October 25, 2022
As my headlights turned slowly into the parking lot…I prayed. Prayed that I wouldn’t be greeted with the reflection of a dozen taillights crowding the muddy gravel. To my surprise, I didn’t have any company…yet anyway. I couldn’t believe it. I quickly threw my decoys over my shoulder, flipped the headlamp on, and went half-jogging toward the trail through the woods.
A version of the aforementioned scene is one that plays out time and time again for public land waterfowl hunters. Across the nation, some of the best wingshooting to be found is on public lands. Although it often requires more work and can involve some uncertainty, the variety of public hunting habitat is unbeatable, and the opportunity is virtually endless. You’re paying taxes to make it possible, so why not tax a few mallards while you’re at it?!
Draw Areas: Hide or Die
Some of the best-known public areas in the Mississippi flyway are located in the Show-Me State. The Missouri Department of Conservation allocates millions of dollars annually to these areas, and the results on several of them speak for themselves. These parcels see a ton of duck usage, AND hunting pressure, offering a lot of promise and at times, even more frustration at others. There’s only so much gear you can get to your spot, the hide can be questionable, and competition for the same birds within a given hunting unit can combine to make each duck added to the strap a serious task.
We’d been hunting throughout the morning in our allocated position, a flooded corn strip, with mixed results. Some success, sure…but only with single mallards. None of the groups we started stuck together, which is typical of areas like this in flooded ag. On this area, there are no blinds in place, so any extra concealment measures are the responsibility of the hunter. Unless conditions are perfect, and even then, it takes an awfully skinny hunter to look like a corn stalk, and wary ducks will pick your setup apart.
Although it seemed like a major inconvenience at the time, we stopped the hunt and slid our setup a couple hundred yards toward better cover near a small grove of trees. It wasn’t exactly where the birds wanted to be, but the hide made all the difference. Smaller bunches began to hang together, and within 30 minutes, we were packing up with full straps. Had we continued struggling for one at a time, it’s likely we’d have not killed our birds and I can guarantee we’d have educated a boat load!
Imagine what the ducks are seeing on these people-packed duck parks: Folks crowding into the feeding areas they’ve been frequenting daily. Folks with hardly any hide. Folks shooting at 80-yard passer-bys. Hell, it nearly makes me not want to go near the places, and you know the ducks can’t care much for it. Watching the area a bit will prove that ducks care more about where folks are NOT than where the food IS. Even 20 extra minutes of work on concealment can take it from a hunt you wouldn’t pay $20 for, to something you’ll remember for 20 years. At the end of the day on highly competitive draw areas like this, the hide is everything!
Big Water Mallard Hunting Tactics
The term “Big Water” can mean a couple of things in the minds of waterfowlers. Typically, I’m referring to large rivers (Missouri/Mississippi) or a large lake or reservoir. This type of habitat can be challenging for a variety of reasons, including access, extra gear, boat considerations, and safety. The nature of these bodies of water make for some incredible public opportunity, and it’s first come – first serve, meaning those willing to put in the work can always have a chance to hunt.
The big water can require a lot of gear, and on these sorts of excursions, a hunting party is generally limited to what they can fit in a boat, meaning decoy spreads have a tendency to be relatively the same size. Especially in the social media age, when an area heats up with duck usage, it can get crowded. It’s not unusual to see a setup around each bend in the river or stretch of a big reservoir. My hunting strategy across the board is that of a minimalist with small spreads and small hunting groups. On big water through, size matters, and I get a little outside of my comfort zone. On public land, you’re dealing with Mother Nature…and that’s different than dealing with Uncle Sam. Managed areas have rules, closing times, and group-size restrictions. On big water, it’s up to you.
The river was half full of ice, and completely full of ducks. We backed both boats down the ramp, packed with a few hunters and more than a few decoys, including duck and goose floaters, silhouettes, & full body honkers, totaling upwards of 350 decoys. Our hope was that this larger spread would draw attention help us show a bit of a different look than the groups littered up and down the river. The two-boat setup was a huge hassle, especially in bitter cold, and I was hopeful that dodging double the ice chunks on our journey wouldn’t be for nothing. We rounded the bend, deployed the spread, and made a hide of drift wood on the sand bar. The conditions were ideal, a decent breeze and sunshine, plus most importantly, plenty of ducks. It didn’t take us long to capitalize.
We made good on the first flock of mallards and it stayed pretty consistent as the hunt continued. On this afternoon, the ducks were working directly over the full body decoys, and although they took up a ton of room in the boat, we were glad we’d added them to the mix. We finished singles and pairs, plus several groups in the double digits, and one well into the hundreds.
That type of big group is the sort of spectacle you can witness on big water that hunters often don’t get to see in marsh-type habitats. Nearby hunting groups up and down the river killed ducks as well, but none with the consistency or effectiveness that we experienced that day. All of us had similar concealment strategies, but we greatly outnumbered our neighbors on spread size, and we saw this first hand on our way back to the ramp, while they continued hunting. Their offerings looked fine, but the cookie-cutter five dozen floater rig was a song and dance the birds had seen time and time again!
Dry Field Mallard Tactics
It could be argued that dry field waterfowling offers some of THE most exciting experiences in the hunting world. There’s nothing like the big spins with the sights and sounds of hundreds or thousands of sets of wings locking in unison. In other areas, dry field duck hunts are the norm, but across much of Missouri and other parts of the Midwest, it’s more of an opportunistic situation. Our area has oodles of flooded and managed acres with food and cover, so ducks don’t always enter the dry land feeding cycle. There are many factors that influence when birds might dry-feed in an area like this, but a lot of it comes down to weather. When it gets cold, ducks congregate on larger bodies of water. Since these areas are much different than their normal moist soil or flooded crop habitats, which are frozen, the birds flock in large numbers to dry corn fields.
From a public use standpoint, dry fields can be tough to come by. Across many areas, ag land is exclusively private, and no matter how many ducks are feeding on the field, getting permission can be a daunting task. Take a deep dive into a plat map, however, and you’ll find ag fields are part of the makeup of some public lands. Knowing the locations of these tillable tracts can be an extremely valuable tool in your arsenal.
One week, while scouting a few private farms I hunt regularly, I noticed birds working an area not far from a large body of water. Upon further inspection, I found them in a privately owned corn field by the tens of thousands. Although securing permission on that tract wasn’t possible, I noticed a public field on the map a mile from the feed. After laying eyes on the tract and confirming it was a corn stubble (for hide purposes), I returned to the feed and watched until dark. To my delight, the majority of the birds sifted back to their roost, passing directly over the public access. The next afternoon called for a good breeze, and so I called a few friends and made plans to attempt a traffic setup.
The following day, we arrived, brushed blinds, and deployed our decoy rig. It wasn’t enormous by any means, but sizeable, and large enough to draw attention from a short distance since the birds were trading directly overhead. Had we been further from the line, our spread size might have required three times the decoys. It was still early in the afternoon, and as the first birds came trickling out overhead off the roost toward the feed field, a few small groups checked up and took a look before continuing on, and a couple of single drakes worked into range. As the wind picked up, however, so did our success. The first big bunch of the evening was epic, and even before we saw them, we heard the noise. Anyone who’s ever dry field hunted with success knows “THE” noise. The “shhhhhhhhhhhhhwwoooooooooooo” that builds and grows until four hundred mallards are making the hook in front of you. We ripped into that bunch and one identical, and it was a wrap.
As we picked up our decoys, the train started rolling. Thousands of mallards sailing into the mega feed was a nice addition to the sunset as we drove out of the field. That might have been the best part of the hunt, leaving knowing that we had only shot into a tenth of a percent of the ducks we were hunting, and realizing we could do the same thing again the next afternoon! Let’s face it, there’s no better feeling than a landowner telling you to have at it on the field the birds are in, but this traffic form of hunting is a good way to approach dry land habitat when you can’t get on the “X”.
While you can’t usually dial in your setup or have the conveniences or ease of access found on private ground, if you’re willing to get after it, you’ve got a great chance at season-long success, day in and day out. Whether you key in on perfecting your hide in the flooded corn on state and federal managed areas, beefing up your decoy offering on large reservoir lakes or river systems, or running traffic in an ideal location on a public dry field, you’ll be taking steps toward increasing your odds at success.
Don’t overlook these areas throughout your own neck of the woods. Whether you know it or not, some of the most successful hunters that you know are currently doing a great deal of hunting on public land and water….and most of them won’t breathe a word of it to anyone!