By Gary Koehler
They are the most common of North American ducks, by far the most extensively researched, and certainly the most sought after by waterfowlers. Geography fosters rare exceptions, but in general, if you hunt flooded timber, agricultural fields, marsh, or open water, mallards probably are not too far away. The bread-and-butter birds of many a duck camp in all four flyways, they are universally identified as greenheads and susies. This year's fall flight is expected to include nearly 10.5 million mallards. It's time to put together a plan. These crafty veterans will tell you how they do it.
"Those big mallards had come roaring into the decoys as though they planned to live there all their lives." -Robert C. Ruark, "A Duck Looks Different to Another Duck" Garry Mason claims to have missed only 32 days of duck season during the past 26 years. Christmas holidays account for the bulk of his absences, with the other anonymous dates simply written off as lost to the vagaries of memory or perhaps the odd bout with exhaustion. As a full-time Kentucky Lake guide, he is paid to be on the water. In his case, open water.
"What works here may not work in the timber or on potholes," Mason says. "But I personally feel that river hunters can call ducks anywhere."
While mixed bags are the rule rather than the exception on these Tennessee River secondary waters (located off the main channel), the bulk of Mason's bag is comprised of mallards and gadwall. Getting the birds' attention is job one.
"We do a lot more highballing when we call," Mason says. "On open water, you can see birds a long distance away. And we'll call to them even if they are way off or way up high. I have heard lots of people tell others that they call too loud. I don't believe that, at least not out here. I have called loud at ducks all the way down to the decoys. When you have a lot of wind, you have to call loud or they aren't going to hear you.
"But my biggest call is probably the comeback call. That's a confidence call to the ducks. Out here, I don't think you can call too much. Two or more callers in the blind are fine, as long as they know what each other is doing. One guy should be the lead caller, and the others should follow his lead."
Because there is little or no natural cover on these waters (unless one anchors along shore or adjacent to an island), Mason, like most other locals, uses a sophisticated floating-blind setup. His roomy, comfortable hide took an entire summer to build, and the cost ran into the thousands.
Constructed exclusively of metal, the blind measures 24 feet long and 8 feet deep. The interior can accommodate up to eight hunters and features heaters, lights, and a cook stove that turns out biscuits, sausage, and hot beverages early each morning, and more substantial fare later in the day. There's a boat hide in the back, part of which is used as a storage area. Due to its bulk, Mason's blind is anchored in the same location for the entire season, but those who frequent large public reservoirs or river systems may want to take advantage of the mobility that boat blinds provide. Because of the dangers involved with big water, however, make sure your boat is stable and your outboard is dependable. Everything should be well camouflaged.
"We cover the blind with white oak boughs and add cedar to it-to add another color dimension to the blind. We add to the cover every week to fill in the holes. With the wind and weather, and the hunters knocking it off, we lose quite a bit of cover during the season. We try to make the blind look like a floating island," Mason says. "It's big, but ducks don't flare from it."
Mason's blind is surrounded by 200 to 300 duck decoys and up to 50 Canada goose floaters. Two nearby national wildlife refuges host a variety of waterfowl species-black ducks to buffleheads-with the numbers building late in the season.
"We set out a big spread of decoys and set up our blind where ducks traditionally like to go," Mason says. "The goose decoys definitely help, because, I think, they give it a more natural setting. All kinds of ducks raft together on open water, and geese, too.
"You've got to remember that ducks coming to open water are looking for a place to rest, not feed. I think you need a big decoy spread on open water because it makes the ducks feel safer."
Intricate decoy patterns are not part of Mason's plan, but he does employ a few simple tricks in trying to draw birds to within shooting range.
"I like to have decoys all around the blind, with a break in front of the blind and on the shallow water side," Mason says. "We also leave what I call passageways on the north and south ends of the blind. These breaks are 10 to 15 yards wide and, a lot of times, the ducks will come into those open passageways.
"Lots of hunters put their decoys 40 to 50 yards out. I try to keep all of mine within 35 yards of the blind because I feel you can get the birds closer that way. And the closer they are, the better chance you have at making a clean shot."
Open-water hunting can be extremely challenging. Because of the impact of the river current and fluctuating river levels, each component of Mason's decoy rig is anchored by a two- or three-pound weight. Needless to say, he does not pick up his spread every day. (Garry Mason may be reached at Outdoor Adventures Professional Guide Service by phoning 901-593-5429.)
Born in Cajun country, Eli Haydel has been chasing ducks and geese throughout southern Louisiana and elsewhere for 45 years. His current duck camp is located near historic Lake Charles in Cameron Parish. This is rice country. And marsh country. The region provides the best of both worlds for tens of thousands of wintering waterfowl. Last year, mallards were the number one duck in Haydel's bag.
"We could hardly believe it," Haydel says, "because that's not often the case down here. We shoot a lot of different species of ducks. But last year we shot more mallards than anything."
Haydel's marsh hunting setup may be far removed from that which most waterfowlers are familiar. But remember, the marsh he hunts encompasses thousands of acres. Instead of the more traditional staked box blind, or boat blind, or hide-in-the-reeds walk-in gunning, Haydel and his guests hunt out of specially made individual compartments. These room-for-one boxes, fashioned out of fiberglass, are four feet deep and include a bench seat.
"We use these blinds out of necessity, really, because we are at the end of the flyway," Haydel says. "Mallards in our part of the country have seen everything by the time they get to us. They are leery of everything, and can be really spooky.
"We brush all four sides of the blinds with natural vegetation, and the blinds are sunk in the marsh to within about a foot of the normal tide," Haydel adds. "That allows for rising water, and the blind then sits up at the same height as the vegetation. You are flush with everything else and don't stand out."
Marsh hunting in these parts often requires a long boat ride, and Haydel goes the extra mile to ensure his transportation is well hidden, too. The duck boat in question, an 18-footer by War Eagle, has its own garage: a wire-framed shell affair covered with marsh grass, which is cut a distance from this specific locale and hauled in. When hunters depart the boat, they hike along a wooden walkway constructed just under the surface of the water to their individual sunken binds.
"It's like anything else-the more you put into something, the more you are going to get out of it," Haydel says. The same can be said of decoy deployment. Haydel and his sons hunt more than one portion of this vast marsh, and the amount of open water at hand plays a key role in determining how many decoys they scatter. "I usually use around 75 decoys," Haydel says, "but it depends on the size of the hole. We use a lot of different species, because we see a number of species in the marsh. I am especially fond of using coot decoys. Ducks seem to be confident when they land with coots. It's association, I think. Ducks see coots as being in a safe area. Coots are my favorite confidence decoy."
Mallards are integral to Haydel's rig, but instead of setting them out together as a single group, he breaks them up into bunches of six or eight and spreads them around. A couple of pintails commonly accompany the mallards.
"Sometimes late in the season I will add more decoys," Haydel says. "Ducks that time of year have a tendency to raft up. They see groups of birds on the water, and the first thing you know they are stacking up. There is sanctuary in numbers."
Over the past 16 years, Haydel and his sons have grown the family business-Haydel's Game Calls-into one of the most recognizable entities in an extremely competitive industry. When it comes to calling technique, he insists that less is more.
"The way I call depends on the attitude of the ducks. And it takes years of experience to learn," Haydel says. "You learn by watching ducks, watching how they respond when they like the sound of something. I like to call as little as possible. I try to call sparingly. "Basically, I use a five-note series," he adds. "Or sometimes, when I really want to pressure them, or they are being hard-headed, and I want to work them, I'll lean on them. But most of the time I will use the greeting call; the comeback call, which is a little faster; and the pleading call, where you hold the first note longer. I mix it up until I get a response."
Haydel likens his calling regimen to that of an air traffic controller.
"I'm in the tower, and the ducks are the planes," he says. "Most of the time, mallards are going to circle. As long as they are circling, like when they go behind me, I will leave them alone. Once they get about 65 or 70 yards downwind of me, that's when I will call again. I try to set them up so they will come right into the wind."
There is no secret call guaranteed to bring ducks to your spread. But Haydel suggests employing a pintail whistle as a supplement to the mallard call when the going gets tough. Can't hurt. (For more information on Haydel's Game Calls, phone 318-746-3586.
The Real Story on Those Red-Legged Mallards
The legend of red-legged mallards has been perpetuated for decades. You know, these are thought to be the big birds from the far, far north, usually late to migrate, and all sporting bright red legs when they do arrive. They might not show up before late November, the timing being dependent upon where you live. As engaging as that tale may be, there is a biological explanation. Hormonal and dietary changes are the real causes for red legs and large body size-each being tied to breeding activity.
Most dabbling ducks become paired in winter, many months in advance of when actual nesting occurs. Body weight, plumage coloration, and performance displays help individual ducks advertise their mating abilities. Consequently, most dabbling ducks must fatten up before they can successfully compete for a mate. These stored body fats are usually obtained while on southern migration.
So, the real reason you do not see hefty, red-legged mallards early in the fall is because pair bonds have not been formed, breeding hormone levels are low, and summer fat reserves have been depleted. Quality of habitat and an abundance of foods on key migration and wintering areas are critical in aiding the annual events that ultimately influence reproductive success.