Like a former heavyweight prize-fighter that hasn't yet mustered a successful comeback, Mississippi's South Delta oftentimes seems to bear only slight resemblance to its historic reputation. Back in the days, it is storied, overwintering ducks numbered hundreds of thousands and blanketed the soybean fields that stretched from near Vicksburg to Delta National Forest.
A few years ago while reviewing 30 some-odd-year-old property maps, I learned that among Willow Break LLC 's long list of agriculturally-speculative owners was the prominent former client of my grandfather. A certain photo I had always pondered was collaborative proof: the former farming operation presently known as Willow Break is where my old mentor shot his last greenhead in the early 80s. He struggled to muster the voice for such recollections during our final visit a few years later.
The South Delta landscape has changed. Dynamic systems that flooded the area naturally for eons have since been beset by engineered feat. Flooding invariably occurs during the late-spring months when water collects for as far as the human eye can see before "speeding to the Gulf." Large buckshot-clay fields created mostly during my own lifetime to plant gold-like soybeans are again dedicated to young plantation thickets of native hardwood species. They'll likely not resemble historic stands until my children are old, but already comprise more than a third-million, nearly-contiguous acres of wildlife habitat that structurally offset contemporary agricultural losses caused by backwater flooding. Black bears, long-since endangered in the region, have staged a comeback.
West of the creek that intersects Willow Break, near a hole named Pintail for reasons unknown but misleading, is a 300-feet length of old circle pivot. It should have been dismantled preceding the farm's reversion to hardwoods. I'm glad it wasn't. The sagging, metal spans are ensconced in vines; surrounding hardwoods incrementally eclipse its height each year. Were it not for steel cable supports, it'd have long ago collapsed. Contemplating transformations among south delta people and land, as symbolized by the irrigation relic, sometimes helps to pass time while hunting under its shadow.
When mallards literally carpet the area anymore, it's more likely for hours than for days. There are ducks, more at some times than others and usually just enough, but nothing like what must certainly have once wintered here. Duck hunters are eternal optimists: they'll return one future day.
Willow Break's few duck hunters are necessarily dedicated. Limits are earned. If they say there are no ducks, it means that there are somewhere between zero and a few savvy handfuls of doctorate-eligible ducks that have strategically outmaneuvered local hunters since Eisenhower. Thriving populations of white-tailed deer and wild hogs are minor consolations when ducks are as stale as last week's donuts. But persistence pays. We hunt regardless.
Smiles creased our faces as we counted about 3 dozen duck silhouettes emerge from the tall, flooded coffee weed covering almost 2 acres in Pintail. Plenty ducks for Duncan and me. Within 15 minutes of sunrise, a crystal-clear December day was imminent. Anxious to return, ducks paraded in slow, lazy circles overhead as we settled into the south blind. The brisk north wind blowing directly into our faces, I hoped, would render strategic advantage. With 4 well-spaced decoys situated far behind, and a pair placed up front for a focal point. We shared a moment absorbing nearby mallard and gadwall murmurings.
We returned to Pintail the morning after Christmas. The north wind was bitter. Heavily overcast, it was spitting snow. Few more than a dozen mallards greeted us. We placed stools in the coffee weeds and loosely strung 9 decoys in singles, pairs and trios along the periphery, about 45 yards in each direction of our position. It's hard to hide in the absence of shadows, so we agreed to shoot the first pass low enough over our hide. Returning in pairs and singles, mallards slid over the cover for a glimpse at the susie softly beckoning them nearer. It took a couple hours, with young Duncan and me shooting our respective sides. Lively banter between volleys warmed us. There were plenty; the time passed too quickly.
Ramsey Russell's GetDucks.com