As if on afterburners, mallards materialized over the trees and rocketed past the blind. Carrying a shotgun almost as long as herself, Skyler Roberts picked out a drake with its radiant green head gleaming in the morning sun.
The 11-year-old dropped the bird like a veteran waterfowler. She downed several more on this frosty morning while hunting on the 4,000-acre Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve near Section about 13 miles from Scottsboro in Jackson County.
“Hunting a preserve is a great way to introduce children to the sport because they are more likely to experience some action,” advised Jimmy Jones, our duck hunting guide for the day. “We encourage people to bring their kids. It’s also a great experience for people with disabilities. We’ve had people with Down’s syndrome and wounded warriors hunt with us. On a lake, people might hunt all day and not see a duck or get a shot. Here, ducks come in close and we can see all their colors.”
As someone practically born in a duck blind who hunted waterfowl ever since, I imagined something like shooting chickens in a barnyard when told we would hunt pen-raised mallards. Delightedly wrong, we experienced the closest thing to a wild duck hunt with very challenging, fast-flying birds.
“We pride ourselves on making our duck hunts the most realistic experiences we can without actually hunting wild birds,” Jones explained. “Since I hunted most of my life, I know how a good duck hunt should go. It means a lot to me to take people on a good hunt where ducks fly strong and fast.”
The preserve buys young ducklings and raises them. As the birds mature, staffers release the ducks at several “drop ponds” or sanctuaries. From that moment, birds must fend for themselves. Although most stay in the general area, they can go anywhere and move around to find food. Some even reproduce.
“The birds are not trained to go to the hunting ponds, but ducks are social animals,” Jones emphasized. “Some ducks leave our property and go other places. During the wild duck season, people may kill birds miles away and never know they were raised in pens. These ponds also attract wild birds in the winter including bluebills, gadwalls, wigeons, wood ducks, canvasbacks, redheads and even a few snow geese.”
Sportsmen may shoot pen-raised birds on the preserve from Oct. 1 through March 31, but properly licensed waterfowlers can shoot wild ducks in addition to pen-raised birds during the regular state duck season. The preserve also releases pheasants, chukar and bobwhite quail for hunting on its many fields. Native to the Middle East and southern Asia, chukars look similar to oversize bobwhites.
“We release about 6,000 ducks a year,” advised Jeff Ferguson, owner of Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve. “If clients want to shoot just quail or just pheasant or some combination, we can do whatever they want.”
Some people hunt ducks in the morning and upland birds in the afternoon. For upland hunts, sportsmen follow trained dogs across fields prepared as quail habitat. However, some people prefer to bring their own dogs. Like the ducks, upland birds also fly fast and zoom for cover.
The preserve also offers tower pheasant hunts. On such a hunt, people take up stations around a field about 100 yards away from a tower. A staffer releases pheasants from the tower in the middle of the field. Periodically, the shooters rotate through all stations so everyone gets a turn at the “hot” spot.
“A tower shoot is one of the most challenging hunts we offer,” Ferguson recommended. “Birds are really moving fast and go wherever they want to go. A bird might fly in any direction after we release it, so we never know who will get the shot.”
Many visitors stay at the preserve lodges. The main lodge can sleep 10 people with all the conveniences of home. An apartment behind the main lodge can sleep five people. An older, more rustic lodge can hold 20 people. All structures face a private lake stocked with Florida bass, bluegill and other fish.
“We don’t cook at the lodges, but we can cater food for groups of five or more people.” Ferguson advised. “Some people bring their own groceries and cook their own food. Guests can fish our lake, but we’re also about 10 minutes from Lake Guntersville, one of the premier fishing lakes in the nation.”
For more information on the Northeast Alabama Hunting Preserve, call Ferguson at 256-638-7014 or visit northeastalhuntingpreserve.com.