Holy Waters

Ducks passing you by this year? Try one of these four classic waterfowl destinations.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Northern waters are freezing as you read this, forcing ducks and geese to head south. According to this year's waterfowl breeding survey, huge numbers of birds are headed your way. Will you be in the right spot when the flights are at their peak?

If you want to be sure to get good hunting, head for one of these four holy waters of waterfowling-places where the shooting is fast, the scenery is beautiful, and the birds never seem to stop flying.

**1. Arkansas' Flooded Timber **
For hunting drama, few settings can rival dawn in Arkansas' flooded timber. The mist rises from the inundated bottoms, and Spanish moss hangs in long streams from dark limbs. Unseen mallards constantly gabble, calling to find flocks feeding on floating drifts of acorns.

Finally, the moment arrives: Wings hiss overhead, and you fill the air with high-pitched greetings, feeding chatter, and contented quacks. All at once mallards are raining down through the treetops, wings flapping, orange feet reaching for the knee-deep water where the decoys float.

Such hunting doesn't get any better than at the Felsenthal National Wildlife Refuge on the Arkansas-Louisiana border. At 65,000 acres, it's the world's largest "greentree reservoir"-a living hardwood forest that is flooded seasonally. The huge wetland complex surrounds the confluence of the Saline and Ouachita Rivers on the western edge of the lower Mississippi delta near Crossett, Arkansas.

Here's why ducks are drawn to the refuge: As managers raise the height of the Felsenthal Dam spillway from mid-November through December, the vast low-lying hardwood forests behind the dam fill up. The carpet of seeds and acorns that covered the forest floor rises to the surface, where wind pushes the debris into long, floating drifts of high-energy food.

The feast begins in November and just gets bigger as cold weather up north sends wave after wave of ducks down the Mississippi Flyway. While mallards are usually the targeted species, Felsenthal also loads up with plenty of wigeon, pintails, gadwall, shovelers, wood ducks, black ducks, and greenwing teal.

Tactics are simple. Run a heavy-duty aluminum johnboat through the trees until a big flock of ducks flushes off the water. Stop and throw out a couple of dozen decoys, hide the boat, and start calling. In a few minutes the birds will come back, searching for others on the feed. Depending upon the water depth, you might shoot from the hidden boat, or if it's shallow enough, you can wade out and lean up against a tree trunk.

For all the opportunity it offers, Felsenthal is relatively unknown to outsiders who think that Arkansas' flooded timber hunting begins and ends in the Stuttgart area. Locals claim that "Stuttgart gets the publicity, but Felsenthal gets the ducks."

The guide who showed me Felsenthal's incredible mallard shooting is Mike Morton (870-943-3474) of Huttig, Arkansas. He lives in a houseboat right on the edge of the refuge and knows where the ducks want to be. For more maps of the area and boat launching sites, contact the Felsenthal NWR, 870-364-3167; felsenthal.fws.gov.

2. South Dakota's Prairie Pothole Region
I remember standing on a bluff above Lake Oahe in central South Dakota one November day when a strong north wind was blowing and the ducks were coming down from Canada.

They appeared as long skeins of tiny specks high up under the clouds. The lines proceeded halfway across the sky and then collapsed into a downward spiral that darkened as the ducks swirled closer, looking like the twisting tail of a tornado. Thousands of mallards were piling into newly picked cornfields. The ground was black with the feeding ducks.

"Tomorrow you're going to see the best duck hunting of your life," promised my guide, Mike McClelland (605-223-9126) of Pierre, smack in the center of South Dakota's best waterwl action.

Before daylight the next morning we were tearing across the prairie in McClelland's Suburban with an aluminum boat bouncing behind, headed toward a tiny spot he had selected on a map of South Dakota waterfowl production areas.

We drove to a marked public access site and got out in the predawn murk. The air was full of the sounds of mallards quacking, splashing, chuckling. Hundreds of birds were packed into a shallow cattail-rimmed pothole no more than a quarter mile long. We loaded the decoys, guns, and dogs into the boat and pushed out across the open water. Waves of mallards exploded into the air ahead of us and disappeared in the distance. "Don't worry," McClelland said. "They'll be back."

We scattered three dozen decoys just upwind of where we'd hidden the boat and took stands in the head-high cattails. Almost immediately, mallards began returning in flocks of five to 25. A few hail calls, quacks, and feeding chuckles was all it took to steer them over the decoys. Before the dogs could finish retrieving the ducks that we dropped in one salvo, another bunch of mallards would show up.

It's like that in South Dakota from the time when the ducks come down from Canada in November until deep snow covers up the feed. They crowd into the potholes for the night, fly out to grainfields to eat for a while, and then return to wherever they spent the night to rest and drink. This constant shuttling back and forth creates overwhelming shooting opportunities.

South Dakota has more than 1,000 pothole waterfowl production areas that have been purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with funds from duck-stamp sales. Many are remote and attract very little hunting pressure. You can find them clearly marked on maps available from the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, 605-773-3485; www.state.sd.us/gfp.

**3. Maine's Penobscot Bay **
You know it's a different sort of duck you're after when you're crouched in a crevice on an exposed granite ledge among spruce islands in the North Atlantic. But that's how you hunt eiders and scoters on Maine's rocky coast.

Maine has the best sea duck hunting in the Northeast, and the center of the action is Penobscot Bay, midway up the coast. Tourist towns like Camden, Belfast, and Searsport are good destinations from which to base your hunt.

Sea duck hunters here rig two dozen decoys a few yards upwind in a long V. If all goes right, sea ducks will appear on the horizon, flying low in long black lines that intermittently balloon upward as they look for feeding flocks that indicate underwater mussel bars. When they spot your setup, the birds will rise, turn, and fly right along the line of decoys, intending to land at the head of the V.

The shooting can be fast, because when sea ducks fly out to feed, each group follows the birds ahead. To those behind, ducks that fall to your guns appear to be landing, and the next flock is likely to bear straight in.

Unless you're an experienced sea duck hunter with a seaworthy boat and intimate familiarity with local waters, don't go on your own. Conditions can be dangerous. This sport requires expert knowledge and a lot of equipment, which is best provided by a licensed guide.

On most guided hunts, you'll be taken out to the shooting area in a big boat with gunning dories towed behind. The guide will set your decoys and get you safely established on a ledge, or will set you up in a layout boat with decoys trailing off the stern. He'll provide you with a handheld radio, then watch from a distance in the boat that brought you.

The bag limit is big at seven ducks. Carry two boxes of magnum loads of No. 2 nontoxic shot per day. Dress in layers, because the weather is unpredictable and temperatures can change fast. Insulated waders or hip boots are essential, as are long, waterproof, insulated gloves. Sea ducks only make low-pitched grunting sounds, so calls aren't needed. You can use a long-handled pole with a black flag attached to attract distant passing flocks.

One of the region's best guides is Todd Jackson of Penobscot Bay Outfitters (888-732-3825; www.seaduck.net). He's based out of Searsport, right in the heart of the bay. Other licensed guides offering classic Maine sea duck hunts are listed at www.maineguides.com, or call 888-200-8008.

4. California's Central Valley
One look at a map of the Pacific Flyway will show you why California's Central Valley is the place to be when western ducks are on the move. Each autumn, roughly 4 million ducks and geese stop at this region of dry grainfields, flooded ricefields, and tule-reed and cattail marshes, making the valley home to the densest concentration of waterfowl in North America.

More than 35,000 acres of prime habitat are open for hunting. There are many good choices, but Gray Lodge Wildlife Management Area is hard to beat. Billed as the "gem of the Pacific Flyway," this 9,167-acre wetland near Sutter Buttes may be the most intensively used duck marsh in the entire flyway. On a good day, more than a million ducks and geese might be in Gray Lodge. Mallards, pintails, cinnamon and greenwing teal, wigeon, gadwall, and buffleheads dart about in crossing flocks over flooded cropfields and wetland ponds. Up to 100,000 snow and Ross geese gather in huge feeding and resting flocks.

The Gray Lodge area is open to limited hunting throughout California's 100-day waterfowl season on both a reservation and a first-come first-served basis. Shooting is restricted to Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays, giving waterfowl four days each week when they can rest and feed undisturbed. As a result, the ducks and geese at Gray Lodge respond well to good calling and attractive decoy spreads. The hunting can be phenomenal. Waterfowlers bagged nearly 21,000 ducks and geese at Gray Lodge in 2001.

Guided hunts are not permitted on California waterfowl refuges. This is a do-it-yourself affair. To secure a reservation at Gray Lodge, you can apply several weeks ahead of your chosen dates. Or you can arrive at the checking station on the day that you want to hunt and stand in a "sweat line" until the 400 daily shooting permits run out. Most days, they can accommodate all hunters who show up.

Gray Lodge has 80 miles of roads and levees with parking areas that offer scattered access to hunters who spread out into tule-reed and cattail cover so thick that no additional blind material is required. You put your decoys and gun on your back and roam until you find a spot away from other hunters. Then you throw out a couple of dozen decoys, crouch down in the shadowy cover, and start calling.

For more information on hunting at Gray Lodge WMA and at Califloves. Sea ducks only make low-pitched grunting sounds, so calls aren't needed. You can use a long-handled pole with a black flag attached to attract distant passing flocks.

One of the region's best guides is Todd Jackson of Penobscot Bay Outfitters (888-732-3825; www.seaduck.net). He's based out of Searsport, right in the heart of the bay. Other licensed guides offering classic Maine sea duck hunts are listed at www.maineguides.com, or call 888-200-8008.

4. California's Central Valley
One look at a map of the Pacific Flyway will show you why California's Central Valley is the place to be when western ducks are on the move. Each autumn, roughly 4 million ducks and geese stop at this region of dry grainfields, flooded ricefields, and tule-reed and cattail marshes, making the valley home to the densest concentration of waterfowl in North America.

More than 35,000 acres of prime habitat are open for hunting. There are many good choices, but Gray Lodge Wildlife Management Area is hard to beat. Billed as the "gem of the Pacific Flyway," this 9,167-acre wetland near Sutter Buttes may be the most intensively used duck marsh in the entire flyway. On a good day, more than a million ducks and geese might be in Gray Lodge. Mallards, pintails, cinnamon and greenwing teal, wigeon, gadwall, and buffleheads dart about in crossing flocks over flooded cropfields and wetland ponds. Up to 100,000 snow and Ross geese gather in huge feeding and resting flocks.

The Gray Lodge area is open to limited hunting throughout California's 100-day waterfowl season on both a reservation and a first-come first-served basis. Shooting is restricted to Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays, giving waterfowl four days each week when they can rest and feed undisturbed. As a result, the ducks and geese at Gray Lodge respond well to good calling and attractive decoy spreads. The hunting can be phenomenal. Waterfowlers bagged nearly 21,000 ducks and geese at Gray Lodge in 2001.

Guided hunts are not permitted on California waterfowl refuges. This is a do-it-yourself affair. To secure a reservation at Gray Lodge, you can apply several weeks ahead of your chosen dates. Or you can arrive at the checking station on the day that you want to hunt and stand in a "sweat line" until the 400 daily shooting permits run out. Most days, they can accommodate all hunters who show up.

Gray Lodge has 80 miles of roads and levees with parking areas that offer scattered access to hunters who spread out into tule-reed and cattail cover so thick that no additional blind material is required. You put your decoys and gun on your back and roam until you find a spot away from other hunters. Then you throw out a couple of dozen decoys, crouch down in the shadowy cover, and start calling.

For more information on hunting at Gray Lodge WMA and at Calif