If You Lust for Greenheads, These Hunting Tips Will Help
From Minnesota to Louisiana, most duck hunters want mallards.
Oh, they don't mind other ducks. In fact, they welcome swift teal, eager gadwall and twisting, turning divers. But if you polled everyone with a duck stamp, a clear top duck would soon emerge: Anas platyrhynchos, the mallard.
Degree of difficulty plays a big role in that, as mallards can be rather, um, challenging. They're inherently wary and do not tolerate human pressure. Further, they're hardy and adaptable, often finding safe zones where folks can't hunt or refusing to migrate when other ducks have long since headed south.
Still, those troublesome traits only fuel the quest for die-hard greenhead fans. And if you want to boost your mallard game this season, these tips can help.
Focus on Fields
Throughout much of the Midwest and prairie regions, mallards have become an agriculture-focused bird, much like geese, roosting on large waters and feeding in cut grain fields. Many puddle ducks use dry fields, of course, but mallards are the No. 1 visitor. They prefer corn, especially when the weather turns cold, but will also feed on beans, barley, oats and other small grains.
Shooting mallards in fields is much like hunting geese. You locate birds, set up decoys, conceal yourself well and wait in ambush. But as any field hunter knows, location is the critical element, and to consistently locate huntable numbers of mallards in fields, you must scout — a lot. In fact, you'll typically drive many miles and glass loads of fields to find a hot feed. Coordinating scouting efforts with a group of friends can help. Experience also plays a role, as you'll learn through time where to look during specific conditions. But the bottom line remains: Windshield time is mandatory.
After you find birds, setting up is fairly straightforward. Forget mallard decoys, as goose decoys work just as well. Set out as many realistic blocks as possible, but remember to leave a good-sized landing hole. Focus on concealment, using natural or artificial cover to completely hide your blinds. Try to keep the sun at your back, even if it means taking crossing shots. Use one or several spinning-wing decoys to attract birds at a distance, but turn them off remotely when birds get close — say 60 yards — as that seems to help ducks finish.
Ply the Timber
In the South and lower Midwest, mallards are almost synonymous with flooded green timber, as migratory flocks love to loaf and feed in secluded woods safe from aerial and human predators.
The timber game differs from standard duck hunting because of the thick trees. Birds cannot usually see down through the canopy, so they often locate each other via sound. As such, calling becomes extremely important in timber. You don't have to be a world champion to attract mallards into a timber spread, but you should strive to call as realistically as possible. Remember, in many areas, you'll be competing with the country's best duck callers.
Conversely, decoys aren't as important in timber as in other areas. Many hunters use small spreads or even forgo decoys. Motion can be important, however, especially when trying to get mallards to finish. Some folks use jerk-strings or pulsating decoys to give the impression of birds swimming or feeding. Many kick or churn the water with their legs to provide the same effect.
As with fields, timber hunting requires constant scouting, because birds often relocate daily based on water conditions and hunting pressure. Realtree.com contributor James Buice, a veteran Southern mallard hunter, scours public water for ducks and areas other hunters overlook.
Well, the real trick to finding ducks, pressured or otherwise, is being where the ducks are, he said. Next is figuring out where the ducks are and where the hunters are not. Public land opportunities being what they are — that is, abundant — means lots of open water for hunters and ducks. I go about it two ways, and both require burning a lot of gas and wading-boot leather, or rubber.
In really heavily hunted areas, I'll start looking for heavy cover — areas that are not as obvious for other hunters. Mallards will drop down into tiny holes in the canopy and filter into these thickets to feed when heavily pressured. Google Earth won't help here, as the holes in the canopy are usually too small to see. You have to burn a morning, watch ducks and try to follow them. Wait until people start shooting, and see where the birds go after they're shot at. These sanctuary holes are great a few hours after shooting light.
Capitalize on Freeze-Up Shooting
Did I mention that mallards often seem content to hang in cold, icy areas and not migrate with their waterfowl cousins? This frustrates hunters year after year, North to South. However, it can also result in great shooting, as hardy mallards often concentrate in remaining open water as other marshes, sloughs, lakes and rivers begin to freeze. And when this occurs, you can cash in.
Field hunting is probably the best tactic for freeze-up mallards, as you don't disturb birds at their roosting and loafing areas and won't have to break ice or brave dangerous conditions. But if you can't find a hot field, you can still shoot mallards by focusing on small waters.
Locate creeks, rivers, spring holes and windswept shorelines that are slow to freeze. Then, glass or slip into these areas to check for birds. Remember, finding 50 mallards in an open hole surrounded by relatively thick ice probably does you little good, as access would be difficult at best. You must find areas where you can safely walk or boat and then hide.
When you find birds, set a realistic decoy spread, including some full-bodies resting on the ice, if possible. You won't need many fakes, as mallards will often be eager to join their buddies. Sometimes, freeze-up mallards hit open holes immediately before sunrise. In other situations, they fly best during the warmest part of the day. Try to determine when they're using an area, and be waiting for them.
If decoy hunting proves difficult, you can jump-shoot small rivers and spring holes. That's typically a one-time deal, as flushing and shooting at a group of mallards typically drives them out of the area. However, done correctly, a good sneak can net you a few mallards for the table.
Hunt Less, Look More
However you pursue mallards, a common theme emerges: You'll often be more successful by scouting more and hunting less. That is, locating hot feeds, unpressured loafing areas or other spots where mallards feel comfortable will net you better shooting long-term than simply burning up the same water or dirt day after day. Sure, scouting isn't as enjoyable as hunting. And yeah, you might not like spending a day glassing fields when your buddies shoot a few birds at the local marsh. But through time, finding hidden or out-of-the-way areas that attract skittish mallards will put a lot more greenheads on your strap.