In my hunting career, I’ve hunted almost every critter the state of Georgia has to offer. From the Blue Ridge mountains to the Okefenokee Swamp, if it runs, hops or flies, I’ve likely gone after it at some time or another. However, last month I tried something I’ve never done.
As the sun broke over the marsh on a cool, clear morning, the ducks began to fly by the hundreds, and my life changed forever. If you have never experienced a coastal Georgia duck hunt, don’t put it off until next season. It’s time to hitch up the boat and go now.
Altamaha WMA in Darien is without a doubt tops when it comes to public-land duck hunting. This area boosts 3,154 acres of waterfowl impoundments, broken up into three different sections.
Starting with Rhetts Island, I made a trip to this section with James Oliver and Joel Roberson, of Blackshear, earlier this season for my first-ever duck hunt. When I set the trip up, I was a little surprised when Dean told me we needed to be at the Champney River boat ramp by 1 a.m., but when we turned off of Highway 17 into the parking lot in the middle of the night, I saw just what he meant.
A line of boats waiting to launch, and a parking lot full of empty boat trailers was all I needed to see to know there must be something special about Rhetts Island.
After launching Dean’s 15-foot Bass Tracker equipped with a 25-hp Yamaha outboard, we began to make our way slowly down the river through the darkness. When we approached the dike that separates Rhetts from the Champney River, Dean used the motor to push the boat as far up the dike as possible.
“It takes some work to get in here. If you’re coming to Rhetts, make sure you have an electric winch on the front of your boat, or bring some strong buddies who don’t mind doing some heavy lifting,” said Dean.
Winching the boat up and over wasn’t too bad and took all of about 10 minutes with Dean working the winch remote and Joel and myself guiding the boat. After getting back in the boat and firing up the motor, Dean had some advice for readers.
“Make sure you keep a constant eye on your motor to make sure it doesn’t get clogged up. There’s a pile of grass and other trash in here that will leave you with a bill from a mechanic in a hurry,” Dean explained.
Working our way through the impoundment, numerous boats were already in place with decoys out.
“That’s why folks get here so early, to lock in their spots. The birds move around in here a lot, so being in the right place is crucial,” Dean went on to say.
For this very reason, Dean likes to scout out his hunting area a day ahead when time allows. The WMA is only open for hunting on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, so Dean uses Fridays as a chance to figure the birds out.
“If you come the day before and get an idea as to where the birds are flying, it will pay off big time the next day,” Dean said.
After reaching our blind location, we began to set decoys in place. Dean likes to use a variety of ducks that are common at the area to lure multiple species of birds to his spread.
“Mottled ducks, wood ducks, green and blue winged teal and ringnecks are all great choices to put in your spread. I like to base it on what I’ve seen flying around the most. In January, it also pays to mix in some mallard decoys for good measure,” said Dean.
After setting out the decoys and a quick nap, it was time to stash the boat. Dean said hiding the boat is crucial out in the marsh.
“Take the extra time to hide your boat really well. With so many people out here hunting, the ducks get really good at spotting boats. An extra few minutes of boat concealment will go a long way in helping to get your limit,” Dean mentioned.
After hiding the boat, it was time to conceal ourselves. We got up in a large clump of marsh grass, facing in different directions for safety and to watch the skies from all directions. As the minutes ticked down until legal shooting light, ducks began to take to the skies by the hundreds, flying in virtually all directions. Then, the very moment legal hours began, shots began to ring out over the marsh.
Seeing our first group of ducks coming over the horizon, Dean grabbed his Duck Commander 6 in 1 Pintail/Wigeon Call and told me to get ready. As the teal came by at what seemed like 100 miles an hour, Dean gave the call some quick whistles, turning the ducks toward our spread. As they came in, Joel and Dean struck first, knocking down a couple of ducks a piece, and I managed to pick off one right before it landed in the spread.
“That 6 in 1 Duck Commander whistle is the trick out here. Lots of calls will work, but it’s my number 1 choice in the marsh, and it works exceptionally well at luring in several species of ducks,” said Dean.
In the first 30 minutes, we each managed to shoot three or four ducks. We then spent the next two or three hours watching hundreds of ducks fly over, picking out the best ducks we could find. At times between our shooting, and that of adjacent hunters, the sky almost appeared to be raining ducks, a most impressive sight to see.
By 9, we each had our limits, an impressive blend of several species. Wood ducks, green and blue winged teal, mottled ducks, ringnecks, wigeons, gadwalls and bluebills were harvested.
“That’s what makes coastal duck hunting so special. There are a variety of ducks flying, and you never know what’s going to come in to the spread next,” Dean explained.
Switching gears, for those who would like to give Altamaha a try, but don’t have a boat, you’re in luck. Every Saturday morning during waterfowl season, Butler Island offers quota hunting opportunities. There is a total of 30 stands, 20 of which are given to hunters selected through the quota system. The remaining 10 are given through a drawing to standby hunters. Hunters should arrive around 4:30 a.m. to sign in, and the drawing takes place at 5 a.m. Those drawn are then taken out to their blind areas and dropped off. Hunters then use a small boat that is provided to paddle across a small canal to their stand location. Hunters can then use natural cover to conceal themselves during the hunt. Good insulated waders are needed, as the water level ranges from 16 to 30 inches deep on average.
For those not selected in the Butler Island drawing, another part of the WMA, Champney Island, offers great walk-in hunting opportunities and is open on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays during the state waterfowl season.
All hunters really need to hunt on Champney is a good pair of waders, and the will to do a little walking. A small kayak can be useful for getting around a little quicker, and a small inflatable boat is perfect for pulling around your gear. A very small decoy spread is easier to lug around on Champney, and even a single Mojo teal decoy works great at drawing in ducks.
Like Rhetts Island, scouting on Champney the day before lets you know where the ducks are likely to be the following day, upping your odds of success tremendously.
Whether you try to get drawn for a spot on Butler Island, do a walk-in hunt on Champney, or winch your boat over the dike to Rhetts, Altamaha WMA promises to offer some of the best duck hunting in the state this month.
If duck hunting has been on your bucket list, now’s the time to go. When the sky starts raining ducks, I’m sure you will agree.
Jalapeno Duck Poppers
After a successful duck hunt, the next question is how are you going to cook them? Dean’s simple recipe for Jalapeno Duck Poppers is sure to please any crowd.
Marinate 1-lb. duck breasts overnight in Italian dressing. Cut large jalapenos in half (long ways), and remove all seeds. Wash thoroughly with cool water and lay out on a large platter to dry. After drying, fill each half with cream cheese.
Next, cut duck breasts into strips and lay on top of the peppers. Next, wrap each pepper with a half a slice of bacon and peg with a toothpick.
Fire up the grill, and cook peppers at 350 for 20-30 minutes or until done. If you’re not already a serious duck hunter, this recipe will make you one!