Friday, February 10, 2012

Bucket List: America's Public Refuges I'd Hunt

I'm a dreamer, but so are the rest of North Carolina's Duck Hunters. When we have fair to middlin' seasons, our mind wanders to the far off places that we could hunt. Anywhere has to have smaller crowds and more birds, right? Not neccessarily, but not all of North Carolina's duck hunting waters are filled with teeny-boppers, skyblasters, and common fools. Still, I've hunted over a good portion of the southeast, including premiere private property in Mississippi, South Carolina, and Arkansas, as well as public waters in Virginia, Maryland, and my home state of Alabama. All offer different opportunities in different styles of hunting. In Alabama, I floated creeks for wood ducks. Albeit, central Alabama has a few birds, but the storied Tennessee River near Decatur, Alabama is where the birds are...but not like they were prior to TVA dam construction. Still, Alabama has good duck hunting in the north (mostyl dabblers) and south around Mobile Bay (mostly divers). While hunting Mississippi and Arkansas, I hunted in flooded  pea fields, backwater sloughs, and yes, even the timber. There's nothing like being set-up around an opening in a cypress brake with ten minutes prior to shooting light...generally speaking, I'm the best caller in the bunch, so the others defer to my quacks. Reeling in ducks before daylight, then dodging them - yes literally dodging ducks - is the thrill of a lifetime. Maryland and Virginia hunting is just like coastal North Carolina duck hunting. Spartina marsh and buffleheads, plus any surprise. South Carolina is home to more "park mallards" than anywhere else, as the many private impoundment owners raise and release mallards. But, South Carolina has great duck hunting for wood ducks and ringnecks around the Santee Lakes region. The ACE river Basin and Winyah Bay areas are home to good-to-great duck hunting. However, rumors abound of tire-slashers and trailer tongue cutters in Winyah Bay. Still, after all of these, I have some PUBLIC places I want to hunt one day...if I ever had a month away from the office, I would spend it like so:

The USFWS is home to millions of acres of public duck hunting. Sure, there are some crippling regulations that must be weeded and waded through. A lot of times, contacting a refuge enforcement officer can help to solve a lot of mysteries. Keep in mind, these places all have different regs and locations that can and can't be hunted. Scout online by searching for the refuge, then use Google Earth or other GPS programs to finalize some scouting areas. You'll need coordinates for your arrival so that you can scout once you show up to the refuge of your public dreams...

Wilapa Bay in northwest Washington state has always held a special place in my mind. I'm a big fan of Worth Mathewson, a former North Carolinia and current writer. Anyway, he moved to the Pacific Northwest, and has written many stories about the place. One of those was Wilapa Bay. He wrote about the wigeons. There were thousands. He filled a limit after and before walking through marshy much and tule grasses and tule fog. The tule fog is what defines the landscape. When it burns off, there's the Pacific Ocean thrashing a rocky coastline in the distance. Hunting areas at Wilapa Bay are accessible by boat and/or foot. It's worth checking out. And nearby Seattle has good food. Filson is also headquartered up there. Also, when hunting, keep in mind that tidal swings up there are tremendous, and an outgoing tide can leave you high and muddy. There's also a Presidential Proclamation Boundary, so read and check all the regs.

On my western swing, I'd be a fool to pass up on hunting in the Klamath Basin's renowned refuges. The two to make my mind are Tule Lake and Klamath Marsh on the Oregon and California border. The Pacific Flyway has recently enjoyed seasons of more than 100 days! Still, it's THE place for a pintail. Killing a Pacific pintail is like killing an Arkansas mallard. There's also plenty of teal and shovelers, and a chance at a cinnamon teal isn't out of the question. Goose hunting is decent, too, with lots of specks and snows killed by California waterfowlers. The Klamath needs "good" water conditions....good meaning soaked. The marsh hunting is considered good for these areas on wet years. The place can get crowded, but that's generally on the opener and the weekends. Based on their statistics, there were multiple days where NOT A SINGLE hunter ventured into the marshes. Tule Lake is the larger of the two refuges and would require more scouting, but Tule Lake, itself, is about 3 miles across and always has water. Check the regs about hunting an accessing open water. Pockets of private property exist within the boundaries.

No duck hunter has truly lived and hunted until he or she has hunted the Prairie Pothole Region of North Dakota. North Dakota's population is about the size of Wake County, North Carolina. Still, thousands of out-of-state hunters venture there in search of the hordes of ducks that nest and congregate there prior to their southerly migration. On drier years, ducks will concentrate in open water, making for fun shooting. Still, the one gripe about many hunters is that it's not the best place to find a bird in prime plumage, since most hunting is done in October. Still, it's "meat hunt" and the birds are fattened on the grain fields that make up this part of the world. If you want divers, hunt permanent wetlands. If you want dabblers, scout grain fields. If you want geese, look anywhere. I've never been, but they say it's easy hunting. The birds are everywhere. It's the cradle of North America's waterfowl migration, and that alone is worth the trip for serious waterfowlers. The coolest thing about North Dakota is that you can hunt ANYWHERE unless it's posted. The PLOTS program in North Dakota is worth googling, too. Still there are a host of refuges, management areas, and duck production areas worth looking at, too. Some are off limits, but they're the rarity. Still, I'd want to check out the Devils Lake Wetland Management District's refuges. Kellys Slough is the list-topper for me. You're probably going to encounter thousands of birds, all of which will decoy to just a small stool. Mallards are king, but be careful, since many of the drakes are just slipping on their green hoods. I'm looking for someone to go with me to North Dakota, so if you're interested, and not a creep, get in touch! Kellys Slough is near the Grand Forks Air Force Base in northeast North Dakota. This would be the easiest of hunts to scout out and succeed in...

For the big timer who isn't threatened by tall timber, stumps, out of control flood water, and local hunters, the White River NWR near St. Charles, Arkansas is the premiere public refuge for mallards. I've seen this beast. It is truly magnificent to see timber taken over by flowing water. There's a long list of regs and hazards, but getting on the X at the right time can be the most exhilarating 10 minutes of your life when you and five of your closest friends wipe out a limit of mallards. I've seen it, but never hunted it. I wouldn't even attempt it, to be honest, unless I was with a local or a guide for the first time. It's would be easy to get lost, so a GPS, mud motors, and lots of mallard decoys would be needed for survival and success! Still, it's worth it for the entrepreneurial waterfowler.

If you thought the White River was big, confusing, and full of ducks, check out the Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge near Krotz Springs in Louisiana. I've been to cajun country for football games and Mardi Gras, but the Atchafalaya Delta is bigger than both. In fact, it's huge. It's full of brakes and bayous. And those things are full of ducks. Louisiana is the southern terminus of the flyway, so eventually nearly all ducks in the Mississippi Flyway end up here. The Atchafalaya Delta is a maze of canals, creeks, and sloughs, all of which are filled with snags, logs, grass mats, and other flotsam and jetsam. Still, that's not the worst. There are gators. Big ones that love retrievers and will take on a hunter, should he fall over or venture too far out. Generally, hunting season brings cooler water and the gators bury up or stay low in the water where the water temps are warmer, though. Still, many duck hunters have become disoriented in this maze of marsh. But the hunting is phenomenal apparently. Louisiana hunters kill many more ducks than other hunters in other states. You'd need an experienced guide the first go 'round, unless you're brave. A mud motor is needed, too.

I've named only a few of literally hundreds of refuges that offer great public hunting. These are just my favorites. I left off famed places along the Mississippi River, and I long to hunt the famous Pool 9 of the Mississippi in the upper midwest. Gray Wolf Lodge in California is another worthy of note. I'm a diver hunter at heart, but that maybe based on location. All of the places I listed, with the exception of Pool 9, are havens for puddlers, which are fun to call and even better to hunt and eat. I'm just always looking for something different...

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