December 19, 2021
By John Gordon
The bay lay quiet before clear shooting light. Streaks of sun were just peeking out from the eastern horizon, the day soon to begin. Lightly bobbing decoys moved on long lines laid out in the boat’s front, a ready retriever scanned the sky. A wood duck flight squealed their way across the point, a sure sign that a new day was coming in fast. Minutes passed and the hunters could see the divers trading back and forth out front. Soon a flock noticed the decoys and swung in for a look. They were big ducks, long and fast, cutting the unmistakable canvasback profile. Another Alabama sunrise was about to pay off with bull cans in the bag.
Lake Guntersville, Alabama
Wait, what!? That scene should play out on the Susquehanna flats or the Chesapeake Bay...but Alabama? That’s right, a great place to find canvasbacks in numbers is more known for big largemouth bass than ducks. Guntersville Lake is tucked into Alabama’s northeast corner, northeast of Birmingham and southwest of Huntsville. Looking at a map, it more resembles a river than a lake, stretching 76 miles and loaded with hydrilla, milfoil, eelgrass and other grasses that are great cover for bass and duck food sources. It’s part of the Tennessee River chain and it’s Alabama’s largest lake at 70,000 acres.
Much of Guntersville is open to public hunting but it takes the right equipment and knowledge to hunt the lake’s abundant duck species. In addition to canvasbacks and other divers, puddle ducks are present as well. Gadwall, mallards, woodies, pintails, and even black ducks inhabit the mostly shallow lake. Three wildlife management areas also border the lake, Crow Creek, Raccoon Creek and Mud Creek, offering walk-in hunts for those lacking boat access.
“This is Alabama’s top waterfowl hunting destination,” said Alabama’s Migratory Game Bird Coordinator Seth Maddux. “As a matter of fact, Jackson county on the lake’s north side is ranked 1st in waterfowl harvest in Alabama and 56th nationally according to the U.S Fish & Wildlife harvest surveys. That’s pretty strong for a county not located in a major flyway.”
Most successful hunters use boats to access the lake and hunt either near the bank or in open water with portable boat blinds. However, another method is growing in popularity. “Some diver hunters are turning to east coast style layout boats with success,” Maddux says. “It’s a lot of fun to be there on the water’s surface in the middle of the action. More work but the payoff is worth it.”
Every Friday during the season, the Memphis, TN, populace gets a little lighter with the duck hunter exodus. Folks head west into Arkansas, south into Mississippi, north to Reelfoot, ect. They are heading for towns like Brinkley, Stuttgart, Greenwood, Brownsville, Jonesboro, Greenville, wait...Brownsville? Where in the world is that??
While everyone is heading west and south to more popular areas, a hidden gem lies east of Memphis, near the Hatchie River Wildlife Refuge off Hwy 40. Look at an area map and the Hatchie River winds through the area plus a multitude of small winding creeks through a predominantly agriculture-based landscape. So, the area has water, it has food, and it has rest within the refuge boundaries.
Blake McWilliams grew up here, his family farms land near the Hatchie refuge. He and friends from high school and college teamed up in 2013 to start Mallard Estates Outfitter based near Brownsville. Over time, they’ve built a loyal clientele from around the country that discovered the incredible waterfowl hunting that can be had there. Mallards, gadwall, wigeon, green-winged teal, you name it they have got it!
“I started hunting as a kid, whenever I could get somebody to carry me out there,” McWilliams recalled. “My dad’s not a duck hunter, he only gets excited over a big whitetail or largemouth bass. I was still in college when the idea struck me that we could build something special here and take people on incredible hunts in a place they had never heard of. We rolled up our sleeves and went to work, building on a foundation of nothing more than having ducks in the area.”
Today, Mallard Estates has multiple spacious and comfortable blinds and a full-service lodge. The best part about going there is still the hunting however, the sheer numbers of mallards when the conditions are right is unbelievable. Sometimes the other places are not too far from the famous ones.
No, it’s not a steel production town and has no pro football team. In fact, beyond agriculture and cattle, you won’t see much else in Pittsburg. Look closer and you’ll find ducks and geese and lots of them. No doubt there has been a northern shift in recent decades in mallard wintering grounds and this area holds them by the hundreds of thousands at peak times. They have everything they need here, food, rest and peace of mind stemming from light hunting pressure. Where are you? Why Toto, you’re in Kansas!
Southeast Kansas specifically, with Missouri looming in the east and Oklahoma and Arkansas to the south. Looking at a map, there doesn’t seem to be anything around the area that would attract big waterfowl numbers. But we all know looks can be deceiving and in this case it’s the lack of things like people and hunters that have heated this area up.
Located on the eastern edge of the Central Flyway, greater Pittsburg is farm and ranch country. That means a lot of smaller waters, stock ponds, small lakes and creeks. Throw in a substantial corn crop and it becomes ideal mallard and Canada goose country. Did I mention mallards? This area can look like Stuttgart, AR, did in its heyday, hard to find another species to fill a full 6 duck limit. The mallard limit here is one higher than the Mississippi Flyway at 5, no more than two hens. Kansas is light on public hunting opportunities, but several outfitters are based in the area.
Snake River, Idaho
Over 1,000 miles long, the mighty Snake cuts through Idaho’s heart and provides the base for some of the most picturesque waterfowl hunting anywhere in the world. Clean, clear water rolls through breathtaking mountains and it’s open to public hunting. And the hunting can be fantastic for both ducks and geese.
David Harper is a Boise State graduate and a dedicated Snake River waterfowler. He says the beauty of hunting the Snake is simple. “It’s the variety that makes hunting that river fun and exciting,” Harper said. “Outside of blue-winged teal and cinnamons, you literally never know what might swing over the decoys. A couple of dozen mallard decoys can produce canvasbacks, redheads, scaup, goldeneyes, and everything else in between. Want to shoot mallards and wood ducks? No problem, there are river pockets that hold plenty of both. Need a trophy bull sprig for the wall? Hunt the more open flats. Want to shoot a wigeon limit, maybe even a Eurasian? It can happen on any given day on the Snake.”
Harper says that not every boat is suited for the rigors of the Snake, but it doesn’t take anything very special either. A solid 18-foot duck boat with a 40-60 hp jet drive outboard will handle everything but the roughest rapids. There are walk-in opportunities too, the riverbanks in many areas are owned by government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and have open public access. Like to hunt geese? Big Canadas, specks, and snows all come though the area in numbers.
Red River, Oklahoma
Cows, wide open spaces, rolling hills, scrub brush, it all adds up to prime waterfowl habitat, right? It does if you are standing in southern Oklahoma. This country looks like there might be a duck or goose in it but not many. Nothing could be further from the truth. Much like Kansas, less pressure has transplanted ducks and geese here in big numbers, birds that would have gone further south decades ago. Another prime example of our waterfowl species' adaptable nature.
It’s a mixed bag of hunting locations here from ag fields to stock ponds. Mallards especially like the scattered cattle watering holes and will often use them as rest areas and sometimes feeding locations. These small ponds will hold invertebrates and rains will deposit food sources through runoff. The key to this country is intense scouting, the birds move a lot and staying mobile is important.
“Flexibility is the name of the game,” said North Texas Outfitters owner Dakota Stowers who hunts both sides of the Texas and Oklahoma border. “No place for permanent blinds up here. Grab the A-frames or layouts or utilize the natural cover with no hide, we do it all. One day we may be chasing wigeons over fresh slash water after a big rain and hunting divers and puddlers on a strip pit by a highway the next. The birds are where you find them and being prepared to go in after them is the difference between success and failure.”
Quite a few waterfowl hunters these days are looking for trophies. The word “slam” is thrown around a lot, representing the harvest of every huntable waterfowl species in a region. The magic number seems to be 41 different species for North America, although that number may be different depending on who’s being asked. Puddle ducks, diving ducks, sea ducks, geese, swans, the variety makes your head spin.
A duck that’s often listed in the “bonus” category is the Mexican duck. Since 1983, the Mexican duck is a recognized separate species, more closely resembling a black duck or mottled duck than a mallard. In fact, they are closer in genetic background to the mottled duck.
Chris Klasen is an Indiana native who found himself living in the desert southwest in southern Arizona. “I thought my duck hunting days were over, Klasen said. “I mean, there can’t be any ducks to speak of in Arizona, right? That’s what I thought anyway. But then I got down here and discovered not only ducks but sandhill cranes in big numbers.”
Klasen found enough birds that he started his own guide service, AZ Desert Waterfowl. His specialty is dry field hunting over decoys for a wide variety of puddle ducks including the Mexican. Wait, dry fields?! That’s right, Klasen looked around and found the ducks adapting to available food sources.
“Arizona dry field duck hunting depends on cattle,” said Klasen. “Without the presence of area livestock, the only ducks to be found would cling to the rivers. There are quite a few dairy operations around and they must have stock tanks for their cows and food for them in the form of irrigated rye grass and alfalfa fields. Ducks, geese, and cranes love rye and alfalfa too, they roost on the water and feed in the fields.”
Another prime example of ducks and geese being where you find them. That point cannot be overstated enough in waterfowl hunting. Scouting areas thoroughly, no matter how unlikely it might seem that a duck would live there, is key to successful waterfowling.
Charlestown, Rhode Island
It’s a small state with a dense population and overlooked in the waterfowling world. Do they have a lot of ducks there? No. Do they have a big species variety there? Yes! It’s a trophy destination, home to ducks that are hard to come in most flyways. Eiders, scoters, Atlantic brant, these are the draw. But they are not the only birds around. Inland wood ducks on the creeks and marsh black ducks are viable options and often fast action.
“Trophies are in the eye of the beholder,” says Brian Rhodes, a Rhode Island native and former outfitter there. “People that grow up in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut have a hard time believing somebody would want to come all the way up there to shoot a brant or a white-wing scoter. Same people head down to Texas to shoot pintails. It all amounts to trying something different in the end and checking a species off a lifetime list.”
The bays and Atlantic Ocean are open to public hunting with a 500’ buffer zone required near a house. Plenty of folks freelance the area but Rhodes offered a word of caution. “Hunting out of Rhode Island is not rocket science, go where you see birds,” he said. “But this is not like running down to the local river or lake, people die out here every year. You must know the tides and watch the weather closely. Fail to pay attention out there and it can get away from you quickly.”
As my friend Pat Pitt likes to say, “there are no fences in the sky.” Ducks and geese can and will move for a variety of reasons. When they do, seek out the not so familiar territory and they just may be there hiding in plain sight.