With extensive river systems, marshes on the Gulf Coast, and a location in the heart of the flyway, Mississippi has at times been blessed with epic numbers of waterfowl. While Native American groups and early settlers killed waterfowl at any opportunity, the nature of ducks and geese made them generally unavailable to the masses. Passing through in the winter and spring, the birds favored natural lakes, oxbows, backwaters, beaver impoundments, and marshes that were inaccessible to all but the most determined and well prepared hunters. Wetland areas that consistently attracted waterfowl quickly became well known, however, and by 1900 improving shotgun technology and expanding railroad lines made shooting more efficient and eased access for hunters seeking pleasure or profit. Wealthy hunters leased or bought their favored waterfowling spots and sought, with varying degrees of success, to exclude others. Some of the impetus toward organized wildlife conservation and the end of market hunting came from wealthy gunners who wanted to protect their sport. The high cost of waterfowling has been a constant in its history. With a limited number of truly productive areas and wealthy sportsmen competing for shooting rights, duck hunting can be the most expensive type of hunting in the state.
In the Delta, dabbling ducks—widgeons, pintails, teal, and especially mallards—have always been the preferred bag. The most widespread dabbler, the wood duck, is a resident bird that may be encountered along almost any watercourse in the state. Common but not overly abundant, the wood duck was traditionally called the summer duck and suffered greatly from year-round shooting. Historically, hunters waited for ducks in areas of grass or trees naturally flooded by winter rains or rising rivers. Dabblers prefer shallow water with grass seeds and invertebrates or the small mast of trees like water oak or willow oak. Divers prefer larger bodies of water. Both types rest in open, permanent bodies of water. Sandbars also provide resting areas and traditionally made good hunting spots for Canada geese.
Duck hunting has generally been more important than goose hunting in the state, though hunting Canadas on the sandbars along the Mississippi was quite common in the first half of the twentieth century. Changing agricultural practices have recently increased goose populations across the North American continent. Biologists established resident Canada goose populations in Mississippi that have done well enough over the last few decades to warrant their own early season in September. In addition, the snow geese that used to migrate straight through the state to winter along the coast now stop over in the huge fields of winter wheat that start in the Midwest and run down into the Delta. Snow geese have multiplied so prolifically, in part as a result of the easy winters on the wheat fields, that their numbers overtax their Arctic breeding areas, and special seasons for snow geese have been instituted, with quite liberal limits. In addition to the winter wheat, which is relatively new to the Delta, there are vast areas of open water in the form of catfish ponds. Cormorants and pelicans frequent the ponds, much to the dismay of catfish farmers. The addition of the open water has also added greatly to the frequency of diving ducks in the Delta, although few hunters pursue them. The large flood-control reservoirs in the central part of the state have also created new waterfowl habitat. These reservoirs contain large areas of open water and, depending on their level, significant backwater areas.
The folk art of the duck call and hand-carved decoy is well known, and Mississippi certainly has its share of call makers and carvers. What is less known are the decoy factories that once existed on the Gulf Coast. With access to Tupelo gum and ash, wooden decoy manufacturing flourished around Pascagoula from 1920 to 1971.
The state’s ongoing agricultural evolution and the efforts to control the hydrology of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta have affected migrating waterfowl in ways both good and ill, but the flights keep coming. Duck and goose hunting continues to generate sport for hunters and revenue for guides and landowners.
- Joe Bosco, Pascagoula Decoys (2003)
- Luther Wayne Capooth, The Golden Age of Waterfowling (2001)
- David Allen Sibley, The Sibley Guide to Birds(2000)