that in the morning we would all go to a place we knew and hunt for a while, and then stay out and scout. As luck would have it, three other boats liked the same place, even after several attempts to ward them off with my magical Q-Beam. There we were, three groups of hunters within 250 yards of each other and what do you know, here comes the prettiest duck boat I’ve ever seen, a 19-foot Glasstream with a 175 Mercury. Mind you this is 30 minutes after daylight. This fellow is on a mission, a mission to get in between me and the other group of yahoos that set up 100 yards from us at daylight. Although we killed a ringneck drake and a bluebill, the bass boat was the straw that broke the camel’s back, so we decided to move.
“Well, when we set up that morning, we were at the end of the boat run that comes out of Fish Pond Drain, and although we did kill a couple of ducks, we hadn’t really seen that much activity. We decided to run out toward the dam and head up the Chattahoochee River. After a 20-minute or so ride up the river, the call of nature hit Larry, so we headed for the nearest island. This single event turned out to be the start of the best day of hunting canvasbacks that I had ever had the opportunity to witness. While Larry and Donnie were checking out the closest open-air outhouse in Seminole County, yours truly was sitting on the outboard surveying the marsh. As luck would have it, I saw something coming in low and fast from my left. After everyone was back in the boat, we motored out to what I had thought was another ringneck, but after a quick inspection it turned out to be a drake redhead. After a few high fives and cup of coffee, we noticed something light colored on the horizon over on the Florida side of the lake. At first we weren’t sure what it was, but after a quick check with the binoculars it turned out to be a raft of 300 to 400 cans.
“After another five-minute ride we ended up at Saunders Slough where it opens up onto the main lake. When we came around a small island, we saw a decoy spread and then we noticed three guys back in the grass, so we decided back off, hide the boat and wait to see what happened. By now it was pushing 10 a.m., and we were hoping these guys were almost limited out. After a short wait and another can in the boat, they decided to pack it up. We figured we would just move in where they left from and see what happened. After throwing out a dozen or so decoys and hiding the boat, it didn’t take but a minute for the first group to come our way, and in just a few moments, a pair of cans were belly up in the decoys. My first Georgia canvasback was floating 20 yards away, and I just couldn’t wait to get my hands on him. We retrieved the two birds and headed back to the cabin to get everyone else and hunt this spot after lunch.
“We decided to move out closer to the main lake and put out three- or four-dozen decoys and let everybody else get a chance to kill what we all came for. For the rest of the afternoon, group after group of cans picked up from across the lake, I guess just to stretch their wings and mill around. It was the most awesome sight, and when a group would come our way it was the most intense sound I have ever heard, words cannot describe the rush you feel when 20 or 30 of the largest and strongest of the duck world bank into the wind and come in to the decoys.
“It didn’t take long for the five of us who hadn’t killed a can that morning to do so that afternoon, and once we all had our one-bird limit we waited for some ringnecks or bluebills, but nothing came in for the rest of the afternoon except for one group of Canada geese. We heard them coming up from the dam, and Clint went to work on them with his Tim Grounds flute. It always amazes me to hear Clint blow a duck or goose call, being a small frame fellow like myself. I don’t know where he gets all that air from, but none the less after what seemed to be 10 minutes, which in reality was closer to a minute and a half, a dozen Canadas came right over my head, and you can guess what happened — I was the only one of us to have a shot, and I didn’t cut a feather. Oh well, just to have them that close was icing on the cake after such a remarkable day.
“We sat there until sunset watching the big group of cans across the lake and watching smaller groups still coming in to the decoys. Even though we could only kill one apiece, for seven people to all limit out on cans in Georgia is a grand feat. The thing I love most about hunting ducks more so than deer hunting is being with your friends and enjoying the whole experience. January 11, 1997 — a day I will never forget.”