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A Plan for Cans... and Ringnecks Too
A Beginner’s Guide to Seminole Duck Hunting
By Stuart Richardson
Long considered by many to be the premier waterfowling destination in Georgia, Lake Seminole can offer a Georgia duck hunter a variety of options in terms of set-up styles and species of ducks.
High-speed ringnecks make up most of the bag, but it’s the real speedsters, the trophy canvasbacks, that attract many waterfowlers to Seminole. This hydrilla-filled reservoir offers one of the best chances for a canvasback in the Southeast.
However, as on most large reservoirs, just showing up and setting out decoys is no guarantee of success, not even at Seminole when good numbers of ducks are in the area. Weather, hunting pressure and food availability all play into the equation of a successful Lake Seminole hunt. Besides, if you have never been to Seminole, this large, shallow, stump- and grass-filled reservoir presents numerous navigational challenges and boat-ramp choices. Where do you begin?
First, let’s understand some basic geography of the area. Lake Seminole is located in extreme southwest Georgia and is fed from both the Flint and the Chattahoochee rivers. Most of the lake lies inside both Decatur and Seminole counties, with the extreme western edge actually in Florida. This convergence area of the Flint and Chattahoochee has created some ideal waterfowl habitat that attracts migrating ducks each year. For most traveling duck hunters, a motel in Bainbridge or a trailer at Wingate’s Lunker Lodge are close-by, comfortable sleeping options.
Now that you know which direction to point the truck, let’s discuss a few more specifics. There are more than 20 boat-ramp choices in Georgia waters on Lake Seminole. I asked longtime Seminole hunter and former duck guide Rob Rosenbury of Thomasville about his recommendations for ramps close to good duck-hunting areas.
Rob suggested Sealey Point, which is near the Spring Creek and Flint River confluence. This area of the lake was holding a good number of ringnecks and some canvasbacks in mid-December. Rob also mentioned Trails End Marina on the Chattahoochee River arm, and Cumming Access in the Fish Pond Drain area.
Many Georgians launch their boats and headquarter their Seminole duck hunts out of Wingate’s Lunker Lodge, which has cabins, a general store, and a restaurant. Wingate’s is located on the Flint River arm and offers easy access to the Flint River channel, which is well-marked for safe navigation. However, once you veer out of the channels at Seminole to head to the backwater areas, you’re taking your lower unit into your own hands. Do not assume it’s safe to run the outboard unless you are between the markers in a channel. Outside of the marked river channels and navigation cuts, a boat could be in the dead center of the reservoir and in severe and likely danger of hitting a stump — or bottom.
Rob was emphatic about the need and importance of scouting on Seminole, not just for increasing your odds of success, but for safety reasons. He strongly recommends that anyone new to the lake plan on doing their scouting in the daylight. This is not a place for newcomers to show up an hour before shooting light and motor off hoping to find a good place to set out the decoys.
Rob said, “Plan on burning a lot of gas before you ever hunt, to get familiar enough with the lake to navigate at night.”
Another consideration is the type of boat best suited to ducking hunting on Lake Seminole. “I use a heavy-gauge aluminum boat with a 40 hp outboard. You need a heavy-gauge boat to withstand the countless stumps in the lake, especially in the sloughs,” Rob said.
Rob also suggested the use of at least a 25 hp outboard or a Go-Devil type motor on the boat.
“The lake is full of grass, especially in the sloughs. You need a fairly strong outboard to push through the grass. Smaller outboards simply get bogged down.”
Anyone using an outboard is further advised to rig some type of a tilt set-up to get through the hydrilla effectively.
Now you know where to put the boat in the water, but which way do you head? Rob told me about the spots considered to be traditional producers, like the Spring Creek and Flint River merger and the Fish Pond Drain area, or the sloughs off the Flint River near the Georgia Duck Refuge. But general directions don’t help much. The fact is, it’s up to hunters to find the good spots that are attracting ducks, and these spots change with hunting pressure and a myriad of other conditions.
“After opening weekend, all bets are off,” Rob said. “You have to scout, and that means more than just riding the lake on plane.”
You need to go into areas and look for grass, suitable cover and the presence of birds using a particular spot.
“You have to be where the ducks want to be. If you see ducks in one particular area or flush a group off a point, this would be a good place to start,” Rob said.
Be very observant of what other hunters are doing and learn what to do, as well as what not to, by paying attention. If all the shooting is back in the sloughs and not in the main-lake areas, that should tell you where the ducks want to be.
Decoys are an important part of any waterfowling trip, and to be effective at Lake Seminole, proper decoy use is critical. But what is “proper” on Seminole?
“Try to mimic what you see during scouting,” Rob suggested.
Seminole ain’t Arkansas, so a big spread of mallards is not going to work. The bird you see the most of on this lake is the infamous coot. Consequently, if you want your decoy spread to look natural on Seminole, you have to use coot dekes — and a lot of them. The other decoy to include in your spread is a ringneck. These birds account for most of the bag during a typical Seminole hunt, so a few in your spread is a must. Just how many dekes depends on where you are hunting. Rob suggests using no more than one to two dozen if in a typical small slough in the backwater areas. If you hunt the open water of the main lake, Rob says to use closer to 100 decoys.
“Coots should make up most of your spread whether you’re using one dozen or eight dozen dekes,” he said.
The typical ratio of coots to ringnecks is about 6-to-1 or greater. Again, watch what you see on the lake as you scout and let this be your guide to decoy ratios and how you set the decoys.
I hunted Lake Seminole in December of 1999 with Donald Yancy of Hogansville, who is a regular on Big Sem despite living in Troup County. I asked Donald how important the coot decoys were when hunting down here.
“They’re real important,” Donald said. “It breaks your heart to have to buy coot decoys, but if you look at the ducks when they’re on the water, they’ll be mixed in with the coots. Especially the canvasbacks. Some people read an article about Seminole and decide to come down here to hunt the great canvasback, and they’ll set out 6-dozen canvasback decoys. But you don’t see canvasbacks like that. Usually there will be a small group, a lot of times just one or two, bunched tight together in the middle of a bunch of coots.”
The food that draws the ducks to Lake Seminole is an endless supply of organisms living in the hydrilla, a water weed so prevalent at this 38,500-acre reservoir that much of the shallows are choked with mats of the grass. Boat navigation is always frustrating and sometimes impossible in the backwaters, but the hydrilla is what attracts the ducks.
However, hunters who have some traditional honeyholes in Spring Creek above Sealey’s should take note that a hydrilla-control program by the U.S. Corps of Engineers has drastically reduced the amount of grass. No grass — no ducks, so you can eliminate the upper parts of Spring Creek from your scouting this year.
According to aerial surveys by WRD, mid December is when the duck migration is at its peak on Seminole. Several different species of ducks have arrived on the lake by that time, including lots of ringnecks, widgeon, gadwall, and lesser numbers of scaup and canvasbacks.
The canvasbacks don’t seem to arrive in greater numbers until around Christmas, with the peak in late December and early January. According to Greg Balkcom, WRD’s waterfowl biologist, several hundred canvasbacks were already on the lake the second week of December, and most were concentrated around Sealey’s Point. “The best area of the lake to harvest (canvasbacks) is out in the islands in the main lake where the Flint River and Spring Creek come together,” Greg said.
Typically, diving ducks like ringnecks and canvasbacks raft up on the open water of the main lake at night and during the middle of the day. During the mornings, the ringnecks usually head to the backwater shallows to feed. These sloughs are lined with tall reeds and you can pull the boat up into this edge for concealment.
Canvasbacks and scaup prefer big, open water rather than the smaller coves with lots of cover. Good camouflage while hunting an island or a main-lake point and high numbers of decoys are the secrets to success with these prized divers.
Canvasback decoys should be used very sparingly, not set out in large numbers by themselves. Remember to mix them in with a lot of coots. Again, scouting is key to success with canvasbacks in the late season. Rob suggested contacting a guide at Wingate’s if a canvasback is what you are after, and you don’t have time to do the required scouting and planning.
Most of your shots at divers are passing shots. Ringnecks and cans rarely “work” your decoys. Often a high, screaming-fast pass will be followed by a lower, in-range, screaming-fast pass. With steel shot you want to make sure they are well within shotgun range. Even then, you’ll have some come down injured. A dog will help you retrieve wounded birds. Another key is if a duck comes down and puts its head up, shoot it again as quick as you can. A diver can get away by swimming and diving down, and in this grass you’ll have a hard time getting ’em.
An interesting theory about Seminole is what hunters call the “hunting-pressure cycles.” Starting from opening day and lasting until the end of the season, the birds tend to move in and out of the main lake an average of three to four times. As birds move back to the lake after the opening-day barrage, word gets out and hunting pressure will increase until the ducks, once again, leave the main lake to a large extent. Many hunters feel it is the hunting pressure that drives the birds from the lake, and some have even called for shooting hours to end at noon.
Greg Balkcom isn’t convinced that hunting pressure is the reason that birds seems to disappear from Seminole.
“I graphed the migration data for ringnecks from Lake Seminole against the data from the Savannah River Site, and they line–up almost exactly,” Greg said. “The peaks and valleys in the graphs occurred at the same times: an early peak at Thanksgiving, a slight drop the first week in December, a second peak the second week in December; a steady decline until the third week of January, and another peak the second and third weeks of February as the ducks begin to migrate back to the north.
“The ducks at the Savannah River Site are passing through on their way to the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and coastal South Carolina. Even without any hunting pressure, they continue to move through the area. The ducks at Lake Seminole are passing through on their way to the Gulf Coast bays of Florida and Lake Okeechobee, which is one of the prime wintering areas for ring-necked ducks. The bottom line is that whether we hunt Seminole or not, the ducks will still fly farther south.”
One final note, Lake Seminole is full of alligators. The very mild winter we had through the third week of December did little to push these reptiles into hibernation. Always be cautious when letting your dog hunt for a bird in the tall grass or when the dog is making a long retrieve. And by all means, leave your retriever at home unless there is a serious cold front in the area when you hunt.
Hopefully, this outline has given you insight into what it takes to be successful at Lake Seminole. While the opportunity to have a great hunt certainly exists, to have a great one is no accident. Seminole is no different than most other reservoirs — you have to scout and put your time in to learn where to go and how to get there. It’s good, but it ain’t easy!