The morning was cold — not cold enough to ice the pond, but cold enough to make me wonder if I had time to pour another cup from the thermos. As usual, it took a chilly morning in the water to discover a new hole in my waders… an even more convincing argument for a warm cup. The few decoys were out, floating quietly among the stumps and standing timber, catching the first gray light of morning in a winter beaver pond.
Though it was January on Redlands WMA, it was our first hunt of the year in this pond. The excitement of hunting new ground and the steady drip of cold water against my leg caused an involuntary shiver. Through the mist came the first squeal from upstream. Suddenly they were on us, a few at first, black shadows screaming in among the timber. Then more, and as the light improved, ducks twirled in from different directions… sometimes warning us with a call; other times only the familiar whooshing of feathered wings or a landing splash alerted us to their presence.
Naturally, the shooting left much to be desired, but before the morning flight was over, there were feathers on the water and the two of us had our limit of wood ducks. After the guns were unloaded and the coffee poured, we estimated we saw more than 50 ducks in the first hour of daylight. A great public-land hunt to be sure, but by no means an unusual one. These are the mornings I look forward to when I think about middle-Georgia duck hunting. Sitting on a big lake all morning, attempting to lure in nervous, high-flying mallards takes more waterfowling patience and skill than I’ve been blessed with. Besides, there’s some- thing intimate and “ducky” about a beaver pond. Unfortunately, we aren’t blessed with clouds of migratory ducks in most of Georgia. Though parts of coastal and southwest Georgia may annually hold respectable numbers, not being centered on a major flyway leaves us considerably poorer than our duck-wealthy friends to the west.
However, we do have large numbers of wood ducks, even receiving birds from other states throughout the winter. These gorgeous birds are delicious and provide challenging shooting for the woodland duck hunter. The best news is some of the finest wood-duck hunting in the state is found on our public lands.
These honeyholes are accessible to you, me, and anyone else willing to put in the time and effort. And you don’t even need a boat! In fact, I’ve found the farther you get from a navigable waterway, the less pressure the ducks receive.
The same time-proven tactics used to locate public-land deer and turkeys can be modified to find ducks. Look in the places that aren’t obvious! If the map shows sloughs and coves connecting to the lake or river, keep looking. No doubt ducks are there, but so are the hunters. You can certainly kill ducks in these places, but they will be hit early and often so be prepared for company and try to shoot during the week.
A better bet is to locate small beaver ponds or swamps that must be accessed by foot. I’ve heard it said deer hunters don’t like to paddle, and duck hunters don’t like to walk. Though that may be a generalization, there’s an element of truth there. If you’ re willing to walk for 20 minutes to get to a duck pond, you’ll probably have the hunting all to yourself. Additionally, all the shooting in the more accessible waterways may well move birds in your direction.
A good first step in finding potential duck holes is to look at aerial photos of major creeks. Ponds are obvious, but wet areas often appear “flatter” in texture and have a different shade of green than the surrounding timber. If such an area is located along a creek, there is a good chance it holds a few ducks. Something to remember when scouting from photos is that beavers are busy little critters and aerial photos may not be updated for several years.
Don’t necessarily exclude the area from consideration just because there’s nothing promising in the photo. Maps and photos are the best place to start, but sometimes it takes a little boot leather. A day spent walking creeks and squirrel hunting may prove to be beneficial when duck season arrives. I make it a point when deer and turkey hunting to remember promising areas for wood ducks. This scouting on the side can pay benefits later in the year with little extra effort.
For example, a few years ago a friend had been deer hunting near a beaver pond at Cedar Creek WMA and heard quite a few woodies flying up a good-sized creek that borders the WMA. When he told us about it, it took very little convincing for a few of us to go back later in the year. We parked at the bridge and went in before daylight, spreading out along openings on the bank. With the sun came the ducks, flying up the creek and dropping into our laps. We had a fine hunt on unpressured ducks that were intent on landing in their little backwoods haven, all because he paid attention during deer season.
Once a few promising areas are found, it’s time to see them on the ground. Each pond and wetland is unique, and this variation can affect their worth for ducks. Many ponds are deep and hold water year-round. These can certainly hold ducks, especially if there are water or willow oaks along the bank dumping acorns into the water. These small acorns are abundant and favored by wood ducks as long as they are present. However, deep ponds typically don’t have large amounts of the aquatic vegetation and structure that wood ducks prefer. This can some- what limit their ability to attract woodies, especially in the absence of alter- native foods such as acorns.
Shallow ponds and wetlands usually contain a wider variety of aquatic and wetland vegetation that helps attract and hold wood ducks. These plants provide cover and a veritable buffet for waterfowl through the winter months. Food in these shallow areas is also more accessible, as wood ducks prefer to feed in areas less than a few feet deep.
Many of these wetlands are nearly dry for several months of the year, so don’t be discouraged if your new hotspot is dry and waist high in vegetation in October. These seasonal fluctuations in water level are actually beneficial. As the water level drops in late spring and summer, sunlight reaches the ground and seeds germinate in the moist, newly exposed soil. Plants such as smartweed, fall panic grass and Asiatic dayflower are common in these areas and provide excellent duck food. When the winter rains come and water levels rise, the plants are flooded and their seeds are easily available to ducks. The hunt described at the beginning of this article took place in a hole that was dry until mid-December. It only took the ducks a few days to swarm in after the rains came.
When scouting a hole for the first time, try to pick out where you will shoot from ahead of time. It’s much easier to determine where to stand in the daylight than in unfamiliar water in the dark. If ducks are flushed when scouting a hole, note where they flushed from and the direction in which they leave. Often many of them will return to the same general area in the morning, which makes determining shooting location a little easier.
On larger water, a pre-season morning spent watching the ducks come in can go a long way toward being in the right spot with a shotgun in hand. On that note, don’t worry about building a blind for wood ducks. Woodies typically fly in early, before good light. They tend not to circle endlessly, making blinds and overhead cover a little less important than with some other waterfowl species. There is usually enough dead vegetation or standing timber to lean against to sufficiently break up the outline.
One of the perks of wood-duck hunting is the relative lack of equipment necessary to be successful, which is nice when everything must be carried in with leaking waders. Woodies don’t require bags full of decoys, lanyards full of calls or boat blinds. I typically set out three or four mallard decoys, more for ceremony than any- thing else; there’s just a certain satisfaction in the clopping sound a decoy makes when thrown out that seems to add to the morning. There’s also the chance that mallards may actually give you a shot, in which case the decoys have paid for themselves. Not to mention the fact that while certainly not necessary, sometimes decoys help entice wood ducks to a particular location.
Also, having a goose call within reach can come in handy. It’s not uncommon to get a shot at geese when hunting backwoods ponds. For this reason, I usually have a pocket full of T’s or BBB’s in case I hear honking in the distance. On three occasions last year, geese flew in while we were hunting woodies. On two of those mornings, we ended up with a mixed bag of ducks and Canadas. Hunting woodies in small woods holes is usually not a large social affair. The water being shot is typically small and doesn’t take many guns to sufficiently cover. Besides, too many guns in a small space brings up safety issues when the targets are fast and low-flying. It’s nice to know where everyone is so the birds can be shot at safely. So if hunting with a buddy, we usually stand a few yards apart and cover different sections of the pond.
This shooting arrangement has the added benefit of allowing you to toss out snide remarks about your buddy’s shooting. Since these holes are usually small, it’s important to limit the pres- sure you put on the ducks. Hunting them more than once or twice a week will eventually move the majority of the birds elsewhere. Though on public land it may be impossible to control others’ hunting pressure, having several spots to alternate helps keep hunt- able birds in each location throughout the season. And if you do your home- work, there’s a good chance nobody else will be hunting the pond anyway.
The last day of duck season 2006 found me and good friend Sean Etter of Roswell standing in knee-deep water in a beaver pond on Redlands. We had hunted several ponds throughout the season, saving this one for last. It was a 25-minute walk from the truck through monotonous, young piney woods before the ridges descended into large hardwoods along the creek. The pond was visible in the morning darkness only by the lack of tree canopy against the sky. We made our way slowly through the alders to a grassy island near the center and made small talk, anxiously waiting for the final show to start. It was a great ending to the season as we had the place to ourselves, saw plenty of ducks and even managed to kill a few. As we loaded our gear and retrieved the ducks, Sean grinned, “I can’t wait to do this again next year; it was worth the walk.”
With Georgia’s duck season arriving in a few weeks, now is the time to get out and start finding some tucked- away, public honeyholes. The hunting action can be fast and furious, leaving you plenty of time to get home for the big game or to crawl into an afternoon treestand.
Just remember to bring the coffee and patch your waders.