It is that time of year again, early wood duck season! Duck hunting in 80-degree weather, gators and bugs, makes for some weird, non-traditional hunting, but for that one week in September I’m in the woods. We are really lucky to have so many opportunities in the panhandle of Florida to enjoy what the outdoors has to offer year around. We go from tagging white marlin to hanging deer stands within in weeks of each other. The fall triggers an itch in me that just has to be scratched, and my labrador retriever is absolutely insistent on a fall duck hunt. Here in the Destin area we have two choices for duck hunters, blue bills on the bay or put the work into finding and figuring out the local wood ducks. Like so many pursuits the end result is dependent upon the amount of effort and passion that is put in and I work very hard on my woodies to put birds in the freezer.
I lived in Alaska for 20 years and became very spoilt, being able to hunting waterfowl in one of the best places on the planet, and I have learned the hard way that our local wood ducks are probably the smartest duck to be found anywhere! The Florida wood duck is a resident year round bird that will not take a lot of hunting pressure before you will push them away from their roosts and feeding holes; so if you are going to hunt a lot you just gotta have a few productive areas. Pound the same spot even two days in a row and those ducks will have had enough and just disappear on you. Our rule of thumb for each spot is once a week for a morning and afternoon shoot, then leave them alone to get over it.
Finding the birds
Google Earth and Bing maps are where it all starts; these satellite photos give you the starting point on where to locate the birds. My hunting partners include my wife Maggie, Buddy Gentry owner of G&S boats, and Jeff Chesser owner of Harbor Diesel, the four of us spend hours researching the wetlands on which we hunt. Bing seems to have most updated photos and has become the source we have grown to trust on our never-ending search for the next big hot spot. Once a promising location is found, we will go on a reconnaissance mission.
Are the birds there? Where do they roost? And where are the feeding holes? These three facts are what a Panhandle wood duck hunter needs to know.
The best way to find out is to take your hand held GPS and scout the new area an hour before dark. (the GPS track will be your way back to the truck!) Now just settle in where you have the best view of area and watch, leave the shotguns (but take the lab) at home. You may bust up a few birds scouting, but the birds, if they are around, will start moving usually a half hour before dark, unless its blowing a gale then it can happen a lot earlier. Watch where they come from (that’s the feeding holes) and where they go (the roost), and in one recon mission if all goes as planned you will have your three important facts so the fun can begin.
We have by far had the most success by ambushing the roost area in the afternoons and intercepting the birds heading to their feeding holes in the morning. We have tried setting up decoys and sucking in traveling birds, jump shooting, and even floating the creeks in a skiff resulting in a handful of good hunts. But knowing where they are going greatly increases your chances. Once we have a fix on a new area, we will set up in two or three natural cover blinds where we can cover routes in and out of the feedholes and roosts. We need to be close enough where we can share Abby our sole lab participant, but also not be in each other’s shooting lanes. 99% of our shooting is pass shots and our knock down rate can be embarrassingly low. Wood Ducks are fast, wary birds and we wear camo from head to foot and then tuck into a bush.
Steel shot hits hard, but it just doesn’t have the range, so to avoid crippling birds, let the ones ranging outside of 40 yards fly. I shoot 3 inch mags in a modified choke, size BB, which might sound large for a wood duck, but if I pattern the bird, it is folding up. Jeff really likes Blind Side in 3 inch BB, a new hex shot that packs 15 percent more shot for shell, but at 23 bucks a box they are an expensive way to go. While Buddy and Maggie are handicapped by shooting 16 and 20 gauges respectfully, their effective range is only 30 yards. We let them come in close before popping up and opening fire. Since we all share one dog, the more birds we can shoot over water the easier it is for Abby to find the birds. If we wing one, we ground sweep it and park it. A wounded wood duck will be next to impossible to find, I’ve hunted ducks for almost 40 years now, and have never seen anything like a wood duck that can still run or swim! I have even seen one leave the pond wounded and run like hell up a ridge!
This season 2012/2013 has been a banner year for woodies. Both Buddy and Jeff have been in the area for over 40 years and both guys have said they have never seen or even heard of so many birds. A massive acorn crop the last couple of years has put so much feed on the ground that the birds are really doing well. When looking for wood duck areas pay a lot of attention to the type of trees. If you find the oaks close to the water, with acorns on the ground, you just found the food source! Roost areas will be thick weeds so look for ponds and wetlands that have areas with lots of cover, the ducks need a place to tuck in where they will have plenty of notice of predators trying to creep in at night.
Eglin Air Force Base has tens of thousands of acres of land, lots of old growth timber that makes ideal safe nesting trees. Just less than 250,000 acres is open to the public for outdoor recreation, with at least that amount that is closed to the public giving the birds a lot of untouchable safe habitat. The 50-dollar permit is the best 50 bucks I spend each year, and it is just wonderful that the Air Force allows us access to their land. This year we have had hunts on Eglin where we have seen over 500 birds roosting up in a single spot, seeing that many birds come in, over a mere half hour time period is just breath taking.
Lastly I have just got to put in a good word to a Florida duck hunters best friend the ‘beaver’. These wonderful rodents create new and ever changing wetlands, and ideal habitat for woodies. On your Google or Bing map research look for the dams, on close up inspections they will show as broken, rather than straight lines across marshes and streams. If the beavers are actively building dams, chewing down trees, they are making a wood ducks day, by making it easy on woodies to follow the trails from the water to the acorns. Every place we listed as a hot spot has active beavers, and our number one top secret area has a whole nation of the eager beavers on a massive construction job.
Wood duck hunting in this part of Florida takes a lot of effort no doubt, but figuring the elusive birds out is a fun challenge. They are the most beautiful duck flying and make excellent table fare. I did talk Buddy out of his old 16 and into a new Remington auto 12. Now if I can just get Maggie to upgrade to a 12 gauge, I think we will be there!
Click the picture to see how Maggie cooks their wood ducks.