By Tom Carpenter
Leave it to a young hunter’s boundless optimism to help you learn something new about waterfowling.
It was mid-October in the prairie pothole country of northeastern South Dakota — more or less that tweener time when most of the local mallards and blue-winged teal are shot off or headed south, the divers aren’t pushing through in earnest, and only a few hardy green-winged teal and ubiquitous northern shovelers are tooling about or venturing through.
But all that didn’t matter. School was off for a few days and duck season was open, so my boy Ethan and I were doing what serious waterfowlers do at such a time … we were hunting ducks.
A mixed half-dozen of greenwings and spoonbills were spread out in the prairie grass behind our cattail hideout, birds shot during a brief morning flight that tapered off quickly as the orange sun rose in the warm and hazy October sky.
A beautiful bluebird day was taking shape. Pheasant season was open, too, and as morning wore on those colorful land birds began to occupy my thoughts. So, I noted the empty skies and suggested to the boy that we pack up, clean our ducks back at our friend’s farm and head out after a few roosters.
“It’s pretty nice just sitting here in the sun in the cattails,” Ethan, ever the dedicated waterfowler, replied. “Let’s just relax here and see what happens. We can chase some pheasants later if we want to.”
Whether or not he was planning on sitting there until the sun completed its arc across the sky, I’ll never know. But he did have a good point. It was downright pleasant just being there, and we were getting a lot of things talked about.
“And you never know when some more ducks might come through,” he pointed out. He loves his ducks deeply, as does his dad.
Later, nodding off under the Indian-summer sun, I thought I heard Ethan whisper, “Dad, look.”
Opening one eye to the sky and expecting a flock of pelicans or pair of marsh hawks winging overhead, I was surprised to see a knot of 25 to 30 circling mallards, their creamy underbellies flashing in the sun.
I didn’t even have time to call, and that may have been a good thing, because the birds soon committed, cupping their wings and dropping from the sky in a twisting and turning swirl, right down toward our set.
Our shooting could maybe have been a little better, but three fat greenheads splashed into the pothole as the birds backpedaled and scattered. Ethan was grinning ear to ear and ready to head out and grab our ducks, but I held him back.
“Hold tight,” I whispered. A minute later a lost single came barreling in, looking for company.
At first the bird looked like a hen, but then I saw the flecks of green flash on the young drake’s head and blurted, “Take him!”
The boy’s shot was true, and another mallard splashed into the slough.
10 Strategies for Midday Mallards
Conventional wisdom says that as the minutes tick away after first legal shooting light, duck hunting gets tougher and tougher. To some extent this old rule of thumb holds true, as the birds land in secluded feeding or resting areas where there aren’t hunters shooting at them.
That’s why when duck sightings becoming fewer and farther between most hunters pack it in an hour or two after the sun has been up or has risen behind the clouds. It’s just the way duck hunting is done, right?
But the midday hours leading up to noon also produce ducks. As feeding sessions end, ducks get restless in their hideaways, the shooting subsides, and the birds start trickling and moving back again. The hours or so after noon can be just as good.
Don’t believe it? You will never know until you just do it and hunt midday mallards, and here are 10 strategies for doing it with success.
1. Move from Your Morning Hide
If you absolutely love your first setup, then by all means stay put for the day’s meridian, but make a hard and objective evaluation of the spot and the situation.
Is it really the kind of place a midday duck would go for silence, safety and seclusion? Then stay put.
Or, was the spot selection designed to take advantage of pressured ducks during dawn’s gauntlet of guns? Then move your setup.
2. Hunt Secluded Hideaways and Holes
The classic late-morning setup spot is a secluded pothole, pond, channel or other hideaway where mallards can drop in and avoid any kind of disturbance. Mallards feel at home on the smallest of puddles, especially puddles that see little hunting pressure.
Look at Google Maps and scout for clues to the location of these hidden potholes, ponds, oxbows and sloughs. You may have to scout via foot, canoe, kayak or duck boat to see of the hideaways still exist, but it’s a time investment well spent.
3. Try Open-Water Safety Zones
As much as they love a little hidey-hole away from it all, mallards have no aversion to settling in on big water that is far, far away from any kind of cover that could hide a hunter. This is especially true on the prairie. Heck, cover-loving whitetails do the same thing when they hunker down in the middle of a section of pasture, why not ducks?
If layout boats are legal where you hunt, go to work and set up on a large sheet of water for mallards during the midday hours. You may even do well on a few bonus divers.
4. Adjust Often, Work the Wind
Successful midday duck hunters aren’t afraid to pick up and move their whole setup, or at least go out and make major adjustments to the current layout as needed.
The chief catalyst behind these changes is wind direction. As the day proceeds, the breeze that was blowing at dawn is often different in both direction and velocity from the wind that blows later on. And it can keep changing as the day warms up.
5. Watch Hard: Singles and Stragglers
One of the hardest parts about hunting mallards with a high sun is the surprise factor. The action isn’t fast and furious, so it can be hard to maintain your alertness and edge.
While a nice-sized incoming flock is not uncommon, it is the pairs and singles that provide the midday hunter’s bread and butter. Stay awake and on the lookout (or have a kid who does!). Scan the skies, but also keep an eye on the deck, as many midday birds travel low to the water.
In short, don’t miss a chance at a midday duck because you were “asleep at the switch,” as my railroading dad used to say.
6. Tuck the Calls Away
Ducks at midday just don’t talk as much as they do in the morning and evening. My usual approach is to keep the calls in my pocket and let the decoys do the work. Midday ducks are often looking for some company and will drop right into a nice spread of happy, quiet ducks.
If you love to call, here are a couple concepts. Keep it to some soft and happy chuckles if the ducks are close or working. But, admittedly, you don’t have much to lose by throwing a few highballs at a high, fast-moving flock that just doesn’t seem to see your set. Maybe you can grab a look from those jet-stream birds.
7. Place a Wingspinner
Where legal, the motion and flash provided by a spinning-wing decoy is better than the sound of quacks from your call. If motorized decoys aren’t permitted, try one of the wind-operated models.
Any species of spinner will work, not only mallards. I use Mojo’s little green-winged teal models because they conveniently operate on AA batteries, which means there’s no battery-charging involved.
8. Keep Decoy Sets Small
In early and midseason, mallards are usually spread out across the waterscape — a knot of birds here, a little family grouping over there. This makes small decoys setups of six or seven to a dozen blocks about right.
The exception to this concept comes later in the season when big groups of ducks are on the move. Then it may take two- or three-dozen decoys or even more to attract attention from a big flock of suspicious mallards.
9. Place Decoys Close to Cover
Midday mallards love cover, and they will readily swim into reeds, tules, flooded grass, inundated brush or any other vegetation to hide.
Replicate this behavior with your decoy setup. Place some blocks close to cover you’re hiding in, and a few right on the edge. This helps bring real ducks in close, as it indicates that all is safe in this little hideaway.
10. Embrace Every Kind of Day
It’s too easy to look at a sunny day, convince yourself a duck will never fly in such bluebird weather and quit hunting. Likewise, on a blustery day when gray clouds scud overhead and the cold seeps into your bones, it’s too easy to head home or to camp for some warmth, rest and relaxation.
Either way, you won’t be shooting any more ducks that day. My hunting-log records show equal success on midday mallards on all kinds of days. Just being there is key.
All in a Midday’s Work
You never saw a smile so big as when Ethan waded out, picked up and lugged back those four greenheads. They were all essentially his birds, and he knew it, as he was the reason we were still there hunting.
We examined our newest prizes closely before adding them to our early morning bag. The drakes were big and fat with red legs and bean-bag throats full of corn. Soon, the noon whistle blew in town and we stayed another hour before packing up.
Walking out, we agreed that a few extra hours on the slough was more than worth it. It just felt pretty darn good to shoot a couple braces of mallards as the clock pushed noon. And we also figured with a little luck there might even be an hour of light left to chase those roosters after an afternoon of waxing ducks.
About the Author: Tom Carpenter is a freelance writer who focuses his outdoor year on the Dakotas and northern plains. His favorite thing to hunt or fish for is … whatever he’s hunting or fishing for.