Mississippi's Offroad Woodies
September 30, 2010
Think you need a boat to hunt wood ducks? An ATV and waders work just fine, according to this expert.
The hunting had been rather difficult, with mallards and other puddle ducks uncooperative when it came to paying attention to decoys. But to a dyed-in-the-wool duck hunter, calm, warm days with bright sunshine are no deterrent -- only another challenge to be surmounted.
Once on the duck pond, Tom Wiley uses a string attached to a decoy and sweet sounds from his Flextone call to seal the deal with wood ducks.
Photo by Mike Marsh.
"There are always wood ducks around," said Tom Wiley. "We'll get up early in the morning and give them a shot."
Wiley is an innovative game call maker from Starkville. At age 40, he has one of the most successful call-making businesses in the country. He hunts many locations around the state with a great deal of success. You may find him calling turkeys in spring, or predators and varmints over the summer months. But in winter, he spends much of his time in pursuit of waterfowl. For ducks, geese or whatever other birds that will respond to calling, Wiley has invented a call that will imitate it and lure them within range for the taking.
Wiley showed up the next morning with an ATV in tow behind a pickup, which is not particularly unusual. I expected the ATV would be used to gain access to a boat somewhere in the swamps and sloughs surrounding his hunting camp, but was very much in for a surprise.
He drove the ATV off the trailer and loaded a bag of puddle duck decoys in the front; I climbed aboard. His retriever ran along beside the ATV as we left the hunting camp long before daylight.
"Wood ducks fly early," he said. "If you don't get there for the daylight flight, you're missing the best hunting. I know a pond with a stand of cypress and gum trees in the center. We can get there with nothing more than this ATV."
With our legs armored with waders against the mud slinging from tire treads, we bounced and sloshed through a rutted road to an opening. A lake of about 30 acres stretched like a mirror before us, reflecting the light pinks and grays of a dawning sky. But instead of stopping the ATV at the edge of the lake, Wiley continued to drive. It appeared as if the ATV was floating on the water, and at first I marveled at the flotation in the tires. But in reality, the water was simply shallow and the bottom firm.
"Every hunter has a deer club or lease with ATV trails running through it," he stated. "Some hunters go to the trouble of dragging a small boat, a canoe, pirogue or kayak to a duck hunting spot. But I would rather invest my time in finding the beaver ponds and backwater lakes like this that have firm bottoms. Hard clay like this will support the weight of an ATV and is easy walking for hunters. Even if you can't drive into the water, using waders is easier than hauling a boat."
Dismounting from the ATV, Wiley began tossing decoys. He created small groups of mostly mallard decoys, with a few wood ducks mixed in. When he wanted to create another family flock, he simply started up the ATV and moved it a few yards, then unloaded a few more decoys.
"Wood ducks aren't that picky about the species they will decoy to," Wiley pointed out. "They especially like mallard and wood duck decoys. But the important thing is to know where they are going to land to begin with."
Wiley scouts his hunting areas all year long. Wood ducks are homebodies and use the same places to feed and roost day after day. When the acorns fall, they concentrate in the flooded hardwoods. But other areas they prefer are stands of tupelo mixed with cypress or anywhere aquatic plants on which they feed are located.
"There's lots of duckweed here," he said. "They eat the little green floating plants dotting the surface. Wood ducks are likely to be anywhere there is some standing water in the timber. I've seen them fly up from a hole no bigger than a backyard swimming pool. I make a mental note any time I see them, so I can hunt them when the season opens or when water conditions or weather conditions make it hard to find or decoy other ducks."
Wiley respects wood ducks for their eccentric qualities, their beauty and their flavor.
"Nothing beats a wood duck's colors or taste on the table," he emphasized. "If you know what you're doing, a wood duck shoot can be over faster than a hunt for any other duck. When they leave the roost for a feeding area, the flight doesn't stop for several minutes. Then, just as suddenly as it began, it can end."
Once Wiley had set his decoys, he ran the ATV beneath the trees and folded some tree limbs across the top.
"Wood ducks won't be able to recognize an ATV from a tree stump on a dark day," he assured. "But this morning will be very bright because there's not a cloud in the sky. The shine of the sun off the metal might spook the ducks, and you can never tell when a wary mallard might drop in."
Then Wiley removed a kite string holder wrapped in decoy line from his bag. He waded into the water to tie one end of the string to the neck of a decoy. Then he unwound the line as he returned to a downed tree.
"Some hunters like rotating wing decoys of various kinds and some simply kick the water with their feet to create motion," he said. "But I've never found any kind of motion device that works better on a wood duck than a bobbing decoy. I just tie a length of string to the decoy and jiggle the string whenever I hear or see wood ducks. I call at the same time and they sail right down with their feet stretching for the water."
Wiley arranged some deadfall limbs into a makeshift blind. He had a beard that matched the surrounding natural cover so he did not need a face net. But I did.
"You should always hide your face," he said. "If you look up while you're calling, a wood duck will be staring right at the source of the sound. If he has any experience with hunting pressure, he will shy away from the shine of a hunter's face."
Wiley is the inventor of Flextone game calls, which also carry the Remington brand name. The unique styling and materials used for manufacturing his calls makes them especially adapted to creating wood duck vocalizations.
"I got the idea for flexible bodied calls when I was working as a nurse," Wiley said. "The breathing apparatus had flexible tubing. I made a reed and inserted into the tubing and it worked even better than I expected. You can squeeze the end of the wood duck call between your ring fin
ger and little finger and the heel of your hand and it creates backpressure against the reed. My wood duck call makes it extremely easy to make any sound a wood duck hen can make. If anyone thinks wood ducks won't respond to a call, they should give one of my calls a try."
Wiley checked his watch for shooting time as he heard the squealing of a hen wood duck coming through the trees. He called to the hen, imitating what he called the bird's rallying call, or the call she makes to her hatchlings.
"A lot of hunters use the same calls they hear hens make when they are flying," he noted. "It can get their attention, but if you blow the sequence too fast, it's an alarm call. I like using the calls they make when they're sitting on the water. It's a couple of low, drawn out squeals and much slower than the calls they use in flight. It's a two-tone call, sometimes followed by a quiet feeding chuckle. You make the feeding call just like a mallard feed call, by ticking your tongue against the mouthpiece."
As soon as Wiley began calling, the hen and a drake with her set their wings, with the drake making the quiet buzzing sounds that are unique to the male of the species. They sifted through the trees and set their wings for the decoys and the drake faltered, then coasted to the upper end of the lake before falling out of the sky to a load of No. 4 tungsten alloy shot.
Wiley sent his retriever to fetch the fallen duck. As soon as she splashed back with the first bird of the day, Tom saw other wood ducks beginning to head for the movement of his bobbing decoy. He blew his call and they came straight toward the sound, answering his calls all the while.
"It's going to be a fast morning," he said. "We'll have our limit of wood ducks and be back at the clubhouse before the sun makes it over the cypress trees."