Despite a dismal November aerial survey and near record-high temperatures for the opening of the Coastal and West Zones, many Louisiana hunters were treated to surprisingly good action in the first several days of the season.
Coming on the heels of a record five named storms making landfall along the Louisiana Gulf Coast, the survey revealed widespread habitat impacts stretching even into northern portions of the state.
“Habitat conditions in all three surveyed regions have been negatively impacted by multiple hurricanes and other storms. Water levels are still high in most of the coastal marsh, there is virtually no seed-producing annual vegetation, and submersed aquatic vegetation is sparse across much of the surveyed area. Only spotty vegetation was evident in southwest Louisiana,” says Larry Reynolds, waterfowl study leader for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Although good submersed aquatics were seen in the Upper Terrebonne marshes and south of Delacroix, it was still much lower in other areas of the southeast marshes than during the September survey.
The northeast agricultural region had below-average flooded areas, which allowed farmers that had finished harvesting to prepare fields for next spring. “Consequently, few fields were noted with stubble that might offer some waste-grain opportunities if flooded,” Reynolds says. However, there was a bright spot. “Tropical storm winds from previous weeks had blown down an estimated 25 percent of the crop, and we expect an increase in waste grain available to wintering waterfowl once flooded,” he added.
The overall survey news was not promising. “The 855,000 ducks estimated on this survey is the lowest November estimate since the survey began in 1969. Previous lows were in 2008 [958,000], 2013 [1.02 million], and 2019 [1.04 million]. It is less than half the most recent five-year and long-term averages of 2 million,” Reynolds reports. “Estimates from all three surveyed regions are among the lowest on record.”
The 527,000 total ducks in southwest Louisiana is the second lowest estimate on record. The 316,000 total ducks in southeast Louisiana and 12,000 on Catahoula Lake are the lowest since 2009. “I hate writing these ‘worst ever’ reports, but that seems to be the way 2020 is going, and you can’t count what isn’t there,” Reynolds says.
In contrast to the surveys, many hunters are reporting success through the first few days of the season. Gadwalls and teal were the most abundant of all species counted, and hunters’ bags reflected that.
Captain Chris Pike Jr., with Cast and Blast Charters in Delacroix, has no complaints about his season so far. “It’s been an absolutely phenomenal first several days. We have been killing 95 percent grays. Don’t get me wrong, we don’t have the numbers of ducks we should. There’s not a lot of feed in our marshes due to Hurricane Zeta, so we are hunting large bodies of water with grass flats and using 75–100 decoys,” he says.
“Many folks are accustomed to hunting their smaller ponds and overlook the larger bodies of water. However, the ducks in our area have grown accustomed to the larger areas and avoiding all the smaller areas where there’s hunting pressure. And don’t be afraid to use large spreads,” Pike adds.
Clark Smith hunted Venice on opening weekend. “Delta Refuge is destroyed. No feed anywhere,” he says.
Adapting and improvising were the name of the game for Smith. “I went searching on Friday and found hundreds of grays on Pass-a-Loutre WMA,” he says. “I advise going to scout the day before. We had three-man limits in 45 minutes each day.”
Like many others, Smith has found that changing tactics is necessary due to the low bird counts and habitat loss. “Because two-thirds of the grass is gone, when you find the grass, the ducks are piled up in there,” he says. “I hunt out of a pirogue and get where mud boats can’t. Be prepared to push-pole across mudflats to get to the ducks.”
South of Houma, on Pointe-aux-Chenes WMA, Brennan Thibodeaux has also had a good season so far. Like others, he is noticing more gadwalls than usual this early in the year. “I’ve bagged grays, teal, mottled ducks, and pintails,” he says. “The windy days provided fast action, but it was slower on the calm days. I’ve seen some fairly big groups of scaup and grays flying out of range around the WMA.”
Despite disappointing waterfowl survey results, Louisiana waterfowlers have plenty of reasons to remain optimistic for the season ahead as winter weather to the north moves additional ducks into the state.