When Cold Weather Strikes, the Midafternoon Shift Rocks
It was the final 10 days of a pretty dang good duck season, most of which was spent on Illinois public-land. One thing hunting public will teach you is to stay humble (and work your butt off to kill a few ringnecks and wood ducks). But what it never taught me growing up was how to wake up late and kill greenheads.
You see, here in Illinoid (that's not a misspelling), most public areas make you quit by 1 p.m. The idea is to give the birds a rest, but many of those areas get pounded every day by upward of 20 blinds, so the birds know the game pretty quick. That's a rant for another day. My point is, when it turns cold and water starts locking up, early afternoon is the best time to have the best mallard hunt of your life.
I'll set the stage: It's the final couple of weeks of the season, and the overnight temperature has dipped to 15 degrees, so water is locking up. By now, most puddle ducks have pushed south, but greenheads still remain. That's the time to sleep in, drink coffee and get your rig set by about 1 p.m.
Some hunters just don't understand that when the weather gets this cold, greenheads are going to come off that morning and evening flight pattern, said Chad Belding, host of The Fowl Life. What's going to happen is those birds are grouping up with their heads down to keep a pocket of water open, conserving energy, waiting for the sun to melt off some of that ice so they can get to the feed. Mallards will sit there and only fly off the refuge once to eat, typically during the warmest part of the day.
If you have hunted in similar conditions and wondered why you didn't see birds, the reason is likely because you got out before legal shooting light, didn't see much of a flight and cashed it in before the greenheads came off the roost. Or, maybe you figured with the cold it would be a late-afternoon flight, so you set up at 3 p.m. and only saw a few flocks. It's a common mistake a lot of hunters make.
Field Versus Water
There are subtle differences between hunting a harvested cornfield versus a flood one, but the results can be the same — limits for everyone. You will likely get more hunts out of a water hole if you play it right. Set your rig, and if birds aren't flying yet, go back to the truck and keep warm until they do. When you see that first flock or two, head out there and pick off your birds as fast as you can. You want to get the early birds coming in singles and pairs, kill them and get out before the big wads show up. If you have only shot a few birds and a monster flock comes in, just watch the show. It's not worth ruining the rest of your season by educating a big group of greenheads.
If you're knocking on doors to get access to a farmer's field, the birds will probably come in bigger groups, so you will likely get a only few hunts out of the same property. But beggars can't be choosers. The ducks will be waiting for the waste grains to defrost, and as they do, that's when you will see the flights begin. Again, kill them as quickly as you can, and when you're done with limits, stay in your blinds, watch the birds land and don't push them out. Let them leave on their own. Or, if you're the impatient type, you could hop out, go eat supper and then come back and clean up, but I like to stay and watch greenheads bomb in by the hundreds and sometimes thousands.
It's imperative to know when and where mallards are moving, no matter if you're a private or public-land hunter. I know not everyone can scout as thoroughly as they want to, so if you're a weekend warrior, take Saturday to figure out what's going on. I know the mentality of, Hey, I only have two days to hunt, I'm going to hunt. I've been there, and most times it doesn't work out. The only exception is if you know the area well, have been hunting it for a long time and know today is the day to kill ducks.
When greenheads are on the early-afternoon pattern, don't be afraid to bring decoys along. If you're in a public-land-rich area or have access to multiple fields, you can quickly determine flight lines, get under one and set the decoys fast as you can. It takes a team effort, and you have to have everything ready to go (blinds brushed), but it can be done.
I run across a lot of private-land hunters who use public land, too. It's smart, especially for folks with a small impoundment. Give the birds a day or two of rest by chasing them on state or federal land. It also lets you see what's going on outside the club. Plus, with the late-season cold, you might find a little less competition.
Later in the year, when it's cold and the conditions get tougher, some people will give up, Belding said. They just don't want to be out there. This when knowing that you don't have to be out there breaking ice before dawn comes in handy. If you know when the ducks are moving, then you know what time to hunt.
Play to Your Strengths
When ducks get stale, it's a problem. They become decoy- and call-shy, thus tougher to kill. But when greenheads are only flying once a day to feed, it's advantage hunters. Even if the birds are stale, they are sitting on open water or ice all day until they can't stand to be hungry anymore and must feed, which means they become more reckless. It's basically like taking a pressured duck and turning it into a fresh migrator.
In fields and over water, you're going to want mostly feeder decoys to mimic hungry mallards. Set your floaters on the edges of the impoundments or where the food source is, use your jerk rig when birds are at a distance or going away, and be mindful of how ducks respond to your call(s). Mallards are more vulnerable, but they are still educated ducks at that point of the season.