— By John Pollmann
Hunting mallards can be a bit of a love-hate relationship, and those who have spent a season trying to decoy greenheads know that the pendulum can swing pretty freely between frustration and celebration. This teeter-totter life as a greenhead addict tends to even out with a plan in hand to tackle the day-to-day challenges that come up in the field and on the marsh.
What follows are tips on how to handle five frequent challenges duck hunters face while targeting mallards throughout a season. Try one or all five this fall, and spend more days enjoying the spoils of victory rather than wallowing in the agony of defeat.
1. Off the ‘X’
The key to consistently enjoying mallards over your decoys can be boiled down to one word: scouting. Miles of gravel roads and hours of glassing refuges, sloughs, lakes, rivers and feeding areas are all steps toward finding a pattern and identifying where ducks feel safe resting and eating. In hunter parlance, this is called finding the “X,” and setting up in this exact spot is the ultimate goal. But what happens when you can’t access a particular body of water or field, someone else has already landed permission, or being on the X is otherwise not an option?
For starters, you can reexamine what you discovered while scouting. Try to identify another location where the birds are spending part of their day where you could insert yourself and your decoy spread to capitalize on duck movement. Perhaps it is a small slough that the mallards are hitting for a quick drink of water before feeding in a nearby field. Another classic “off the ‘X’” spot is a day-roost or loafing area that ducks use after feeding. Although spots like these might not be directly on the X, they can still produce fantastic hunts.
Another option is to set up in a spot that provides great visibility of your decoys to passing flocks in an attempt to intercept mallards before they get to their preferred destination. Or, you can try placing your decoy spread in a field or water hole directly adjacent to the X. Ideally, this is done in a way as to not disrupt the plans of other hunters who may have previously landed permission to hunt the X.
I used this tactic last season when hunting mallards on a section of flooded creek bottom. Setting up exactly where the birds had been hanging out was not an option, but I was able to get access to a field of combined corn just to the west of the shallow waters. My location put me close enough to the X that the birds had to slide less than 50 yards off their normal flight path to be well within range. At the same time, setting up to the west meant that the sun would be at their backs and they would more easily catch the flash of white from my spinning wing decoy. I wasn’t on the X that day, but I still walked back to the truck with a strap full of South Dakota greenheads.
2. Managing Wind
Whether you’re field hunting mallards near Devils Lake, N.D., or lobbing hail calls at flocks of green over the Missouri River near Springfield, S.D., weather is one thing that all duck hunters have to battle — and it is the one variable to a hunt that is completely out of our control.
Cold temperatures, snow and ice can all create challenges for mallard hunters, but the wind may be the trickiest element of them all. Variable wind, big wind, wrong wind — it’s rare to get a day when the wind plays by the rules, and there is nothing more frustrating than a day when the wind doesn’t want to play at all.
A no- or low-wind situation creates a problem for mallard hunters (really all waterfowl hunters) because it allows the birds to approach and land from any direction. With a steady breeze, you can position your blinds and decoys in such a way to have the birds approach you into the wind and finish in sight, right in the hole you’ve created. But when the wind is calm, the way birds are going to finish really becomes a guessing game.
One trick to handling these conditions is to place every decoy out in front of your blind so that regardless of how the birds finish, the action is out in front of you. If mallards are keying in on motion decoys, for example, you can place these in such a way as to make sure that the birds are finishing in range.
3. Concealment Concerns
Outside of finding a place to hunt, staying concealed is probably the most important step a hunter can take to putting greenheads on the strap. Hiding blinds and hunters in the field or on the marsh is relatively easy when there is ample cover to be found, but the odds aren’t always in your favor.
There are three ways I combat poor concealment conditions. The first is to utilize any available cover to break up the outline of my blind, even if it takes me away from the X.
Concealment is just that important. I would rather have a good hide, courtesy of a nearby weedy fence line or a slough edge or even taller stubble when the combine head was lifted just slightly, than to be on the X and sticking out like a sore thumb.
Another method is to use the sun to your advantage, putting it at your back, even if this means moving your blind to a side of the decoy spread for more of a crossing shot. Sun and shadows can do a lot to make up for a poor hide.
The last method involves using your motion decoys to move the attention of the birds away from your hide. While a traditional setup has the motion directly in front of the blind, the idea here is to move motion decoys to the side and rearranging your blind for more of a crossing rather than incoming shot. Doing so hopefully keeps the wary eyes of incoming birds focused on the motion and not your less-than-ideal hide.
4. Under Pressure
The Dakotas are home to a wealth of diverse waterfowl hunting opportunities on both public and private land. The secret is out on the brand of hunting that we enjoy here, which creates areas of intense hunting pressure. Just like any of us, stress has a way of impacting the behavior of mallards in these areas, causing them to become decoy or call shy, extremely wary of blinds, and even hesitant to finish when a motion decoy is in use.
The easiest way to tackle this challenge is to make a change and do things differently than everyone else. Different tactics to consider include using a drastically different number of decoys, avoiding typical decoy spread designs, or incorporating different styles and species of decoys, including Canada geese. Instead of using a spinning wing decoy over water, consider switching to a jerk-string rig, like the one from Rig ‘Em Right, or a splasher-style decoy. And if the ducks are getting bombarded with aggressive calling from every other hunter, put your call in your pocket and just pull the jerk string.
Mixing it up can extend to your hide, too. In the field, if every other hunter is using layout blinds in the decoys, try moving your layouts outside the spread and placing them perpendicular to the kill hole for a crossing shot, or use an A-frame blind tucked in along a fence row or slough edge — anything to make your decoy spread appear different from the one the next section over.
5. Stale Birds
Migrating mallards are a duck hunter’s best friend. They are eager to feed, respond well to calling and are just plain easier to hunt. By contrast, mallards that have spent weeks in an area, unmotivated to move south, can be really hard to hunt.
The challenge presented by these “stale” birds is often further complicated by the very lack of weather that is keeping them in the area in the first place. Warm days and mild nights — especially on the heels of a full moon that often pushes birds into a schedule of feeding under the stars — are the stuff of nightmares for mallard hunters. Once in this pattern of feeding into the night, mallards may only show up in the skies at the extreme bookends of the day, either very early in the morning or right at sunset.
One way to tackle stale birds is to look for ways to hunt them during these brief windows of opportunity, be that on the water in the morning as they return from feeding, or setting up for a late-afternoon shoot in a corn field or other feeding situation. In both situations, being ready on time is paramount, as you may only have a few flocks to work with during legal shooting hours. You don’t want to miss one of your only chances because you are still setting up decoys or brushing the blind.
Mother Nature provides the biggest boost for hunting stale birds, however. Any change in the weather, be it rain, a drop in temperatures or even a big wind, can be all it takes to shake the birds out of their funk, if even only for a day or two. Keep an eye on the forecast in order to take advantage of this help from the weather, and be prepared to be in the field when the conditions change. Nothing feels sweeter than a little success after weeks of frustration.
About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow @JohnPollmann on Twitter.