Duck stamp image

Guy Crittenden's painting of a pair of northern shovelers flying across a Louisiana marsh was judged the winner of the 2019 Louisiana Duck Stamp Competition and will be the state's waterfowl stamp for the 2019-2020 waterfowl season. Crittenden won the state contest in 2015 and finished second in the 2013 and 2014 competitions. He won similar contests in eight other states. Louisiana wildlife artist Dale Pousson, a 2003 state winner, finished second to Crittenden and Indiana's three-time state winner Jeffrey Klinefelter​ finished third.

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes afield knows that Mother Nature giveth, and she also taketh away.

In recent weeks, she ripped away from anglers what is normally a rite of passage in the autumn months. Most years, from September through November, the Mississippi River is at its lowest levels of the year, and redfish and speckled trout move into the bait-rich deep waters to fill their bottomless bellies and add fat for the lean winter months.

Anglers who target them often don’t even have to start their outboards, using trolling-motor power to reach waters loaded with game fish.

But this year, the river jumped to nearly 10 feet in September, and hasn’t looked back, holding at unseasonably high levels throughout autumn.

There’s been no easy speckled trout and redfish run in lower Plaquemines Parish this year.

But what Mother Nature took from anglers, she laid at the feet of duck hunters. That same high river protected the region from the storm surge pushed in by Hurricane Michael last month. The saltwater singed aquatic vegetation across much of the coast, but the fresh river water set lower Plaquemines up for a stellar duck season.

Ryan Lambert, who caters to duck hunters from his Cajun Fishing Adventures lodge in Buras, said the protection Mother Nature provided the area is evident.

“We’re going to have a really good food source throughout the season,” Lambert said. “We’ve already got plenty ducks.”

Lambert said 15 duck varieties frequent the marshes of lower Plaquemines Parish, including gadwall, pintail, green-winged and blue-winged teal, redheads and canvasbacks. They’ll all be fair game when the season opens Saturday in Louisiana’s Coastal Zone.

Lambert is spending the latter part of this week setting up blinds, and he said, like real estate, the three most important factors are location, location and location.

“I hunt on food sources, particularly in the first part of the season,” he said. “Then, I go according to the tide. The birds move to and from food sources according to the tide in the coastal area. You’ve got to play close attention to tides if you’re going to hunt food sources.”

In addition, Lambert sets up blinds for every wind direction, and he studies his land every season to determine flight patterns, which can change from year to year.

“The ducks will follow different lines, whether it’s a canal or bayou or line of vegetation, especially when the (hunting) pressure starts getting on them,” he said. “They’ll go offshore during low tide times when they can’t get where they want in the marsh. They’ll be rafted up 10 miles offshore.

“When the tide starts coming in, you can just sit there and watch them. You can see them from miles and miles away. They all seem to have those flyways that they come in on. When you’re set up on all that stuff, you’re the first thing they see. If you set up a big raft of decoys, guess what? You’re the man.”

That’s true, most of the time, only when decoys are set up properly. Some hunters get in a hurry in the morning, and just chuck out decoys in haphazard fashion. That’s a big mistake, Lambert said.

“I’m very meticulous about my spread,” he said. “I set up 50 to 100 decoys, and I put them out by species. I form the pattern I want, but I’m always mindful to put species together. I don’t just throw different decoys all out together.

“When birds get up, they flock and when they come down, they flock. You have to try to match that, and of course, you want to leave a landing zone according to the wind. Birds are going to alight into the wind.

“This year, because we have so much vegetation, we’re going to have to use poule d’eau decoys as well,” Lambert said. “They’re going to come into those poule d’eaus. It’s actually difficult to compete with those poule d’eaus sometimes, when you’ve got 500 grouped up somewhere.

“Setting out decoys is an art as much as any hunt.”

To get nearby ducks to look at those decoys, Lambert uses any of the four calls, plus a whistle, that hang from his lanyard. He’s aggressive with his calling when he needs to be, but can also dial it back to seal the deal.

“I call a lot, but I use a bunch of different calls,” he said. “I do that by species as well. If they’re far away, I’ll high-ball them, but once they turn and are coming in, I’m using gadwall calls and do a lot of whistling. I try to talk to those specific birds.”

Lambert also keeps a goose call on his lanyard to get the attention of the snows and blues that frequent lower Plaquemines.

“When they’re coming over, all you do is honk at them to try to get them low enough to shoot them as they pass,” he said.

Specklebellies are also a possibility, but a remote one. In all his years of hunting the area, Lambert and his team of guides have taken only two.