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Last Updated:
Saturday, January 5, 2013
   Whistling wings circled unseen above us before we heard the distinctive
sound of ducks splash-landing in the water as we counted down the last
seconds before shooting hours began.
   More black specters, little more than ghostly silhouettes barely
discernible through the soupy fog and daybreak gloom, rocketed from left
to right. They circled over the far shoreline before joining the other unseen
birds already swimming amidst the assorted decoys dotting this reclaimed
catfish pond.
   “More birds coming in,” whispered one of the hunters crouching in thick
shoreline canes a few feet away. “Gadwalls! Heading straight for us. Keep
down. It’s time. We’ll take these. Now!”
   Not long ago, ponds like this produced millions of pounds of catfish for
American restaurants. However, in the last few years, a bad economy
combined with high fuel prices that led to high feed prices made American
catfish more expensive to raise and bring to market. In addition, cheap
imports from Asia severely cut into American catfish production.
   “Catfish farming is still a significant industry in Mississippi, but it’s not
nearly what it was a few years ago,” advised Gene Robertson, deputy
director for the Mississippi Department of Agriculture in Jackson. “At its
peak, Mississippi farmers probably had about 116,000 acres in catfish
production. Mississippi is still the number one catfish producer in the United
States, but it’s probably about half of what it was. Mississippi catfish
growers just can’t compete with cheap foreign imports coming into the
country.”
   American farmers raised more than 600 million pounds of catfish in more
than 165,000 acres of ponds in 2005, Robertson said. The largest
aquaculture industry in the United States contributed more than $450
million to the national economy. Of that, Mississippi farmers produced about
350 million pounds, or about 55 percent of the national total. Nearly 86
percent of Mississippi catfish farming occurs in the flat and well-watered
Delta region in the northwest part of the state along the Mississippi River.
Parts of east-central Mississippi also produce good quantities of farm-
raised catfish.
   When creating a catfish farm, the landowner digs a series of shallow
ponds or simply impounds low spots on the land by building levees and
pumps in water from nearby sources. Sometimes, farmers dam existing
natural waterways to create ponds. When the American catfish farming
industry took a serious downward turn, many Mississippi farmers could no
long operate cost-effectively and left the industry. Many simply abandoned
their ponds to nature.
   Some abandoned ponds sat idle for years, becoming wintering waterfowl
havens. Pond bottoms grew up in native grasses and aquatic plants.
Embankments grew thick with canes and brush. Grasses in the ponds
provided food for various ducks. Shoreline growth offered ducks cover from
raptors and other predators. In addition, few people visited these
abandoned ponds on private land. If the landowner didn’t hunt these
ponds, no one else did either. Birds migrating down the Mississippi River
poured in to abandoned catfish ponds seeking food and sanctuary.
   While the catfish farmers suffered, abandoned aquaculture ponds
turned into a major boon for Magnolia State waterfowl hunters. Many
waterfowl hunters bought or leased abandoned catfish ponds and
manipulated them to create even better waterfowl habitat. Now, many
reclaimed catfish farms offer sportsmen some of the best duck hunting in
Mississippi.
   “We hunt a lot of areas that were commercial aquaculture facilities at
one time,” said Jacob Sartain of Sartain’s Heritage Properties in Madison,
Miss. “An old fish pond complex makes ideal waterfowl habitat. It has levees
with individual pond units with wells and irrigation systems already in place.
Access to hunting those areas is usually very easy because of the road
systems and levees. We can typically drive a pickup truck down the levee,
unload the gear and start hunting.”
   Sartain’s company buys, sells and enhances properties specifically for
waterfowl hunting. He also sells annual memberships to hunt selected
properties. In addition, the company provides consulting and technical help
for anyone who wishes to develop their own properties and turn them into
waterfowl paradises.
   “Our business is a traditional brokerage of agricultural, timber and
recreational hunting properties,” Sartain explained. “We also offer
development services on recreational and farm properties that include
management plans and habitat development such as dirt work, levee
construction, lake construction, roadwork, cabin construction, etc. We can
take raw property and turn it into a finished property for hunting. We also
offer ongoing management services for that property.”
   Old catfish ponds attract of variety of puddle and diving ducks, just
about anything flying through the southern Mississippi Flyway. These
ponds usually produce good numbers of green-winged teal, gadwall,
wigeon and ring-necked ducks. They also produce some blue-winged teal,
pintail, spoonbills, mallards and other ducks. In some areas, sportsmen
might also take shots passing snow, blue, Ross or specklebelly geese.
   “We get a good variety of ducks,” Sartain said. “At times, we kill
redheads, canvasbacks and scaup. Mallard hunting is very good in the
Delta when we’ve had a lot of cold weather.”
   To turn an abandoned aquaculture operation into a waterfowl paradise,
many landowners first drain the pond. Then, they repair access roads,
pumps and perform other maintenance. During the spring, they plant grains
such as milo, corn or wheat. Before the duck season begins, they reflood
the ponds to about two feet deep.
   “From a development standpoint, I’m really fond of abandoned fish
ponds because we can tremendously manipulate the habitat specifically for
waterfowl,” Sartain advised. “Land managers can also create moist soil
habitat, managed food sources or open water habitat. The pond bottoms
tend to grow up in willow and cottonwood quickly. After a few years when
the willows and cottonwoods grow thick, managers can create some open
landing areas for decoys while keeping some cover where the hunters can
hide.”
   Besides reclaimed catfish ponds, sportsmen can find other habitat
suitable for duck hunting in the Mississippi Delta. Some rice fields and
flooded soybean fields provide good duck hunting. Tupelo and cypress
brakes attract mallards and wood ducks to the flooded timber.
   “Waterfowl hunting in the Mississippi Delta is extremely good,” Sartain
explained. “This part of Mississippi offers very rich and diverse habitats for
hunting ducks. Many people think of Arkansas and Louisiana for duck
hunting, but I’d put the quality of hunting in the Mississippi Delta up against
either of those places. When the Arkansas swamps freeze, a lot of ducks
cross over to our side of the Mississippi River. Also, when bad storms hit
south Louisiana, ducks leave the coast and come up here. Our best
hunting typically occurs after a southwest weather fronts pushes ducks out
of the gulf region and up into the Delta.”
   Contact Sartain at 601-856-2729 or 662-836-6048. On line, see
www.
SartainsHeritage.com or send an e-mail to jsartain@sartainsheritage.com.
Old catfish ponds can turn into new
and improved waterfowl habitats
TOP: Will Murray,
Jacob Sartain and Jim
Murray show off some
ducks they killed
during a hunt at a
reclaimed catfish pond
near Greenwood, Miss.

BOTTOM: Jacob
Sartain shows a
gadwall drake he
killed during a hunt at
a reclaimed catfish
pond near Greenwood,
Miss.