Years ago, I was in Arkansas spring snow goose hunting, and it was damn miserable, as snow goose hunting tends to be. After a sufficient amount of suffering, a friend with a private timber hole suggested that we take the morning off, and motor out to the flooded oaks to watch the remaining mallards flutter through the canopy of budding tree limbs.
Many of us had never been to such a heavenly place where wood ducks masterfully weaved in and out of the trees in the darkness, hitting high-pitched squeals that reverberated amongst the hardwoods. Then mallards lit all around us, so close you could hear each individual wingbeat. It was magnificent; made even more so, because we didn’t have shotguns in our hands as the season had long been out. I was hooked.
Every season since we’ve swapped hunts with our old Arkansas buddies. They always wanted to field hunt and I always want to get back into that magical timber.
Whether you’re in flooded timber or a frozen corn field, chasing late-season mallards requires a special set of tactics. And over the years, we’ve developed some rules to live by. They are not all hard and fast, but most will put a few birds on your strap as long as the refuge is full of greenheads.
There isn’t a single simple way to shoot puddle ducks every morning, but there are definitely some ways to experience more success: It takes hard work or a bit of money (as in joining a duck club).
I’ll presume you are like most of us and have to hunt public land or you have one or two private spots, thanks to an offseason spent door-knocking. The No. 1 rule is don’t burn your duck hole. There’s nothing you can do about that on public, but if you have a private piece, watch the weather each week and pick the two days (cold, wind and sunshine; rain is good too with a little wind) when the birds will be most vulnerable. Don’t go out there when its 65 degrees and calm, which does happen even in January nowadays. And don’t hunt it more than two days in a row. A single duck hole cannot take a ton of pressure. You have to hunt the best weather days—period.
When it comes to decoys, there are all kinds of options depending on the setting. We hunt the river here in Illinois and battle 20 to 25 other groups of hunters, so the entire rig goes in the boat (around 500 mallard, diver, and goose floaters). We use multiple species of decoys, because you can shoot just about any kind of diver or puddle duck. On bigger water it can be important to keep decoys tight to the boat/blind. Ducks always seem to want to land on the outside edge no matter how many pockets we leave for them to land on in the interior of the spread.
Motion decoys aren’t that beneficial on big water, especially when the wind is blowing hard. The chop in the river moves the decoys plenty and can almost hide spinners. On days when the wind is over 10 mph, we like to put out snow goose floaters and magnum drake canvasback decoys. If the sun is out and the wind is brisk, it sets our spread apart from the competition. All that white bobbing up and down in the water makes any species of duck curios.
Calling is fast, loud and aggressive. Get as many callers as you can, and feed off each other. But don’t make it a calling contest. One hunter should be the leader and the rest follow along. And don’t just call when you see birds coming. Late-season ducks get conditioned to being called at when they get close to a brush pile and a huge rig of decoys. Sometimes you can just blow locator calls, which is to let ducks know you’re around. Maybe that sounds ridiculous, but I’ve been in blinds where seasoned hunters just start wailing away even though they don’t see ducks. My question has always been why? Their answer: “you never know if there are ducks around that you can’t see, and you can’t kill ducks you don’t call to.”
Flooded corn and moist soil units make for a more intimate setting. In small duck holes later in the season, try and use the most realistic decoys you can afford, and make sure you do not use mallards only. Throw some pintail or gadwall or four redheads in there, something to make it different from everyone else. Most hunters are going to pair greenheads up with hen mallards because that mimics the paring bonds birds undergo during this time of year. But if all your neighbors are doing that, the birds are going to get conditioned to that kind of spread. So intersperse some other ducks and make it look natural. Ducks like to feed on the edges in shallow water, so mimic that with a few birds in the kill hole too.
Motion decoys are a little tricky later in the year. At the start of the season, you can turn them on and let’em rip. Now you need to read the birds more carefully. If they flare hard, turn it off, or move it into the flooded cornstalks or brush so birds are only getting flashes of the wings. Make sure you buy a spinner with a remote so that you can run it during the most opportune times. Some ducks will like the intermittent “flare” of a spinner rather than the constant motion they have seen for months on end. Also, try floating on-water motion decoys. Butt-up feeders and spinners that kick up water can give you an edge over other hunters still running two Mojo mallards and a blob of decoys.
There are so many philosophies on how to kill greenheads in flooded oaks and cypress breaks, you could write a book (and some have). Arkansas is the most notable place to hunt the forest, though state WMAs have become so overridden with hunters, that they limit the number of days non-residents can hunt, which I don’t particularly agree with, but that’s another article for another day.
Whether you are hunting the famed Bayou Meto or if the river floods in your neck of the woods and has made timber hunting plausible, there are some smart ways to kill ducks. The first, and most important is to have a canopy that ducks can get down into. When you scout, the ducks might be sitting on water that they didn’t necessarily land in. That’s why you don’t always set your decoys where the feathers are when hunting flooded timber. Pay attention to where the ducks are, but also pay attention to the tress above. The birds may have dropped in 30 or 100 yards away and swam to where they are now. That can put you off the X the next morning, watching birds land where you can’t kill them.
Calling is always aggressive in the woods. If you don’t have two or three good callers on public land, you better find some. Hit ducks hard when they fly downwind of your decoys and shut up when they are over top of you, just like any other field or marsh scenario. The birds are attracted to the noise, not the decoys necessarily. The decoys are for confidence, and I would only set mallards, maybe a pintail or two. A jerk rig is paramount. If you have multiples that’s even better. Pull that string when the ducks are flying away from you. It’s an unnatural motion, so all you are trying to do is create movement. Don’t jerk it when those birds are on top of you, they will bug out.
Hiding is absolutely key to a successful hunt. On cloudy days, that’s real tough. Birds can bust you a lot easier, so you have to hug those trees and not pie face ducks. I’m not a fan of face paint, but if it’s a grey day, burn a wine bottle cork and rub that ash on your face. It makes a difference. When the sun is out, you can get away with more, by hiding in the shadows. Every clothing/camo company makes a “timber” pattern now, but my favorites are Mossy Oak Bottomalnd (for sunny days) and Natural Gear’s Original Natural (in the clouds). That’s not to say Sitka and Realtree’s Timber patterns don’t work, Mossy Oak and Nat Gear are just my favorites for the woods. Brown and green solids are just fine too.
Big Spins in the Fields
When it turns bitter cold and water starts locking up, field hunting mallards will make you want to sell the duck boat for a trailer full of full-bodies. In prairie Canada and the Dakotas, this is THE way to shoot greenheads early season. But for many of us in the Midwest and Atlantic flyway, we have to wait for the deep freeze to set in.
When it does, you will need a ground blind or A-frame and at least four-dozen (eight-dozen is better) full-body field mallard decoys. You can expand the decoy footprint with duck or goose silhouettes—Tanglefree and Dive Bomb both have great/affordable options, or if you are a field goose hunter, just use the honker full-bodies and three to four spinners.
It’s fun to get all your buddies in on shoot like this, because a good field hunt can accommodate plenty of guns, but limiting the group to four or five is best. If friends feel left out rotate them in on the next hunt. The idea is to get multiple shoots out of one field, especially if you lease and that’s all the access you have. If you take 10 shooters out there, it may be one and done.
My favorite field spread is eight-dozen mallard full-bodies and another four- to six-dozen honker full-bodies with a dozen or two specklebellies thrown in amongst the mallards—if they are around. If not, or if you don’t get specks, just leave them out. Whenever there is a big duck feed around these parts, the specks are almost always with the greenheads. Keep the honkers away from the ducks and bar-bellies. They don’t typically mingle.
Read Next: Tips for Crumpling Late-Season Ducks
Set four to six spinners 15 to 20 yards out in front of the blinds and pay close attention to how the birds react. Ducks mostly like spinners in fields (maybe because they don’t see them quite as much there as over water), but that’s not always the case. A-frames are the easiest to hunt out of, just make sure whatever you brush it up with covers the top. You don’t want a big black hole out in the middle of the field late-season—ducks will pick you out easy.
Calling the shot can be tough if a large group—say 500 birds—is circling above. Wait for the first birds to land to suck in the rest. Don’t pound them on the first pass when they whiz by at 30 mph. Patience is your friend. Some hunters don’t like to shoot into big groups, but in field hunting that’s not really an option. If the whole roost comes out at once and lands in your spread, OK, don’t shoot, if you can stomach it. But late in the season they will mostly be coming in big bunches, so make your best call. Plus, time is short, the season is almost over, and the ducks are going to be gone soon. Take’em when you can.