The coastal marshes upon which millions of ducks depend each winter have taken a pounding over the past several years.
The devastation of 2005’s Katrina to Louisiana’s toe expanded across the state by Rita only a month later.
Damage done by these storms affected the next two hunting seasons by killing the very vegetation ducks use to stay healthy.
But things were looking up last year.
“All of us were really excited,” Department of Wildlife & Fisheries Waterfowl Study Leader Larry Reynolds said. “The marshes were thick with submerged aquatic vegetation.
“And then (hurricanes) Gustav and Ike came along.”
Those two storms blasted these fragile grocery tables again.
The result of the storms was more far-reaching than the immediate scouring of submerged aquatic vegetation: The massive influx of high-salinity water following each storm turned what vegetation remained brown, and many ducks had to scramble to find other feeding grounds.
The take by hunters last season reflected the changed scenery.
“We had birds early, and the first split was pretty good; we killed a lot of birds,” Reynolds said. “And then it dropped to nothing.
“I think one of the reasons was we didn’t have food.”
So hunters have been holding their collective breath this year, hoping that Mother Nature would cut them some slack and allow the habitat to return to health.
It seems their wishes have been granted.
“The conditions are good, barring any storms,” Department of Wildlife & Fisheries’ Mike Carloss said. “The table’s pretty much set.”
Reynolds said his initial waterfowl survey flights in early September backed up Carloss’ assessment.
“In the areas I flew, south of Crowley and east of White Lake, I saw much better SAVs (submerged aquatics) than I’ve seen in the last few years,” he said.
Farther to the east, the department’s Todd Baker has spent considerable time on the wildlife management areas along the coast, and he’s very pleased with what he’s seen.
“Things are looking good,” he said. “I think the high river this year helped a lot with lowering salinities, especially since it stayed high so long.
“It should be a very good season.”
Baker said Pass A Loutre, Atchafalaya Delta, Biloxi and Salvador/Timkin WMAs are in particularly good shape.
“I can tell you Atchafalaya Delta is looking excellent and Pass a Loutre is looking excellent,” he said. “There’s a great diversity of submerged and emergent aquatics out there.”
But he said the real gem might be Salvador/Timkin, which Baker said many overlook.
“It is slowly getting better over the years,” he said. “That place is reaping the benefits of the (Davis Pond Freshwater) diversion; that place is growing by leaps and bounds.”
He said the effects of the inflow of river water have been gradual but dramatic.
“There’s a great abundance and diversity of submerged aquatics that we didn’t have before the diversion,” Baker said. “If I had to keep my eye on someplace, that would be it.”
The one weakness in terms of waterfowl habitat is Point-aux-Chenes Wildlife Management Area.
“Point-aux-Chenes is not looking very good,” Baker said. “We’re not seeing very much in the way of submerged aquatics.”
The problem stems from damage to water-control structures from the 2005 storms.
“We had just begun to get water management areas back in shape when the ’08 storms hit,” Baker said. “Gustav hit it right on the chin, and then Ike flooded it with high-salinity water.”
Those two storms caused extensive damage to four of the WMA’s units, and even the ample rain earlier this year didn’t help.
“Our biggest attractants for waterfowl and waterfowl hunters haven’t come online since Katrina,” Baker said.
Baker said he hopes the damage will be repaired for next year’s season.