Enveloped in darkness, only the faint twinkle of fading starlight in a graying sky and a thin sliver of pink highlighting the eastern horizon provided any illumination. While waiting, the two adults in the blind talked in hushed tones about the great waterfowling adventures we each experienced over the years. In the old days, endless flights of mallards always seemed to come our way. At least that’s how we remembered it and that’s what we told the young boy on his first waterfowl hunt.
Sitting between the two yarn-spinners, the boy listened with wide-eyed fascination to the ruminations of the veteran waterfowlers. Tightly, he clutched his new 20-gauge Remington 870 pump, hoping to make his first kill with the recent birthday present.
Daniel Felsher jumps a flock of coots while hunting off the St. Johns River near Geneva, Florida.
Between stories, we listened as the marsh came alive. Around us, various frogs, birds, reptiles and other creatures added their voices to the natural cacophony rising to herald a new day in this rich freshwater marsh. Before us, unseen fish splashed and jumped in shallow water. A vague silhouette hinted of something making a wake across the pond – perhaps an alligator waiting for ducks to fall from the sky, a muskrat returning home after a night of foraging or possibly an otter hunting for its fishy breakfast.
Above us, unseen rapidly beating wings whistled through the ebony sky. Occasionally, something splash landed in the water somewhere across the pond. In the distance, faint whistles, quacks and high-pitched squeals trumpeted the movements of other birds as small twisting black shapes rocketed low over the grass before vanishing into the still dark sky.
All loaded up and ready for action, we waited until we heard the distant muffled gunpowder-generated thunder rolling across the wetlands as the light grew stronger. Several loud blasts from other hunters only a few hundred yards away followed as shooting hours and a new duck season finally began.
In our little corner of the marsh, I caught a faint black blur buzzing from left to right as it entered my peripheral vision. I grabbed my shotgun and almost jumped to shoot when, to my embarrassment, I identified the flying creature as a mosquito buzzing only inches from my eye instead of a greenhead coming in at 30 yards.
“Opening day jitters?” my hunting partner chided. “Happens to me too after all these years. I almost pulled on a mosquito myself and I’m half-tempted to shoot one of those blackbirds that keep flying over the blind. I do see some life in the pond, though.”
Several coots swam just outside our decoy spread as we waited for squadrons of mallards, pintails, wigeons, teal and gadwalls to wing their way in our direction. The coots frequently dove in the water to bring up aquatic vegetation in their white chicken-like bills. Although legal game, we left the coots alone to serve as live decoys – for now!
Coots swim in a lake.
However, as the sun broke through the horizon and began its climb across the sky, we sat empty-handed, bathed in the golden light illuminating a golden marsh. At first light, a few teal zoomed near us at sonic speed without offering any good shots. Several flocks of high-fliers annoyingly quacked overhead as they flew elsewhere. None of us sitting in this blind even clicked the safeties off our guns. Even the sound of distant gunfire largely subsided.
Frustratingly, the coots still swam merrily among the decoys, joined by several more of their friends. Apparently, our live decoys only attracted more of their kind. Hearing no other activity or shots rolling over the vast marshes for quite some time and tired of watching the coots play in our pond, we decided to do something about it.
“Wanna shoot that new gun of yours, son?” I asked, already knowing the answer. “Pick out one of those coots swimming just outside the decoys. Make sure you don’t shoot any decoys. Bust one on the water and then see if you can hit one in the air.”
Steven Felsher retrieves a coot he shot from his canoe while hunting off the St. Johns River near Geneva, Florida.
My son stood up to see better over the blind materials and took careful aim at one of the coots about 25 yards away. BLAM! He nailed that one, making his first kill with the new shotgun. With the second shot, he cart-wheeled another coot making a run for it while the rest of the flock pattered across the water to the other side of the pond. Coots cannot vault into the air like mallards or other puddle ducks. They must use their oversized lobed feet, not webbed like ducks, to run across the surface for several yards to become airborne.
Few people intentionally venture into marshes or lakes to hunt what biologists call Fulica Americana. Louisiana Cajuns call them “poule d’eau” − meaning “water chicken” because they frequently bob their heads like chickens when swimming. Many sportsmen call them mud hens, and other derogatory names. Duck hunters largely ignore them unless they grow bored from staring at empty skies. Waterfowlers occasionally pick off a few coots that fly too close to the blind or, more likely, swim into the decoys, but coots can turn a humdrum day into an exciting hunt.
Not really a duck, but a member of the rail family, a coot looks like a black or slate gray chicken with a white pointed bill and green legs tipped by lobed toes. Although seemingly weak fliers with stubby, rounded wings, coots do migrate from Canada as far as South America. Some stay in the southern United States all year long, but millions more come down in the fall. On any given winter day, just about any unfrozen freshwater system or coastal estuary across its range might hold enormous flocks of these birds. Since most waterways belong to the public, many lakes, rivers, creeks and estuaries can provide good coot shooting, but check local regulations before hunting any specific area.
Coots need to run along the surface of the water to become airborne, making them easy targets.
Although they enter brackish or salty systems occasionally, coots generally prefer sweeter water with abundant aquatic weeds. They thrive in freshwater marshes and estuaries, sluggish rivers with numerous backwaters and large lakes. They may even inhabit golf course water hazards, wastewater treatment ponds, stock tanks, irrigation ponds and aquaculture ponds. Excellent swimmers, they can dive as deep as 25 feet to pluck aquatic plants from the bottom. Opportunistic feeders, coots mainly eat roots, but may also consume seeds, tender shoots, stems, insects, snails, worms, amphibians and small fish.
Since coots seldom decoy and don’t respond to calls, sportsmen usually must go looking for them. Many waterfowlers hunt from blinds for an hour or two during the morning. When the ducks stop flying, they start looking for coots as bonus birds to shoot.
Federal laws prohibit hunters from shooting migratory birds such as coots from boats under power, including sails and electronic trolling motors. Before anyone may shoot a coot from a boat, the motor must stop and all forward momentum cease. However, sportsmen may shoot at migratory birds from boats poled or paddled by human power unless prohibited by regulations on certain public properties. Therefore, a canoe or kayak makes an excellent platform for a coot shoot.
Daniel Felsher shows off a couple of coots he bagged while jump-shooting from a canoe during a hunt off the St. Johns River near Geneva, Florida.
Each winter, coots raft up by the thousands on major reservoirs, bays and estuaries, but sportsmen can seldom get within range of these birds with human powered craft. In open water, thousands of eyes can see anything attempting to sneak up on them from long distances. Although not particularly smart, coots frequently and frustratingly swim in front of a boat, but just out of range.
When stalking coots in open water, never paddle directly toward them. Instead, veer off at an angle in the direction they want to go. When sensing danger, coots habitually bunch up together, creating excellent opportunities for multiple kills with the first shot if someone can get within range. On rare occasions, if the wind blows right, hunters can lie down in their boats and drift into a flock feeding on open water.
Coot shooters can usually find much better success in smaller, isolated waters avoided by larger craft. Rarely hunted or even disturbed, coots in sloughs where they can’t see long distances don’t startle easily. Glide along as silently as possible through reedy backwaters or broken marshes pockmarked by ponds. Watch for movement, feathers, patches of loose floating weed stems or other signs that could indicate coots in the area. Listen for their calls or the sound of feet pattering across the water. Highly visible even from long distances, the white splashes coots make when running across the surface can pinpoint birds.
To avoid detection, hug shorelines or keep islands, tall canes or other available cover between the boat and birds whenever possible. Bends in winding channels make great ambush points since they limit distance visibility. When coming around bends, cautiously take the inside curve to keep the boat as hidden as possible. Pay particular attention to weedy, broken shorelines with plenty of points, pockets and other irregularities where coots can hide.
Steven Felsher shows off a coot he shot while hunting with Byron Hennecy of Osceola Outback Adventures in the marshes along the St. Johns River west of Melbourne, Florida.
As a boat rounds a bend, a large flock could explode from a weedy shoreline only yards away. Just as often, coots may not flush even as the boat slips past them. Typically, coots prefer to swim or run across the water to escape danger rather than fly. They make great targets as they run across the surface. Even after getting airborne, coots often fly low and may only sail a few hundred yards before landing again. Commonly, they land within sight of the hunters or just around the next bend.
In open water, coots may fly from one end of a pond or bay to land on the far shoreline a few hundred yards away. After dispatching cripples and picking up the kills, take a break. Let the flock settle down for a few minutes. Then, sportsmen can often make another successful sneak on the flock. In a good area, paddlers may stalk the same group of birds several times.
Canoes and kayaks can venture into areas where larger boats cannot go, but they can only cover limited territory. Some sportsmen tow or haul canoes with larger boats to prime hunting territory, anchor the big boat and set off paddling in the small boat. Even on major reservoirs, sportsmen can usually find some isolated creek channels, coves or reedy backwaters that could provide good jump shooting.
Many sportsmen hunt solo and place their shotguns across their laps or in another convenient place when paddling. For probably the best technique, hunt in pairs. Designate one shooter to sit in the bow and one person in the stern to act as spotter and paddler. For safety reasons, only the designated shooter should hold a loaded gun, but sportsmen can take turns shooting and paddling.
Jumping coots from a canoe also offers an excellent opportunity to teach youngsters about hunting. Children may soon grow bored sitting in cold blinds for long hours. On a good day, paddlers might see hundreds of birds and fire quite a few times. In addition, hunters can carry food and refreshments in the boat to take occasional breaks.
For jump shooting in big waters where shots typically come at extreme ranges, sportsmen may wish to use a full choke with No. 2 steel, No. 4 Hevi-Shot or comparable non-toxic loads. For stalking coots in marshy sloughs where shots may come at closer ranges, use a modified or improved cylinder shotgun loaded with high-powered No. 4 steel or No. 6 or 7½ Hevi-Shot or similar non-toxic loads.
Coot season usually runs concurrent to duck season, but coots do not count in the daily duck limit. Most states grant sportsmen very liberal coot limits in addition to the duck limit. Widespread, super abundant and seldom hunted with liberal bag limits, coots make the ideal game bird to cap off one of those days when ducks just won’t cooperate. A limit of coots could successfully turn one of those humdrum days into an exciting adventure, particularly for a young sportsman.
Most people probably leave coots alone because who wants to eat an ugly bird dubbed a “mud hen?” However, coots can make delicious meals when prepared in a number of ways.
To clean coots, most people skin them and split them in half or quarter them. Others simply filet out the breasts, making meaty boneless chunks. Some people breast out the birds and cut off the legs.
Before cooking coots, a lot of people soak them in milk or vinegar overnight. Others marinate coot meat in Italian salad dressing or other secret recipes. After taking it out of the marinade, people can grill the halves or deep-fry the breasts, legs or quarters. Some people wrap the breasts in bacon and grill them. Others add the meat to various sauces, stews or gumbos.
In addition to the meat, some sportsmen like to fry the enormous gizzards. Cut the gizzards in half or butterfly them to expose the center cavity where all the organic matter, shells and other inedible material collects. Thoroughly clean out and wash the gizzards before cooking. Besides frying or grilling, many people add gizzards to soups, gumbos or gravy.
John N. Felsher is a full-time award-winning freelance writer, photographer and media consultant with more than 2,100 bylined articles in more than 135 magazines to his credit. Listen to John on the Outdoors radio show live from noon to 1 p.m. Central every Thursday on WNSP Sports Radio 105.5 FM in Mobile, Alabama and on Alabama's Great Days Outdoors radio on multiple stations throughout Alabama every Saturday. Visit his web site “John N. Felsher's Outdoors Adventures” at http://www.johnnfelsher.com .