Flooded woods attract ducks, and savvy mallard enthusiasts follow
In any of its forms, duck hunting is a fascinating, even addicting activity. But hunting mallards in flooded woods (green timber, to those in the know) is the ultimate waterfowling experience, and most of those who've tried it agree. A pit blind in a flooded rice field is a fine place when the ducks want in, and so are the big expanses of water found on large lakes and rivers. Ditto the small streams that can be jump-shot from the bank or floated in small boats.
But nothing — repeat, nothing — measures up to green timber.
Go South, Young Man
As mentioned, most of the best — or at least best-known — green timber hunting is in the South, specifically in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. But it's spread from there. From eastern Kansas to the Smokies and from central Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico, state agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the USDA Forest Service, and private landowners and hunting clubs are taking advantage of natural flooding in bottomland hardwoods and creating artificial flooding in woods where natural flooding doesn't occur.
The reason is simple: It attracts ducks. Ducks, especially mallards, like flooded woods. So do wood ducks, of course, and sometimes a few teal, gadwalls and black ducks, too. But, overall, green timber hunting is mostly a game for greenheads.
Almost all flooded green timber has some duck food available — macroinvertebrates, acorns, some grasses — but mostly, a green timber area is a place for rest and refuge instead of feeding. Most mallards feed in dry fields or on the open water of flooded fields, lakes or reservoirs at night and during the day. After feeding, many return to the timber to loaf. The trees provide protection from wind and cold, and when things freeze up, the sheltered water in the woods stays open much longer than the exposed water in open fields. In really cold weather — as long as the woods don't freeze, of course — green-timber hunting can be fantastic.
Simplicity is Sublime
Green-timber hunting can be elaborate if you want it to be, but it need not be. Blinds and boats aren't necessary, provided the water is shallow enough to wade without danger. Just wade into the woods, and lean against a tree.
Maybe that's why green-timber hunting appeals to so many duck hunters. It's a minimalist's kind of undertaking, and the necessities are few. In most green-timber situations, even decoys are more trouble than they're worth.
All you really need are a gun, shotgun shells, chest waders, a compass or GPS, camo or other clothing that will blend in, and a call and some ability to blow it. Anything else will likely be too much trouble.
Leave the Pooch at Home
Using a retrieving dog, for example. It might sound blasphemous to many duck hunters, but most water dogs are not suited for green timber. From the perspective of 50 years of experience in the green timber, it's this hunter's considered opinion that more often than not, a dog is more hindrance than help. Unless you're hunting from a boat or permanent blind, you have to find a log or root-wad for the dog to climb on, or carry a strap-on platform and fasten it to a tree. It's imperative to get the dog out of the water, because even a Lab or Chessie will eventually succumb to hypothermia if he's forced to stand chest-deep in it all morning. It's an aspect of the hunt that's usually more trouble than it's worth.
Some green-timber hunters are skybusters, shooting at ducks flying well above the treetops, but the real art and beauty of this style of hunting lies in getting the ducks to break through the canopy and try to light on the water. Therefore, most green-timber shooting opportunities will be at close range, often straight overhead or immediately in front at 15 to 30 yards. Retrieves are usually short, too, even when you're dealing with cripples. Public green-timber areas are often crowded, and because most owners of duck dogs seem to spend more time yelling orders at their dogs than calling to ducks, it's usually better if the pooch stays home.
Small Shot, Open Choke
Because of the close-range shooting, you don't need as much gun for green timber as you do for more open types of duck hunting. Most duck hunters use 12-gauges, even in green timber, but a 20 is usually more than adequate. Go no larger than No. 2 or 3 shot, and keep the choking to a minimum. Cylinder bore or one of the skeet chokes is ideal, and don't go any tighter than improved cylinder. Your goal is to kill the duck, not send a cannonball of shot through its middle and obliterate it.
Hunters using heavier-than-lead nontoxics can go much smaller with shot sizes, of course, and that's highly recommended. Nos. 5, 6 or even 7-1/2 are good for green-timber work.
Choose Your Setup Wisely
A good setup is as important for a green-timber duck hunter as it is for a spring turkey hunter. The most important thing — aside from being along that day's flight lane — is to set up at a break in the forest canopy. When ducks light in a dense, flooded forest, they usually do so where there's a hole. It doesn't have to be a big hole; the space left by one wind-thrown tree is big enough. The important thing is to provide ducks with an inviting path to the water.
Wear camo that matches the color of the surroundings, and your turkey hunting facemask isn't out of place in the duck woods. Green-timber ducks like to circle and check things out before committing, and a duck's vision on the wing is almost as good as a turkey's on the ground. Because you're usually dealing with multiple sets of those sharp eyes — sometimes a hundred sets or more — concealment is vital. Watching them circle, work to the call and cup their wings and settle in is the most enjoyable part of the hunt, and with a facemask, you can watch the show without being spotted.
Make the most of whatever natural cover is available — tree trunks, fallen snags and brushpiles. Tree trunks are best, because you can move slowly around the tree to keep it between you and the ducks. There are few places to take a load off when you're in knee-deep water, and a good sturdy tree to lean against can be a blessing after half a morning of dragging heavy waders through thigh-deep water. Fallen trees with dirt clinging to the root balls are also good.
Calling: The Name of the Game
Calling is extremely important in green timber. Because the trees hide most of the water, ducks in the air don't expect to see many ducks on the water — but they expect to hear them. Calling is a must, and you'd better be pretty good at it, too. In public green-timber areas everywhere, you'll be competing with some of the best duck callers you'll ever hear. If you can't compete with them, you won't have many opportunities at close-in ducks.
The best calling strategy is to pay attention to how the birds are responding and modify your calling techniques accordingly. Usually, the best game plan is to give a passing flock a short, loud hail call, and then soften your calling after you get their attention. Stop calling altogether when the ducks are headed your way but are still 100 yards or so out. If they swing by wide or pass overhead out of shotgun range, resume calling as soon as they're past your position.
Sometimes, though, that's not the way to do it. Some days, ducks only want that first hail call and will shy away if you call more. The next day, they might respond best to loud, frantic calling all the way to the water. Timber ducks are as unpredictable as ducks everywhere else. The savvy hunter takes his cue from the ducks and adjusts until he hits a winning combination.
Sometimes, You Have to Pass … Shoot, That Is
Getting them down into the trees is the real thrill of green-timber hunting. Often, though, especially in heavily hunted public areas, they just won't commit. Some days, you just have to take them on an overhead pass. Don't become a skybuster, but if the ducks have already demonstrated a reluctance to break the treetops, modify your game plan accordingly. The timber in most bottomland hardwood forests flooded for duck hunting is usually less than 100 feet tall, which still gives you another 8 to 10 yards of effective range above the treetops. You might have to go back up on those shot sizes, though.
Don't Leave Too Soon
The best timber hunting usually occurs during the first hour of shooting time and then again at late morning and midday. The 8 a.m. to 10 a.m slot is often slow, so don't get discouraged and leave when things get quiet. Often, the best shooting happens late.
Where to Find Green-Timber Hunting
Green timber reservoirs are scattered from Oregon to Maryland, but most are concentrated in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, where most of the mallards go. More than half of the GTRs are concentrated in Arkansas.
Here's a sampling of public GTRs in the Lower Mississippi Valley:
Tennessee: Hatchie NWR, 4172 Highway 76S, Brownsville, TN 38012; (901) 772-0501. 9,400 acres of seasonally flooded hardwoods, with 21 small GTRs.
Mississippi: Delta National Forest/Sunflower WMA, 20380 Highway 61, Rolling Fork, MS 39159; (662) 873-6256. 60,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods, most of which floods naturally, plus five GTRs totaling 6,400 acres.
Louisiana: Red River WMA (39,000 acres near Ferriday, most of which floods naturally, plus a GTR); Boeuf WMA (48,600 acres near Columbia, muck of which floods annually, plus two GTRs); Russell Sage WMA (16,400 acres near Monroe, natural flooding of most of the area, plus two GTRs.) Maps and more information from all these areas are available from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Librarian, Box 98000, Baton Rouge, LA 70898-9000; wlf.louisiana.gov.
Seek the Green
It's not elegant and it's not easy, but green timber duck hunting is duck hunting at its finest and purest. Try it, and my guess is you'll be back for more.