January 18, 2022
As I trudged through the mud and waist-deep green water to retrieve a fallen Nature Coast redhead I'd consciously uncoupled from his hen, I reflected upon the other flocks that had wheeled by that morning, their bright domes glowing like stoplights in the early sunshine. Recalling previous hunts that season, I thought about how nice it was not to shine off masses of competing hunters for a spot to set up. Still, I hoped a fisherman, prepared to freeze his or her keister off for a trout or sheepshead, might spook the bluebills lazing in the glassy bay and punt them back in play. But then, as the current chugged the drake towards Mexico, I realized we probably should collect our gear before getting stranded and severed from the ramp.
Different coast, different season, I had to bust out the other hand of fingers to keep count of the various species we'd cracked down at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge (MINWR). After years of drought and saltwater encroachment, the rains of two summers had sufficiently flushed the salinity to tolerable levels in order to grow the aquatic vegetation needed to coax the dabblers to visit. By the end of the season, word had spread. With that much pressure, the waterfowl in the Gulf beckoned.
If you're unable to locate productive duck hunting in Florida, you're simply not trying hard enough. Even a brief glance of Google Earth demonstrates we are not a state wanting for huntable waterways. The interior freshwater rivers, lakes, and Stormwater Treatment Areas garner most hunter attention, but excellent waterfowling exists along the coasts, too. With nearly 2,300 miles of tidal shoreline and rivers that greet the saltwater, Florida's coastal habitats are winter homes to large numbers of waterfowl.
But from all that prospective room, where should hunters pitch their dekes? The Atlantic has its charms, as does the Gulf. With scouting and research, combined with the proper conditions, unearthing a hidden gem is an issue of effort.
Variety Along the Atlantic
When discussing the assortment and sheer numbers of birds, the East Coast has one major advantage over the Gulf. The St. Johns River and watershed is the premiere highway for waterfowl migrating into Florida. Ducks navigate this vast wetland system, winging down in the winter before diffusing across the peninsula.
The influence of this impressive landmark is evident in the mixed bag of ducks found within a stone's throw of the Atlantic.
For hunters, MINWR is the most historically significant spot in the region. Generations have enjoyed hunts here that rival the top gunning found anywhere else in the Southeast. Waterfowling is legal on 36,000 acres of the refuge, and hunting areas include the open waters of Mosquito Lagoon and most impoundments outside the NASA security zones.
Through November and December, limited- entry permits are required to gun the impoundments the dabblers enjoy. In January, it's a free-for-all with as many folks as you care to battle; however, when the hunting is popping, hunters shoot pintail, wigeon, gadwall, shovelers, mottled ducks, green-winged and blue-winged teal, and a mixture of divers, among other, less-frequent species such as cinnamon teal.
Another popular locale is Guana River, a 9,815-acre Wildlife Management Area (WMA) roughly 15 miles south of Jacksonville. Guana consists of a variety of managed wetland habitats, including Lake Ponte Vedra, a 2,300-acre brackish impoundment. According to FWC's Check Station Harvest Data, bluebills and teal comprise the bulk of bag limits. One hundred hunters are allowed in per day during the season on a first-come, first-served privilege.
Stretches of the Indian River towards Wabasso, Sebastian and Vero Beach hold lesser scaup (bluebills) and other divers. Same goes for Jacksonville hunters who ply the north end of the St. Johns. Not always the easiest to access, the multitude of wetlands around it are duck factories for the intrepid.
And every once in a while a strong cold front up north will drive flocks of scoters down the coast. Superstorm Sandy in 2012 reportedly marched legions of these sea ducks to Stuart and beyond. These hunts are more specialized but further illustrate the variety and opportunity along the Atlantic.
Solitude of the Gulf
While, generally speaking, the Atlantic Coast attracts a potpourri of ducks, the Gulf wins hands-down for lack of competition among hunters. Even in recent years as the popularity of duck hunting has surged, miles of the West Coast won't experience the echo of a 12-gauge. For one, as you travel north from Tampa, the population thins so there are fewer competing locals. Two, West Coast duck hunting primarily consists of divers in open water—redheads, bluebills and buffleheads the most likely game with canvasbacks and the merganser species rounding out the roster. These animals sport a lower bag limit than most puddle ducks, which turns off the novices, to speak nothing of the Duck Snobs who consider diver hunting a paganistic pursuit. The Gulf just isn't the happening scene these days.
Chassahowitzka was a renowned duck destination in the early 1900s. In fact, in 1938 the sheriff of Citrus County, Charley Dean, purchased a 6-mile stretch of land bordering the Gulf south of the mouth of the Chazz river for a duck hunting reservation. Chassahowitzka NWR was established soon after this, which likely curtailed the hunting, but even into the '60s, the region was well-known for both divers and dabblers. Over cocktails at the Old Mill in Homosassa a few years back, an Ol' Timer spun stories of shoots in the ‘50s and ‘60s when his buddies would hammer the redheads off the Little River with little legal influence to curtail his missions—which probably explains why populations plummeted and bag limits are restricted today.
Nowadays, the dabblers still haven't returned home to roost, but divers, especially redheads, have bounced back in a big way. From Homosassa north, their populations strengthen. By the time one reaches Panama City and Pensacola, canvasbacks are seriously in play, and those ducks are daymakers for inland waterfowlers.
Perdido Key and Santa Rosa Hunt Areas, which constitute a section of the Gulf Islands National Seashore National Park Service, are two places the FWC recommends for Panhandle hunters. Apalachicola Bay is immense and, rumor has it, well-stocked.
Rafts of divers can be found feeding several miles offshore, depending on where you launch, but it's wiser to concentrate on inshore birds traveling back and forth to creeks and rivers for freshwater. With all of that open water, though, scouting is a priority to sort out which paths the flocks will fly. Locate muddy bottoms and/or eelgrass nearby where they'll search for invertebrates along the way. Sprawling decoy spreads are the norm, but, again, there's an awful lot of places for them to live life. Best to be where they want to go.
Not all of the action is restricted to the Big Bend and Panhandle. Depending on weather conditions to the north, Tampa Bay and Charlotte Harbor—and the rivers that feed them—host bluebills and some redheads. Savvy hunters of these estuaries, however, scour pools in the mangrove swamps for mottled ducks and teal by way of kayak. Once more, fortune favors the bold.
While hunting along or near Florida's saltwater environments is a wild experience— from dolphins visiting decoys to the wondrous waves of shorebirds that greet the morning—the uninitiated must heed situations not incumbent to those hunting mainland waters. Tides, for example, dictate scouting and hunting trips and are to be monitored wisely. Oyster and limestone outcroppings—even on high tides—are threats to props and hulls running through what appear to be safe channels. Mangroves are not to be cut for blinds or otherwise damaged. Saltwater is ruinous to shotguns and gear. And shallow-draft boats must take care in choppy, wintry conditions.
Also, while FWC states duck hunting is permitted on most water bodies with public access, you'll need to research which areas are closed to hunting, such as parks, or zones where the discharge of firearms is prohibited.
None of this is meant to deter the would-be coastal duck hunter. It's just a different game. But, the rewards are there to reap. In fact, the more I travel the state in pursuit of waterfowl, the more I discover the advantages and find myself gravitating towards the salt water.
Guns and Loads for Coastal Ducks
While decoying dabblers do not command heavy firepower, the divers—and mergansers, in particular—require stouter rounds. These ducks are often shot while pass-shooting at greater distances than one would prefer. A 12-gauge is more than appropriate. It's up to the individual hunter to decide if he or she wants to tote a 3 ½-inch magnum. The added payload offers a slight practical difference, in my experience, but hedge this bet by shooting No. 2s with a full choke. Make haste with follow-up shots. Unless stoned dead, divers have a habit of living up to their names. Non-toxic shot and shotguns plugged to a 3-round maximum are required.
Not glamor species, red-breasted and hooded mergansers are catnip on otherwise duck-less days. Over the last several years, their bag limit has remained consistent of a daily allotment of 5 birds and possession limit of 15, except for hoodies of which you may collect 2 per day and possess 6. These birds do not count towards your daily waterfowl limit but always check current regulations. They prefer feeding over harder bottoms than divers and favor little tidal creeks and sloughs with a current. Mergansers are not the most decoy-friendly species but will investigate large bluebill spreads – they do tend to fly consistent patterns, so setting up for a pass-shoot is most successful. Fisheaters, their breasts are not, um, gourmet-quality; however, when soaked in milk, whacked with a tenderizer mallet, wrapped in bacon and grilled, you can almost convince yourself you are eating bluebill. Hooded mergansers are handsome animals, and a fully-plumed specimen should bring no embarrassment to the trophy room. FS
Florida Sportsman Magazine November 2015