by John Pollman
When it comes to having consistent success as a duck hunter, the ability to adapt to changing hunting conditions can bridge the gap between you and a successful day in the field. While scouting certainly will help you find the right area, even the best-laid plan may fall short if there is the slightest shift in weather pattern or bird behavior. Rather than throwing up your arms, take a deep breath and repeat: Change can be good.
At first the silhouettes crossing above the road didn't catch my attention, but when the second wave of mallards passed over the top of my truck in the soft light of a South Dakota sunset, I knew I had struck gold. As I came to a stop at the next intersection, I could see lines of mallards rolling out of a cornfield and falling into a low area in the adjacent section. With little light left in the sky, I made notes as to where I thought the birds were landing and raced off to find the landowner.
In the early light of the next morning, I worked my way toward the sound of hen mallards greeting the warm glow of the rising sun. Soon I could hear the ducks begin to lift from the darkness of a marsh in front of me, and I could see their soft outlines against the awakening sky. After several flocks had left, I hustled toward the marsh, but was greeted by an unexpected sight; rather than finding a cattail slough, I stared across an expanse of hay pasture that had flooded from unusually heavy fall rains. The calf-deep water was choked with short grasses that offered little cover to hide and low visibility for the decoys.
The situation was not what I expected, but I stuck with my plan, scattered a few decoys in the open pockets and hunkered down on my knees in some of the taller grass. It wasn't long before the first mallards began to return from the field. Instead of bowing up and funneling into the shallow wetland, the birds completely bypassed my spread of decoys. Flock after flock of birds flew directly overhead without missing a wing beat.
The birds weren't flaring off of me; they simply wanted to do something different. It was time for a change.
The birds know best
There's a fine line between duck hunting and bird watching, but there are times when a hunter really needs to watch more and hunt less. When a morning's hunt isn't going as planned, turn an eye to the sky – the answer to your problem might be closer than you think. In the case of this pasture hunt, it became quite clear that I was not where the birds wanted to be. After several flocks had flown over, I quickly made my way to a hill where I could see the mallards piling into a stock pond several hundred yards away within the same pasture.
As I glassed the area, I could see several mallards enjoying the morning on the water and dozens more loafing along the edge of the stock pond. There was no way that I could have known that the mallards were using a loafing area when I discovered the birds the night before, but by abandoning my plan and watching their morning activity, I had pieced together an important part of this duck hunting puzzle. With the stock pond full of content mallards and no major changes forecasted for the weather, I elected to head home, grab some gear and hunt the pond the next morning.
Have gear, will follow
There are more options available today than ever before in terms of gear that help hunters adapt to changing conditions. Low-profile layout blinds – like Avery's popular Finisher Blind – provide concealment for the hunter without disturbing the natural appearance of the area. From harvested soy bean fields to river sandbars to stock ponds surrounded by bare pasture, these low-profile blinds can help hunters reach birds in areas that would otherwise be impossible to hunt.
Boats are no different; the Fatboy DP from Momarsh is one of several low-profile boats that both conceals the hunter and melts into the natural outline of the marsh. Whether in the field or on the water, the tools are available to allow the hunter to adapt to the conditions and be where the birds want to be.
Worth the wait
The steam was still rising from my first cup of coffee the next morning when I saw the mallards returning from the field. With my head slightly lifted out of my lay-out blind, I could see the birds fly directly over the flooded pasture and begin to make their descent upon the stock pond. After one swing out in front of my decoy spread, a lone drake dropped from the group and centered on the pocket directly in front of my blind.
With one shot I folded the big greenhead and barely had time to retrieve the duck before the next group of mallards emerged from the skies. Yes, change can be good.