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Great Waterfowl Hunting, Little Pressure
Overlooked waterfowl can provide exciting hunting.
 
By John N. Felsher
Originally published in the December 2017 issue of AON
 
Young shooters will enjoy a day in a small boat or canoe chasing gallinules. Just a few hours in a good location can usually provide numerous shots at birds.
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As we paddled the canoe along a reedy shoreline in a slough coursing through the marshes of the lower Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Mobile, birds exploded in all directions.

“Shoot,” I yelled! “They are all around us. Fire! Here comes a straggler. Get him!”

In seconds, my son Daniel fired three rounds from his Remington Model 870 12 gauge, but not every bird flushed, even after the gunfire. Most raced into the tall canes lining this narrow tidal stream, but a few remained standing on the edge of the shoreline. As Daniel rushed to reload, more birds burst from cover.

“Look, there go some more birds,” I said. “Get that one running across the water!”

Hastily dropping one shell into the chamber, Daniel cartwheeled the slate-gray bird.

Escaping birds didn’t travel far. We watched where most headed, picked up our kills and took a brief break. After we each downed a cup of strong Community coffee, we continued our watery stalk. Reloaded and recomposed from the initial adrenaline rush, we soon found them again for another flurry of activity.

While many sportsmen complain of too much hunting pressure for too few animals on limited overcrowded public acres, we targeted an abundant species with long seasons, liberal limits and virtually no pressure even on this public property almost in the shadow of a major city. Alabama sportsmen can target two gallinule species and four rail species, but these birds largely go ignored by most sportsmen. When the seasons overlap, a few waterfowlers might shoot an occasional rail or gallinule in conjunction with a duck hunt, but almost no one intentionally hunts these birds.

“Most species of rails and gallinules are somewhat common across the state,” said Seth Maddox, WFF’s top migratory bird biologist. “I would say that rails and gallinules are very underutilized species in Alabama. Not many people get out and specifically hunt these species. A few hundred hunters harvest a few thousand of these birds each year in Alabama.”

The 2017 early season ran from Sept. 9-24 in conjunction with the September teal season. Sportsmen can also hunt a later season that lasts from Nov. 24, 2017-Jan. 16, 2018 with a limit of 15 rails and gallinules per day in any combination.

Also called moorhens, common gallinules look very similar to coots with gray to charcoal-colored feathers. Its most striking feature, a chicken-like bright orange bill tipped in yellow distinguishes it from coots and ducks. A scarlet patch on its forehead makes an excellent field mark. Boisterous birds, common gallinules make unmistakable sounds that somewhat resemble children laughing or hens clucking.

“Common gallinules are pretty common across the state during migration and wintering,” Maddox said. “They breed in Alabama during the summer, but the ones that breed north of Alabama start migrating into the state in September. By November, they will winter in southern Alabama.”

One of the most striking North American game birds, purple gallinules exhibit blue and green body feathers, purple heads, long yellow legs, white rumps and red bills with yellow tips. Bright blue forehead patches distinguish purple gallinules, or blue peters, from their red-patched cousins. Both species thrive in freshwater marshes and weedy shorelines, but common gallinules sometimes enter brackish systems.

“Purple gallinules are uncommon in Alabama,” Maddox detailed. “Most will be in the coastal marshes and in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, but they can be found in small numbers as far north as Montgomery during the summer when breeding. They usually migrate out of Alabama by November.”

Kings are the largest of the rails and sport long, slightly curved bills with rusty or rich chestnut and cinnamon coloring on their faces, necks and breasts. Like gallinules, king, sora and Virginia rails prefer freshwater marshes and weedy lake shorelines where they hide among the tall reeds and canes. King rails occasionally venture into cypress swamps.

Virginia rails somewhat resemble half-scale kings with dark-brown heads and backs, orange legs and long, curved bills. Patches of gray splashing on their cheeks distinguish these smaller rails from their regal cousins. Very common and widespread, diminutive sora rails look more like quail with short bills.

“King and sora rails are pretty common across the state during migration and wintering,” Maddox said. “They breed in Alabama during the summer. Virginia rails are somewhat common across the state during migration and wintering but are pretty reclusive. Virginia rails begin to migrate into Alabama around October and winter throughout the state. Sora rails usually migrate into the state in late August or early September. They hang around northern or central Alabama until about October or November and winter in south Alabama.”

Sportsmen can also shoot clapper rails. Also called marsh hens, clapper rails make loud cackling calls that reverberate across the grasses. Alone among the rails, clappers prefer salty marshes over sweeter systems but also thrive in river deltas. In places where fresh and salty waters mix like the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, kings, clappers and other rails might share the grasses. Sportsmen might spot skinny grayish-brown clappers walking mudflats at low tide looking for something to eat.

“Clapper rails will only be found in southern Alabama along the coastal marshes and in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta,” Maddox advised. “These birds are found mainly in saltwater and brackish marshes. Common gallinules can also sometimes be found in brackish water habitats.”

Whether in fresh or salty systems, all rails and gallinules love their thick grasses and reeds. They prefer marshes, but also inhabit grassy lake shorelines, sluggish sloughs, river backwaters, bogs and other wetlands where high vegetation grows next to the waterline. All species stay close to the thick cover where they can disappear from predators easily and typically prefer to run rather than fly to escape danger.

Unlike loner rails, gallinules sometimes congregate in large flocks while swimming in shallow coves or walking across matted aquatic grass. They frequently use their long toes to deftly walk across grass mats, water hyacinths, lily pads or other vegetation. More likely to fly than a rail, a gallinule must run across the water like a coot to become airborne. Gallinules running across the water present excellent targets.

Since rails and gallinules do not respond to decoys or calls, sportsmen must go looking for them. Some sportsmen walk the marshes and bogs to flush birds from their vegetated lairs. Since slogging through soft mud in places like the Mobile-Tensaw Delta can make walking very difficult, many people hunt rails and gallinules from small boats.

Federal law prohibits anyone from shooting at migratory birds, including rails and gallinules, from boats under power until the motor shuts off and all forward momentum ceases. This includes sails and electric motors. However, unless state or local laws prohibit it, people can paddle, drift or pole through shallows and legally shoot migratory birds from human-powered boats.

Paddle a canoe, kayak or other small boat up winding marshy sloughs or coves with abundant matted vegetation and tall reeds that create significant shoreline cover. As silently as possible, dip paddles into the water and listen for the distinctive cackling or feet pattering over the surface. In very shallow, hard-bottomed areas, use paddles almost like push poles, sculling along without lifting them from the water. Water dripping from a paddle makes noise and sound travels long distances over water, especially on still mornings.

Scan exposed mud banks and grassy edges for movement. Scrutinize any tall canes. Hug the shorelines or keep islands, tall canes or other available cover between the boat and the birds whenever possible until ready to shoot. When rounding bends or emerging from behind tiny islands, sportsmen may surprise birds only a few yards away.

Paddlers can hunt alone or in teams. When hunting alone, sportsmen can stretch their shotguns across their laps or put them in another convenient, safe place for easy access as targets appear. When hunting in pairs, only load one gun at a time for safety reasons. Position the shooter in the bow, while the rear person serves as primary paddler and spotter.

Double-teaming rails and gallinules from a canoe makes an excellent outing for introducing youngsters to hunting. The youthful shooter can sit in relative comfort and usually expect steady action without growing bored sitting still and quiet for long hours. On a good day, sportsmen might see hundreds of birds and fire quite a few times. In addition, hunters in boats can carry food, refreshments plus other supplies or equipment and take occasional breaks.

Canoes and kayaks can get into countless areas where larger boats cannot venture, but they can only cover limited territory. Some people tow or haul smaller craft to their prime hunting territory with larger boats. With a small motorboat, such as an aluminum jonboat, sportsmen can run the marshes to locate bird concentrations. Once they locate a flock, swing wide to avoid disturbing the birds and head upwind if possible. About 100 yards away, cut the motor and start polling or use the wind to drift within range.

Since rails and gallinules seldom experience much hunting pressure, sportsmen can commonly paddle or pole fairly close to them, although birds in open water spook more easily. Even after flushing, gallinules typically won’t travel very far. After flying a short distance, these gallinaceous fowl frequently drop into dense vegetation to hide. Hunters who pay attention to where they fly can usually relocate them. After busting a flock, wait a few minutes for the birds to settle down and then proceed in the direction where most of them headed and begin stalking again. However, don’t hunt the same location or flock too frequently.

If spooked, rails and gallinules usually run into thick grass or freeze, relying upon camouflage and stealth rather than wings to avoid predators. Some may even remain motionless in thick grass even if the boat passes within a few feet of them. If the birds run into the grass, they might re-emerge a short time later if they think the danger passed. Back the boat off to extreme range or hide behind something and stay quiet. Watch for the birds to come out in the same general area. If not, remember that spot and return to it later.

Also, since so few people hunt them, rails and gallinules might stay out most of the day. Ducks normally fly best at first light. Waterfowlers could bag bonus birds while paddling back to the landing, camp or a larger boat. Some people even bring their fishing rods and leisurely paddle, watching for birds while casting for bass, redfish or other species.

Without a doubt, the marshes of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta offer the best opportunities to hunt all the rail and gallinule species in Alabama. Even in such a heavily used public area, sportsmen—and birds—seldom encounter any other rail or gallinule hunters.

Second in size only to the Mississippi River for delta systems, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta spreads across about 250,000 acres of bayous, creeks, lakes, swamps, marshes and estuaries north of Mobile Bay. North of Mobile, the Alabama River merges with the Tombigbee River near Mount Vernon to create the Mobile River. The Tensaw River breaks off from the Mobile River and flows southeast through Baldwin County. These rivers further subdivide into several other major streams and numerous smaller waterbodies.

From north to south, the delta transitions from bottomland hardwood forests pockmarked by streams and lakes to cypress swamps and finally into fresh and then brackish marshes. The swampy Upper Delta WMA covers 42,451 acres near Stockton. Here, sportsmen would mostly find common gallinules and some king rails. They might spot a few sora or Virginia rails in the more weedy areas along streams.

However, for the most action on all rail and gallinule species, head to the marshy 51,040-acre Mobile-Tensaw Delta-W. L. Holland WMA at the northern edge of Mobile Bay. A labyrinth of tidal streams connects to several shallow, weedy bays between the Mobile River and the Blakeley River. Paddlers could spend a lifetime exploring a myriad of tiny tributaries, potholes and sloughs in this lush wetland. Close to Mobile Bay, the water turns more salty, meaning hunters might kill more clapper rails.

Farther south, marshes border Mobile Bay, primarily on the western side. West of the bay near Bayou La Batre, Grand Bay Savanna WMA spreads across 5,151 acres of timberlands, marshes and salty bays bordering the Mississippi Sound. In these salt marshes, sportsmen regularly hear abundant clapper rails cackling to each other. Hunters might also try the Perdido River WMA, which includes 17,337 acres of Baldwin County along the Perdido River near Gateswood.

“In southern Alabama, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta and Perdido River WMAs offer excellent habitat,” Maddox recommended. “The Grand Bay Savanna Forever Wild Complex has excellent habitat, as well. The coastal marshes along the Gulf of Mexico in Mobile County offer excellent habitat, as well.”

Besides in the delta and coastal marshes, sportsmen might find king, sora and Virginia rails or common gallinules in just about any freshwater system in the state. Many lake or river shorelines growing with thick vegetation could create habitat for these birds. All navigable rivers and lakes in Alabama belong to the public, so people can hunt almost anywhere on these waters as long as they remain at least 100 yards away from a house or other dwelling unless prohibited by local laws. However, don’t trespass on adjacent private lands.

“In northern Alabama, rails and gallinules can be found on the Jackson County WMAs, Swan Creek WMA, Mallard-Fox Creek WMA and Seven Mile Island WMAs along the Tennessee River,” Maddox said. “The Tennessee Valley Authority also has land open to the public by permit along the Tennessee River where these species can be found and hunted.”

On Lake Wheeler near Decatur, Swan Creek WMA covers 8,870 acres and Mallard-Fox Creek WMA contains 1,742 acres. Seven Mile Island covers 4,685 acres of Lauderdale County on Pickwick Lake near Florence. Anglers might find some rails or gallinules in the more reedy areas of these tracts.

In central Alabama, try the David K. Nelson WMA, which covers 8,308 acres near Demopolis. Another possible spot, Lowndes WMA includes 15,920 acres near White Hall.

“Rails and gallinules can be found on David K. Nelson WMA and Lowndes WMA,” Maddox said. “The Sipsey River Complex Forever Wild complex outside of Tuscaloosa also offers good habitat for rails and gallinules. Areas along the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Alabama River offer great habitat. In east-central Alabama, areas along the Chattahoochee River and the Walter F. George Reservoir have great habitat.”

After the hunt, sportsmen might enjoy eating what they bagged. People can prepare rails and gallinules in several ways. Many people quarter them or just cut out the breasts and legs to fry them. Others put the quarters in stews, gumbos or other dishes similar to how they would cook rabbits or squirrels. With larger birds, some people fillet off the breasts to make boneless nuggets, great for frying or to put in other saucy dishes.

No sportsmen will fly halfway across the country to book a trip with a hot guide to shoot a sora rail or brag about the record-book moorhen they bagged. However, these birds can supply exciting action, often when other game doesn’t cooperate. On days when ducks don’t fly, shooting a limit of rails or gallinules could turn a humdrum morning into an exciting adventure, especially for a young child or novice hunter.
 
 
 
 
 
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