Getting After Public Ducks In Georgia

Not everyone has access to a private duck hole, but that doesn’t mean you’re shut out from Georgia duck hunting.

Mark Turner | November 1, 2020

Just as the first hints of gray light eased into the sky, the sounds of wood ducks calling on the horizon came to my ears. Wing beats came next as they swung around the hole, then the sharp rush of air that comes when ducks begin their descent.

Shots rang out, and the familiar and satisfying splash of a harvested bird reaching the water was heard. This sequence repeated itself three times in a period lasting only a few minutes, and the hunt was over.

Although much of Georgia isn’t known for duck hunting, opportunities like this exist on public lands all over the state. Hunters just have put in a little effort.

Become An Opportunistic Duck Hunter

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a dyed-in-the-wool duck hunter. I don’t own a large boat, have a dog or make annual trips to chase the migration. I love duck hunting, but I become conflicted during deer season about what to hunt. Hence, I term myself an opportunistic duck hunter, and I’ll bet many readers find themselves in that category, as well.

I’m always scouting and keeping an eye out for birds on places I’m already hunting for deer or other game, and when I find a good opportunity to shoot a few, I’ll take advantage of it. However, for the times in between shoots, I am more than happy to occupy my time outdoors chasing deer.

This strategy works out well for the average hunter in Georgia, especially if you don’t live near a destination location. There is decent hunting to be found in pretty much all areas of Georgia, but especially along the coast, the Lake Seminole area, and to a lessor extent other reservoirs and river systems. But many hunters don’t live very close to these areas. Fortunately, there are public lands throughout the state, and most that I have visited have some ducks. For the opportunist in Georgia, the main quarry will be wood ducks. Woodies are found across the state, and it doesn’t take a large body of water to hold enough birds for a hunt. In fact, wood ducks tend to prefer the smaller sloughs, creeks and patches of flooded timber that are fairly common in much of the state. Locating small bodies of water that hold wood ducks simply requires a little bit of scouting.

The other major upside to being an opportunistic duck hunter is the low cost associated with getting started. First, nearly every hunter in Georgia has a good wood duck shoot on public land within about an hour of their house. Chasing ducks on public land only requires a license and a duck stamp, so there isn’t a major cost associated with leasing out a duck hunting blind. Finally, the amount of equipment needed is extremely minimal. A pair of waders and a shotgun are all that is required in most locations to hunt wood ducks.

A half-dozen decoys and a small kayak or canoe can come in handy at times, but they aren’t necessary for the majority of wood duck hunts.

Locating Potential Duck Hunting Spots

Similar to deer and turkey hunting, scouting is absolutely critical for successful duck hunting. Fortunately, most of my scouting is completed on a computer, and most of the rest is done by simply paying attention while I’m out deer hunting. The first step in the scouting process is finding a WMA or other public property that has potential for duck hunting, and I would highly recommend starting with the closest WMA to where you live or one that you already hunt for deer. Of course, before hunting any public area, check the hunting regs for specific WMA hunting dates and rules and regulations.

As I already mentioned, most WMAs have wood ducks, and this style of hunting relies heavily on the ability to check for birds often. Thus, locations where you already visit regularly make the most sense to target. As long as the property has several creeks, it probably has some ducks. Don’t shy away from WMAs best known for deer and turkey hunting. Although these properties may only have three or four locations that hold birds, it is very likely that few hunters are taking advantage of the opportunity in these spots. There are exceptions, but I’ve been amazed by the lack of pressure many duck holes get on “deer hunting” WMAs.

Lake coves, river sloughs and ponds produce good duck hunts if you find some water oaks or other acorns dropping along the bank.

After settling on a property or two, I pull up both an aerial and topo map to begin scouting. I typically do this on OnX or Google Earth, but it can also be done using other mapping services. I begin by locating creeks and rivers on the topo map, as well as any larger ponds. After circling these, I switch over to an aerial map to see what they actually look like. It is important to use winter imagery, as flooded timber is typically only flooded in winter. Plus, water stands out much better on winter imagery compared to aerial photos taken during the summer. On the aerial, I start by following each creek and river looking for beaver dams. Beaver dams are a classic wood duck hunting location, and from an aerial they appear to be a place where the creek spreads out along a distinctive line. This line is the dam. Wood ducks will often use beaver swamps as roost or feeding locations.

While I’m looking for beaver dams, I’ll also look at the timber surrounding creeks or in any large, flat expanses of bottomland hardwoods on the property. These will show up as flat spots on the topo, and often there are patches of woods close to the creek that flood following heavy winter rains. These are wood duck hotspots, and birds flock to these locations to feed on the freshly flooded acorns. It doesn’t take much water to attract wood ducks, so make a note of any places where the creek appears to spill out into the surrounding woods. Finally, I’ll check out any ponds on the property. Although wood ducks tend to be found in smaller holes in the woods, it isn’t terribly uncommon to find them on ponds as well, especially if sections of the pond have aquatic vegetation. On artificial ponds created around a creek, it is especially worthwhile to check the narrow mouth of the pond for ducks. I’ve had great wood duck shoots on large public ponds where 50 to 60 birds were coming to a fairly small area at the mouth.

Scouting And Taking Advantage Of Opportunity

After I’ve come up with a list of potential spots, it is time to put in some time on the ground intentionally checking them out. My goal of early scouting is to simply determine whether a particular area may hold ducks during some section of the season. When scouting flooded timber, the areas may not be flooded right now. However, look at the leaf litter, soil and mud markings on the trees. If a large area has fairly wet soil, is devoid of much leaf litter and has markings on the trees from past high water, you can bet that area will flood at some point during the winter. Often, there will be patches of mud in low spots that also indicates the area floods.

When I find such a location, I begin looking for overstory oak trees, such as water oaks. Areas near creeks that have signs of past flooding and a few water oaks are certainly worth noting.

There’s more public duck hunting opportunity than most hunters imagine, and that goes for other southern states and in the flyway hotspots. Good scouting paid off with this duck hunt on a south Alabama WMA that produced three limits of woodies for (left to right) Matt McDonough, Jase Steward and the author Mark Turner.

I also take the time to visit the ponds that I located while scouting, including beaver ponds. We have resident wood ducks across Georgia, and I rely on resident birds to tell me whether a particular pond will be worth a visit later in the season. Even if only a few birds are on the pond during before the season, I make a note to check these locations later in the year for new ducks that may have moved in. In general, my preseason scouting of both ponds and flooded timber is to come up with a list of locations on a property that is likely to hold ducks come season, as it is difficult to do more than that until birds arrive.

If you aren’t able to do any preseason duck scouting, don’t despair. Although it is great to find possible locations to check prior to season, most of my scouting is completed right before I plan to hunt. My in-season scouting is based on two components: incidental observations and limited intentional scouting trips. Incidental observations can occur anytime you are out on the property, which is part of why I believe it is worth duck hunting the same property that you deer hunt if possible. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been sitting in a stand early in the morning or late in the evening and heard multiple groups of wood ducks. When this happens, I take note of it, and try to figure out where they are moving to and from on the property. For morning flights, I look for potential duck holes in the direction they are heading toward, and for evening flights I try to figure out where they are coming from. Wood ducks will typically fly from a roost hole first thing in the morning to a feeding area, and then return to the roost hole at dark. The evening flight often takes place after legal shooting hours, so it generally makes the most sense to target feeding locations for a morning hunt. An after-hours roost shoot is probably the easiest case a game warden can make—they can hear the shots from miles away. Don’t ever be tempted to shoot a wood duck roost after hours.

By tracking flights that I see or hear from the deer stand, I can figure out how many birds are in the area and where they are likely spending the day.

My intentional scouting trips typically follow incidental observations, although I do have a few locations that I will check throughout the season for birds. Specifically, I am interested in either verifying that ducks are in a feeding location where I observed them heading toward, or checking known holes where I have had past hunting success. In either case, a stealthy approach is absolutely critical. Wood ducks are extremely wary, and it doesn’t take much to spook them from a hole. Although scaring them isn’t the end of the world, it is always best to verify they are using a location without chasing them away. Using binoculars and your ears are the best ways to do this.

I typically stop about 100 yards away from the water and listen, as woodies are very social animals that are almost constantly calling and splashing in the water. If I find ducks in the location, I take note of where they are sitting and roughly how many are in the hole, then ease out and make a game plan for the next morning.

Wood duck shoots are typically quick, one hunt affairs. It’s not impossible to get multiple good hunts from a location, but it often takes a week or more for a spot to recover following a hunt. Thus, it is critical that you hunt birds as soon as you find them, and then either find another spot or wait for ducks to begin using the hole again.

When chasing wood ducks, you absolutely cannot be late, as they fly right at legal light. In fact, I have had birds come in 10 minutes before shooting light on mornings with ample moonlight, and you have to be in position well before light to not spook these early comers while waiting for legal shooting time to arrive. On ponds I find a location in the hole near where I saw the ducks hanging out the day before, and in the woods I try to position myself facing a canopy gap where the birds enter the hole. Due to the early arriving nature of these woodies, I prioritize being in a good shooting position over having great cover, and find that leaning against a tree is usually enough to hide me in the low light.

In flooded woods, I don’t think it is necessary to bring along decoys or a call. A few decoys can come in handy on larger ponds, as wood ducks will often land with other ducks on the water. Additionally, if they land out of range they will usually swim over to investigate decoys or calling, providing a shot opportunity on the jump. However, if you scouted the location this shouldn’t be an issue, as wood ducks tend to use the same areas within a pond each day as long as they aren’t disturbed. Being in the right spot at the start is everything, as even the best wood duck hunts are over within 15 minutes.

Even if deer hunting is your main focus, there is no reason you shouldn’t take a few mornings to chase wood ducks each season. These hunts can be done before work or even before climbing into a deer stand, and they provide an exciting alternative and great eating.

There is likely a brace of wood ducks waiting to be taken on local public land that most hunters overlook.

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