There are few more satisfying, more intense moments in the outdoors than the sight of a big group of mallards locked up, wings set, descending into a decoy spread. But unless you hunt polar bears on an Arctic ice drift, being a die-hard duck hunter in Georgia has to be one of the most-challenging pursuits an outdoorsman can undertake.
I’ve heard deer hunters complain about having to get up early. Those folks need not apply for the duck-hunting fraternity. Legal shooting time is 30 minutes before sunrise, and for most of us it’ll take an hour or two of driving to get there. Then you’re either putting a boat in the water, or you have to hike to and then wade through a swamp. Give yourself at least 15 minutes to get the decoys out. There will be water involved in this endeavor, and it will be cold. In fact, the colder the better. Give a duck hunter a morning when he has to break ice to find water to float the decoys, and you would think he’s in heaven. Throw in some sleet or snow and a strong north wind, even better.
For us Georgians, where the state tree ought to be a planted pine, duck hunters also have the small inconvenience of not having very many ducks.
Then, because the public-hunting opportunity is limited, you’ll likely be sharing an area with other groups of duck hunters. If you go through all the trouble to get to get to a WMA quota hunt, to Lake Seminole, Juliette, Clarks Hill, the coast or some other public area that might have some ducks… how can we put this gently… well, don’t be a jerk.
Skybusters: Magic Does Not Apply to Shotgun Physics
Skybusting, or the art of trying to magically propel steel shot 100 yards into the air at a passing duck, is a sure-fire way to ruin your own chances, and everyone else’s chances, at actually killing a duck.
Talk to anyone who has hunted a reservoir or one of the WMA quota hunts, and you’ll hear about other duck hunters taking unreasonably long shots.
GON editor Brad Bailey applies for a WMA quota duck hunt every year, which means about every fourth year he gets to actually go on one of these WMA hunts. Several years ago Brad was drawn for one of the hunts at the Oconee WMA impoundments. He and one of his sons had a nice set-up, but as is sometimes the case, the ducks weren’t flying. Finally, a group of four ducks flew over, and they turned and began circling.
“There were four groups on the impoundment for that hunt,” Brad said.
“Usually there are only two, but one of the two Oconee impoundments wasn’t open that season, so they allowed four on the one impoundment.
“The ducks circled and circled, getting closer, until finally they set their wings and started in. They were headed toward our end of the pond, but one of the groups I guess couldn’t stand it and decided to shoot at them. The ducks were still high, and from where the hunters were the ducks were at least 100 yards away.”
Needless to say, no one cut down any of those four ducks.
WRD’s state duck biologist, Greg Balkcom, is also an avid waterfowler.
“Skybusting happens everywhere, it’s not just a problem in Georgia,” Greg said. “I think part of it is the thinking that you can’t kill them if you don’t shoot. The birds are a little far out, and people think they may get lucky. They’re a couple of birds shy of a limit, or maybe they haven’t killed any at all, so by gosh, they just start firing away. I call it desperation.
“That’s the biggest complaint we hear about is skybusting.”
A shotgun’s range is not unlimited, in fact, just the opposite is true. To kill a duck cleanly, it needs to be close.
“Where I like them is wings out and feet out and about 20 yards,” Greg said. “With today’s shot and the improvement in chokes, 40 yards is a pretty good all around mark for your outside distance. I like big targets, ducks all spread out, wings cupped. Otherwise, when hunting diving ducks that a lot of times will pass, say, left to right over the decoys, let them get right out in front you, that’s your closest distance. Patience is terribly important.”
Brad Bailey remembers a quota hunt at Butler Island on the coast with Dan Forster, the assistant director of WRD, who was then a region biologist.
“Dan knows how to duck hunt, and so did the other guy with us. We had a group of three wigeon wing over, and they started working. They made a pass at about 45 yards, and all of us just held tight. I remember crossing my fingers as they made a big circle, hoping no other group would shoot at them out of range, and luckily they didn’t. The ducks came on in, and we got all three.”
If a fun and successful duck hunt requires that you shoot your shotgun, please wait at least until mid morning, look around real good and make sure no ducks are in sight, and blast away until your shoulder hurts. Shooting at ducks out of range is a big detriment to the sport, not to mention unethical.
In Duck Hunting, More Is Not Merrier
Getting a group of ducks into shotgun range, especially big ducks like mallards or ringnecks that have been shot at all the way down the flyway, is not an easy chore. Good camouflage and not being seen are critical, and for every additional duck hunter in your group, it gets tougher.
“Some duck hunters seem to think the more the merrier. For me, I like two or three good fellows,” Greg said. “If you get more than that, it’s tougher to hide everybody, or somebody will shoot early.
“I was on a hunt with the guys I hunt with regularly, and there was a new fellow hunting with us. Some mallards were working, and each pass they were getting a little bit closer. All of us thought, one more pass. We were scattered out in a cove, hiding in bushes, so we weren’t close enough to communicate with each other, but all of us that hunted together knew what everyone else was thinking. Well, the new guy cut loose, and of course we didn’t get any ducks. He looked at us like, ‘Why didn’t y’all shoot?’ One more pass, and we all could have had really good shots. He was inexperienced, and he just didn’t know.
“Two or three guys is a good-sized group. Especially around here — in Georgia — in a lot of cases there are not enough ducks to spread around for a lot of people. A couple of wood ducks and a ringneck is a good hunt for a couple of guys, but with a big group that’s not enough ducks.”
On the Duck Waters, Manners Matter
Some of the better duck hunting in Georgia is on public places like lakes Seminole, Clarks Hill and Juliette. With lots of water, you would think that duck hunters could spread out and everyone could have a spot to themselves. But ducks tend to like particular spots, and a little afternoon scouting will tell a duck hunter where to set up the next morning — and it will also tell at least a half-dozen other duck hunters. Many duck hunters get out to a spot like this at an obscenely early hour. But if just one of those other groups decides to move in anyway and set up in the same cove, your chances at a good hunt were just reduced by at least in half.
“Hunting in proximity to other hunters, that’s the second-biggest complaint we get, that someone set up right next to someone else,” Greg said. “If you go to a reservoir, there is no regulation to how close you can get to some other group. Legally, you can pull right up next to another boat blind. You might risk him trying to knock your block off, but there’s no law against it. One thing we can’t do is regulate ethics.
“To me, a common-sense rule is if you are heading to a cove, and somebody is already there shining you off with the Q-beam, go find another cove. If you know you will be going after the same ducks, go find somewhere else.
“If Party A cuts in on Party B, he’s more than likely going to start shooting if ducks start working anywhere near him and run them off. Use common sense, don’t try to set up and essentially try to steal the ducks, because both groups are going to have a bad hunt. Next time, just try to get out there earlier, and then hope when you are the first one there that the other guy will respect your area.”
When you decide to pack up the decoys and head back for the boat ramp, remember that other hunters are likely still sticking it out.
“Driving through the decoys is another thing you see sometimes on the reservoirs, especially on the way out. This has happened to me. I’m still out there trying to hunt, and here comes some guy, and he’ll motor right through the decoys and keep going. If I see somebody set up with decoys out, I go out of my way to go around him,” Greg said.
On smaller areas, like a WMA quota hunt where several groups might be placed on the same impoundment, overzealous duck calling has been the demise of many shooting opportunities.
“I had a great wood-duck hunt ruined a couple of years ago,” Greg said. “The wood ducks were wanting to get in there, but every time some ducks would start in, this guy would start screaming at them with a mallard call. He was high-balling those woodies as they were trying to come in, and of course they all veered off.
“Getting a group of ducks into shotgun range is hard enough, and calling too much doesn’t make it any easier, especially down here on ducks that have been called to and shot at a good bit before they get down here. Don’t call too much or too loud.”
If there are other hunters in the area, too much calling can ruin the hunt for them as well.
Despite its hardships, limitations and potential for miscues by your fellow waterfowlers, duck hunting remains a strong passion for many in Georgia. This season there is excellent news as more public duck-hunting opportunities have opened up. For the first time ever, the MARSH project at Rum Creek WMA will host several youth quota hunts for ducks. Also, a new partnership with the Fisheries Section will allow waterfowl hunting on several PFAs this year.
“The agency did a survey, and we found that in terms of the relative importance of public land, duck hunters relied much more heavily on public land. Most deer hunters have a deer club they go to, too. Duck hunters relied very heavily on public land.
“That was a big, big stride to get some duck-hunting opportunity on Public Fishing Areas,” he said.
“The other really important thing is the MARSH program and our partnership with Ducks Unlimited. Our goal is to open two new projects per year. We are getting new projects coming along, and some of those will be open for hunting,” Greg said.
Do a rain dance for the beaver swamps that are dry after this moisture-less fall, hope for plenty of nasty, cold weather up north, and in the coming weeks, the sound of whistling wings will be heard over some of those decoys.
Yes, in Georgia.