Outdoors photo

Kinley, Ryan Lambert's 4-year-old black Labrador retriever, had a busy day last Sunday bringing in a limit of ducks in the closing days of the state's Coastal Zone season. Lambert is the top man at Cajun Fishing Adventures and said he went into the 60-day duck season with little expectation of a good season, mostly because of summer's storms that raked Louisiana's coastal marshes. Nearing the end of the season, and with productive hunts like this, which included a bonus of canvasbacks showing up this month, he described the season as 'good, real good.' Hunters in the state's southwestern parishes sang a different tune mostly because a progression of hurricanes that destroyed the habitat in their marshes.

Don’t know how many wild waterfowl hunters you’ll find shedding tears on this, the final, day of the duck season in our state’s Coastal and West zones.

Except during those exceptional years — which seem to be fewer and fewer these days — hunters’ overall takes from most any season lie somewhere between thrilling memories and agonizing anguish.

All of which will send hunters back to the marshes, fields, flooded timber and open-water lakes next season to begin writing another chapter in Louisiana’s storied waterfowl-hunting history.

For the most part, this season was a bust. Hurricanes and tropical storms brought seven habitat-destroying tidal surges to our coastal marshes — places where ducks and geese and lots of other migrating birds need to find food enough to prepare them for that late-winter/early-spring flight back to nesting grounds, places usually void of sustenance when they arrive.

Yes, that’s how valuable our marshes are to North America’s waterfowl.

“We knew the habitat was severely damaged and the capacity to overwinter ducks was low,” State Waterfowl Study leader Larry Reynolds said Friday.

Reynolds and his team’s November, December and January flyover surveys are intended to estimate how many ducks are in our state. November’s numbers were poor, so low it ranked in the bottom five in the state survey’s 40-plus years.

“December's survey showed a big jump, but it was still below average and January’s was lower than December,” Reynolds said. “That’s not supposed to happen. We’re supposed to have more ducks in January, but it’s happening more often lately. … This is the fourth time in the last seven years that (the) January (estimate) has been at least 10% lower than December.”

And, the survey said: “The 1.97 million ducks estimated on this survey is 11% less than the 2.21 million in December, 15% less than the 2.3 million last January, and 33% below the long-term January average of 2.95 million.

“Most of the contacts (hunters) are pretty poor,” Reynolds said.

And he feels their pain: Reynolds does more than talk about ducks and geese. He hunts, too, and his never-say-die attitude sent him to his blind near Creole in Cameron Parish to hunt the zone’s last two days this weekend.

“From my personal experience, the marsh north of Creole got hit hard by (hurricanes) Laura and Delta, very hard,” Reynolds said. “We had a good opening day (in November), and after that it tailed off to nothing.”

A familiar tune

Ted Beaullieu Jr. knew the words to Reynolds’ song. It’s been sung in camps across the southwestern marshes and rice fields. He, his dad, Ted Sr., brothers and nephews flock to Big Pecan Lodge in what usually is waterfowl-rich Pecan Island.

“It’s been real slow. There’s no food in the marshes,” he said adding the marshes along La. 82 (the main coastal artery highway from near Lafayette west to the Texas state line) filled with saltwater brought on by the storms.

“It killed the marshes south of (La.) 82,” Beaullieu said. “The freshwater marshes north of 82 had some ducks, but hunting was fair, sporadic, and, for the most part, slow.”

And, Ted Jr. said, it’s the same from hunters near Abbeville west to Lacassine.

“The guys hunting north and west of Gueydan say it’s the worst season ever. The birds are flying high and not stopping. It’s been rough, and a place in Lacassine last weekend — they’re taking six (hunters) instead of 12 a day because of COVID — and their average was one bird per blind.”

That means a day with three ducks total.

“When the weather was right (usually on a cold front), we had a few birds, decent numbers, but the next days were a scratch,” he said.

The bright spots

Reynolds said while most reports cast a pall over the soon-to-be-ended 60-day duck season, there was some silver amidst all the clouds.

Ryan (Lambert) is one of the exceptions, Bill Lake in Terrebonne Parish is another, and there were some good reports from the Bayou Black area where 75% of the ducks taken were ringnecks. There were a handful of redheads and greenwing teal, but ringnecks saved the hunts there,” Reynolds said.

For Lambert and his Cajun Fishing Adventures operation out of Buras, the season was more hit than miss.

“We started off great,” Lambert said. “To tell the truth, I went into the season with zero expectations mostly because of the seven tidal surges we had during the summer. All the hurricanes completely destroyed the food in the marshes.”

So what saved the season in marshes east of the Mississippi River opposite Buras?

“The emergent lands from the cut in the river held the ducks,” Lambert said. “The surges killed lots of vegetation, but those emergent lands have duck potatoes. The tubers, the roots, from the duck potatoes were still there and most all the ducks we’ve taken had duck potatoes in their craws.”

Duck potato is a colloquial name for bull tougue, a bright green plant whose leaves resemble a bull’s tongue.

“It helped us have a good year when I had absolutely zero hope for any season at all,” Lambert said. “We started out the season with some help because lands farther north (the Midwest) of us were dry.

“We saw very few bluewings (teal) because they like freshwater, but the last few days we’ve seen lots of greenwings (teal) because they like saltwater.”

And, the succession of species helped, too. Lambert said the first split had pintails, wigeons and redheads buzzing blinds.

“We saw very few grays (gadwall) in the first split and very few teal, and the second split had pintails and canvasbacks — the wigeons left and the pintails did, too — and the redheads went crazy, and the grays showed up and the canvasbacks stayed.

“It’s been a good year.”

Still, the problem hunting areas south of New Orleans is the combination of north winds and the usual midwinter run of negative tides, a movement that sucks water from the marshes, but doesn’t replenish the water on the next high tide.

“It means we’re not going hunting until 9:30 (a.m.) on the final weekend, just because there’s no water to move the ducks in from the bays,” Lambert said, adding he’s looking forward to Monday morning without an alarm clock to wake him to a day’s hunting.

That and the fact, he said, that “some scumbags stole about $70,000 worth of hunting equipment from our place on the other side of the river ... motors, everything and then pulled the plugs to sink the boats. We have to recover from that, too.”

Wait’ll next year

For Ted Beaullieu Jr., the new two-zone, three-split configuration to another 60-day duck season can’t come soon enough.

“You know, 20 years ago we went through the same thing. Then 15 years ago after (hurricane) Rita, it was the same thing,” Beaullieu said. “In southwest Louisiana, storms revitalize the marsh. The saltwater gets replaced by rains and freshwater and the marshes come back to life. All we have to do is wait for Mother Nature to work her magic.”

Fishing week

Once again, fishermen will have to contend with low water temperatures, and, in most places, low water.

With this weekend’s rain and clouds predicted to hold Monday through Wednesday, water will remain on the cold side with north winds expected to hold sway come Wednesday with an approaching cold front and high barometric pressures. Maybe Friday and Saturday hold the best promise for productive freshwater and brackish-water trips.

Shrimp

What waters remaining open to inshore shrimping, namely the Pontchartrain Basin, the MRGO, Mississippi Sound and the Intracoastal Canal east of New Orleans, will close at sunset Sunday (Jan. 24).

The closure also includes the “outside waters” from Caillou Boca west to Freshwater Bayou Canal.

The only waters open to shrimping are the “open waters of Breton and Chandeleur Sound.”

Crab traps

Wildlife and Fisheries has canceled its annual derelict crab trap volunteer cleanup events this year. COVID-19 is to blame for ending a 16-year run on clearing waterways of traps.

The decision continues to leave removal plans with collections by agency staff and contractors.

The closure areas and dates include:

  • Pontchartrain Basin in an area west of Delacroix to the Mississippi River; Terrebonne Basin in an area west of Bayou Lafourche; and, in the Vermilion Basin in an area in East Cote Blanche Bay from midnight, Feb. 1 to 11:59 p.m., Feb. 14;
  • and, in the Pontchartrain Basin, in an area east of Delacroix to the MRGO, from midnight, Feb. 22 through 11:59 p.m., March 7.

The decision means only Wildlife and Fisheries personnel, or their designees, will be allowed to remove traps, and landowners must provide permission to access their property, and the removal can be done between one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset. All abandoned traps removed during these dates must “must be brought to LDWF designated disposal sites and may not be taken from the closed area.”

Need more? Call Peyton Cagle at (337) 491-2575 or email him at pcagle@wlf.la.gov.