Canvasback hunting in Georgia is back! After a closed season last year, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service okayed a special 30-day season for cans this season. Canvasback season will be open from December 27 through January 25 with a limit of one bird per day.
In Georgia, canvasback hunting means Lake Seminole. While a few cans are killed on the coast, the majority of the canvasbacks are taken on Lake Seminole. Georgia’s season was set to coincide with the presence of the highest numbers of migrating canvasbacks at Seminole. Weekly aerial surveys of waterfowl populations at Seminole were flown in the late 1990s. According to WRD waterfowl biologist Greg Balkcom, the surveys showed that canvasbacks were among the last to appear, usually showing up in good numbers around Christmas.
Taxidermist Rodney Casteel of Macon is among the Georgia waterfowlers on a quest for a drake canvasback, and for the way he hunts, he is undaunted by rough weather or by the big crowds.
“I like it when it is nasty, windy, and cold,” he said. “And the more people the merrier! And you have to stick with it all day. It’s not like when you go shoot wood ducks and go back to camp after an hour. You are never going to get them that way. ”
Rodney hunts differently than most duck hunters. He hunts out of a float tube.
“What works for me is to get in a camouflaged float tube and waders and flippers on my feet and try to work as close as I can to those coots rafted up,” said Rodney. “What happens is when the canvasbacks come to land in those coots, a lot of times you’ll get a shot.
“The only thing I recommend is that you have someone on the bank with a boat to chase the ducks down. Canvasbacks are a big, strong bird and they are going to dive. Even with big guns and big loads and you are an excellent shot, they are subject to start swimming or diving.You are not going to chase one down in a float tube unless it is graveyard dead.”
The person in the boat also serves as the tender, keeping track of the float tube. Usually, Rodney and his friends will trade time between the tube and operating the boat.
Critical pieces of Rodney’s equipment include a PFD — personal flotation device, and a camouflaged paddle.
“I take an old camouflaged paddle and tie it to the tube,” said Rodney. “If I see a boat coming, and I don’t think they see me, I will wave that paddle over my head.
“Canvasbacks are the draw at Seminole,” said Rodney. “That first day that they are legal there is going to be a whole lot more people down there. Who wants to go down there before that and look at a canvasback when it is not legal to shoot it?”
The high numbers of hunters don’t faze Rodney one bit.
“I like the activity to stir up the ducks,” he said.
Rodney is hunting wide-open water, usually within sight of the dam.
“The ducks aren’t going to fly the banks,” he said. “There are too many people sitting on the bank. Every point there is someone sitting there. The ducks will fly the big water, and you’ve got to get in it to get them.”
Some float-tube hunters add pine limbs, grass or cane to the tube to make them look more like a stump.
For Rodney, getting close to the coots is critical.
“If you find the coots rafted up, you’ll find the canvasbacks,” he said. “If there are a thousand coots there, the canvasbacks know that nothing is going to mess with them, or the coots wouldn’t be there. The coots are security to a canvasback.”
Two years ago, during Georgia’s last canvasback season, Rodney killed a hen canvasback. He has an empty display case in his taxidermy shop that awaits his first drake canvasback.
Rodney recommends hunting all day.
“A lot of people give up early and start picking up decoys and moving around. That activity may move the birds. You’ve got to stick with it.”
With your legs dangling from a float tube, what about alligators? Because they operate out in open water and because the water temperature is low in December, most float-tube duck hunters don’t worry — much — about gators.
Taxidermist Scott Hodges of Fort Valley is also a Lake Seminole regular and said that knowing where the canvasbacks are is the most critical key to success.
“If I was planning on hunting opening day for canvasbacks, I would go down the day before and ride around the lake to find them,” said Scott. “Then the next morning I would be right back there.”
Canvasbacks are diving ducks, and the prime area to find them is the open water at the confluence of the Chattahoochee River, Spring Creek and the Flint River. Generally, the best areas will be within sight of the dam. Scott recommends buying a Florida hunting license.
“It’s a wise investment to buy a Florida hunting license,” he said. “Sometimes the ducks will be on the Florida side of the Chattahoochee,” he said. If you are east of the centerline of the Chattahoochee River channel, you are in Florida, or up the river, in Alabama. Because of the popularity of duck hunting on the lake, both Georgia and Florida law-enforcement agencies are active on the lake.
Scott says he uses a little reverse psychology when he is hunting a canvasback.
“Everybody puts out 800 canvasback decoys. I don’t use that many. If you watch ducks coming in, they will come in seven or eight at a time and begin to raft up.”
Being in the right place is critical.
Scott said he and three friends hunted the lake several years ago, and after a slow morning in the mouth of Fish Pond Drain, they located several hundred canvasbacks up the Chattahoochee River. They threw out a dozen decoys and by noon each hunter killed a drake can. They returned after lunch with five friends and each of the five also killed a canvasback for a total of eight canvasbacks shot between 10 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
Don’t leave the lake too early, says Scott, because hunter and fisherman activity can make the birds fly.
“A good time to be on the lake is when there is a bass tournament on the lake,” he said.
If there is a thorn in the good duck hunting potential at Seminole, it is the overabundance of hunters. Scott recommends hunting during the week to avoid some of the aggravation.
“Courtesy is a big deal when you are duck hunting,” said Scott. “If everybody wouldn’t skybust, everyone would have better hunting. Even if they don’t fly over you, it’s cool to watch them go to someone else.”
Scott is hoping for good hunting this season on Seminole.
“I am hoping that after a closed season last year, this year will be better,” he said.
Scott was set to be on the lake for the opening day of can season.
Billy Gossett of Bainbridge is the outgoing Ducks Unlimited state chairman. He has hunted ducks on Seminole for more than 30 years. He likes to hunt over a big spread of decoys — and the bigger the better.
“If they see a little spread of four-or five-dozen duck decoys, and a quarter of a mile away there are a thousand coots, where do you think the ducks are going to land?”
With six or eight dozen decoys out — both canvasback and ringneck decoys — and coot decoys, too, Billy slides his boat into the sawgrass in a likely area. The best areas for divers is the open water at the south end of the lake near the dam.
Billy shoots 3-inch magnum No. 2 shot steel loads at Seminole, and he recommends hunting with a retriever.
“If you don’t have a dog, a lot of times the birds will dive and get away from you,” he said.
If you are dogless, and the duck you shot still has its head up when it hits the water, you should hit it again.
The early part of the season is best, according to Billy, and canvasbacks will readily decoy. But after the first weekend, the hunting pressure will push the birds out to the middle of the lake, and it gets tougher, he says.
The drawback to hunting Seminole is the crowds, said Billy.
“There are so many hunters that you just about can’t hunt on the weekends,” he said. “There are a lot of hunters skybusting, setting up too close to you, and they won’t let the birds work. To have a chance, you’ve just got to be where the ducks are going to come to. And you have to be early. One time last year I was putting my boat in at 3:30 a.m., and there were already 18 trucks at the landing.”
Years ago, Lake Seminole hunters built blinds in the standing timber or hunted from deer stands on the trees. These days most of the timber is gone or is so rotten it’s dangerous. Today, float-tubing and lay-out boats are the most recent innovations from duck hunters intent on getting out into the open water and near the canvasbacks.
“In my opinion, 90 percent of the people who hunt Seminole are there for one thing,” said Rodney, “a canvasback drake. It’s a trophy duck.”