It sure seemed dark, a thick blanket of fog not helping matters. With no warning, a half-dozen black forms swung out of the fog in front and banked hard left, not 30 yards off the water, and landed on down the willow-lined bank just out of shotgun range.
I checked the time — five minutes and counting. All was fine for several minutes, then one of the hen mallards began that nervous, spaced series of single quacks that says, “I don’t like this,” and the ducks exploded from the water. They joined a growing contingent of ducks already in the air. We couldn’t see them, but we could hear the sounds of wings and mallard “fly chuckles” overhead.
In chest waders, we stood waist deep in a flooded Putnam County field, leaning tight against the trunks of the willow trees for cover.
I checked the time again.
“One minute past legal,” I told my hunting companions. There were a lot of hunters in the area and still no shots. I started thinking my watch was fast, then shots from across the highway took away the fear of being first to shoot — and early.
Out of the fog a pair of wood ducks appeared low and in range, but they were moving fast and away by the time we could get the guns up. Our first shots came up empty. The next wood ducks came and went so quickly we didn’t have time to get a shot off. The fog wasn’t giving us any warning of approaching wood ducks. We needed ducks over the decoys, and we were about to get just that.
This was going to be no ordinary duck hunt, I was quite sure of that.
A clue came early the morning of the hunt, December 9. At 4 a.m., a bank sign at Hwy 44 near Lake Oconee showed a temperature of 18 degrees. It would drop another two degrees before sunrise.
Earlier in the week there was another big clue that this wasn’t going to be an ordinary duck hunt, for Georgia that is. A scouting trip to the duck hole was a reason for optimism. A good bunch of mallards were using the pond, plus a couple dozen ringnecks and a group of about 15 teal. When I say a good bunch of mallards, I’m talking about in the neighborhood of a hundred birds. One-hundred ducks that don’t squeal or whistle, ducks that quack — in Georgia — isn’t too shabby.
Since this was a public duck hole, managed and groomed by the Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), I was on the road early to be the first to the spot where I saw the mallards during my scouting trip.
It took a quota-hunt application with four priority points, meaning this was my fifth year putting in for this hunt, but I was finally going hunting at the Dan Denton Waterfowl Area on Oconee WMA, located just below the Lake Oconee dam on Georgia Power property along the Oconee River.
The area is named after a conservation leader who had a masters degree in wildlife biology and worked for 32 years with Ducks Unlimited. Dan Denton died of cancer on June 4, 2004 at the age of 61. The mark of Dan’s hard work for ducks and wetlands is forever etched into Georgia’s landscape by the numerous MARSH projects funded by Ducks Unlimited and WRD.
There are two quota-hunt waterfowl areas managed by Georgia’s WRD, the Oconee area and Butler Island off the coast near Darien. The lucky hunter who gets drawn for one of these hunts gets to bring two people along for the quota hunt. Joining me on the December 9 hunt at Oconee were GON editor Brad Gill and Dave Horton of Roswell, who I know through his various volunteer efforts for conservation and improving hunting and fishing in Georgia.
Five mallards appeared out of the fog just 60 yards up, wings fluttering as they took a good look at our modest spread of 10 decoys. As they passed and disappeared into the fog, I hit the call — short, quiet and hopefully sweet. Within a minute they came in from the opposite direction, lower and slower.
“Shoot these,” I said a little too late for Dave to get a good shot. I knocked down a hen directly in front and started to swing on a fat greenhead when Brad’s shotgun roared and the duck folded, quickly caught its wings, and glided into the willows to Brad’s right. Two mallards in the bag, already a good day compared to most Georgia duck hunts I’ve been on. It was early, and it was far from over.
About 20 minutes later, Dave, who has only been duck or goose hunting a handful of times, knocked down a hen, his first-ever mallard.
It was at least an hour after shooting time, maybe an hour and a half, before the fog finally burned off, revealing a bluebird, sunny morning. The golden, early morning sunlight lit up a winter wonderland around us. A thick frost coated the trees and the stalks of flooded millet and grain sorghum in the duck pond. With each light wisp of wind, a shower of frost crystals fell off the tree branches like snow flurries.
There are three waterfowl impoundments at the Dan Denton Waterfowl Area on Oconee WMA. Pond 3, located south of Hwy 16, is open to sign-in duck hunting on Saturdays until noon. On December 9, 33 hopeful waterfowlers surrounded 20-acre Pond 1 like a dove field, and not a single duck was signed out.
“That just shows you how bad people want a place to hunt ducks,” WRD region supervisor Vic VanSant said later.
We were hunting Pond 1, the largest of the three Oconee ponds with about 40 acres of water. The other quota impoundment, Pond 2, is located across the river, but there is no pump on that side of the river to flood the pond. No rain this fall meant Pond 2 was high and dry.
There are quota hunts at Oconee each Saturday of the duck season beginning the second weekend in December. Four groups are drawn, two for Pond 1 and two for Pond 2. When there is not enough water in Pond 2, which is about half the time, all four groups hunt Pond 1. I had been told by folks who had hunted Oconee before that four groups of hunters all trying to work the same ducks inevitably means that shots get taken before the ducks are committed and coming to someone’s spread.
During our hunt, two groups didn’t show. The other group sharing the pond was set up well away from our spread, and they weren’t shooting at passing ducks nearly or completely out of range.
A lonesome, vocal hen worked the pond, but she went down along a line of willows toward the middle, about 200 yards from our set-up. Once on the water, the hen stepped up her calling.
“That’s not good,” I thought to myself, or maybe I said it out loud.
I began to call back at her, trying to mimic her quacks. Earlier some coots swam over from that direction and mingled with our decoys, and I began to think we might just call her over. The hen got quiet. Ten minutes later I glanced to our left and saw her swim around a corner of the flooded grass. When she saw the decoys, she took off, flying about 10 feet off the water toward us to join them. Mallard No. 4 for our group was in the bag.
It was about 8 a.m. when the first flight of a dozen ringnecks rocketed over the pond. They tightened their circles until they piled into a spot of deeper water about 300 yards away, right where I’d seen them sitting when I scouted the pond earlier in the week. Another flock of about 20 ringnecks joined them a little later, barely circling before piling into the hole.
That was also about the time that a few mallards started going in over there. Once a few got on the water, the later groups of mallards knew where they wanted to land. Later we also watched a small group land in the river behind us, an area of the Oconee that is off-limits to duck hunting. Now we had real competition, and while we saw mallards working the pond until past 10:30 a.m., our shots were few and far between with ducks on the water around us.
At one point I happened to glance back toward the river and saw three mallards dip down below the treeline. I stepped out from behind the willow just in time to see the trio climbing and turning directly toward us.
“Here they come behind us,” I said, picking out the greenhead.
At the shot I saw the red open up on the duck’s white breast, but it barely missed a wingbeat as it continued out over the duck pond, making it a good 300 yards before it cupped its wings and landed out of sight. Later that day when I picked that duck, it had three pellets in the chest, reminding me of two things. Hit ’em in the head, and make sure you’re shooting HEVI-Shot and not steel in case you don’t.
We ended with five mallards, lots and lots of ducks seen that actually worked the pond, and too many missed shots that easily should have put our take at eight or nine mallards and maybe a wood duck or two.
A week after our hunt, I called Oconee area manager Bobby Lord.
“I would say there hasn’t been as many ducks as we normally have,” Bobby told me.
After four Saturdays of duck hunting at Oconee on ponds 1 and 3 (two youth hunts and the first two regular quota and sign-in hunts), Bobby said 40 wood ducks had been killed, 10 mallards, a few teal and ringnecks, and some geese during the youth hunts.
The other group on Pond 1 with us on December 9 killed three teal, two wood ducks and one mallard.
“What about all those mallards we saw?” I asked.
“The mallards, there’s just not as many as we normally see,” Bobby said. “We have a lot fewer ringnecks this year than we normally have.”
Dang, and here I’d been thinking we had an exceptional hunt. And it was, regardless of how many ducks are normally on the pond.
The quality of a duck hunt can be judged a lot ways. For me, a beautiful, 16-degree frosty morning, regular flights of ducks that worked unmolested until late morning, as good a company as you could ask for at your side, and a few mallards for the oven is tough to beat.
See you there in five years.