Seven Secrets to Hunting Sheetwater
September 01, 2016
The whistle of wings announced their approach: a pair of mallards, black against the overcast sky, banking toward the puddle in a low, tight circle. With wings cupped but feet hidden, the tandem buzzed the decoys and swept behind the layout blind in a rush of wind, disappearing from view. The hen could be heard chuckling eagerly from behind, but there was no need to call. These birds were coming in.
It was the final day of Washington State's marathon waterfowl season. Since mid-October, the string of Saturdays had dissolved into a blur of shotshells and feathers and alarm clocks and gas-station burritos.
After four months of bird hunting blitzkrieg, the last day of January had finally arrived, and with six greenheads cooling on the mud behind the blind, it was simply a matter of moments before the pair would reappear and the final limit completed. It was shaping up to be the perfect ending to a memorable season — one last point-blank shot to be savored, like a first kiss.
The mallards circled twice more before backpedaling over the gap in the decoys with outstretched necks. The drake was so focused on his landing he didn't notice anything out of place, not even a hunter 25 yards away sitting up to level a bead on his beak.
The blast of a shotgun ripping through the mist caught his attention, though, and he rocketed skyward. His wings found the wind, and even though two more volleys were lobbed toward his tailfeathers, the bird managed to escape unscathed.
Frustration likely would have set in, but there wasn't time. Already another black dot was growing larger against the grey horizon, and it was time to regroup and reload. The season ended 40 seconds later with a single shot and a mallard drake down face-first in the ankle-deep water: The decisive punctuation mark to signify the end of another fall.
That's the beauty of wet-field hunting. When you do it right, you can shoot a clean and efficient limit. No lost birds, no leaky waders, no hassling with a boat or trailer, just a puddle of water and a pile of ducks.
It took this duck hunter awhile to figure out how to hunt sheetwater. It wasn't for lack of opportunity or trying though. Western Washington is famous for its precipitation, and after several months of Pacific drizzle, pretty much every low spot of every field around the Puget Sound is transformed into a dabbling duck's playground: six to 10 inches of water, safety from predators and usually some sort of crop to munch on.
Of course, the soggy lowland of the Pacific Northwest is the not the only region where sheetwater habitat can be found. California rice operations, Atlantic tidal flats, short-cropped pastureland near swollen Midwest rivers — even the arid fields of the Southwest can be transformed into temporary sheetwater sanctuaries for migrating mallards. And when you find these conditions, you'll need to be able to take advantage of them.
I first gained permission to hunt a sheetwater field in high school: 40 acres of puddler paradise that comprised part of a dill and cucumber farm. By mid-December, the crops had been harvested and the field plowed into bare dirt, but a foot-deep puddle the size of a basketball court had gathered near the southeast end. That's all the ducks needed. I remember glassing this field slack-jawed from the front seat of my Toyota one afternoon after school, gaping at the sight of dozens of mallards, pintails, and wigeon cavorting in the shallow water.
I returned the next morning with a sack full of decoys and a heart full of hope, but trudged back to my car empty handed and deflated. Here are some lessons learned since that first failed enterprise.
This one is important for any manner of waterfowling, but downright essential for wet field hunts. On that first morning at the cucumber farm, I squatted behind a wire-frame blind draped in camouflage netting. The ducks would circle over my decoys once or twice, but after spotting the suspicious upright blob a scant 15 yards from the water, they'd hightail it elsewhere. No shots were fired.
A more experienced hunter would have known the value of covering up and moving the blind further from the water. When you're hunting a bare-dirt field, you can't get low enough. Digging in a layout is a great tactic, of course, but in the soupy soil of the Pacific Northwest, that usually isn't an option. To make up for this, it's a good idea to set up a minimum of 25 yards from the nearest decoy and refrain from shooting until the birds are backpedaling.
Go ahead and test this one yourself. Next time you're scanning a wet field with your binoculars, try counting the ducks, and then re-count them. What you'll discover is that even though you'll be able to number the gaudily-plumed drakes with relative ease, you'll have a hard time picking out the hens against the muddy background, even with the aid of high-quality optics. Female feathers are designed to fool the eyes of predators, and in a shallow puddle with plenty of lumps and clutter, this natural camouflage is remarkably effective.
Savvy sheetwater hunters will employ drake decoys exclusively in their sheetwater spreads. This saves valuable time during set-up and pick-up and has proven remarkably effective. I believe even sharp-eyed mallards have difficulty spotting the mud-colored hens on the ground, so they will drop in readily to a bachelor spread assuming hidden females are relaxing nearby.
Cut the Calling
On that first busted hunt, my mallard call was worked harder than a referee's whistle at a Oakland Raider's game. The ducks weren't buying it.
Since then, shutting up has been proven valuable time and again. Sheetwater hunting is usually done late season in the Pacific Northwest, and January mallards are notoriously call shy. Furthermore, since maintaining concealment is almost always a concern in wet-field hunting, trumpeting your presence with a hail call is not the best way to keep prying eyes off your hide. Holding down the quacks and holding still will result in fewer ducks flaring and more ducks falling.
Make a Splash
In lieu of an abundance of calling, you'll find that an abundance of water movement is a sure-fire way to make mallards curl their wings at the sight of a sheetwater setup.
If the water's deep enough, a good old-fashioned jerk rig should do the trick. In most sheetwater fields, though, the water is so shallow that most of your decoys will be plowing furrows in the mud with their keels if you try to attach them to a jerk line. This is a time to get a bit more creative.
Battery-powered water-agitators by Lucky Duck, WonderDuck and Mojo (where legal) make a great option. But in Washington and Oregon, where string-powered decoys are as high-tech as the law allows, the Kick Splash decoy by Decoy Dancer can be an effective alternative.
It's basically a butt-up feeder decoy with a bright orange paddlewheel for legs. By pulling the cord, you create an eye-catching splash that gets the attention of the ducks away from your blind and onto your spread. You'll discover most mallards will finish right over the spray of this decoy, making blind placement much easier.
With some exceptions, sheetwater hunting is a mid-morning game. By December, the majority of flooded fields in the Northwest have been harvested, and the ducks that use these puddles are looking for rest and companionship more than a meal.
Because of this, sheetwater hunters will typically see the most waterfowl traffic after the sun's been up for a while. For example, on that last hunt of the season in late January, I didn't slide into my layout until more than an hour after shooting light, but still finished my limit by 11 a.m. Good things come to those who sleep.
When planning a set-up on a sheetwater field, it's tempting to just pick the largest pool on the property. While that may work, in most cases the biggest puddle is not always the best. More important than water depth are factors such as cover for your blind and visibility for your decoys.
For example, if the biggest water in the field is completely surrounded by a moonscape of smooth mud, it may be more effective to throw your dekes out on a smaller puddle that butts up to a ditchrow to conceal your layout.
On the other hand, if that smaller puddle provides good cover for your blind but is so cluttered with vegetation that your decoys couldn't be spotted by a low-flying hawk, then it's a better idea to set up on cleaner water that allows your decoys to pop in the vision of stratospheric flocks.
You'll never find the perfect puddle, of course, but don't shy away from one simply because it's small. If there's a little soggy spot that provides the best combination of both cover for you and visibility for your spread, toss out your decoys and get ready to shoot (even if the puddle's no larger than a Volkswagen van). As long as you can get hidden and your decoys can be seen, you can shoot ducks over water of any size.
Watch the Wind
Nothing is more frustrating than working a flock of mallards for five minutes only to have them splash down 60 yards away on the far side of the puddle. Ducks will almost always land with the wind in their face, even if the wind is a breath that would barely flicker a candle. Determine the wind direction and set up so it's blowing over your back. If the wind shifts halfway through the hunt, pick up your layout and shift with it. You may lose 10 minutes of hunting, but you'll gain more birds at the end of the day.
By the time I'd picked up on that final January morning, a flock of wigeon were already splashing down in the small pool where seven greenheads had just gone on the strap.
The whistle of wings overhead indicated that more ducks were not far behind. In a few months, the winter rains would taper off, the ducks would point their beaks northward and my puddle would evaporate. But come fall, the rain will return, and with it the ducks. We'll be waiting for them.