With some species, like wood ducks or teal, you can afford to get a little, well, sloppy. Your hide might not be complete. Your calling just might be a little weak. And your choice of location may be off the X. With mallards, though, and especially late-season birds, there’s almost no forgiveness. It’s your A-Game every time, all the time, or chances are good you’ll be going home with a light duck strap. This section may not make you an expert — as only time and experience can do that — but it will make you a better waterfowler when the winds turn out of the North and the greenheads migrate.
Hunt Hidden Pockets
Divers like the deep water. Pintails prefer it open. Teal are partial to shallow and weedy. Mallards, on the other hand, and especially those late-season pressured birds, have a tendency to hide themselves in some of the most out-of-the-way spots imaginable. Think a puddle is too small for 50 mixed drakes and Suzies? Think again. In years past, I’ve flushed many mallards out of potholes no bigger than my living room. How they all fit without being on top of one another was beyond me. But there they were, often rising as an unexpected surprise from a body of water I never truly considered hunting.
“These little places are special places,” said hardcore waterfowler Travis Mueller of Avery Outdoors. “The mallards here are usually pressured, and usually in survival mode. They get in before daylight. They can’t be seen from the road.”
Finding these little hidden pockets is tough. Often, it’s a matter of pure luck.
“You get the boat stuck, and while you’re working on it, you hear a lone hen off in the distance,” he said. “Or you see 10 ducks drop into the woods where there shouldn’t be any water. And you think, ‘What the heck?’”
Hunting these secluded little puddles is a kid-gloves sort of proposition.
“I go alone,” he said, “or I take a good buddy who can keep things quiet. In these places, it’s often important to get in, shoot your birds, and get out if you want to shoot it more than once or twice. You really want to keep the pressure as low as possible on these small waters.”
Tactically, Mueller suggests ’fowlers don’t overthink the process.
“Watch the place,” he said. “When the birds leave, quickly and quietly go in and take a look around. And when you hunt it, go small. A few decoys. And remember it’s all about your blind. The hide. That and natural movement on the water. If you don’t kill ducks here, it’s because you’ve screwed it up.”
SCOUT IN DEPTH
Any waterfowler worth his salt will be quick to tell you that finding ducks — physically seeing birds — is but Step 1 along the path to what might go down in the books as that hunt of a lifetime.
Here, let’s assume you’ve found a pocket of birds, say, 150 to 200 mallards, regularly using a shallow smartweed-filled backwater off a larger bay. Cover is sparse, yet there is scattered buckbrush and small willows nearby. The bay is part of an impoundment, a portion of which is open to public hunting. Your bay, we’ll call it, falls within that public-hunting area. To the south, there’s a designated refuge area. To the north and west, there’s a well-used public shooting range.
What, then, constitutes in-depth scouting here? First, when are the birds in the pocket? Before daylight, or do they come in mid-morning? When they do come, is it from the refuge, or from another direction that might indicate a feeding field nearby? This information will tell you when to hunt, along with where, theoretically, to plan for the birds’ approach. Oh, and did I mention that area personnel typically conduct a refuge count just after lunch each Wednesday? This activity invariably gets birds up and moving — a variable to be strongly considered when planning the hunt. Too, mid-week and mid-afternoon are usually as quiet as it’s going to be at the range, and the less duck-flaring gunfire during your hunt, the better.
How to hide? A quick walk shows the water to be 8 inches deep, too deep for a layout blind; however, you just so happen to have a portable layout blind on extendable legs that gets you up and out of the water while staying as low to the ground as possible. The morning of the hunt, you stubble your hide with smartweed, set 24 mallard blocks at 20 yards to the upwind side, and cover up quick. There are birds in the air!
Goose. Goose. Duck
It’s true. Geese aren’t real fond of ducks. Not that a Canada will go out of his way to bully a mallard. And few hunters, if any, are setting out four dozen mixed-mallard full-bodies in hopes of strapping a limit of Canadas. The opposite, however, is very true. That is, rigging a dozen Canada floaters or dry-ground full-bodies alongside an equal number of mallards with the intent being to shoot ducks.
Ducks are attracted to the company of geese for several reasons. One is security. Geese, with their long necks and high heads, can see what the lower-level ducks can’t, thus serving as early warning systems for mallards and other puddlers should something such as a coyote make an appearance. Another is that these same long necks allow Canadas to dredge up submerged food beyond the reach of the short-necked dabblers. Ducks, then, capitalize on this ability by snapping up the bits and pieces left to float away. And finally, the larger geese are visible from greater distances than are the smaller duck decoys. Food, security, and visibility — it’s all there.
Though some may disagree, there’s really no “secret system” to running a combination goose-duck spread. My preference is to set the goose floaters close to the blind in a rough curve leading slightly downwind. A landing hole is left at approximately 20 yards, with a dozen mallard decoys on the opposite side beginning at the downwind end of the goose floaters and hooking back toward the blind. This creates a rough horseshoe shape, with the inside or open end as the hole. Space between decoys denotes comfort and security, as well as leaves plenty of room for birds to land outside the hole. A Rig ’Em Right jerk cord completes the deal. As with any decoy spread, however, the key to success when running ducks and geese together is the hide. If you’re not hidden, you’re not shooting, simple as that.