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Going PublicPublic waterfowl hunting along the Upper Texas Coast is remarkably affordable, and-provided you have the right gear-remarkably productive.
By Shannon Tompkins

They came in waves and clouds and clumps, swarming from every direction in the pink and blue dawn sky.

The opening in our decoy spread transformed into something very much like Houston Intercontinental's main runway on Thanksgiving week. While one bunch of ducks swept low over the marsh pond to settle on the brackish water between the blocks, other groups swung downwind, lining up for their approach and landing. At times there were three or four flocks of birds vying for air space over the six dozen or so decoys.

A constant stream of ducks-teal, pintail, mottled ducks, gadwall by the heaps, wigeon, shovelers and ringnecks sailed on stiff wings and floated down from the sky. The air reverberated with quacks, whistles, peeps, purrs and the sound of feathers cutting wind.

For about the first 10 minutes of shooting time, we just sat in our cordgrass hides and never fired a shot. Not a word passed between the three of us. We just took it in, mesmerized.

A thin, reedy "rrrreeekk" broke the spell.

There. That bunch to the east! Big, blocky ducks-a dozen or so.

Mallards! A greenhead's distinctive call gave them away. The birds came on, spotted the decoys, swung north of the pond, turned into the slight south wind and locked their wings.

My grip on the old pumpgun tightened. I could feel my two brothers-Les and Rick-tensing, too, even though they were hidden from view in clumps of wiry cordgrass.

When the mallards hovered over the landing zone, at the exact moment when they hung still in the air and were most vulnerable, the unspoken communication that comes from hunting together for more than a quarter-century took over. At the telepathic command, the three of us rose to our knees and dropped a bird apiece.

At the shots, the dozens of birds sitting in the decoys slapped their wings on the tea-colored water and lifted off the pond. They milled and circled. Some drifted back toward us. Others beat toward nearby ponds. Still other ducks appeared on the horizon, headed our way.

"This is as good as it ever could get," Rick said as he stood, shotgun in one hand, greenhead in the other, and swiveled his head to see ducks in every direction.

He said it more to himself than to Les and me. But we heartily agreed. This was as good as it gets-and it stayed that way through the morning as we traded opportunities, picking big drake pintails, wigeon, fat gadwall and mottled ducks one at a time until we'd filled our limits.

That opening morning just a couple of seasons ago was one of the best in a 30-year love affair with waterfowl hunting, one that has been filled with dozens of such incredible mornings in the marsh.

Probably just as incredible, to many, is that almost anyone could have duplicated our hunt and all those others. All of them happened not on some exclusive leased tract, or under the hand of some commercial waterfowl outfitter, but on an open-to-anyone expanse of coastal marsh held and managed for wildlife-particularly waterfowl-by federal and state wildlife agencies.

Cost of access? Ten dollars is the most a person has to spend to access any of the tens of thousands of acres of premier waterfowl habitat contained in about a dozen federal wildlife refuges and state wildlife management areas along the upper half of the Texas coast. On many of these areas, hunters pay no fee for accessing some of the best duck hunting opportunities in the state.

In Texas, where about 97 percent of the land is in private hands and access to the best hunting for quail, deer, turkey and other game is available only to those with the largest bank accounts, waterfowl hunting is an anomaly. While public hunting opportunities for deer and other game are minimal and the quality, in most cases, suspect, public waterfowl hunting areas are abundant and provide a quality of hunting as fine as on the most expensive and well-managed private tracts.

How good?

On opening day of the 1997 September teal-only hunting season, the first 40 hunters who checked out of the Mad Island Wildlife Management Area near Matagorda had their 4-teal limits.

On the Sargent Special Permit Area of the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge, hunters during the first part of the 1997-98 regular duck season averaged more than 4 birds per person.

On the 24,250-acre J.D. Murphree WMA near Port Arthur, the 3,398 hunters who participated in duck hunts during the 1997-98 season bagged an average of 2.8 ducks per person. During the first of the 2-part duck season, hunters averaged 3.32 ducks apiece.

On the McFaddin NWR near Sabine Pass, hunters averaged better than three ducks a day.

Considering the public hunting areas are open to all comers and attract waterfowlers of every skill level-from first-timers to gray-bearded veterans of many a marsh campaign-those averages are impressive and show the quality of hunting available on the areas.

But it's the quality of the habitat on those public areas that make them such duck magnets. And ducks are what they attract, mostly. Geese do use the areas, sometimes in abundance. But ducks are the big draw.

The majority of the habitat contained in the national wildlife refuges and state wildlife management areas along the coast is brackish marsh. Some areas hold salt marsh. Others hold a bit of freshwater marsh.

Oh, there's coastal prairie on some of the areas, and even some crop land-rice, mostly. But it's the marsh that makes the places so attractive to tens of thousands of wintering waterfowl.

The dozen-plus tracts of public hunting lands on federal refuges and state wildlife management areas along the upper coast, from Sabine Pass to the mouth of the Guadalupe River, have been the destination of migrating waterfowl since the most recent ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. And the ponds and sloughs and shallow open lakes dotting the coastal marshes attract ducks by the thousands.

Hunters have been coming to those marshes to pursue the birds for almost that long. But for most of this century, the marshes now opened for public hunting were the purview of the landed elite or those monied enough to pay for leasing prime tracts.

With the exception of the J.D. Murphree WMA near Port Arthur, which the old Texas Game, Fish and Oyster Commission bought in the 1950s and began a public waterfowl hunting program late in that decade, all of the coastal areas now open to public hunting were in private hands barely a couple of decades ago.

Most of the dozen or so tracts were sold to federal or state agencies and opened to the public within the past 20 years, and some have been incorporated into the refuge or WMA programs within the past five years. (The Middleton Tract of the Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge, for example, was opened to public hunting just two seasons ago.)

Today, these tens of thousands of acres of what were premier private waterfowl hunting areas are now available to anyone, often at no charge and again, never at more than $10 per day.

Some are open to waterfowl hunting every day of the season. Others are open just a couple of days a week, with the limited pressure ensuring high-quality hunting. Some have walk-in access. Others require a lengthy boat ride. All can produce world-class duck hunting.

But that high-quality hunting doesn't just happen. Truth is, many hunters who visit public waterfowl hunting areas come away disappointed.

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