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When cold winds howl, hunters think waterfowl

Published November 16, 2003

Hunting ducks in Florida has been a tradition as long as people haved lived here. Not many hunt ducks for sustenance anymore, but the sport and the passion for it get more attention today than 50 years ago.

Florida is rated as one of the best states to hunt ducks because of the habitat, large public hunting areas and the number of ducks that winter here. In the Tampa Bay area there are large flocks of scaup, ring-necks, blue-wing teal, widgeon, redheads and canvasbacks, as well as black ducks, shovelers and mottled ducks, also known as Florida mallards.

There are two phases of duck season in Florida this winter: Nov. 22 to Nov. 30 and Dec. 6 to Jan. 25. Florida also has a two-day youth hunt Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. You must be 16 or under and supervised by an adult 18 or older who is not allowed to hunt.

I have had the privilege to hunt ducks for more than 40 years, and I'm thrilled each time we call in a flock to our decoys. I believe duck hunters are the hardiest breed of hunters.

Duck hunting at its best is done in bad weather. When there are gale-force winds and everyone complains about the weather, duck hunters smile because they know the ducks will be flying. Good hunting conditions include a cold front with 25 mph-plus winds out of the north. Bad weather gets the big flocks of diving ducks, blue bills, redheads and ring-necks moving.

Duck hunting is an equipment-dependent sport. You need a boat, decoys, hunting gear, guns, ammunition, camouflage gear, waders, retrieving dogs and, of course, duck calls. Methods vary, but most hunters use decoys. Many use mobile or fixed blinds that have been meticulously camouflaged. Ducks have good eyesight, and blending in with the environment is a must.

We have had success the past few years using a layout boat in Old Tampa Bay south of the Courtney Campbell Parkway. Large flocks of scaup congregate in the middle of the bay. In the early morning you can count on them to wake up and stretch their wings and fly around the bay. Other successful areas for mallards, blacks and widgeon are the Spoil Islands in Hillsborough Bay, and the marshes and mangroves from the Alafia River south to the Manatee power plant. Local knowledge of these areas is a must because of tides and shallow water. Preseason scouting is also a must to familiarize yourself with the area. The key is knowing which areas the ducks use.

Outside of Tampa Bay you can find excellent hunting on Lake Kissimmee, Lake Tohopekaliga, and Lake Pierce and Lake Weohyakapka in Polk County. Hydrilla plants attract ducks to these lakes, and more hydrilla generally means more ducks. Most of the ducks in these areas are ring-necks, scaup and teal, but we have had redheads and shovelers fly to our decoys a few times.

Lake Okeechobee is one to the most popular hunting areas in Florida. This huge lake holds black ducks, Florida mallards, widgeon, ring-necks and huge flocks of scaup, but I don't recommend hunting Lake Okeechobee without someone who has local knowledge. There are a number of qualified guides who know the area, and for a reasonable fee they can put you in the right areas and make sure you have a safe hunt.

Duck hunting is one of the most regulated sports in America. To hunt ducks in Florida you must have a state small-game license, a state duck stamp and a federal duck stamp.

Fortunately, we have Ducks Unlimited, an effective conservation organization that conducts aerial surveys in Canada to evaluate the breading success for ducks to determine how many may be harvested each year. Ducks Unlimited also supports conservation and wetland management in the United States and Mexico.

Duck hunting is a great sport, but expect to deal with severe weather. You must be prepared for heavy seas and make sure that your boat is in good condition. I recommend each hunter invest in a camouflaged personal floatation device to be worn while hunting. Statistics show more people die from duck-hunting boat accidents than any other hunting activity.

- Larry "Huffy" Hoffman is an avid hunter. He also charters out of John's Pass, Treasure Island. Call (727) 709-9396.

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