January 12, 2017
The whistle of wings announced their approach: a pair of mallards, black against the overcast sky, banking toward the puddle in a low, tight circle. With wings cupped but feet hidden, the pair buzzed the decoys and swept behind the layout blind in a rush of wind, disappearing from view. The hen could be heard chuckling eagerly from behind, but there was no need to call. These birds were coming in.
It was the final day of the season. Since mid-October, the string of Saturdays had dissolved into a blur of shotshells and feathers and alarm clocks and gas station burritos. After four months of this bird hunting blitzkrieg, the last day of January had finally arrived, and with greenheads cooling on the mud behind the blind, it was simply a matter of moments before the pair would reappear and the final limit would be complete. It was shaping up to be the perfect ending to a memorable season — one last point-blank shot to be savored like a first kiss.
The mallards circled twice more before committing, backpedaling over the gap in the decoys with an outstretched neck away. The drake was so focused on his landing that he didn't notice anything out of place, not even when the horizontal figure 25 yards away sat up and leveled a bead on his beak. The blast of a shotgun ripping through the mist caught his attention, though, and the drake rocketed skyward. His wings found the wind, and even though two more volleys of shot were lobbed toward his tailfeathers, the drake managed to escape unscathed.
Frustration likely would have set in, but there wasn't time. Already another black dot was growing larger against the gray horizon, and already it was time to regroup and reload.
Sure enough, the season ended 40 seconds later with a single shot and a single mallard drake that was now twitching face-first in the ankle deep water — the decisive punctuation mark to signify the end of another migration.
That's the beauty of wet-field hunting. When you do it right, you can shoot a clean and efficient limit. No lost birds, no leaky waders, no hassling with a boat or trailer — just a puddle of water and a pile of ducks. When you do it right.
I first gained permission to hunt a sheetwater field when I was in high school: 40 acres of puddler paradise that comprised part of a farm operated by a local family. By mid-December, the crops had been harvested and the field plowed into bare dirt, but a foot-deep puddle the size of a basketball court had gathered near the southeast end — and apparently, that's all the ducks needed. I remember glassing this field slack-jawed from the front seat of my Corolla one afternoon after school, gaping at the sight of dozens of mallards, pintails, and widgeon cavorting in the shallow water.
I returned the next morning with a sack full of decoys and a heart full of hope, but trudged back to my car empty handed and deflated. Here are some lessons learned since that first failed enterprise.
Get hidden. This one is important for any manner of waterfowling, of course, but downright essential for wet field hunting. On that first hunt at the cucumber farm, I squatted behind a wire-frame blind draped in camouflage netting. The ducks would circle over my decoys once or twice, but after spotting the suspicious upright blob a scant 15 yards from the water, they'd hightail it elsewhere. No shots were fired.
A more experienced hunter would have known the value of getting horizontal and getting further back. When you're hunting a bare-dirt field, you can't get low enough. Digging in a layout is a great tactic. It's a good idea to set up a minimum of 25 yards away from the nearest decoy and refrain from shooting until the birds are backpedaling.
Get visible. Go ahead and test this one yourself. Next time you're scanning a wet field with your binoculars, try counting the ducks — and then re-count them. What you'll discover is that even though you'll be able to number the gaudily plumed drakes with relative ease, you'll have a hard time picking out the hens against the muddy background, even with the aid of high-quality optics. Female feathers are designed to fool the eyes of predators, and in a shallow puddle with plenty of lumps and clutter, this natural camouflage is remarkably effective.
Savvy sheetwater hunters will employ drake decoys exclusively in their sheetwater spreads. This saves valuable time during set-up and pick-up and has proven remarkably effective. It seems that even sharp-eyed mallards have difficulty spotting the mud-colored hens on the ground, so they will drop in readily to a bachelor spread assuming hidden females are relaxing nearby.
Cut the calling. On that first busted hunt, my mallard call was worked harder than a referee's whistle at a Raider's game. The ducks weren't buying it.
Since then, shutting up has been proven valuable time and again. Duck hunting over sheet water is usually a late-season game, and January mallards are notoriously call shy. Furthermore, since maintaining concealment is almost always a concern in wet-field hunting, trumpeting your presence with a hail call is not the best way to keep prying eyes off your hide. Holding the quacks and holding still will result in fewer ducks flaring and more ducks falling.
Make a splash. In lieu of an abundance of calling, you'll find that an abundance of water movement is a sure-fire way to make mallards curl their wings at the sight of a sheetwater setup.
If the water's deep enough, a good old-fashioned jerk rig should do the trick. In most sheetwater fields, though, the water is so shallow that most of your decoys will be plowing furrows in the mud with their keels if you try to attach them to a jerk line. This is when the hunter needs to get a bit more creative.
Battery powered water-agitators are a great option. String-powered decoys, like the Kick Splash decoy by Decoy Dancer can be an effective alternative. This product is basically a butt-up feeder decoy with a bright orange paddlewheel for legs. By pulling the cord, the hunter creates an eye-catching splash that gets the attention of the ducks away from your blind and onto your spread. You'll discover that most mallards will finish right over the spray of this decoy, making blind placement much easier.
Sleep in. With some exceptions, sheetwater hunting is a mid-morning game. Later in the season, the majority of flooded fields have been picked clean of crops, and the ducks that use these puddles are looking for rest and companionship more than a meal. Because of this, sheetwater hunters will typically see the most waterfowl traffic after the sun's been up for a while. For example, on the successful hunt mentioned at the beginning, I didn't slide into my layout until more than an hour after shooting light but still finished my limit by 11 am. Good things come to those who sleep.
Go small. When planning a set-up on a sheetwater field, it's tempting to just pick the largest pool on the property and set up there. While that may work, in most cases the biggest puddle is not always the best puddle. More important than water depth are factors such as cover for your blind and visibility for your decoys.
For example, if the biggest water on the field is completely surrounded by a moonscape of smooth mud, it may be more effective for you to throw your dekes out on a smaller puddle that butts up to a ditchrow that could conceal your layout. On the other hand, if that smaller puddle provides good cover for your blind but is so cluttered with vegetation that your decoys couldn't be spotted by low-flying hawk, then it's a better idea to set up on cleaner water that allows your decoys to pop in the vision of stratospheric flocks.
You'll never find the perfect puddle, of course, but don't shy away from one simply because it's small. If there's little soggy spot that provides the best combination of both cover for you and visibility for your spread, toss out your decoys and get ready to shoot — even if the puddle's no larger than a Volkswagen van. As long as you can get hidden and your decoys can be seen, you can shoot ducks over water of any size.
Watch the wind. Wind direction, however, is a factor that cannot be ignored. Nothing is more frustrating than working a flock of mallards for five minutes only to have them splash down sixty yards away on the far side of the puddle. Ducks will almost always land with the wind in their face, even if the wind is a breath that would barely flicker a candle. Determine the wind direction, and set up so it blows over your back. If it shifts, pick up your layout blind and shift with it. You may lose 10 minutes of hunting, but you'll gain more birds.
By the time the last of the mallard drakes had been crammed atop the decoys in the trunk, a flock of widgeon was already splashing down in the recently vacated field. The whistle of wings overhead indicated that more ducks were not far behind that group. In a few months, the winter rains would taper off, the ducks would point their beaks northward, and the puddle would evaporate. But come fall, the rain will return, and so will the ducks. And you can bet that we'll be waiting for them.