By Wade Bourne
The drone of heavy rain on the roof had awakened me several times. All through the night, the downpour had never let up. I guessed three or four inches of rain had already fallen, and I expected the river to be pushing out of its banks by daybreak.
When my alarm went off, I dressed quickly and headed out the door. The boat trailer was already hooked up to my truck, and my hunting partner would be waiting at the Waffle House.
I was right about the river. When we got to the ramp, the water was high and the current running. “Well, look what we have here,” my friend said enthusiastically. We’d encountered this situation before.
We climbed into the boat, cinched our hoods tightly around our faces, and started running upriver. The raindrops were like tiny mirrors reflecting off the beam of my spotlight. My Lab stood between us with his head low and ears back as water blew off his oily coat.
Daybreak was just oozing in as we turned off the river into a large feeder creek. We idled upstream a couple of hundred yards and then veered into a tree-lined ditch where water was spreading out into a bordering cornfield. The rain had slowed to a drizzle.
And suddenly, the sky was full of the dark silhouettes of mallards, gliding overhead and landing among the standing stalks. Yesterday this field had been bone dry. Now it was flooded and a beehive of duck activity. Although the clouds were still heavy and low, I could easily imagine a rainbow, because we had certainly found the “pot of gold.”
Indeed, flooding rivers, rising potholes and ponds, and fresh “slash” water in fields and pastures can offer exceptional duck hunting. New water spilling into woods and swamps or pooling in agricultural fields provides an abundance of food, and ducks know it. How they find newly flooded areas so quickly is something of a mystery. But it is no mystery that waterfowlers who secure permission to hunt these fresh food sources and get there when the ducks do, or shortly thereafter, often find treasure at the end of their own duck hunter’s rainbow.
The Lure of New Water
Paul Link is a graduate student in Louisiana State University’s School of Renewable Natural Resources. For his master’s thesis, Link conducted a radio-telemetry study of mallards in the Bayou State, observing the birds’ movements, habitat use, and survival rates. His research showed that ducks will indeed change locations and foraging habits after a heavy rain.
“Our birds definitely moved within 24 hours after a significant rainfall event,” Link explains. “Beforehand, they might have been on a regular movement pattern from a diurnal [daytime] roost site to a nocturnal foraging site. But then the rain would come, and the ducks would change locations and foraging habits. Our missing bird list [those whose radio signal couldn’t be picked up] would often triple. We usually couldn’t find them from our telemetry trucks. We’d have to get in an airplane and search extensively for missing birds.”
Link says it was nothing for these mallards to move more than 20 miles from their previous locations to recently flooded habitats. “They loved to feed in freshly flooded cattle pastures and rice fields, where I suspect they fed on invertebrates, seeds of moist-soil plants, and waste rice. I’ve also found mallards using temporary water on idle rice ground and even in sugar cane fields. They’re pretty adaptable. They just go where the recently flooded habitats are. If you find new water, you’ll likely find the birds.”
Dr. Bobby Cox of Ipswich, South Dakota, is a professional waterfowl biologist and an avid duck hunter who describes ducks as “sampling machines,” because they are highly prone to sampling different habitats to find better feeding conditions. “Ducks are more mobile than most people realize,” Cox says. “They move around a lot looking for areas that have gone from very dry to very wet. The sudden introduction of water in a dry field, for instance, makes tons of tiny seeds and invertebrates available for feeding, and ducks will respond quickly and in large numbers to such an opportunity.”
In the Dakotas, for example, Cox says one of the best scenarios for hunters (but not for farmers) is when hail accompanies a heavy rain. “The hail knocks crops down, and the water fills up the low spots. You can bet that the ducks will be there in short order,” he says.
And so will Cox. He scouts for such spots immediately after a significant weather event. “Often, this won’t be a big area,” he explains. “It might be where one storm cloud went through and dumped a lot of water over just a few square miles. But the ducks can find these places very quickly. I think they do this visually. They get out and stir around after a storm passes, and they can see a long way while flying at 2,000 feet.”
Once Cox locates a freshly flooded area where ducks are feeding, he has to figure out how to hunt it. “On the prairie, the only cover will often be grain stubble or short grass,” he says. “But if I have eight inches of natural cover, I can make my coffin blind or layout boat totally blend in.”
Once he picks a hunting spot, Cox carries his coffin blind to the site, because he doesn’t want to leave a drag trail through the stubble or smartweed. He decides where to place his decoys and then positions his coffin blind so the wind is coming off his right shoulder to provide a crossing shot at incoming ducks. He covers the blind with an old army tarp and then piles on natural cover that matches the vegetation and color of the hunting site. “I always collect this cover away from my hunting site. I don’t want to disturb the natural look of where I’m hunting,” he says. Cox and his retriever then nestle into the coffin blind to await the first flight of birds.
“This hunting strategy works from Saskatchewan to Louisiana,” Cox says. “New water makes fresh food available to ducks, and they swarm to it. Hunters who understand this and who adapt to their specific hunting conditions can have the best shooting of the year while new water is still running in the gullies.”
Hunt the Leading Edge
Before retiring this past spring, Dennis Widner of Bald Knob, Arkansas, spent 36 years working on national wildlife refuges in the Southeast. For the past 20 years, he was manager of the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in east-central Arkansas, a major wintering area for mallards. When seasonal rains come, the Cache River bottoms feature some of the best flooded-timber duck hunting in North America.
“To a duck, rising water means a smorgasbord,” Widner says. “The table is set with an abundance of fresh, new foods. So when heavy rains fall and water starts breaking out in the bottoms, the ducks come to feed on acorns, invertebrates, and moist-soil plants.”
Ducks follow what Widner calls the “flood head” as it makes its way downstream through the bottoms. “The ‘flood head’ is that initial surge of water that moves down a watershed after a heavy rain,” he explains. “On the Cache, for instance, a two- to three-inch rain in the headwater will cause the channel and oxbows to overflow into the adjacent bottomland hardwoods. Then, as this surge moves downstream, ducks will follow it to take advantage of the continual new supply of food. They’ll stay right with that leading edge, so hunters who are behind the flood head need to move downstream to catch up with it.”
As the flood spreads, ducks will orient to what Widner calls the “feather edge,” where water meets land. “This is where the most new food will be concentrated and where it’s most accessible to the ducks, so these shallows are where the ducks like to be,” he says. “They might rest and preen in deep-water areas nearby, but most feeding will take place in just a few inches of water along the outer edges of the flood head.”
Keeping up with the flood head involves scouting and checking water elevations at different points along the river. “On the Cache, you can find ducks by driving roads parallel to the bottoms and watching with binoculars,” he explains. “Then once you get in the right area, you need to fine-tune your search to find a hunting spot for the next morning.
“A lot of hunters get in boats, run through the bottoms, and scare ducks up, but I don’t like to do this,” Widner continues. “Instead, I prefer to wade into an area, sit on a log, and just listen. When everything’s quiet, you can hear hens quacking a long way through the woods. Then you can move closer to where the calling is coming from and pinpoint where you want to hunt the next day. You need to set up where the ducks want to be, not close by. If they’re using a certain area in the afternoon, chances are good they’ll be back there the next morning.”
Stay on Fresh Birds
Ed May of Banks, Oregon, is a retired police commander who has hunted ducks for almost 50 years. He usually shoots from a floating or stilt blind in shallow water on leased property. But when heavy rains and resultant floods come, he turns to freelancing.
“We get a lot of rainfall here, but the really big rains come about every third year, turning our little potholes into very large lakes,” May says. “I’m talking about miles and miles of sheetwater over harvested cornfields and brush lots. Everything you’re used to hunting is now under several feet of water. When this happens, ducks scatter out, and you have to go find them.”
May scouts from both his vehicle and boat. He favors downwind sides of these sheetwater lakes, because prevailing winds blow seeds, insects, and other foods into the shoreline. “I’ll start looking about midmorning to see where ducks are feeding. When I find a concentration of birds—at least 75 to 100—I’ll come back and set up the next morning.”
His typical setup will be in the edge of a line of willows and hawthorn trees. “Mallards and wood ducks especially like to hang around this brushy cover,” he explains. “And the vegetation also gives me some concealment to stand behind or to break up my boat-blind. I’ll hide in the trees and set my decoys just outside the cover. I don’t put out more than 18 decoys. The ducks usually come as singles, pairs, or small flocks, and a large spread isn’t needed to get them to work.”
Occasionally a prevailing westerly wind will push new ducks into May’s area from the coast. Usually, though, he’s hunting local birds that have been scattered by the flood. He says it takes only a little pressure to cause them to abandon a feeding or resting place.
“This means my partners and I are constantly scouting,” May says. “We’ll shoot a spot in the morning and then scout for a new place for the next day. We always try to stay on fresh birds. This takes a lot of work, but when everything comes together, this high-water condition can provide some of the best shooting of the entire season.”