Old habits and conventional wisdom are hard to ignore. In duck hunting, this is especially true when that wariest of all dabblers, the mallard, is the quarry. Usually we just believe “more” is the answer to greenhead success: additional decoys, fancier blocks, costlier duck calls, louder calling, a longer boat run in the dark, bigger water.
But with pressured mallards, “less” often produces better hunting. Fewer decoys. Simple setups. One trusted duck call. Efficient calling. And smaller water, secluded hideouts, and forgotten places: The kinds of escapes greenheads love but where hunters rarely go. Here are seven top small-water mallard refuges, and strategies for hunting each.
1. Road Ditch
When the water is up and roadside ditches are full, mallards have no reservations about settling in next to back roads. The first time I conducted a roadside hunt, it was along a flooded borrow pit next to a gravel road in North Dakota’s prairie pothole country. I felt silly setting up there before dawn, but the singles and doubles that coasted in from the crowded public marsh a couple of miles away made up for the bizarre setting. Check your state’s regulations before giving this a try.
2. Drainage Ditch
Hunters usually ignore drainage ditches that run through agricultural land or cut through marshes, but ducks love these waterways for their quiet and cover. You can jump-shoot a ditch at midday, though it’s more rewarding to set up there before dawn. Put out a line of decoys with a wing spinner right in the middle, in front of you. Keep either end of the decoy line within easy shooting range so you get good shooting at mallards settling into either end of the lineup.
3. Sheet Water
Take advantage of autumn’s monsoons. Ducks do. Sheet water puddling up and standing in fields (especially grain stubble) attracts mallards for the forage available, as well as safety in the form of visibility in every direction. Use layout blinds to hide. Put the wind at your back, place a few floaters on the water ahead, and stand a few full-body blocks at the water’s edge.
4. Oxbow Slough
Along rivers, the calm and secluded water of an oxbow slough is a mallard magnet. These old stream meanders are almost always hard for hunters to get to, making the water even more attractive to ducks. Study Google Maps to find an oxbow and plan your approach. Hike in or take a boat ride to a jumping-off point. Travel light with a pothole bag carrying a dozen to 18 decoys.
5. Farm Pond or Stock Tank
When a marsh complex, big lake, or riverway gets pounded, head for farm ponds and stock tanks. These dammed or dugout waterholes won’t attract mallards by the hundreds, but the small water will suck in enough birds to make a setup worth your while. My favorite ranch ponds and stock tanks reside high in the hill country above
Nebraska’s Missouri River Breaks. It takes about five minutes for the ducks to start arriving once the guns begin booming down on the big river.
6. Secluded Pothole
Go back to Google Maps and study a wetland complex where you usually hunt. Look beyond the big water, bays, points, and coves. Instead, explore the far-back reaches of the marsh for potholes and watery openings hidden away. Or locate these honey holes by watching ducks settling in elsewhere as you hunt the traditional water. Either way, hike in at midday and blaze a trail almost there (don’t jump the ducks), then return extra early the next morning for action. Travel light with a shotgun, half a bag of dekes, and a strap full of shells.
7. Satellite Wetland
Check online maps or drive back roads from the big water, looking for little parcels that don’t get hunting attention. My favorite satellite wetland covers maybe 2 acres, and offers one small open spread of water for them to land in. The mallards don’t care: They’ll lock wings and glide right in toward a smattering of feeder and rester decoys, providing us with shooting opportunities all season.