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Big Water Ducks

Duck hunters on East Texas' big reservoirs are rewarded with numerous species of both dabbling and diving ducks - plus plenty of locations reachable on foot as well as by boat.

By Carl Frentress and Kevin Kraai

On weekend mornings during duck season in Northeast Texas, the same scene plays out on numerous "big water" reservoirs. Long before dawn, boat ramps come alive. Beams of light rake the darkness. Outboard motors growl and churn. Dogs bound in and out of trucks and boats, eager for the coming hunt. Hunters check and recheck gear before motoring cautiously into the tailend of the night, following sometimes known and ofttimes unknown pathways to the shallows where ducks dwell.

The reward for hours of preparation and lost sleep arrives on cupped wings beginning at dawn. It may be mallards descending through standing timber or gadwalls and green-winged teal working a shallow shoreline. Lesser scaup, ring-necked ducks and canvasbacks circle, lower their landing gear and settle over deeper water, tails wagging. Whatever the species, big water means big fun for duck hunters.

It has been so only in fairly recent times. When Texas entered the drought of the 1950s, it had only 62 major reservoirs. Only Caddo Lake existed as a large natural water body. (Although often billed as the only natural lake in Texas, it, too, is held in a larger-than-natural pool by a low dam near Mooringsport, La.) After the flood of reservoir construction that followed the drought, Texas could boast more than 200 major reservoirs and nearly as many square miles of inland water as any other state in the lower 48. The paradox is that the taking of land for reservoirs frequently destroyed substantial amounts of duck habitat. But the conversion of once-private property to public status rendered acreage accessible to more people, including duck hunters. Accordingly, the hunting and fishing public responded immediately to recreation areas nonexistent in earlier times.

Ten major reservoirs in Northeast Texas impound nearly 5 million acre-feet of water at normal levels. (These reservoirs are Cooper, Wright Patman, Tawakoni, Lake Fork, Cypress Springs/Monticello/Bob Sandlin, Lake O' the Pines, Caddo, Cedar Creek, Richland Chambers and Palestine.) That seems like a lot of duck habitat, but only a small amount of the vast acreage of these impoundments provides habitat of sufficient quality to attract ducks.

Because habitat conditions and duck behavior can change unexpectedly, most proficient big-water hunters do a lot of exploring and scouting. Frequent scouting is essential during rainy seasons, when runoff into reservoir basins can turn areas that are flooded infrequently into duck hunting hot spots. Hunters who know how to "read" a lake and its varying conditions stand a much better chance of having a good hunt.

Hunters must look for the same thing ducks are seeking: places where food is abundant and accessible. Here's where a little knowledge of lake history and how duck foods grow can be helpful. As a lake fills for the first time and creates shallow flooded areas, conditions briefly mimic the natural process that produces high-quality habitat attractive to wintering ducks. Shallow flooding of fields during the warmer months allows underwater plants to grow; in the fall, flooded standing timber gives ducks access to fallen acorns. New reservoirs undergo a brief spurt of rich food production, but after a while nutrients are leached from permanently flooded soils and the quality of duck habitat declines. Therefore, the pattern of post-impoundment history is a brief abundance of ducks followed by reduction to a generally modest number. Hunters who do not understand this process may continue to hunt the same areas without realizing the ducks have simply gone to places where the groceries are better.

Hunting location affects whether you encounter dabbling ducks or diving ducks. Shallow shorelines or coves with water only a foot or so deep attract dabbling species such as mallards, gadwalls or green-winged teal. More open, slightly deeper water will hold diving ducks such as lesser scaup, ring-necked ducks and canvasbacks. When these divers are feeding on submerged vegetation such as the hydrilla beds common in East Texas reservoirs, wigeons and coots will glean scraps of vegetation released by the feeding divers. Goldeneyes, buffleheads, ruddy ducks and red-breasted mergansers also are found in the open water of a reservoir's main pools.

Since dabbling ducks prefer shallow water, getting to them may present a challenge. Some waterfowling adventurers load themselves, their dogs and their gear into canoes, pirogues, kayaks or small johnboats and then paddle, drag, shove, skid and, when necessary, carry all the above accoutrements to the secret pockets where ducks are expected to visit.

Lack of a boat is not necessarily a handicap. Walk-in hunters can access shallow backwaters not reachable by watercraft, thus decreasing the competition for hunting spots often associated with big public waters. Serious duck hunters are known to rig small trailers they can pull behind mountain bikes. Others wear lightweight chest waders conducive to long walks and load backpacks with an assortment of gear such as lightweight decoys, coats, stools, ammunition, warm drinks and snacks. Using a strap to carry a firearm leaves chilled hands free to carry a flashlight to illuminate secret paths and trails.

Hunting locales on Northeast Texas reservoirs are scattered and variable in quality. Off-season information gathering is a good way to prepare. Maps and aerial photographs are excellent resources for identifying and exploring potential duck hunting locations. Lake maps and brochures can be obtained at offices located at each reservoir. The project offices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have maps of Corps lakes in Texas. With a visit to one Corps project office you can obtain maps for several lakes of interest. Other reservoirs are owned and operated by river authorities or water supply districts. The local offices of the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) have recent aerial photographs. An inquiry to the appropriate NRCS office can provide the opportunity to study aerial photographs for any given reservoir and its environs. Topographic maps and modern road atlases also are useful references.

While the best information is that which you gather and constantly update yourself, here are a few pointers about specific lakes to help you get started. Note that some of these lakes are at least partially included in a TPWD wildlife management area; a $40 Annual Public Hunting Permit is required when hunting within the WMA.

Caddo Lake:
Permanent blinds are allowed in the non-WMA part of the lake, but they must have existed on Oct. 16, 1992, under provisions for preservation of cultural heritage blinds. Therefore, no new permanent blinds are allowed. "Most of the ducks will be in open pockets in the timbered areas," says TPWD biologist Charles Muller. "Use a camouflaged boat, tie up to a tree, set out decoys, and hunt out of the boat."
Cooper Lake:
Access is both by boat and by foot, but hunting is allowed only along the lakeshore and in a nearby wetland unit on the Cooper WMA. The best waterfowl hunting is during rising water levels and cold snaps. The most successful hunters hide camouflaged boats in flooded timber. The upper end of the lake has lots of standing timber and is dangerous to navigate in the dark unless you know the lake well. A good way to scout is to go bass fishing; the lake record largemouth tipped the scale at more than 15 pounds. Waterfowl hunting ends at noon each day.
Lake Tawakoni:
Both boat and walk-in access are available. The shallow shoreline of this lake is very marshy in wet years, making for good hunting using natural cover. In dry years the lake may recede a quarter of a mile or more from the normal shoreline, making walk-in hunting impractical.
Pat Mayse Lake:
Although the lake is no giant, it is long and narrow, and there are many coves where creeks enter the lake. Waterfowl hunters can hunt out of a camouflaged boat or hide a boat around a point and walk back to the point to hunt.
Toledo Bend Reservoir:
This lake is one of the better examples of how important water levels are to waterfowl hunters. If the lake level is between 169 and 170 feet, the marsh in the southeastern part of North Toledo Bend Wildlife Management Area will have water. If the water level is 172 or above, you can get into the marsh with almost any boat, but if it is 170 or lower, you will need a very shallow-draft craft. Walk-in access is available on the northwest end of the impoundment.

Hunting ducks on big water requires some adjustments. Mike Barnett of Centerville says the most important thing is the size of the decoy spread. "Increase the number of decoys from the one or two dozen you would use in a cove to six to 10 dozen," he advises. "Also, scouting is very important on big lakes. Find where the birds naturally like to go. Hunt weekdays rather than weekends when possible. However, if you must hunt on a crowded weekend, stay longer than you would on a weekday. Hunters leaving will move birds around, and they may come to you."

Decoys are effective and are a necessity for consistently successful hunts on large reservoirs. Buy the best quality decoys you can afford. Ducks have excellent vision, and they see in color. For this reason, blemish-free decoys that closely resemble real birds are the most productive. When ducks consistently flare as they approach decoy spreads, hunters should check for glare or off-color blemishes among the decoys. Of course, ducks also detect other unnatural features such as faces and hands without camouflage, shiny metal surfaces, discarded shotshell boxes and the like. Ducks just don't take chances. Good decoys and effective camouflage are essential to overcome this wariness.

Mike Barnett manufactures duck calls and his son, Andy, has been the Texas state champion duck caller. They call differently when hunting big water. "Calling has to be done louder," says Mike. "Early in the season, I get a lot more aggressive because you are in competition with a lot of other hunters. You have to sound like more than one duck. Having two or three callers often works better than one person alone. You are competing for birds in the air, and you have to make those birds come to you. Later in the season, very soft calling or none at all will work better because ducks have been subjected to aggressive calling all season."

Dave Morrison, TPWD waterfowl program leader, points out one of the most enjoyable aspects of hunting ducks on big water. "Mostly you will be hunting diving ducks, and they respond really well to calls," he says. "Ring-necked ducks will probably make up most of your bag, and they are really good eating."

Ironically, most hunters pay far more attention to their gear than they do to the single most important factor in duck hunting success: their shooting skill. Tom Roster travels the country teaching shotgunning under the auspices of the Cooperative North American Shotgunning Information Program (CONSEP), which is funded by various conservation agencies, including the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "Shooting test after shooting test reveals that it takes the average duck hunter six shots to bag a duck," says Roster. "This means that the average duck hunter brings home only about four ducks for every box of 25 shells. Poor shooting skill is the No. 1 problem. Second is shooting beyond one's maximum shooting skill distance." Roster emphasizes the importance of patterning one's shotgun to find the most effective load. A series of videos that can help you become a better shooter is available from CONSEP by calling (541) 884-2974.

To a certain extent, situations encountered in big-water duck hunting have the potential to compromise good shooting behavior. The open expanse of water and sky can make it difficult to judge distances. Shooting at ducks at ranges beyond which clean kills can be made is called sky-busting. Avoid this by placing decoys no more than 35 yards from your blind and not working birds until they are over the spread. (Getting ducks to decoy is, after all, the essence of duck hunting.) Also, pass up going-away shots: vital areas are much easier to penetrate when birds are head-on or crossing.

While hunting ducks on large reservoirs presents a special set of problems, doing so does allow hunter access to reasonable numbers of birds. With dedication, ingenuity, study and diligence, hunters can find productive duck hunting opportunities on the large reservoirs that have come to characterize much of the landscape of Northeast Texas.

Duck Identification 101

Identification of ducks is mandatory for waterfowlers since bag limits vary for different species. With the birds in hand, identification usually is easy, even if printed field guides are needed. On the other hand, identification of ducks in flight is considerably more difficult. Hunters employ various signals to identify ducks in flight. Field marks, flight patterns, vocalizations and habitat preferences offer useful clues for identification. An excellent guide for this purpose is Waterfowl Identification: The LeMaster Method, by Richard LeMaster (Stackpole Books, $9.95.)

Generally, dabbling ducks have wing beats slower than the rapid blur characteristic of diving ducks. Attention to subtle differences is also necessary. For instance, gadwalls and wigeons are dabbling ducks of about the same size and may be encountered in the same habitats. Both have distinct white patches on their wings. This field mark is easily visible on the trailing edge of gadwall wings or the leading edge of wigeon wings. This important visual cue often can be seen easily and quickly as ducks circle decoys.

Boating Basics

Hunting ducks on big water is not necessarily dangerous, but it does require extra caution. Operating a boat in the dark requires knowledge of boat trails, shoals, flooded stump fields, falling timber hazards, old fences, unmarked channels and creek fords. Fog or rain can increase the difficulty. Tim Fulcher, a veteran duck hunter at Lake Fork, uses a wide-beam johnboat to cross open water and reach shallow hunting locales. "The shallow-draft johnboat can handle rough water, but it also has the capability to travel into areas normally inaccessible to bass boats," says Fulcher. "Avoiding bass fishers is as important as not crowding other hunting parties." Fulcher also notes that choosing a launching ramp as near as possible to the hunting site reduces the long runs across potential timber and shoal hazards. "Safety and courtesy are as important to an enjoyable outing as finding ducks," he adds.

Loaded for Ducks

As a rule, 12-gauge shotguns offer a greater latitude of distance effectiveness on ducks than do smaller gauges. Furthermore, chokes less than full usually give better results. Most nontoxic shot - required for all waterfowl hunting - is very hard and does not deform much, if at all, when fired. The rounder pellets fly straighter, which leads to better patterns from more open chokes. The medium shot sizes (2s to 6s) are preferable because there are more pellets in the pattern.

Patterning guns and loads is the only realistic method to evaluate effectiveness. At least three patterns should be fired onto three separate pattern sheets to allow for variations. Count the pellet strikes inside a 30-inch circle over the dense portion of the pattern. According to research conducted by Tom Roster at CONSEP, the number of pellet strikes within the 30-inch circle required to assure clean kills ranges from a minimum of 85 for large ducks to 135 for small ducks. These densities typically can be achieved with an improved cylinder or modified choke, but the point of patterning is to determine what your gun will do with a particular load.

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