Hunting Ducks in the Field
By Jason Mitchell
For many duck hunters, duck hunting is all about cattails and mud, ducks splashing on the water with a wet retriever shaking in the blind. Field hunting opportunities are not present everywhere but in the heartland of the Midwest; mallards routinely get conditioned to feed on waste grain, wheat, barley and other crops. Field hunting offers an exciting in your face perspective.
In order to experience incredible field hunting where flocks of bowed up mallards are dropping down over the decoys, you have to be set up where the birds want to be. In farm country, there is no shortage of options and the number of fields can be endless. Like most any hunting, time spent scouting is paramount. Decoying mallards is so much easier, when you are set up where the birds want to be.
Typically, mallards will leave their roosts to field feed during the early mornings and late evenings but late in the season, it is not uncommon for mallards to feed once per day during the mid day. There are times where mallards will drop down on a day hole or small pothole en route to the field just to water down. Scouting will give you a pretty good idea of where the birds are roosting and where the birds are loafing and feeding.
Typically when hunting mallards in the field, you can make your decoy spread much more effective by really stretching out the pocket. Ducks will typically hit the spread from a high altitude and drop down over the pocket. If the birds have to circle several times in order to hit the pocket or are dropping down low behind you, the pocket is too small. By opening up the pocket, you eliminate the looks birds have at your spread. This is a common mistake that many duck hunters make when trying to set up specifically for mallards. Don’t be afraid to stretch the pocket out and sprinkle some decoys as far as sixty or more yards down wind of your blind locations. Create a nice big run way where you can crack the birds on the first or second pass. A couple of scenarios that might alter this strategy are really strong winds where birds are approaching the decoys from a low elevation or if the birds are making a short hop off of a day hole or roost but if you are set up too close to the water, you almost need a strong wind blowing away from the water to conceal the gun fire noise.
With any type of southerly winds, the birds will be looking into the sun as they approach the spread and concealment is much easier. Birds are also much easier to identify if the sun is at the hunters back. There are times however where I will side wind the birds just to keep the sun at our backs so we can easier identify drakes from hens especially early in the season. If possible, always cheat the spread so that you can have the sun at your back. Using downwind cover can be a little bit trickier for mallards versus geese because ducks typically drop down over the spread or can be a little bit more unpredictable. If there is little cover for blinds like in a disked up corn field or a soy bean field, I really like to use good cover like the cattails in a slough bottom. When we do use cover, we often side wind the decoys or set up so that the wind is blowing at our faces as we look towards the spread. This will create shots where the ducks drop down over the top of you and your best shot will typically be at the birds as they back pedal over the top of the spread. Using cover to conceal hunters is very effective if done correctly. The best cover is often a slough bottom or drainage that has some water. There are also situations where you can use both field decoys and also set a few decoys on the water. This all depends of course on the options available in the field that the birds are using.
Where legal, spinning wing decoys can work really well for pulling mallards into field spreads. There is no doubt that mallards have become more conditioned to their use and typically are not as effective after the birds have seen them a lot. Still, we are typically more effective with them. What I like to do when field hunting is use them on really short stakes so that the birds do not get as good of a look at them. There was a time when most hunters used spreads of Canada goose decoys to shoot mallards in the field and goose decoys do work really well most of the time but there are times when ducks do wise up to the goose spreads. Over the past five or so years, I have been running more mallard decoys but the trouble with mallard decoys is that the decoys are smaller and shorter so hiding blinds in the spread can be much more difficult with just duck decoys. What I often do is use some Canada goose full body decoys around the blinds and to bulk up the upwind side of the spread but use a lot of mallard field decoys to create the pocket.
When there is a lot of snow geese around and mallards are feeding with snow geese, using big spreads of white goose decoys is really effective. When mallards are roosting and feeding with snow geese, I quit using spinners and just use goose flyers for extra movement as the ducks will typically line up and lock on a flier just like they do spinning wing decoys but the beauty of the fliers is that they have not been as conditioned to them as spinning wing decoys.
There is a lot of good duck decoy options on the market right now. The new Dakota Decoy mallard full body decoy is about as realistic and rugged as a decoy comes. I also like to mix in some windsock type duck decoys amongst the full body decoys to add extra movement. Ducks really like movement in a field spread. Both SIllosock and Deadly Decoys build great windsock style duck decoys.
Calling probably isn’t as important over a cut corn field as other situations like flooded timber and it can be really easy to over call. With that being said, my favorite calls for field hunting are some of my timber calls that are soft blowing subtle calls. Despite the wide open spaces, I very seldom get really loud or overbearing on the call. With proper scouting, large spreads and spinning wing decoys, you are going to get the attention of distant birds but where a call really shines is simply lining up birds and getting them to drop down lower as they swing or circle so that is where the timber calls like the RNT Black Timber Hawg really shine. Soft feeding chuckles and low raspy hen calls can be subdued to work well for this close quarter calling. Dont overlook a goose call either for bringing in mallards. Especially when ducks are working with snow geese, high pitched snow goose barks and yelps can cut cross wind really well and often works really well for bringing mallards to the spread.
Besides mallards, other puddle ducks like pintails and widgeon often commit to field spreads as well depending on the location that you are hunting. We have also seen the occasional gadwell, green wing teal, wood duck and even black ducks over field spreads. Many times as well where both geese and ducks are using the same field and are ultimately shot over the same spreads. If possible, turn the spinning wing decoys off when geese are around. When the opportunity is present, field hunting mallards is an exciting in your face perspective that really adds a lot of enjoyment to the hunt if you enjoy watching waterfowl decoy.
Jason Mitchell hosts the outdoor program, Jason Mitchell Outdoors which airs on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest. Show times and listings can be found at www.jasonmitchelloutdoors.com.