October 24, 2023
South Florida is known as the fishing capital of the world — big bass, record-sized tarpon, and a myriad of other gamefish — but in it exists exceptional duck hunting. Just outside of Florida’s biggest cities, amongst the alligators and snakes, exists unique and diverse opportunities for waterfowler hunters. Warm weather and plentiful habitats, both fresh and salt, are a welcomed escape from frigid winters. Add to that whistling ducks, mottled ducks, and an abundance of teal, and it’s a compelling option for those looking to check off a few species.
What Makes it Unique?
When waterfowlers think of places to hunt, Florida is not at the top of the list, but it should be. Over two million acres of flooded grasslands make up the southern tip of the state, known as the Everglades. This shallow water habitat is home to some of the highest density of wading birds and waterfowl in Florida. Filled with large groups of diving ducks, teal, and big ducks throughout, it’s a great place to target a variety of species. Access is abundant, with plenty of boat ramps along the roads that cut through the northern portion of the Everglades. But surrounding that are countless opportunities to chase waterfowl. A combination of coastal waterways, Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs), and large water bodies like Lake Okeechobee present diverse and exciting opportunities for waterfowlers.
The Gulf Coast offers hunters an abundance of salt marshes and bays to chase ducks. Tide swings are less dramatic than what northern coastal waterfowlers experience, making them easier to navigate and access. These tides still impact ducks, so scout before you hunt to see how the ducks react to changing tides. You’ll find mostly divers—redheads, ring-neckeds, scaup, and buffleheads—with an occasional sea duck mixed in. A seaworthy boat is a must as late-season winds can build large swells, especially in open water areas.
Five man-made wetlands known as Stormwater Treatment Areas (STAs) exist throughout the state. While built to help filter stormwater runoff before it makes it to the Everglades, ducks flock to them due to shallow water habitat, plenty of cover, and an abundance of food. These wetlands operate on a quota system, meaning you must apply for days to hunt, and are paddle access only. For hunters limited to kayaks, the STAs offer great habitat and plenty of ducks. They are strictly managed to limit hunting pressure, but the results can be worth it. While relatively small, the STAs have some of the highest density and species diversity found in the state. The application process is straightforward. Hunters use the state's licensing portal to apply for specific dates to hunt. Use caution before you apply, as each STA can only be hunted on specific days. You don’t want to draw a hunt and miss it because your schedule won’t work. Those that draw can bring two additional hunters for their slot. If you miss the draw, walk-in afternoon hunts are available in most STAs with a lottery system. Depending on the STA you plan to hunt it's important to check the regulations in advance. Each STA has a specified number of hunters and varies by year.
Those looking to explore Florida’s fabled water bodies like Lake Okeechobee should be prepared to put in some work, but the reward is there. Due to the large size of Lake O, hunters need to take time to scout. Deeper water attracts large groups of divers throughout the lake. If you prefer to shoot dabbling ducks, target shallower and vegetated areas to find mottled ducks and other puddlers. Online mapping tools can help pinpoint areas with good vegetation to narrow down the options.
Come shooting light, the uniqueness of Florida duck hunting grows more. Spread through the marshes, creeks, and lakes are roughly 1.3 million alligators. If you’re not used to hunting around overgrown lizards, it takes some getting used to (I recommend leaving the dog at home). While gators typically steer clear of people, wading out to retrieve a bird is still unnerving. Areas with clear or shallow water give you the best chance to avoid them. If you do find one that’s stealing your ducks, it’s best to pack it up and move. A gator conditioned to an easy meal is most likely to become an issue.
What Can Florida Offer Duck Hunters?
A diverse landscape and favorable climate make Florida home to unique species. Duck hunters on the quest for the 41 huntable North American waterfowl species can consistently shoot sought-after birds like mottled ducks, black-bellied whistling ducks, and fulvous whistling ducks. Mottled ducks are not migratory and exist in two main populations: the Florida group and the Southeast Texas/Louisiana group. The Florida population can be found from Central to South Florida in just about every lake, STA, and marsh. These birds aren’t migrators and become extremely wary in the late season. Running hen mallard decoys or early season mallard decoys and a deeper, raspier mallard call is the best bet to get them to decoy. Look for shallow water areas with good forage like you would for other puddle ducks.
Florida also offers excellent whistling duck hunting. Opportunities at fulvous and black-bellied whistling ducks are abundant if you know where to look. These are true tree ducks, so nearby timber is a must. The STAs are a good place to start, as most are surrounded by trees. Whistlers fly in big flocks and react well to calls. If you are looking for whistling duck decoys, you’ll have to make them yourself. Although there are some silhouette decoys in the works that I am eager to try.
Throughout bigger waterbodies, parts of the Everglades and coastal areas are large rafts of divers. The main species found in freshwater systems are ring-necked ducks, but scaup and redheads are common. These species require big groups of decoys and can be tricky to have finish in the spread, especially during late season. In Coastal areas, redheads make up most of the harvest with canvasbacks, scaup, ringers, and buffies. I’ve even seen a few scoters buzzing around late winter. A good bay boat is a must to access the areas they frequent, and layout boats will maximize your chances.
Florida also gets an impressive number of teal, especially blue-winged. These are the first birds to start the trip south in search of warm weather and make up most of the early-season teal harvest. The mild weather and abundance of forage keep them around all winter. Parts of the Everglades and STAs are my go-to to target teal consistently. Large flocks are not uncommon but picking them up before they are on top of you can be tough, depending on the area. In the Everglades, they buzz low over high vegetation, appearing at the last second. The STAs are a little better, as the habitat is more open, and other hunters will bounce birds around for consistent shooting. Note
The season breakup in Florida is slightly different from a lot of states. Things kick off in mid-September with a teal and Wood Duck season lasting five days. Woodies can be found, but timber is a must to have a chance. Immediately following that is a four-day teal season. While hunters can shoot any teal species, blue-wings are the most abundant this time of year. These hunts are hot, so bring plenty of water and wear breathable clothing. I’ll often opt to wet wade to avoid overheating. Water levels will be at their highest from summer rains, and ducks are typically spread out.
The rest of the birds will continue to make their way south when the first opener happens in mid-November, with the first of the split lasting nine days. Most early migrators show up by then, including widgeon, gadwall, ring-necked ducks, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, and redheads. The season reopens the second week in December, running from December 9th to January 28th this year. Towards the second half of this season, late migrators like pintails are around in limited numbers. Unfortunately, migrators like mallards that prefer cooler climates don’t make it this far south. While they will come to Florida, they stick to the Northern parts of the state, with Orlando being as far south as they typically go. As the season progresses, water levels continue to fall. With the right equipment to access shallow water, birds will be more concentrated than earlier in the year.
Tips and Tactics
Sought-after species and vast habitats require plenty of time scouting. This may seem obvious, but the Everglades alone is 7,800 square miles. To put that into perspective, Rhode Island is 1,400 square miles. That’s a lot of area the ducks could be in, so getting into the marsh is critical prior to your hunt. Find areas with good forage and access to open water, and you’ll find the ducks. Open areas seem to decoy birds the best. While ducks will land in puddles, tall sawgrass, and cattails make it hard for them to find your spread. A well-placed hide near a break from thick vegetation will pull more birds and prevent winged birds from sailing into the sawgrass.
Once you find some birds, it’s time to dial in your setup. Match your hide to Florida’s exotic vegetation for the best chance at decoying birds. It’s untraditional, but a few well-placed palm fronds add realism to your hide. The migrators have seen it all by the time they reach this state and can pick out a poorly grassed hide well before they are in range. While not so glamorous, coot decoys are a must. Florida has an incredible density of coot year-round, and the ducks know this. I run at least two dozen coot decoys around the edge of my spread, but I know some hunters that will run as many as four dozen. For duck decoys, a mixture of teal, divers, and a few hen mallards are all you need. The marshes in Florida are filled with vegetation, meaning decoys don’t always stand out. Even late season, a spinner is a must. The extra motion will grab the ducks’ attention when nothing else is working.
Calling in Florida is different than most places. If you are targeting whistling ducks, a 3-in-1 whistle with high-pitch notes will do the job. But those targeting them consistently should invest in a specialty whistling duck call. Several local call makers will sell these. I also carry a raspy mallard call for mottled ducks and a dedicated diver call. A few short grunts on a diver call are often the ticket to tricking large groups of divers to commit.
Access is plentiful in the marshes and lakes, but the right equipment is key to success. A requirement for hunting the Everglades and shallow water marshes is a mud boat or airboat. Thick cattails, dense vegetation, stumps, and shallow water are not kind to outboards. If you’re on a budget, a basic Jon boat and a long tail kit will do the job. Those limited to kayaks and paddle boats should focus on the STAs. They are paddle access only and offer great shoots.