Splash. Splash. Splash.
The repetitive sequence split the silence as I paddled through the chilled air with my hunting partner, Jason Fowler. My headlamp barely penetrated the thick fog hanging over the shallow, muck-bottomed backwater. Slipping through the fallen trees and marsh grass, we quickly searched for the small clumps of brush and trees to use as our base camp for the morning hunt. After following the channel out into the first of many small pockets of water, we were able to gain our bearings and find the spot.
After carefully ground docking the canoe and jumping out into knee-deep water and muck, we pulled the craft onto solid ground and began laying out a plan for the decoys. We set up our selected portion of the spread and began building a crude blind to hide us for the morning.
Soon, a check of our watches confirmed we were seconds into the first day of duck season. Shots rang out across the marsh. The soft quacks of flying hen mallards, the whistling of wings created by a small flock of teal as they rocketed overhead and the peeps of wood ducks were all around us. Ducks dive-bombed our fakes, landing momentarily, only to realize they had been duped and then returning to the air before a shot was fired because fog crippled our vision. As the sun rose, the fog began to lift, and it wasn’t long before the first few wood ducks glided carelessly toward our setup, only to be met with our first barrage of gunfire for the morning.
"Murphy!" Fowler yelled, sending the black Lab belly flopping into the water. After seeing many birds come and go with no report, the seasoned retriever knew it was his time to shine. Murphy came to the first bird quickly, and with the short burst on a whistle returned it to hand ready to be sent for the next.
After watching more birds and realizing we were just off the flight line, Fowler and I decided to split up and sit up facing away from each other to capitalize on any birds that decided to work our rig from either direction. Soon enough, we were getting good chances at the approaching birds. A small flock of wood ducks turned and twisted between the cattails and red brush of the marsh. I shouldered my gun and fired, with my shots finding nothing but open space in between the retreating flock.
After reloading, checking my gun and shouldering it to make sure everything was OK, I did what every serious waterfowler does: I blamed my equipment. I scanned the air, looking for more fast fliers to redeem myself, while enduring chuckles in the background.
Our small bag was full of color from the drake wood ducks and mallards we had taken.
The pressure of other hunters, bright sunny skies and general lack of wind had stopped the flight shortly after it had started. But the lack of bagged birds never broke our spirit.
We adjusted the spread and tucked in deeper to conceal us better. We knew the local mallards would likely move late in the morning, and the nearby refuge held a lot of ducks.
Around 10 a.m., hunters began to filter out. Only a few groups remained spaced out in the marsh. Shortly thereafter, small groups of mallards and an occasional wood duck or gadwall would drop from the heavens over the marsh.
"Don’t move," Fowler whispered, as three mallards lost altitude and headed toward our spread. Tilting my head just enough to watch their approach, I began to softly call.
Fowler joined in. The birds committed on the first pass, dropping hundreds of feet in just seconds. As they glided into the decoys, wings cupped and bodies turning, I slowly moved my hands to mount my shotgun.
"Take ‘em!" Fowler exclaimed, as we shouldered our guns and fluidly swung our barrels.
Murphy was on his way. After I shared a couple high fives with Fowler, our retriever delivered a pair of plump mallards and received a pat for his good work.
We didn’t limit, but the hunt was a success. The first-day havoc that goes along with hunting resident refuge mallards is part of the game.
Late Mornings on Big Water
"Clear!" yelled longtime hunting partner and fellow Zink pro-staffer Erik Nilsson, as I backed the trailer into the water and the boat lifted from the bunks. As I pulled the truck away, Nilsson situated the gear and coaxed his yellow Lab, Gauge, into the boat. Seconds later, we started our trek down the shoreline to a spot we had hunted many times before.
The plan was to hunt mallards and black ducks coming off of the local refuge in search of cornfields. We tucked the boat against shore and began to put out four large bags filled with mallards and a few other puddle ducks, creating a hole we hoped the ducks could not resist.
As we pulled the boat onto ground, I searched for my favorite pair of waterproof gloves to set decoys. The only problem was Gauge had taken a liking to them the
year before, so I quickly was one glove short of a full pair. "Gauge!" I yelled as I scanned the pre-dawn darkness for anything resembling a four-legged creature, only to realize he was standing just outside the boat, glove in mouth, but full of water. Nilsson chuckled as I picked up the waterlogged glove and tossed it in the boat. It was useless for the day, but served as a reminder that Gauge remembered the game from year’s past.
After setting the duck decoys, we placed a few Canada floaters on the outer edges. After the decoys were set, we cut branches and grassed our boat blind to get everything ready to go for first light.
With an hour to go before legal shooting hours, Nilsson made breakfast. Let me tell you, nothing beats a warm breakfast burrito on a chilly morning after setting decoys and while awaiting the first flight, especially with a cold soft drink and a dog rubbing against your leg in hopes of a tiny morsel that you can spare.
As the sun began to rise, birds began to wake up. A lone quack cut through the air and we scanned the sky for the silhouette. Ducks began to trickle out of the refuge. Singles, pairs and small flocks worked the decoys. I am not ashamed to admit, my partner did his best to work on his limit, while I wasted shells and missed some real lay-up shots. Frustration was setting in. I changed chokes, loads and my clothing to get a better feel for my shouldered gun. I relaxed, calmed my nerves and got my head in the game.
As the day progressed, so did the number of text messages I was receiving asking about my shooting for the day, all in good fun, of course. I just smiled at Nilsson and thanked him for relaying the word to our hunting buddies. "No problem," he said. We both laughed and got back to business, as he knew I would have done the same to him.
Nearing noon, waterfowl activity was minimal. A few geese worked our spread, but the duck activity really slowed. We discussed settling on a leaving time if it didn’t pick up, but fortunately, our conversation was cut short.
"On the left," Nilsson whispered. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught the movement of a large group of mallards. Nilsson made soft quacks and feeding chuckles, which locked the wings of a few birds. They dropped their altitude in half on the first pass. On the next pass, the entire flock was in range. A few dropped into the decoys, but we waited. We knew the next pass all of them would settle in. As the rest of the flock made its final turn, the mallards bunched up, and then backpedaled dead center in the hole.
Ducks fell, and the rest made a speedy departure. With Gauge in the water on retrieves, we shook the blind with giddiness, replaying the thrill of a feet-down flock of mallards.
Grain Field Tornados
After waterfowling near refuges in a few different states, one principle stands out when hunting fields: Get in the flight path. If the refuge is holding a lot of birds, many of them will follow others in search of food. If you are under the line, it can make for a spectacular hunt.
Hunting grain fields of North Dakota a few years ago with Brian Dillemuth and Mike Bard proved a perfect example. The birds were stale — no new ducks had shown up for a while. A lot of scouting provided the areas the ducks were using to feed. We decided to simply get under them in an area they had been using and make the most of it.
Shortly after first light, ducks buzzed on the horizon. Our huge full-body mallard decoy spread drew more and more birds toward us, starting with a small flock of six mallards that grew into a tornado of more than 50 ducks. Small groups would cut down and decoy, providing a difficult decision: Should we wait or shoot?
We were greedy. We wanted all or nothing.
The birds dropped and circled for what seemed like a hundred times. Finally, one bird eventually made the wrong choice and caused the whole flock to dump into the decoys.
Guns boomed. We hooted and hollered. And Moxie the Chesapeake made multiple retrieves.
We didn’t have much time to replay the action, because more mallards began to play the same game. The show the ducks put on was something to behold. I will get out of bed any day to watch mallards decoy.
Fast Shooting on a Flooded Creek
One day, while hunting geese, Nilsson and I saw several flocks of ducks in the distance, but couldn’t immediately figure out where they were headed. We knew a creek was nearby, so we marked a visual in the trees to give us bearing and headed ov
er to scout it later in the morning.
We found a place that turned out to be an outstanding late-season mallard spot. While other areas had frozen, the shallow-water creek stayed open. Our first hunt was nothing short of amazing — the birds, not so much our shooting — but we vowed to return the next season.
That summer, we planted millet, and hoped to return in the fall to another good crop of birds. We waited and watched the weather to decide when the nearby refuge would be freeze, driving the birds to the little honey hole. Cold weather came, and we walked through an open field down the hollow to our secret spot. Sliding and tripping through the dark woods, our anticipation was high for a great hunt on prime greenheads.
Arriving at the makeshift blind just after light, we set up marsh seats and put on the rest of our waterfowl garb. Gauge was positioned to have a good view of any dropping birds, and we finished our daily rituals while we waited for first light. As the sky began to lighten, we heard quacks downstream where we knew the birds liked to roost. Then, the ducks started coming.
We started sweet-talking to them. Before the birds could finish, the situation became chaotic, to say the least. Multiple small groups formed into one large mass and they circled and circled overhead, with mallards cutting air and pitching in from all directions.
It was one of those sights every waterfowler dreams about.
With a light wind, it was hard to decide which way the wad of birds would finish, but when they did, the ducks started to settle 10 yards in front of us. Nilsson called the shot, and quickly, we had four ducks on the water. As Nilsson and Gauge picked up the downed ducks, another flock swept right over their heads with reckless abandon.
“Get Down,” I yelled, as the ducks dumped into the decoys. With Nilsson and his Lab well clear of the ducks, I raised my gun and dropped a pair of drakes with one shot. As we raced to pick up all of the ducks, mallards rushed past all around us looking to make this spot home for the morning. Just after we settled back in, a pair of bonus black ducks lit the decoys.
Every couple of minutes, another small group appeared over the trees, all of them intent on landing in the small flooded creek. We finished our mallard limits and high-tailed it out of there, hoping to enjoy another shoot the following week.
A week later, we were back in the same spot. Like clockwork, birds started coming from both directions on the creek, but this time, they didn’t wait to form one large flock, they committed first pass. With the threat of a major snowstorm, the ducks were eager to feed.
Amidst snow squalls that dumped five inches in an hour, Nilsson and I picked our way through our limit. A short bit of calling convinced the mallards to fully commit and begin feeding with our now snow-covered decoys.
As we left the spot, the water had begun to freeze with the presence of so much new snow. We peered over our shoulders as we walked out, knowing we would be back next year when the time was right to take advantage of this duck magnet.
These two hunts were a spectacular way to end the duck season — bone-chilling temperatures, good dog work and a full strap of mallards. We weren’t hunting an area where the refuge mallards normally go to feed, rather, it was all about the timing and weather for this spot. We have hunted it before the freeze with meager results, but when the weather turns cold, the place is on fire. Hunting it right and spacing out the days pays dividends by keeping the birds in the area.
Hunting refuge mallards can take many forms. Hunters targeting them just outside of the boundary lines using their flight paths, in fields and in remote water all can be very successful.
The main ingredients, as always, are to scout and to be patient. Sometimes, the best decoying action can come later in the morning, changing a slow day into an exciting one in a matter of minutes. If you put in the time, the rewards will be much sweeter.
David Rearick of Butler, Pa., hunts ducks and geese throughout North America.