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Greenheads prized by Natural State waterfowlers, visiting huntersOriginally Published January 13, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated January 11, 2013 at 10:48 a.m.
Here in Arkansas, when we think of ducks, we usually think of mallards. These emerald-headed waterfowl are the most common ducks not only in the Natural State, but throughout North America. Millions of mallards range from Alaska and northern Canada to the Mexican border and the Gulf Coast. Hundreds of thousands winter each year in Arkansas.
During a recent Arkansas Game and Fish Commission aerial waterfowl survey conducted Nov. 12-15, biologists estimated 442,121 mallards in the eastern Delta region alone, a population estimate more than three times higher than that for 2011 and double the long-term average for the species.
Esteem for the mallard is widespread. Wherever waterfowlers wear drakes’ curls in their hat bands, this duck is prized, honored and respected. Hunters treasure its beauty, sportiness and delectability on the table. This species is the keystone of our waterfowling tradition. As the mallard goes, so goes American, and Arkansas, waterfowling.
The mallard drake is handsome with a bright green head, white belly, russet breast, white collar and a famous curl in his tail feathers. The hen wears a more demure plumage of soft browns, buffs and blacks. Both sexes have a speculum, or wing patch, that gleams violet-blue with conspicuous white borders front and back.
Mallards are dabbling ducks, or puddle ducks, usually seen in shallow waters such as flooded fields and marshes. They feed by tipping up rather than diving. When taking flight, they spring into the air instead of pattering across the water.
To identify mallard drakes in flight, look for the dark head, white neck ring and contrasting dark chest and light belly. Both drake and hen exhibit the white-bordered speculum. The wing beat is much slower than in most ducks. Flocks are often large.
If mallard hunting were a buffet, Arkansas hunters would have difficulty selecting a main course. There are many appealing options. Mallards can be hunted in bottomland timber, on open lakes or in marshes; on small streams or big rivers; in dry or flooded fields; on beaver ponds and farm ponds; in swamps and on oxbow lakes; and in many other settings.
Hunting options boil down to two basics: mobile hunting and fixed-blind hunting.
The mobile hunter follows ducks on foot, by boat or by ATV, moving place to place according to changing conditions and hunting opportunities. He carries little gear other than a gun, steel shotshells and maybe a few decoys. He’s always scouting, trying to decide where hunting will be best each day.
The fixed-blind hunter, on the other hand, lets the mallards come to him. He hunts from a permanent blind in an area ducks regularly visit. The blind can be continually added to and improved upon, with big decoy spreads, better camouflage and handy options such as heaters and cookstoves.
Both hunting methods have pros and cons. The mobile hunter can be more versatile, leaving an iced-up field for the open water of a river, for example. But he’ll need a boat and motor, and maybe a four-wheel-drive vehicle or an ATV to get into hard-to-reach duck spots. He’ll stay busy keeping in touch with contacts who can help him follow duck movements.
The fixed-blind hunter enjoys the convenience and comfort of a proven spot. When his decoys are out and his blind brushed up, most of the work is done. He can sit comfortably while waiting on mallards to show — if they do show. Fixed-blind hunting can be very productive, but if the ducks move somewhere else, the hunter may stare for hours at an empty sky.
Hunters who kill the most mallards often practice both methods. When ducks are exhibiting traditional patterns in proven areas, hunting from a fixed blind can be extraordinary. But if conditions change, or a special opportunity arises, the hunter goes mobile, finding action wherever action may be.
Perhaps the best advice about decoys and decoy spreads is to improvise, adapt and adjust to changing conditions. No one rig and its variables of numbers, placement or movement works all the time. A well-hidden hunter who is a good caller may be able to coax mallards into timber without using any decoys at all, whereas hunters on public areas may need bigger spreads to gain the birds’ attention.
On smaller, confined waters, a spread of six to 36 decoys is usually sufficient. On larger waters or dry fields, hunters should put out as many decoys as practical.
Hunters may want to add some “swimmers” or “robo-ducks” to their spread, or some decoys rigged with jerk strings. Decoys that move and ripple the water work well to bring mallards into shooting range.
Mallards are vocal birds. Knowing proper calling techniques can mean the difference between killing a limit or none.
Remember first to call sparingly, if at all. Hunters who wait and give ducks one pass on their own before calling often will see their success rate rise sharply. If ducks lock up over a hole, let them come down on their own. Many ducks will. Most duck hunters tend to overcall when they really should wait.
If you call, don’t do so when ducks are flying toward you. Old-timers have a saying: “Call only to tips and tails.” That is, do your calling when you can see one wingtip and the tail, or both wings and the tail. The duck won’t be looking your way then.
Keep calls sounding natural by sticking to fundamentals like these three basic calls:
• Greeting call: Use this when you first see ducks at a distance. It’s a series of five to seven notes in descending order at a steady, even rhythm. Kank, kank, kank, kank, kank.
• Comeback call: Use this when mallards don’t respond to your greeting or when you want an immediate response, such as in the timber. It’s more urgent sounding and has a faster series of notes. Kankank, kank, kank, kank.
• Pleading call: Made by holding the first note a little longer than the rest of the notes. Kaaank, kank, kank, kank.
Many DVDs are available that can help a hunter learn these and other calls. Before calling, watch a DVD and learn, then practice, practice, practice. Bad calling is worse than no calling.
There’s much more to learn about mallard hunting. We’ve covered only the fundamentals. Mallard hunting isn’t rocket science, though. It’s easy to learn and fun. If you study your quarry, get veterans to share their knowledge and hone your skills, you’ll quickly learn why Arkansas waterfowlers call the mallard “king of the ducks.”
None Keith Sutton can be reached at .