Overlooked Region Turns Into Duck Hot Spot

By John N. Felsher

The flock of mallards shot out of the cypress swamp behind the blind, roaring overhead like a squadron of jet fighters. The flock turned wide and disappeared into the fog blanketing this ancient oxbow lake, once the main channel of the mighty Mississippi River.

Playing boisterous notes on their calls, several hunters began pleading for the greenheads and their mates to return. We could still hear their quacking and the rush of their wings, but could not see them through the thick trees in front of us with the fog enshrouding everything on this chilly Mississippi morning. Eventually, the ducks burst out from the fog, over the decoys dotting an opening between the cypress trees slowly converting this lake into a swamp.

Each year, Arkansas and Louisiana battle for the title of top waterfowl hunting destination in the nation. Both states still offer outstanding duck hunting, but Mississippi on the other side of the great river could give those states some competition – thanks to the incredible duck habitat found in the Mississippi Delta region.

“When people think about duck hunting, they normally think about Arkansas and Louisiana, but the east side of the Mississippi River also has some good hunting,” advised Houston Havens, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks waterfowl program coordinator. “It all depends upon the water conditions and how many birds came down the river. The best duck hunting in Mississippi occurs in the Delta region. In the Delta, people kill many mallards, but they also kill a lot of gadwalls, green-winged teal and shovelers.”

Hunters watch for ducks from a large blind located in a cypress brake of an oxbow lake near Tunica, Miss. Many ancient oxbows along the Mississippi and other rivers provide outstanding waterfowl hunting in the Mississippi Delta region.

The Duck Highway
The Mississippi Delta spreads across nearly 7,000 square miles of the Mississippi River Alluvial Valley, one of the most critical wintering waterfowl habitats in North America. The MRAV includes parts of seven states between Baton Rouge, La., and southern Illinois. The Mississippi Delta runs about 200 miles along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River and includes all or part of 19 Magnolia State counties between Vicksburg, Miss. and the Tennessee state line.

For millennia, the Mississippi River periodically flooded low swampy areas along its banks recharging wetlands. Sporadically, the volatile river changed course, leaving behind numerous oxbow lakes that once marked the main channel. The capricious river built a well-watered alluvial floodplain dominated by numerous waterways, backwaters, cypress swamps and flooded bottomlands – prime waterfowl habitat!

“The Mississippi River is a big interstate for migrating ducks,” explained Mike Boyd with Beaver Dam Hunting Services (662-363-6288, www.beaverdamducks.com) in Tunica. “Ducks have been coming here for eons. It’s in their instinctive maps. People have been hunting ducks in this area for a long time. Before the railroad came through in the 1880s, people would come down the Mississippi River from Memphis in steamboats.”

Besides creating a major waterfowl migration corridor, the Mississippi River continues to nourish some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world. In the past century or so, crop fields replaced many virgin hardwood bottomlands, but considerable forests remain. In the past few decades, many Mississippi farmers switched from cotton and other crops to planting rice. Also, landowners began turning more acreage into duck habitat by digging potholes and flooding fields during the winter. These actions made northwestern Mississippi even more attractive to waterfowl.

The Mississippi Delta historically holds one of the highest winter concentrations of mallards in North America. The region also attracts many gadwalls and green-winged teal. Sportsmen might also bag blue-winged teal, pintails, wigeons, shovelers, lesser scaup, ring-necked ducks, occasional redheads or canvasbacks and other ducks. In wooded areas along lakes and rivers, wood ducks comprise a large part of the harvest, second only to mallards statewide.

Open areas of the Delta, such as flooded agricultural fields or moist soil units, attract good goose numbers. People frequently see large flocks of snow and blue geese flying high overhead. Some Canada geese stay in the area all year long. In recent years, more white-fronted geese, locally called specklebellies, began wintering on Delta fields. Not many people specifically hunt geese in the Delta, but in the right spot, the big birds might give duck hunters some bonus action.

Since 1982, Boyd hunted Beaverdam Lake, an old oxbow about five miles south of Tunica. Legendary writer, Nash Buckingham’s father joined a hunting club on the same lake in the late 19th century, so young Nash grew up hunting Beaverdam Lake and often wrote about it.

Garrett Holland with Beaver Dam Hunting Services prepares to retrieve a mallard drake while hunting in a reclaimed aquaculture catfish pond near Tunica, Miss.

“God made Beaverdam Lake, but Nash made it famous,” Boyd quipped. “We hunt three blinds in a cypress brake on the south end of the lake. We also hunt a farm east of the lake and an old fish farm in northeastern Tunica County. Years ago, we mostly killed gadwalls and some wigeons on the lake. Around 2010, we started killing more mallards, but we still kill a lot of gadwalls and wigeons. We also kill a few green-winged teal and other ducks. The other properties are more open and we kill a variety of ducks and some geese there. On the fish farm complex, I’ve never seen as many pintails in my life as I did in that area during the 2017-18 season.”

Many Rivers Run Through It
Not everyone can afford to hire a guide, but the Delta provides abundant opportunities for do-it-yourselfers to bag birds. Navigable waterways like river channels and many lakes belong to the public. Therefore, sportsmen with boats can hunt just about any place they can safely shoot a gun, but check the local laws just to make sure. Several rivers flow through excellent hunting areas, offering waterfowlers hundreds of miles open to public hunting. People can also hunt many oxbows that they can still reach by boat off the Mississippi River or other streams.

Many river runners hunt from small camouflaged boats. Some sportsmen attach commercial pop-up blinds to their boats. Others simply hide in thick vegetation or other available cover. When hunting from a boat, waterfowlers can stop practically anywhere, toss a few decoys into a promising backwater and wait for the birds. If the ducks don’t show up, boaters can easily relocate to another pothole. In a morning, prepared boat hunters might try several spots until they find the birds.

“We have to be mobile when hunting river ducks,” remarked Mike Caruthers, a duck hunter from Vicksburg. “Because we can move a boat so easily, ducks don’t get used to seeing blinds in certain places. When hunting a river, keep in mind the water level. I like it when it’s stable or slightly rising and high enough to flood the backwaters, but not too high. If the river drops too much, ducks leave.”

Some of the best waterfowl action in Mississippi occurs along the Yazoo River and its tributaries. The Yazoo generally marks the southern boundary of the Mississippi Delta. Rising in Tippah County, the Tallahatchie River flows 230 miles before merging with the 165-mile long Yalobusha River to form the Yazoo River at Greenwood. The Yazoo flows another 188 miles through rich bottomlands and agricultural fields before hitting the Mississippi River just north of Vicksburg.

One of the major tributaries of the Yazoo, the Big Sunflower River rises in DeSoto County and runs about 100 miles until it hits the Yazoo River near Satartia northeast of Vicksburg. Another good river, the Big Black River begins in Webster County near Eupora and flows 330 miles southwest until it enters the Mississippi River about 25 miles south of Vicksburg. When rivers flood bottomlands, they create excellent waterfowl habitat.

“We manage quite a bit of bottomland hardwood habitat in the state,” Havens commented. “The duck population in a given area depends upon water levels. Watch the river and creek levels. When a river or creek overflows its banks in a forested area, it creates ideal duck habitat, especially for wood ducks. We are constantly looking for ways to add new wetland habitat to the state. We’ll provide technical guidance to landowners across the state who would like to enhance their wetland properties.”

Will Murray, Jacob Sartain and Jim Murray call it a day after a successful waterfowl hunt near Greenwood, Miss. They bagged several duck species, two blue geese and a specklebelly goose. In recent years, hunters report killing more geese in the Mississippi Delta region. They often make a bonus bird or three, for duck hunters.

Hot Public Properties For Ducks
While navigable waterways belong to the public, adjacent lands usually remain private. However, many streams flow through one of the 52 wildlife management areas in the Magnolia State. These properties offer sportsmen more than 665,000 acres for public hunting.

The Big Sunflower River flows through Sunflower WMA, part of the Delta National Forest. One of the best public waterfowl proprieties in Mississippi, Sunflower WMA contains 61,481 acres in Sharkey County about 10 miles east of Rolling Fork. The habitat consists of periodically flooded hardwood bottomlands and managed green-tree reservoirs. Wildlife managers flood some areas each fall to create additional waterfowl habitat. In addition, several water control structures flood nearby sloughs.

Not far from Sunflower WMA, Howard Miller WMA covers 2,400 acres in Issaquena County about 13 miles from Rolling Fork. The old farm contains 48 fields separated by levees and ditches. On selected days by a drawing, waterfowlers may hunt on 24 hunt units, each approximately 80 acres in size. The state sets aside another 420 acres as a sanctuary to keep waterfowl in the area.

“Howard Miller WMA was previously a rice and soybean farm,” Havens recalled. “We lease out the farming rights every year so it’s still farmed. After the crop is harvested, we manage it for a waterfowl hunting impoundment. It has good habitat because of the agricultural operation. We also do some rotations for moist soil management to give the birds a little variety. It’s usually a pretty good duck hunting area. We allow people on the property on a draw system so we can manage the hunting pressure on it.”

About 15 miles north of Vicksburg, Mahannah WMA consists of approximately 12,695 acres of bottomlands, agriculture fields, reforested hardwoods and impoundments in Warren and Issaquena counties near Redwood. The state plants about 1,200 acres in millet, milo, corn and soybeans and floods it. The property also contains several hundred acres of flooded timberlands. The area produces mostly mallards, but sportsmen might also bag some pintails, wigeons, teal, gadwalls or wood ducks.

“Mahannah WMA is another good waterfowl area,” Havens suggested. “Mahannah WMA is part of one of the most ecologically intact and biologically diverse bottomland hardwood ecosystems in the Mississippi Delta. Mahannah and Howard Miller usually rank among the highest waterfowl harvest areas in the state. Mahannah has more diverse habitat than Howard Miller. It’s mostly moist-soil vegetation, but does have some flooded timber areas.”

In the northern delta, try Muscadine Farms WMA in Washington County near Greenville. Muscadine Farms started as a 700-acre catfish farm in 2002. In 2009, the property expanded by another 700 acres of catfish ponds and approximately 1,400 acres of replanted trees. The WMA now covers 3,048 acres and includes 90 old catfish ponds intensively managed for waterfowl. The state manages these former catfish ponds for waterfowl and allows limited hunting by drawing. The state also planted some corn, milo or millet and set those areas aside for duck sanctuaries.

“Muscadine Farms and Malmaison are among the best waterfowl areas in the northern Delta,” Haven recommended. “Muscadine Farms used to be a catfish farm. We manage those former catfish ponds for shallow water seasonal waterfowl impoundments. Malmaison has a green-tree reservoir and a cypress-tupelo swamp. People who like to hunt out of boats can find plenty of opportunities on Malmaison.”

Near Greenwood, Malmaison WMA spreads across 9,483 acres of bottomlands, old fields and forested uplands. The Yalobusha River meanders through the property. Many oxbow lakes, cypress-tupelo swamps, sloughs and seasonal wetlands can hold good concentrations of mallards and woodies. Sportsmen might also bag some green-winged teal, gadwalls, wigeon and pintails. Easily reached by Memphis along Interstate 55, the property does receive considerable hunting pressure.

Garrett Holland with Beaver Dam Hunting Services crouches down in native brush while hunting a flooded wetland near Tunica, Miss.

More Public Hunting Opportunities
Some national wildlife refuges in the Magnolia State also allow limited duck hunting by permit. The Tallahatchie NWR includes 4,083 acres in Grenada and Tallahatchie counties not far from Malmaison WMA. The 2,418-acre Mathews Brake NWR in Leflore County frequently hosts more than 30,000 ducks in the winter. Many ducks rest on a 1,180-acre shallow oxbow lake surrounded by cypress and tupelo gum trees with abundant buttonbush and swamp privet thickets growing in shallow water. The refuge frequently attracts some colorful hooded mergansers.

Many people also hunt the 38,697-acre Panther Swamp NWR about 10 miles southwest of Yazoo City. The property contains 21,000 acres of bottomlands, plus seasonally flooded moist soil units and impoundments. In some winters, the refuge holds more than 100,000 ducks.

“Panther Swamp NWR offers some good waterfowl hunting at times,” Havens said. “Tallahatchee NWR is another good public place to hunt. Most of the big reservoirs in the state also offer some duck hunting. Sometimes, the shallower emergent marsh type of habitat with a lot of lily pads along the lake shorelines can hold a lot of birds.”

More known for providing excellent crappie catches, the “Big Four” U.S. Army Corps of Engineers flood control reservoirs can also offer some good duck hunting. At pool stage, Arkabutla Lake spreads across 11,240 acres of Tate and DeSoto counties southwest of Hernando. The Coldwater River flows into it. Sardis Lake covers about 32,500 acres on the Little Tallahatchie near the town of Sardis. On the Yocona River, Enid Lake spreads across 17,000 acres near Batesville. The southernmost of the Big Four, Grenada Lake covers 35,000 acres on the Yalobusha and Skuna rivers.

“Many public waterways can be good for waterfowl hunting, especially when most shallow water impoundments are frozen,” Havens explained. “Grenada Lake is usually a popular duck hunting area. Sportsmen get a good mix of birds. Ring-necked ducks are pretty common.”
During the winter, the USACE draws down each of these big reservoirs. Low water concentrates birds. As popular fishing lakes, these reservoirs attract considerable boat traffic at times. When anglers run from spot to spot, they could keep ducks flying.

Before You Go
For Mississippi waterfowl seasons and limits, see www.mdwfp.com/media/253620/18-2018-19-wtd-hunting-season-flyer-4-individual-pages.pdf. The state also holds special youth waterfowl days on Nov. 17, 2018, and Feb. 2, 2019. Season dates and other regulations could differ on some public hunting areas so always check the regulations before hunting anywhere. For information on specific properties, see www.mdwfp.com/wildlife-hunting/wma.

Unless exempt for any reason, sportsmen would need to purchase a federal waterfowl stamp, a Mississippi waterfowl stamp and a Mississippi hunting license before hunting waterfowl. Visiting sportsmen can buy seasonal or short-duration trip licenses. For licenses information, see www.mdwfp.com/license.

To hunt on any wildlife management area, a person would also need to buy a WMA user permit. The WMA permit allows the holder to hunt all season long on any state WMA for any legal game, provided the holder also buys all other required licenses. To buy licenses on line, see www.ms.gov/mdwfp/hunting_fishing.

While In The Area
While in the area, take advantage of the rich historical and cultural heritage of the Delta. The area gave rise to many famous musicians. Music lovers might visit the Grammy Museum (www.grammymuseumms.org) in Cleveland.

The Biedenharn Coca-Cola Museum (biedenharncoca-colamuseum.com) in Vicksburg displays many exhibits and memorabilia documenting the history of the popular drink. Visitors might want to take a sip or order something sweet in an authentically restored candy store from the 1890s.

While in Vicksburg, Civil War buffs should visit the Vicksburg National Military Park (www.nps.gov/vick/index.htm.) For more than a year, Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and the Union Army tried to take the “Gibraltar of the Confederacy.” The city finally surrendered to the future American president on July 4, 1863. Don’t forget to see the U.S.S. Cairo, exhibit. The U.S.S. Cairo, a Union ironclad gunboat, sunk in the Yazoo River in December 1862 while supporting the Vicksburg Campaign. In town, tour the Old Court House Museum. The building survived the war with minimal damage and now houses more than 100,000 artifacts.

In Tunica, (www.tunicatravel.com) check out the Tate Log Home Museum. The oldest structure in Tunica County dates back to 1840. Looking for something more modern? Several casinos in the Tunica area provide food, lodging and entertainment. To plan your Delta visit, see www.visitthedelta.com.

Bordered by its namesake river in the heart of the Mississippi Flyway, the Magnolia State offers sportsmen some great waterfowling. People on a budget who don’t mind working for their birds can often find incredible action, often with less pressure than the popular gunning places on the other side of the mighty Mississippi River.