T exas offers some of the finest duck hunting in the nation. The options are many and there’s no such thing as a “typical” situation.
For example, we have bay flats, flooded timber, rice prairies, large reservoirs and small ponds or tanks. Each is a classic. However, for thousands of duck hunters across southeast Texas, one more stands as special: the marsh hunt.
The vast marshes of the upper and middle coast have, for decades, provided excellent and accessible waterfowl hunting. Generations of duck hunters got their start on do-it-yourself trips to wildlife refuges, seasonal leases, and unguided walk-in operations.
But nobody said “Marsh Madness” was easy. Once you abandon the nearest cattle levee or crushed shell road, the deep marsh can be brutal, a physical beat-down for the hunter determined to reach a choice pothole. The springy saltgrass clumps might provide semi-stable footing, but each step is different.
Worst of all is the goo-pie muck that sucks and pulls with each booted step. Add the burden of toting a shotgun, decoy sack and accessory bag, and the desperate marsh truly is “no place for old men.” But many graying gunners continue to slog out there to meet the dawn.
This is because first light across the windswept marsh becomes a glowing spectacle of lonesome sights and sounds you never would witness without sacrificing the sweat equity to get there. Distant roosts of geese and thrilling overflights of ducks are joined by hovering raptors and ranks and files of shorebirds and songbirds.
A specialized shallow-draft boat or an ATV can mitigate the misery to some extent, but these conveyances have a tendency to get stuck or break down. Do this long enough, and one morning you will be forced to abandon the stalled support system and begin a grueling march to reach the tiny dot of the parked truck on the distant levee. Like poor Sisyphus of mythology, forever doomed to pushing a boulder uphill, you wonder if salvation ever is within reach.
But, in a perverse way, perhaps the suffering helps make the marsh exceptional. You’ve done something significant. On the subject of “doing something,” the wise move for the aging hunter might be to book one of the many reliable day-hunt guides—and hope the pro’s equipment doesn’t fail.
The most reliable marsh ducks are usually teal and gadwalls—and, yes, shovelers. The “spoonbills” (aka smiling mallards or grinners) generally are bad-mouthed at lodges and camps, but in truth, they have salvaged many slow days.
The top prize, at least for salty veterans scouting the back potholes, is the mottled duck (black mallard or Texas Jack). These resident mallards tend to avoid big flocks and favor small water.
But virtually all duck species common to the Central Flyway sooner or later show up in the deep marsh. Sadly, so do mosquitoes, cottonmouths, and alligators. On that note, don’t forget to pack a head net and/or repellent and a small light for scouting the predawn levee and blind. And, on a warm day, don’t allow your retriever to wander at large across canals or sloughs.
The best marsh blinds usually are pits of some sort—the sunken profile helps blend with the low terrain. A box blind can stand out and ducks become skittish, often veering beyond shooting distance. This especially is true during late season.
If several flocks shy from a blind, or simply prefer a nearby hole, a smart gambit is to bail from the hide and hike to intercept and hunker down in the available grass. Needless to say, this can be an arduous task if you’ve got an AARP card scrunched in your wallet—but the ambush might make the difference between one or two spoonies and a full strap of choice ducks.
A billowing southeast wind piling off the Gulf is the top draw for marsh hunting. The ducks are restless under the whipping gusts, bouncing from pond to pond, and the heavy air encourages low trading.
Wads of teal, especially, can be counted on to dip and weave and buzz the marsh grass. On the subject of buzzing, all that honking wind helps discourage mosquitoes.
Conversely, a calm bluebird day can mean slow going after the first 30 minutes or so of legal shooting light. Thick fog or heavy rain often is poor shooting, as the limited visibility encourages marsh ducks to sit tight.
The best shooting usually occurs before midmorning; however, high flights of mallards and pintails trading from distant feeding fields sometimes drop under the high sun into the marsh ponds. This is true. It does happen, although waiting until, say, noon can become tedious.
Bull sprigs or no bull sprigs, most hunters are ready to bail by around 10 o’clock. By then, both coffee and repellent probably are running low. Not to mention patience.
A large spread of a hundred or more decoys on big water can be very effective because ducks tracking across the low terrain rely heavily on sight. However, the number of sacks often is dictated by reality. A long push on foot significantly cuts into the count. Two or three dozen decoys are more manageable, certainly easier to deal with when picking up and staggering out.
On a back pothole, five or six mallard-type decoys often work well. You don’t need many counterfeits if you are set up on small water where the ducks are accustomed to landing.
The pump-action shotgun is a traditional choice for many marsh masters. This is because you can feed the All American “corn shucker” a steady diet of mud, muck, and straw, and it will keep cycling. Some fine autoloaders certainly are available, but they are inherently more apt to jam. Toting a high-grade double gun into the marsh is a bad idea. The water is salty and the conditions are harsh, no place for fine checkering and intricate engraving. Plus, the third shot provided by the pump or autoloader can be a real advantage.
In the sum, hunting the marsh is similar to wading the surf; the rough and tumble aspects may not be for everyone, but those who like it really, really like it.
Email Joe Doggett at [email protected]