Post-holiday blues — it's a common January downer. That barren wasteland of emotions between New Year's Eve and the Super Bowl can bring plenty of sadness once we've packed up the Christmas lights and made our last gift return.
But some things carry over from December's glimmer to January's chill. For outdoorsmen, duck season ranks high on the list.
During the fall hunting season, local resident ducks such as teal (blue and green wing) and mottled ducks (aka Florida mallards) mingle with a colorful influx of northern species such as ring neck, pintail, wigeon and redhead that pass through en route to their wintering grounds of lower latitudes.
Species fall into two categories: diving ducks (such as ring neck, redhead, scaup and merganser) and puddle ducks (such as mallard, pintail, wigeon and teal). Preferring open water, divers eat fish and mollusks, so expect a gamier taste. The more desirable puddle ducks are mostly herbivores that feed in shallow marshes. All offer challenging targets and the potential for great sporting fun.
The first phase was Nov. 22-30, and the second phase, which started Dec. 6, wraps up Jan. 25. Youth Waterfowl Days are Jan. 31-Feb. 1.
So, if January finds you staring at an empty corner where the Christmas tree once stood, take heart in knowing that there's at least one tradition that doesn't end when 2008 does.
The North Suncoast offers plenty of duck hunting opportunities over freshwater habitat, but one of the most enjoyable scenarios for area shooters occurs in a coastal marsh. The benefits of remoteness and vast areas of shoreline contour appropriate for morning and afternoon shoots delight hunters who know the game.
Common coastal duck sites include the shorelines and islands of Filman's Bayou, Aripeka, Bayport, Chassahowitzka, Homosassa and Ozello. As with fishing, you'll want to ease across the treacherously skinny shallows with a push pole or trolling motor.
Because winter has the year's lowest tides, the access to prime hunting areas might be extremely limited by meager depths. This is when traditional flat-bottom duck boats with shallow running surface drive outboards excel.
However you arrive, you'll need neoprene stocking foot waders and wading boots for traversing the wet and muddy environment. And stash your boat well away from your shooting area to avoid spooking ducks. For thorough concealment, cover a duck boat with palmetto fronds or drape with cammo tarps.
Hide and shoot
The best part about coastal duck hunting is that a good blind is never far away. A stand of mangroves provides sufficient cover, but bolstering your natural blind with palmetto fronds and camouflage netting enhances the concealment. Camouflage clothing, hats, gloves and either cammo face masks or face paint will keep sharp-eyed ducks from spotting you.
Arranging a spread of decoys tethered to lead anchors presents an inviting scene for passing ducks looking for safety in numbers. Arrange decoys in two close groups with a clear "landing strip" facing directly into your blind. This tends to corral ducks into your preferred shooting lane.
When ducks appear overhead, complementing the decoys with authentic calls often persuades the fliers to group up with their brethren. Hold your fire until you see the ducks "flare" their wings to decrease air speed and drop their feet to land.
Rise prematurely and leery ducks can veer away from the decoy field, and that will tip off any others watching from above.
When approaching your duck hunting spot, scan the area for rocky outcroppings or deep cuts that you can fish later. Low tides are especially revealing, so note the fish-friendly details that can benefit you on future visits.
Conversely, anglers should take notice of where they see ducks feeding or flying. Look around and you'll often identify a handful of prominent mangrove points with sufficient cover and accessible approaches.
Inshore anglers often spot the tell-tale signs of past duck hunts, as brittle and faded palmetto fronds remain wedged in mangrove thickets. Noting these areas as good shooting spots is wise, but be respectful of other hunters if you return to hunt.
Never use a clearly established spot, and if you return to an area and find hunters occupying their blind, move on to another spot.
For a complete list of waterfowl regulations, visit www.myfwc.com/hunting.