3 pro-level tips to keep you in the greenhead game
Editor's note: This blog originally appeared Aug. 18, 2016, on Realtree.com.
We hunt mallards from the warm opening bell of the season until the bitter, frozen end. We chase them across the prairies of Alberta to the bayous of Louisiana, and all points between. All that pressure takes its toll, however, and greenheads often avoid and frustrate us along the way. They're smart, spooky and adaptable, and they don't often follow the playbook.
So toss that book out the window this season, and get down and dirty for greenheads. These sneaky tactics will help you fill limits on the toughest hunts.
1. Take It to Them
Pressured mallards often roost on large waters but spend much of the day at small, hidden spots, including creeks, ditches and lesser rivers. Jump-shooting these places — especially those near refuges or large wildlife areas — can be productive.
Creeks and small rivers are tailor-made for ambush expeditions. Their winding courses and streamside vegetation let you slip unseen around bends and backwater sloughs where ducks loaf and feed. Floating a canoe with a partner often works best. Unload the canoe a mile or two upstream, then park a vehicle downstream. If you drive separately, you'll be able to shuttle before and after the hunt, or park close enough so walking isn't out of the question. Then, one hunter can shoot while the other paddles and steers the canoe silently along the stream. Pay special attention to overhanging trees, vegetation-covered islands, and flats and shorelines near bends. You'll probably shoot some wood ducks on mallard floats, too.
Ditches can be more difficult to jump-shoot, as they're typically straight and allow ducks good visibility. Often, it's best to sneak to the water using the bank for cover and then glass up and down the ditch for loafing ducks. Once you locate them, circle back and work straight at the birds, again using the bank for cover.
2. Hunt Non-Potholes
Ever try to locate a pothole where you saw mallards land, but discover nothing but vegetation? Mallards don't need to land in large, well-defined areas of open water. In fact, hard-hunted birds often find refuge at tiny wet areas such as cattail bogs, bulrush flats, wild rice beds or similar spots. They can easily navigate through shallow water in thick cover — places that thwart humans and dogs — while remaining hidden.
You'll need some elbow grease to hunt such spots. Usually, marsh skis or a light skiff are necessary to access thick areas so you can jump-shoot mallards or pass-shoot them as they swing by. Marsh-skiers used to fare well at a hard-hunted lake I frequented in eastern Wisconsin. Those hunters would jump-shoot hidden spots, set out two or three decoys during the last hour of light and then hoof it back in the dark. Their hard-working dogs followed, jumping from bog to bog or churning through thick mud and water. Both hunters and dogs were exhausted after those outings, but those guys consistently shot more ducks than conventional decoy hunters.
3. Count on the Ice
Bitter cold temps prompt many ducks to migrate, but those conditions also concentrate mallards. In fact, mallards, geese, goldeneyes and black ducks often refuse to seek warmer climes while they still have abundant food and open water available.
Typically, late-season mallards will roost in large open areas, such as windswept lakes and large rivers, and then feed in grain fields and loaf at smaller areas of open water, such as springs or spring-fed creeks. Field-hunting is the best way to target these birds, but if you can't get access to the X, hunt those small open-water areas.
My favorite late-season mallard spot is a public wildlife area with a series of springs not 100 yards from a major highway. During freeze-up, mallards pile out of a nearby river and hit these springs to feed and loaf undisturbed. I set up on a frozen bog nearby while it's still dark, and wait for them to arrive. Afterward, I usually visit a swift-flowing trout stream that rarely freezes. The creek is about a mile from a large urban waterfowl refuge, and birds love to hang out there during frigid weather, too.
If you can't find open water, create it. Use a trolling motor or a commercial ice-busting machine to keep water open at your hunting spot. Trust me — mallards will find it. My buddies and I have even used sledgehammers and garden tools to break ice and create small open potholes on otherwise frozen lakes. Mallards always visited almost immediately after we finished.