by Wade Bourne
Our flooded field couldn't have held more promise, or turned out more disappointing. Corn borers had invaded our landowner's field, and fallen stalks and their golden grain lay everywhere. Bad for him, but good for us. After he salvaged what he could from his crop, we dammed up the field's drain culvert and started pumping in water.
With so much food available, and based on this field's location astride west Tennessee's Obion River, an old, established flyway, we were sure our new lease would be one of waterfowl plenty.
Our flooded field couldn't have held more promise, or turned out more disappointing. Corn borers had invaded our landowner's field, and fallen stalks and their golden grain lay everywhere. Bad for him, but good for us. After he salvaged what he could from his crop, we dammed up the field's drain culvert and started pumping in water. With so much food available, and based on this field's location astride west Tennessee's Obion River, an old, established flyway, we were sure our new lease would be one of waterfowl plenty.
But when hunting season started, our expectations were dashed. Each morning, flight after flight of ducks would pass overhead, and most would ignore our 60 acres of flooded corn, our big decoy spread, and pleading highballs.
This behavior defied everything we'd held true about duck hunting. Flood some corn and the birds would come, or so we'd believed.
But this proved untrue in our case. After two seasons, we gave up on this lease. We didn't need a third strike to know we were out.
On the other hand, I've hunted flooded fields that ducks and geese couldn't resist. You'd see them at a distance, and they'd be locked and coming.
Continuous flights would work until we bagged our limits; then we'd leave, and the field would fill up with birds.
Thus, such spots can be fields of dreams, or domains of disappointment. They can provide some of the best shooting in waterfowling, or some of the greatest frustrations.
In all four major North American flyways, hunters refine fields to attract waterfowl. Those who do so successfully know that the first step (as we learned the hard way) is to pick a field the birds like.
Then hunters must build good blinds, set attractive decoy spreads, call effectively, and manage shooting pressure so as not to burn the field out.
Following is advice in all these areas from three men with years of experience in hunting open fields. Frank Mackey of Clarksville, Missouri, develops and manages duck clubs in the Mississippi River bottoms.
Harry "King of Quack" Boyle of Chico, California, has been a professional guide for 30 years. And Craig McCarty of Monroe, Louisiana, has guided and managed duck clubs in three southern states for the past eight seasons.
Each of these men knows the secrets of bagging ducks in big flooded fields. They also know that small miscues can lead to major failures, so they've learned to avoid them.
Readers who do likewise, and who follow these veterans' advice, will see their success rates improve when open field hunting.
Picking the Right Spot
Who knows why ducks go where they go and like what they like? Sometimes a spot that looks good to a hunter will be shunned by the birds, which will, in turn, fog into another place that has absolutely nothing to distinguish it.
"I stopped trying to figure ducks out a long time ago," says Mackey. He says hunters should simply go to the ducks instead of trying to force the ducks to come to them.
"We don't know what they see and how they think," Mackey reasons, "and I don't believe we'll ever understand why they prefer one place over another that's similar in location, food, and so on.
So my advice is to simply be observant and let the ducks tell you where to hunt.
"But when you're developing a new field, and you haven't watched ducks work it, then you just have to take a chance and hope they like it," Mackey continues. "Sometimes you'll hit a home run, and other times you'll pop out."
Boyle and McCarty both hunt in harvested, flooded rice fields, and they agree that a field can be made more attractive to ducks by disking or rolling, standard agricultural practices that also break down rice stubble and help farmers prepare fields for subsequent plantings.
"Disking turns the bottom into a gooey mess, exposing roots and invertebrates that ducks love," Boyle explains. "This is a legal and accepted way of making a field attractive to ducks.
It can change a not-so-good field into one that's really productive."
McCarty opts for mashing rice field stubble down with a heavy roller. He says pushing the vegetation down allows the water to be more visible to ducks at longer distances.
"Rolling makes a field look like a little lake, and I definitely recommend rolling the entire field," he adds.
Blinds for Open Fields
Evading ducks' prying eyes is essential in hunting open fields, and hunters have come up with an imaginative range of ways for doing so. Mackey, Boyle, and McCarty concur that the best blind for a field situation is a pit, which allows hunters to disappear underground.
"Our pits are metal," Mackey states. "They're 14 feet long, four feet deep, and five feet wide. They have roofs to cover our hunters overhead. We sink our pits to within six inches of the water level, then camouflage the tops with cornstalks. This renders our hunters all but invisible to ducks overhead."
Boyle's steel pits are buried in rice field levees, typically facing north-south to take advantage of prevailing winds. They measure 10 feet long by four feet deep by five feet wide, tapering to a three-foot opening at the top.
Hunters in Boyle's pits have nothing overhead but natural vegetation. He explains, "I don't like a rolling or slide-back top on a pit. In a field, movement is a hunter's biggest enemy.
The ducks see the top coming off, and they flare before the hunters can get up to shoot." McCarty likes pits, and he's also buried four-foot sections of 40-inch corrugated irrigation pipe as individual pits. "We've set these pipe sections five in a row. We've dug them in and poured six inches of concrete in the bottom to anchor them down.
A hunter can sit comfortably inside one of these pipes on a plastic bucket, and he can rotate to face whatever direction the ducks are coming from." McCarty covers these pits with cane.
But the ducks don't always work where the pits are situated, and each hunter has an option for combating this problem.
Boyle's fields have several pits, and if one isn't producing, he shifts his hunters to another where ducks are working better. McCarty sometimes uses coffin blinds to hunt ducks that are working away from his pits.
And Mackey has a unique solution to "going to the ducks." "We've built several box-type blinds on wheels. We've covered these blinds with wire, then with cornstalks woven through the wire. We pull these to wherever the ducks are working.
If they're hitting the other side of a field, we just pile the decoys in the blind, get the tractor, and make a move."
And when ducks get blind- and decoy-shy, Mackey and friends employ another trick. "We'll take a five-gallon bucket and go sit in the standing corn. We'll toss out three magnum decoys, but no more. Sometimes, ducks that flare away from the big spreads will come straight in to this subtle setup."
Decoy Spreads for Open Fields
All three experts agree that big decoy spreads work better than small spreads in open fields. Mackey sets up to 10 dozen ducks around each blind. Boyle prefers spreads of 300 to 350 decoys, and McCarty hunts over spreads of up to 400 decoys. Most often, owing to the large size of their spreads, all these hunters leave their decoys in place through the season.
Boyle is a stickler for decoy precision. “I use decoys that are all the same size. I don’t mix sizes. All decoys are tied by the front end only. Live ducks float into the wind on open water. All decoys are set two feet apart, and I rig with plenty of anchor weight (10 ozs.) so that the decoys don’t drag and tangle. I keep the white breasts of my sprig decoys freshly painted. This stark white color shows up well and looks natural to circling ducks.”
Boyle sets his decoys in a unique pinwheel design to toll ducks on different winds. He describes, “Say we’ve got a pit running east-west on a rice levee, so shooters can shoot north or south. I’ll set half my decoys on the north side of the pit, and the other half on the south side. I’ll arrange each group in a half-moon pattern off opposite corners of the blind, leaving an open landing area in front of the blind. With this set, regardless of which way the wind is blowing, the ducks can approach into the wind and set down in front of the blind, on one side or the other.”
McCarty rearranges his spread each morning to match the prevailing wind. “I’ll move some decoys to make sure I’ve got a good opening on the downwind side of my spread. Also, I’ll draw the outer, downwind edge of my decoys to within 15 to 20 yards of the pit so my hunters will have good shots at ducks that light outside the spread.”
Mackey and McCarty both use motion makers (jerk strings, shakers, Wonder Ducks) on calm days with little or no wind. Mackey adds several Canada goose decoys to his spread if the big birds are in the area. Boyle routinely sets white-fronted goose decoys outside his duck spread.
Open Field Calling Tactics
All three pro’s agree that loud, persuasive calling is best in open fields when a large flight of ducks is working. “Sometimes we get up to a thousand mallards circling a blind, and when we do, I call as hard as I can until it’s time to shoot,” Mackey instructs. “That many ducks in the air together make a lot of noise, and they can’t hear you if you back off with the call. You’ve got to keep hammering them, or you’ll lose them.”
Boyle, a former national duck calling champion, blows a highball style of calling which originated at Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee. “I call ducks with braggadocio,” he says with typical immodesty. “I call loud and incessantly. I’ll blow continuous five-note highballs until they’re inside 200 yards, then when I know they’re working (level flight, wing beats slowing down), I’ll switch to three-note hurry-ups on a descending scale. When they’re in close, I’ll blow lonesome hen quacks and a resting chuckle. And when they sail downwind, I’ll get on ’em again with loud calling.”
Boyle professes that some hunters would fare better not calling at all instead of calling poorly. “If you don’t know how to call, if you have no sense of rhythm or tone, leave the call in your pocket. Or blow a sprig whistle. You’ll be better off doing this than making ungodly sounds with a duck call.”
McCarty changes his calling style each day, according to what the ducks are responding to best. “On clear, cold, breezy days, they like a lot of calling. On warm, still days, it’s easy to overcall. So I give ’em a lot if they want a lot and give ’em a little if they want a little. It’s a trial-and-error thing each morning.”
Managing Hunting Pressure
One final key to success in open fields is managing hunting pressure to keep ducks using a field.
“We increase or decrease pressure according to how many new ducks we have in our area,” Mackey explains. “If there hasn’t been much recent migration, we’ll back off on a field, maybe just hunt it a couple of hours a day. The goal is to make sure some ducks stay there. Then they’ll draw new ducks when the migration picks back up. There’s no better way to attract ducks to a field than to have live birds already there.”
Another thing Mackey does is refrain from hunting during the first half hour before sunrise. “We don’t like to shoot ducks that are roosting in our fields. Instead, we’ll wait until there’s good light, then we’ll go to the blind and run the ducks out of the field without shooting at them. This way we don’t educate them all at once. Then we’ll begin shooting as they filter back in a few at a time.”
McCarty normally hunts a field every other morning unless it’s beneath a major flyway that new ducks are traveling each day. “It’s not hard to overshoot a field; then you’ll have to rest it several days to get the birds back in it.”
Boyle simply spreads pressure out on his clubs by moving hunters from pit to pit and field to field. “I have the luxury of being able to do this,” he explains. “Other hunters who have just one field or pit must come up with their own system for keeping pressure light enough to keep the ducks coming.”
Adapting to habitat changes
Hunting in open fields has become more prevalent in recent years. As natural wetlands and bottomland woods have disappeared, ducks and geese have become increasingly dependent on flooded agricultural fields for both food and shelter. Birds that formerly resided in small potholes and marshes have adapted well to these habitats.
Hunters must also adapt if they are to enjoy success in these wide-open spaces. And give them credit. People like Mackey, Boyle and McCarty are continuously pioneering new, better ways to get up close and personal with waterfowl. In open fields or elsewhere, give a duck hunter a challenge, and rest assured he’ll come up with a solution.