Going for the Gold

    There's no excuse for missing the action when mallards are in the corn.

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    By John Pollmann

    Rub two dry corn leaves together between your fingers and you get a subtle, scratching sound that could probably double as back-up percussion in a bluegrass band.

    Blow a prairie wind through the golden stalks, dry husks and leaves in a field of standing corn, though, and you have a good excuse for not hearing the first “take ‘em” of an afternoon mallard hunt.

    That’s the explanation I shared with the other hunters kneeling in the tall rows of standing corn to my right on a sunny November day a few years ago, but my reasoning for being slow on the draw and letting a greenhead escape unscathed fell on deaf ears.

    “You used to be the first one out of the blind,” someone chided. “What happened to Quick Shot Johnny?”

    Reputations — good or bad — are hard to shake, especially in the company of hunting buddies.

    I figured that I’d have a chance at redemption soon, as the area of combined corn spreading out in front of me was buzzing with thousands of mallards the night before.

    It was the last week of October, and the farmer had harvested a wide swath of corn through the middle of the field, leaving large blocks of standing crop on either side. The ducks had been feeding close enough to the edge that we felt safe trading in the layout blinds for the spacious confines of the unharvested rows of standing corn.

    My vertical position may have also been partly to blame for my early mistake, as I was gazing at a wetland to my right when the greenhead slipped in from the left. The next ducks were not so lucky.

    The sound of wings cutting through the air preceded the arrival of a flock of mallards over the decoys. One drake broke from the bunch and hovered just yards from my position in the corn, but I waited for his friends behind my back to swing and make their final approach.

    With the sun over my shoulder, it was easy to pick out the drakes in the flock, and I dumped two greentops before the birds escaped out of range. My yellow Lab, Murphy, and my friend Ben Fujan’s yellow Lab, Titan, made quick work of the birds on the ground, even though our position in the standing corn had the retrievers running awkwardly across the grain of the combined rows.

    A pattern emerged while the afternoon slipped toward dusk when a number of flocks began hitting the wetland to our right instead of swinging over the corn. Grabbing a drink of water before gorging on golden kernels of corn is nothing new for mallards, but the concern among the hunters who were kneeling in growing shadows was that the bulk of the birds returning to the field would stage on the small wetland and feed after the sun had set.

    Our fears may have been warranted, but we still decoyed several flocks of mallards intent on hitting the water that were unable to resist the the buffet being played out by our decoys on the ground.

    Soon, limits of greenheads rested beside every hunter, and while picking up our gear the crowd of mallards on the wetland continued to build. As the sun slipped out of sight, the birds lifted from the shallow waters and began to descend upon the corn en masse.

    “The majority of those ducks never knew we were here,” Fujan said. “It might be worth coming back here in the morning.”

    Cornfield Fun, Take Two

    And that’s exactly what we did, though on the opposite side of the field to keep the rising sun at our backs.

    At morning’s first light there were several hundred ducks working our spread, and I was ready this time when the first call was made to rise and shoot. The next bunch was already working the decoys while Murphy and Titan careened through the stalks to retrieve five drake mallards left behind after the opening flurry.

    Large flocks soon began streaming to the field from all directions, and there were pintails, too, mingling with their green-headed cousins. Even in the morning’s early light there was no trouble picking out the white-bodied drakes as they slid into shooting range on sharp wings.

    But in one of the final flocks of the hunt came a bird of a completely different color.

    “There’s a black duck in the back half of that bunch,” came an urgent whisper from down the corn rows as the ducks made a swing out in front.

    I’ve never seen an American black duck on the wing mixed in with other ducks, and I wondered if I’d be able to discern it from a hen mallard. When the birds banked with the light on their backs, though, my eyes were immediately drawn to the stark black shape bringing up the rear of the flock.

    All eyes were on the prize bird as the bunch made what appeared to be the final swing. However, the flock flared, and the black duck disappeared into the sun.

    One hunter from our group took a shot, but he may as well have been throwing clods of dirt.

    “I can’t believe that happened,” came a dejected voice from the corn. “I still should have had him.”

    “If you need an excuse,” I said, “you can always try blaming it on the corn.”

    Crop of Influence

    The feeding frenzy in the cornfield is one example of how mallards, pintails and other ducks target different food sources throughout the year in order to address needs specific to their annual life cycle.

    In the spring, nesting pairs settle on small, shallow wetlands because the waters are packed with protein-rich invertebrates necessary for clutch development and brood rearing. Come fall, the focus switches to high-energy carbohydrates that provide the calories required to build fat stores before the migration, and corn is a perfect fit for that job.

    It’s anyone’s guess how long it took ducks to figure out that the kernels of corn left behind on the ground after harvest packed such a powerful punch of energy, but the secret is out — so much so that corn’s expansion across the continent has impacted the duration and pattern of the fall migration.

    In the Dakotas, the introduction of center-pivot irrigation along the Missouri River in the 1970s made growing corn possible in a relatively arid landscape, and mallards and Canada geese soon began staging along the big river’s waters in numbers never seen before.

    The availability of corn still keeps these birds — numbering in excess of 500,000 at times — in the northern parts of the Central Flyway well into winter until deep snow puts the food source out of reach.

    The Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in central South Dakota is beginning to augment this attraction to corn by pumping water on three small unharvested fields in the fall. The ducks tend to move very quickly into a nocturnal feeding pattern, but when the conditions are right, hunting in the flooded corn is tremendous. I was lucky enough to visit the reservation one such day last fall.

    If You Flood It, They Will Come

    Cool temperatures and blue skies were in the forecast for an early November morning as I motored from my home toward a rendezvous with my host, Joel Bich, near a flooded impoundment along the Missouri River. We were hoping a fresh influx of birds would mean backpedaling greenheads over the 60-degree water.

    The thundering roar of ducks flushing from darkness greeted me, Bich and two other hunters as we made our way down an earthen berm, and each step seemed to cause another wave of birds to lift from the flooded corn. Each of us shared the hope that at least some of the birds would return, and when shooting light arrived we were not disappointed.

    The first flock of the morning emerged from the streaks of color that stretched across the sky above the rolling hills to the east. The lead drake bent toward the sound of a five-note greeting call and escorted the group down into perfect position for my partners in the blind.

    The morning progressed in similar fashion, with a steady stream of birds trading between the flooded corn and the waters of the Missouri River, just 300 yards away. The big flocks never returned, but we stayed busy shooting single drakes, snacking on homemade dried pears from Bich’s orchard and listening to rooster pheasants cackle in the surrounding grassland cover.

    A wounded drake led Murphy and I on a search through the impoundment, and I was inspecting an ear of corn that had been picked clean when something caught my eye. Resting on top of the water was a single feather from the speculum on a mallard’s wing, and the light leaking into the rows of corn was hitting it at just the right angle to make the iridescent blue glow.

    The scene in the sky above was just as captivating, The tempo of mallards leaving the river increased, and several small flocks combined into one swirling mass of ducks over the corn. My eyes were drawn down again as the quiet of the moment was broken by the sound of Murphy weaving his way through the corn with the wounded drake in his mouth. We began our walk back to the blind, but after a few steps through the tall stalks I tripped and came crashing down to my knees.

    With nothing hurt other than my pride, I brought Murphy to heel and watched the scene playing out in the big prairie sky above the corn, knowing full well the boys in the blind would want to know why I missed the best flock of the morning.

    In my younger days, I likely would have gotten up and sprinted back to the blind, but on that beautiful fall morning I was content to just sit back and enjoy the show. That was my excuse, anyway.

    About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.