Sittin' on a Plain White Bucket

Plop yourself down in a cornfield this fall and you're likely to find yourself in the middle of a bunch of mallard ducks.

I always thought there should be a better use for empty white 5-gallon buckets once the laundry detergent was gone.

Until just recently I used them mainly to carry water to my daughter's horse, a job I truly resent. First of all, it's daughter Katie's horse - but Katie has taken an apartment in town. Second, I don't like horses - not even little ones. With those I can drag my feet and scream a terrified "Whoa!" as they carom through the forest in search of a thick, overhead limb that can scrape me off like doggie residue on a pair of oxfords.

I know this admission makes me a bad person to the horse lovers of the world, but I can live better with disapproval than with bruises and chafing. Had we not had a horse around, we'd not have kept the buckets around either - and now white buckets have become valued tools in my winter duck hunting endeavors.

White bucket or no, it appeared nothing would save the 2000-01 waterfowl season. With the exception of a great week of goose hunting on the Canadian prairies in September, hunting last season had been a bust. A big freeze Nov. 1 iced the ponds over and pushed the Canada birds to the south. One day I was looking at the beginning of the northern migration, and the next I was staring at a birdless sky and a half-inch of ice on my favorite pond - a frigid cover that would not leave until late February. The ducks would blow through.

I moped around for a couple weeks, trying chukars and pheasants a couple of times without much success. By Thanksgiving, I had just about decided that I would have to be a quail hunter the rest of the winter. Then my nephew George called from his home 100 miles to the south.

"There are already 5,000 mallards using Grandpa's cornfield," he told me excitedly. "They're early, but it's been real cold here the last couple of days. If you come down tonight, we can hunt in the morning before I go to work."

George went on to tell me that a friend, Robin Carson, had given him a homemade motorized decoy he called the Moto-Mallard. "It's his design," he told me. "It's awesome. I've tried it down on the river, but I want to see what it will do in Grandpa's corn." Before I hung up, he added, "Bring your blind."

Photo by Neal & M.J. Mishler

I arrived that evening and drove out to the flat quarter section behind his grandfather's house to have a look. George's estimate of 5,000 ducks in the corn may have been on the conservative side. It was almost closing time, and spiraling ribbons of mallards cut the sky over the harvested cornfield, touching down here, lifting off there, hopscotching from spot to spot. They seem to know when their bodies need the extra energy provided by the large, bright-yellow kernels of spilled field corn.

Indeed, it was cold, but there was not as much snow on the ground as there had been at home - certainly not enough to make my standard snow camo effective. This would be tough. I had hunted this field before, and with so many choices and so many eyes searching for danger, the huge, undefined flocks were difficult to decoy and impossible to stalk. Either you suckered the whole bunch or you suckered none at all.

The next morning, George and I carried our blinds into the field and set them up. I was using one of the new standard Eliminators built by Final Approach. George had a homemade job copied after the first Final Approach slider blind that hit the market back in 1993.

"I ended up spending more to make the thing than I would have spent buying it," George told me, laughing. "But I think if you ran over it with a truck, the truck would suffer most."

When we placed our blinds side by side in the corn, it was obvious we had a problem: Patches of snow marked the cornfield here and there, and with no white in our camouflage cover, our blinds were much too dark. George scratched his head for a moment and then took off down a cornrow toward his grandfather's house.

"Go ahead and put some stalks in the camouflage loops," he called over his shoulder. "I'll be right back.

I did as instructed, and when George returned, still trotting, he was carrying a roll of white toilet paper. "Stick some of this in the loops, too," he said, ripping off a big wad and handing the roll to me.

When we were finished, our blinds had become part of the field, complete with patches of toilet paper "snow." The Eliminator does come with an optional snow-camo cover, and if there is lots of the white stuff, it is deadly. With patchy snow, however, it would have been difficult to blend in better than we did with just a few cornstalks and a half-roll of Nice 'n Soft. Before settling in, George placed his Moto-Mallard on a piece of rebar behind us and set up a hodgepodge of mallard decoys in the stubble below.

"Where's the good silhouettes?" I asked. George has a large gunnysack with four dozen magnum Outlaw mallard decoys. They had been very effective for us the year before in another field.

"Forgot 'em," George said sheepishly. "Took 'em out of the truck to put in my blind and left them lying there in the garage." He looked up and smiled. "Oh, well. I wanted to give this mechanical duck a real test. I guess this is it."

Out in front, mallards were diving into the field hundreds of yards from our hide. For a while, they moved toward us, skipping greedily over one another to claim choice remnants of corncob. Then, for no apparent reason, they rose en masse and went somewhere else. Ducks are funny creatures when they find a cornfield during cold weather. On one hand, they seem to know their bodies need the extra heat the corn will generate, and though they often seem almost desperate to feed, they don't seem to sit in one place long enough to do any good. I don't know if this is a safety thing to compensate for their gluttony or just the gluttony itself. They surely do not taste the corn that bulges their gullets. I remember thinking how very insignificant our spread seemed with such a flighty bunch of mallards in those acres and acres of stubble.

Behind me, the mechanical duck whirled - somewhat noisily, I thought; surely no mallard in its right mind would fall for such an obvious impostor.

George interrupted my pessimistic reflections. "Here they come."

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