Frosty air that only hours earlier had been breathed by Arkansas residents rustled the tips of spartina along the shore of the Pontchartrain Basin and bounced off a camouflaged coat worn by Chad Harvey.
Standing in his duck boat in the inky predawn, the Mandeville resident noted the direction and turned to angle a headlamp so he could see where he was relative to his heavily brushed blind.
“This wind is perfect,” he said as another decoy sailed from his swinging hand.
Harvey expected a good hunt, and he got one. He and a buddy shot nine gadwall, one bufflehead and one scaup. In normal years, he might have gone home disappointed or cursed his bad luck for not limiting.
But this was no normal year. Throughout the season, Harvey hunted along the coast, including in Chauvin and at the Wax Lake Delta, and he participated in a network of hunters who constantly fed each other text-message reports from other areas. Almost universally, the hunters experienced a subpar season.
“On a scale from one to 10, I’d give it a three,” Harvey said.
He would have rated his own season far worse, except for the fact Harvey is a contractor and his lease is 30 minutes from his front door. He can hunt any days he wants, and during this season, nearly all of his hunts corresponded with what he called “ducky days.”
“Most of the birds that were down were getting hunted, so they were sitting on the big water — Lake Borgne near my lease, Lake Pelto near Pointe-aux-Chenes (Wildlife Management Area), offshore at the Wax,” Harvey said. “We’d hunt the weather conditions with maybe a 15- or 20-mph north wind, and those birds can’t sit on that open water. They’ve got to come in.
“So the weather made conditions favorable to at least scratch out a decent hunt.”
Harvey said his brother did the same thing to have success on the public tract at Pointe-aux-Chenes, but the area he hunted drained on a north wind, so he hunted it only on days with a return flow off the Gulf. The ducks there definitely seemed to notice when conditions were right.
“The ducks would move in and move out on any given week,” Harvey said. “He actually wouldn’t hunt them unless they were there. He’d go ride ahead of time, find the ducks and then come back and hunt them. One week, they’d disappear, and the next week they’d be back.”
Timing was also critical at Atchafalaya Delta Wildlife Management Area, Harvey said.
“We went to Wax Lake during the week to get away from the crowds,” he said. “Because there weren’t as many ducks down, and there were some ducks at Wax Lake, the weekends were impossible to hunt. There were hundreds of people hunting Wax Lake on the weekends. The only way to make a decent hunt was to go during the week.”
Even then, success wasn’t assured, Harvey said.
Farther to the east, in an area thought by most hunters to be the heart of the southeast Louisiana duck scene, the birds were almost non-existent, and it didn’t matter what the weather was doing.
“I have two buddies who are good hunters and have leases in Reggio and Delacroix, and they basically gave up midway through the season,” Harvey said. “They never went back, and believe me, their leases are prime duck habitat.”
The birds that would normally be there seemed to relocate to the nearby Biloxi Marsh Wildlife Management Area, a tract where mud motors are banned and hunters must do it the old-fashioned way with mother boats and pirogues.
“My other buddy made a few hunts in the Biloxi Marsh, and they did OK,” Harvey said. “I think a lot of the birds ended up in the Biloxi Marsh because there’s very little pressure there.
"Delacroix and Reggio are gorgeous, but there are so many hunters, whereas that southeastern portion of the Biloxi Marsh, there’s nobody out there because nobody wants to make that trip and then have to get out the boat. So if you have no pressure, that’s where the birds are going to be.”
Even with his relatively successful season on his lease near Lake Pontchartrain, Harvey said one bird that typically fills out his bags was almost entirely a no-show this year.
“We didn’t shoot any green-winged teal to speak of until late in the year, maybe three weeks before the season closed,” he said. “For the most part, it was grey ducks and divers.”
But even with the slower-than-normal action this year, Harvey is still counting the days until next season.
“This big front that came through this week would have been perfect to hunt,” he said.