Delta dawn and ‘Ribeye in the sky’ Ducks of the Mississippi Flyway
John Smoak, a Lowcountry native, has a robust duck hunting background. “I cut my teeth duck hunting here locally in rice fields,” he says. His father Roy and his friends owned Block Island in the ACE Basin. John recalls leaving the truck and trailer at Willtown Landing and traveling the South Edisto in a 13’ Boston Whaler with a 55-horsepower Evinrude.
Smoak continues: “The first time I went along with Daddy, I was nine years old. He was flying in that Whaler in the pitch-black dark; he kept saying we would be okay since Whalers can’t sink. Our black Lab Hawk was sitting in the bow. I shined my little flashlight and it was so cold, there were icicles on Hawk’s face! I was miserable and couldn’t feel my toes. I just couldn’t understand why Daddy loved duck hunting so much.”
They tied the Whaler to the Block Island dock and unloaded their gear. From a johnboat kept on the island during hunting season, they hunted the island’s former rice fields. John would soon discover an appreciation of his father’s sentiments: “Later that morning, I shot my shot my first duck, a green-head, a mallard drake. From that minute on, I was hooked!”
John reflects on present challenges facing Lowcountry duck hunters. “I just think birds go where the food is and birds have been known to cross flyways. We have shot banded ducks on the Atlantic, Eastern flyway that were banded on the West Coast. As a whole, the farming practices of the Lowcountry have all but vanished and our public hunting areas are surrounded by development as droves of people move here. Certain local duck clubs and plantations do have high bird counts because they grow crops specifically for ducks. You almost need to own a plantation or know the right people.”
Smoak’s passion for duck hunting has inspired him to harvest birds in waters far beyond the Lowcountry: Canada, the Dakotas, Louisiana and the Outer Banks. So when an opportunity to join a Mississippi Delta duck hunting club, John jumped at the opportunity. The hunting grounds reside in the low floodplain outside of Greenwood, Mississippi — the cotton capital of the world, “a stone’s throw from Stuttgart, Arkansas — the duck hunting capital of the world.” The men find humble quarters in a farmhouse and their playground is an expansive, working farm that raises cotton, rice, corn, soybeans and catfish — and attracts a lot of ducks.
The farm beckons ducks to several separate settings — catfish ponds, flooded timber and flooded cropland. Though the deeper waters of catfish ponds entice diver ducks such as canvasbacks and redheads, the ponds are off limits to hunting, primarily for safety reasons since the waters are routinely maintained by aquaculture crews. Mallards flock to the flooded timber; these swamps include tupelo gum trees but consist primarily of bald cypress.
As for the flooded, unharvested cropland, hunters contract with the farmer “to leave a little bit of cover and food — corn, rice and soybeans in the lowest parts of the fields.” Irrigation pumps flood the crops to a depth between 18-24 inches.
“We call the hunting areas ‘holes’; each hole is between five and 10 acres. We set our decoys on the open water,” John explains. A number of flooded fields attract puddle ducks or dabbling ducks, which include mallards, gadwall, wigeon, pintails and teal: blue-winged and green-winged. “We put the sun at our back, but that is second to keeping the wind at our back, being that waterfowl always land into the wind.”
Drainage canals just across the open water from the edge of the field make a good natural cover. The fellas mostly hunt in pit blinds — staying down low, so they remain unseen by the ducks. They also hunt from mobile blinds with adjustable legs to accommodate different water levels. As for technique, “the harder you work at being invisible, by keeping your head down and not moving, the greater your chance of reaching your bag limit.
“Your biggest fear is flaring birds. All it takes is for the birds to see something they don’t like and they flare — get spooked by something they see as unnatural. You see flaring more in late-season birds that have even taunted, shot at, called at, picked on pretty good all the way from Canada. It’s like a buck that goes nocturnal at the end of the season,” Smoak says. “These finicky birds have seen every gimmick on the market — from the latest and greatest electric decoys to high-balling — blasting a noise at ducks. Believe it or not, it’s not always about the precision of the duck call. The biggest mistake people make is calling birds that are already coming to them. Ducks are not dumb!”
John and his partners hunt ducks in the mornings, after which they “scout spots for the next morning’s hunt and, if we limit out with six ducks in the morning, we hunt specklebelly geese in the afternoons.” He points out that though the label “ribeye in the sky” refers to sandhill cranes, “I’ll take those specklebelly geese any day. I love the way they taste!”
He continues: “In hunting ducks and geese, I have noticed that ducks will come check out a nice decoy spread and fly close enough for you to bag them, but I have never seen a goose of any kind come in to a nice spread of duck decoys. There is also a huge migration of snow geese out there in Mississippi. I personally don’t find that snow geese eat well, so we drive into town and donate the geese to those who are less fortunate.”
John admits that this past duck season in the Delta was not ideal. He attributes the lower waterfowl numbers to two different weather factors. First, “warm weather up north did not push the birds south; ducks like to stay right ahead of the cold front and there just wasn’t enough freezing weather up north.”
In addition, this year was the third wettest season on record in the Delta. The uncharacteristic amount of rain meant that “the parking lot was too big for the birds that did come this far south. We pray for a dry, dry winter, because the less water there is, the more control we have over where the ducks congregate — because ducks are going to water!”
This season, Smoak made several trips to the Delta, hunting for a total of two weeks. Four days at a time is a good length for each hunt because “fighting that mud makes you so tired. There is a reason that mud out there has an ice cream flavor named after it. It’s elastic and it sticks to everything!”
The Lowcountry club members ascribed a humorous theme to the season: “You shoulda been here last week!” rang the recurring joke. “That could be the name of this article!” Smoak laughs.
Nonetheless, John’s experience beneath the Mississippi Flyway was a good one. “Don’t get me wrong; we had a good year. I did have a couple of nice bag limits with resident birds that came a little early. The few gadwall and mallards I did bag were resident birds, I think.”
Smoak is optimistic about next year in the Mississippi Delta next year. He plans to bring along family, friends and clients. He is optimistic “because next year, the weather has to be better. I am excited about developing a long-lasting relationship with the farmer whose property we hunt. I also want him to know we’ll leave the land better than we found it.”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.