Rice acreage often determines waterfowling success

Dec. 16, 2012 at 6:16 a.m.

Thousands of clumps of what looked like residue from a freshly plowed field littered the sheet water in the fresh-cut rice stubble. Only it wasn't clumps of dirt, it was ducks, thousands of them, most with greenheads.

A field over 30 to 40 thousand snow geese traded from a quagmire of plowed ground to the moist soil of the carbohydrate-rich rice. The cacophony and the traffic of that many geese and ganders happily grubbing was breathtaking.

As a teenager in Chambers County, I took sites like this for granted. Heck, ducks and geese regularly poured over our heads during winter as we stood by the flag pole, prayed and said the Pledge of Allegiance every Monday morning at Barbers Hill ISD.

Back then, rice was everywhere and so were waterfowl. I couldn't imagine a better place to grow up for a shotgun-wielding adolescent.

The world has changed. Few schools still openly pray at the flag pole, some choose to live in America but refuse to say the Pledge, and those huge blocks of rice stubble that once were the landscape of counties like Chambers, Matagorda, Wharton, Colorado, Jackson and Jefferson are gone. We still enjoy better waterfowling than any other Texas locale, but it used to be so much better.

This week I had the opportunity to remember first-hand how it used to be in the late 80s and early 90s when Texas was producing 600,000 to 700,000 acres of rice. Only, I had to travel about 10 hours north to find it.

A state more identifiable by the lives of the Clinton's and Razorbacks, Arkansas produces around 6 million acres of rice annually. Yes, I said that right - 6 million.

Sorrowfully, recent harvests have yielded less than 200,000 acres of rice in all of Texas; and, with water shortages along the prairies in 2012, the Texas coast lost approximately 50,000 acres of the valued crop so vital to sustaining the state's wintering population of ducks and geese.

Waterfowl hunting alone contributes $204 million to the Texas economy each year, and wildlife watching contributes an impressive $1.8 billion annually. According to Gulf Coast Joint Venture calculations, for every 10,000 acres of rice agriculture that disappears, the Texas coast loses the ability to support another 120,000 waterfowl.

If you ever wondered where all those large flights of light geese disappear to, well, take a trip to the Natural State and you will find them, along with millions of mallards, wood ducks, pintails and plenty of other species of fat, happy fowl.

Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, I witnessed groups of two dozen wood ducks breaking through limbs to land in our timber hole. Behind them were the wheezing mallard drakes, the plumb, prized ducks of the delta, helicoptering through the narrow opening of the hardwoods.

Next, came the peeping banter of gregarious green-winged teal as they maneuvered stylishly through a narrow break in the woods and appeared almost invisibly over our decoys. Not to be outdone were gadwalls and baldpated wigeon delightfully dancing and careening over three dozen well-positioned blocks.

Though I wouldn't trade these magically poetic mornings this week, I wistfully remembered similar sunrises that afforded Texas waterfowlers the same, pleasure not too long ago.

Bink Grimes is a freelance writer, photographer, author and licensed captain (binkgrimes@sbcglobal.net).



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