By John Felsher
“Shoot,” I yelled as birds exploded in all directions, running across the water frantically trying to get airborne. “There’s another one just starting to patter across the surface. Fire! Here comes a straggler. Get him!”
In seconds, my son pumped out three rounds from his shotgun. Fortunately, surviving birds didn’t travel far. We watched as most of them landed about 200 yards away. We picked up our kills and took a brief break to let the birds calm down again while we planned our next stalk.
“See those birds flocked up in that cove?” I asked, pointing to where the birds we jumped landed to join several hundred of their cousins. “Let’s paddle behind that island and come at them from the rear.”
For the next three hours, we repeated this procedure multiple times until my son bagged his limit of 15 coots. Sportsmen can hunt coots, or mud hens, during the regular waterfowl season, but most people ignore them.
Not 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 lobed feet. Although they enter brackish or salty systems occasionally, coots thrive in freshwater marshes, estuaries, sluggish river backwaters and large lakes where they often raft up in huge numbers.
Coots sometimes swim into duck decoys, but they don’t really respond to calls. Therefore, sportsmen must go looking for them. Federal law prohibits sportsmen from shooting at migratory birds from boats moving under motor or sail power, but people can use human power to hunt as long as the engine is stopped and the forward momentum from the engine is ceased on any motorized vessel.
A canoe or kayak makes an excellent platform to introduce children to hunting. Young waterfowlers easily grow bored on those days spent looking at skies devoid of ducks. In a great spot, youngsters can see a lot of action in a short time during a good coot shoot.
When paddling up coots, put the youngster in the bow of the boat ready to shoot while the adult takes the backseat. The adult paddles, positions the boat for the best shots and serves as spotter. When hunting alone, paddlers can stretch their shotguns across their laps or put them in another convenient place for easy access when targets present themselves. When boarding or exiting from a boat, always unload the guns and don’t reload them until in a safe position.
Slowly and quietly paddle through reedy backwaters, sloughs or broken marshes pockmarked by ponds and islands looking and listening for birds. Fortunately, coots don’t startle easily and may remain in cover until sportsmen paddle within shotgun range. Coots cannot vault into the air to fly like mallards or other puddle ducks. They must use their oversized lobed feet, not webbed like ducks, to patter across the surface kicking up water behind them to become airborne.
Frequently, coots prefer to swim or run across the water to escape danger rather than fly. Even after they become airborne, the birds with stubby wings don’t fly very fast and normally don’t fly far. They commonly land a few hundred yards away, often in sight of the people who flushed them. After busting a flock, take a short break to let the birds settle down and then try to sneak up on them again. When hunting in a boat, people can carry refreshments to take a break.
During the winter, just about any freshwater or brackish coastal bay in Alabama with abundant aquatic weeds probably holds some coots. Many river backwaters offer great opportunities to bag coots. Even on major reservoirs, sportsmen might find some creeks, reedy coves or other places to hunt. With nearly 100,000 acres of wetlands open for public hunting, some of the best coot hunting opportunities in Alabama occur in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta near Mobile.
“All natural waterways in Alabama are open to waterfowl hunting,” says Seth Maddox, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division migratory bird biologist. “Even to retrieve a downed bird, a person can’t go on private property, but if it falls in the natural waterway, the person can retrieve it.”
Some waterway managers may impose different regulations, but unless otherwise prohibited or because of safety concerns, sportsmen can hunt practically any public waters they can reach by boat. Check the local laws before hunting anywhere.
A good coot shoot can turn a dull day into an exciting adventure.
John N. Felsher lives in Semmes, Ala. Contact him through Facebook.