A Wood Duck Game Plan
These guys put a lot into making sure they have a good duck hole, and it has paid off with memories they’ll never forget.
Duck season preparations for us in Talbot County begin in May as soon as the last of the turkey gobbles are heard in the morning fog. When the leaves are fresh and thick on the trees, we know it is time to start planting our duck fields. We have a 12-acre bottom that is filled with a veining network of 10-foot deep ditches. Between these ditches lie five distinct fields ideal for planting crops beneficial to various species of waterfowl. To the east lies a 100-yard dam. Freshwater runoff from an upper holding pond allows us to flood these fields in October, providing an ample eight weeks to fill the bottom with 2 to 4 feet of standing water.
Over the past 10 years we have experimented with a variety of crops: Egyptian wheat, corn, Japanese millet, chufa and milo to name a few. We have found that if we plant corn for ducks, it is imperative that we build a temporary electric fence around the cornfield in order to protect the crop from deer, which is very costly and time consuming. On the contrary, the deer hardly touch Egyptian wheat in its growing cycle, as well as Japanese millet, milo and chufa, the latter of which we plant on the edges of the fields where the water will be shallow. Egyptian wheat is a tall-growing member of the sorghum family. At maturity, the seed heads contain as many as 1,000 protein-rich seeds. In late September, the Egyptian wheat stalks become overburdened with the weight of the seed heads, causing them to bend over to the perfect height for a wood duck. It is at this time that water needs to be introduced to the mature stands of Egyptian wheat.
Ducks begin feeding in these fields shortly after they become flooded. We leave them untouched for two months until the second waterfowl season comes in. When all the Georgia duck hunters are out shooting ducks in late November, we are hunting the tail end of the whitetail deer rut, allowing our flooded duck fields to become a sanctuary to those ducks seeking refuge. Low pressure is key to continuously having successful hunts.
Let’s go back to the 2017 waterfowl season. Opening day of Georgia’s main duck season was Dec. 9. As usual I was out that morning with four of our closest friends, all proficient in the art of shotgunning and duck hunting. The morning starts out loud and hectic with wood ducks making their “wheet” and “whine” calls in the deeper sections of the flooded fields. With standing timber near the ditches, large amounts of ducks roost in our bottom, making it difficult to slip in undetected. However, the excessive amount of wood duck whistling helps muffle our noise and makes it possible for all five of us to get in position undetected.
Once legal shooting light is upon us, I immediately hear a bang. One duck is down already for Tyler, who is perched next to a loblolly pine overlooking the largest Egyptian wheat field. I hear his yellow lab, Mae, running through the water to retrieve the downed bird. At the sound of the gunshot, an onslaught of ducks rise up and fly straight toward me. The sky is pure black for a moment. As my emotions peak and my heart races, I pick out a duck on the edge of the group and fire a shot. My black lab, Trapper, beelines to the dead duck and is back in the blind with me instantaneously. One down, two to go.
As I scan the sky for ducks, my eyes catch a pair of woodies circling the field I am hunting over. I glance down at Trapper making sure he sees the ducks. He shakes uncontrollably from excitement while focusing on the lone pair. As the ducks veer out in front of me, they cup their wings and fly into my hole as I take wood duck No. 2.
Trapper’s cue comes when the dead drake hits the water. He bounds out into the Egyptian wheat, wraps his mouth around the duck and turns back toward the blind. I watch him jump over downed stalks, with the duck’s head smacking against his face at every step. This moment is what it is all about. Watching these labs work in the flooded fields makes duck hunting so enjoyable for me. Although Trapper turned 8 years old this past June, he is proving to be as reliable as ever. After handing me the duck, he resumes position, eyes glued to the sky once again.
The last duck that comes in gives me a clean right-to-left shot, and I end up winging the bird. Nevertheless Trapper marks him well and takes off after him. Knowing it is the last bird I am allowed to shoot that day, I follow Trapper into the brush hoping against all odds that we find this wounded bird. The better half of 10 minutes passes without so much as a feather. I decide to call Trapper back, but he uncharacteristically will not come. I assume since he saw the drake go down, he is determined to recover him. Sure enough, he starts getting birdy around a fallen persimmon tree. His tall wags ferociously while nose deep in the middle of the fallen tree when I realize he may be onto something. Seconds later Trapper lifts his head with the missing drake in his mouth. It is a sight I will never forget. He proudly swims back across the ditch toward me and places the drake in my hand. I thank the bird for giving his life to feed me, and I pat Trapper on the head just as the sun rises over the tall stand of loblolly pines. Our hunt is over.
As many of you know, once the sun comes up, your wood duck hunt is more than likely winding down if not already finished. Wood ducks love flying for the first 30 minutes of daylight, and then they disappear.
My friends and I gather at our central meeting spot on the long dam after the hunt exchanging stories and showcasing our harvested ducks. The colors in the morning sun are indescribable. Greens, blues, purples, reds and yellows come to life in the drakes harvested. As we drink hot coffee and snap a couple of photos at the water’s edge, we stand in awe watching wood ducks pitch into the flooded fields.
Moral of the story: if you plant a sufficient amount of feed, flood some fields and provide a variety of habitat, the ducks will come. Put in the tractor work during the spring and summer, control your water levels in the fall, and refrain from hunting the same areas more than once a week in the winter. If you follow these simple guidelines, your new favorite season could be just beginning once your deer season is winding down.
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