High tides help set the stage

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High tides help set the stage

pix for mcnally outdoors 9-4-16cutlines1. A hunter prepares to try a shot at a flushing rail bird in a FirstCoast tide marsh. High tides from storms and strong wind make forexcellent rail bird hunting, plus fishing.creditlinebob mcnally for the times-union

While most people in Northeast Florida hunkered down for heavy rain, high tides and big wind from Hermine, hunters and fishermen in the know have been on the water in small johnboats, kayaks and shallow-draft skiffs having seasonal fun shotgunning for rail birds, moorhens (gallinules) and sight fishing for redfish and sheepshead.

This is some of the simplest, most fun and easiest of outdoor sport available in the region, yet surprisingly few folks participate.

That may be due to school back in session, football season or being cautious about bad weather is best.

But if you want to get a jump on some great wingshooting fun, plus the most exhilarating sight fishing available in the area, now’s the time to do it.

Super high tides from strong storms create ideal conditions for rail bird hunting, plus sight fishing for reds and sheepshead.

A tide that completely floods sprawling spartina marsh flats off coastal rivers, creeks, sounds, bays and the Intracoastal Waterway are what’s needed.

Spartina marshes are thick with rail birds, chiefly clappers, which are locally called marsh hens.

Fishermen regularly hear such birds squawk while fishing tide-grass regions, sounding much like a hen wild turkey cutting.

At times, anglers also see them scamper along muddy shorelines and over low-tide oyster bars. If you’ve heard and seen rail birds while coastal fishing during summer, hunting those same locations now can prove fruitful.

When storms and autumn tides flood coastal marshes ultra high, birds swarm to what little remaining emergent grass is available.

This also allows sportsmen to reach far back marsh areas in shallow-draft johnboats, kayaks, canoes and skiffs.

It’s against federal law to shoot waterfowl while a boat is under motor power.

So most gunners run skiffs far upwind of likely hunting areas, then drift back, guiding a boat with push poles or paddles to visible tuffs of marsh grass where rail birds hide.

A clump of marsh not much bigger than a dinner table can harbor and hide a bunch of marsh hens, and the birds often don’t flush until a boat is nearly over them.

This makes for close shooting, with light-gauge guns, number 8 bird shot and improved-cylinder chokes good choices. It’s ideal for beginning or young shooters because rails are weak fliers and easy to hit, plus they’re close.

It’s not wise to use a prized Perazzi for salt marsh rail shooting, because tidewater rusts a shotgun faster than politician incomes rise.

My pet salt marsh shotgun is a Parkerized 20-gauge Ithaca 37 pump. The military-style finish sheds saltwater well, but immediate and thorough cleaning is a necessity to prevent even that gun from corroding.

It’s common on rail bird hunts for gunners to spot reds and sheepshead “tailing” to feed in the same flooded marsh areas where birds are found. So smart hunters also have rods and reels on board.

High tides make food such as crabs easily available to feeding reds and sheepshead, where they’re seen cruising far back into tidal seeps.

Anglers make good use of poling platforms and stout center consoles for standing high above the marsh, watching for tails and fins of feeding fish through binoculars.

Standard medium-light tackle spinning gear is suitable for reds and sheepshead.

Use stout fluorocarbon leaders, because flats water may be clear, and fish can be finicky. Jigs, spoons, spinner-baits and streamer flies all take fish. A fresh and lively fiddler crab may be the ultimate bait for reds and sheepshead, which are in the shallows rooting around for such crustaceans.

Sometimes, you’ve got to put a lure or bait right in front of a fish for it to spot and take an offering. It can get tricky, because a loud “plop” of a lure too close to even a feeding fish can spook it. But you want the fish to know there’s something there for it to eat.

Thus, a natural bait is ideal, though a soft-presentation crab-imitating weedless streamer fly can be deadly.

A non-weighted soft plastic lure rigged weedless works well, too, with Berkley GULP models effective.

This type “cast and blast” hunting-fishing adventure also can be done on many freshwater lakes and rivers harboring moorhens, also called “marsh hens” in some regions. Big freshwaters with abundant shallow grass and lily pad shores are choice moorhen habitats. Rodman Reservoir at Interlachen, and lakes George and Crescent south of Georgetown on the St. Johns River are good bets. Plenty of other North Florida lakes also are good, including Newnans, Orange and Lochloosa near Gainesville and Sampson and Rowell at Starke.

Anglers can take advantage of dawn trips to freshwaters for bass or panfish, then shift gears to moorhen hunting as the sun rises.

The same type of non-motor boat hunting is done for moorhens, which also are close flushing and light shotgun game.

Sportsmen chasing moorhens and bass now also can get a good handle on where wood ducks and teal are located, which is worthwhile since Florida’s early teal and woody season runs Sept. 17-21. Teal-only hunting in Florida is Sept. 22-25.

Florida’s rail bird and moorhen season continues through Nov. 9, with a generous daily limit of 15.

Georgia’s rail bird season is split, Sept. 24-Nov. 10, Nov. 25-Dec. 16. Georgia moorhen season also is split, Nov. 19-27, Dec. 10-Jan. 29.

Early teal-only season in Georgia runs Sept. 10-25.

Finally, if you own a retrieving gun dog, early marsh hen and moorhen hunts are excellent times to get a canine out. It can be hot, but dogs are in the water often.

It’s a great tune-up for doves, ducks, quail and other bird hunting as those seasons get underway soon.


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