Andrew Boatman has hunted ducks under about every condition imaginable in a wide variety of situations and habitat ranges. His experiences extend from the flatland playas of the Panhandle to the potholes, marshes and tidal bay systems found up and down the Texas coast.
Although that’s all fun stuff, Boatman was fast to point out that nothing captures the bare bones excitement of duck hunting better than a group of wily big timber mallard drakes barreling down through tree tops. With their wings cupped and green heads craning, they send the definitive message that you and your decoys are exactly where they want to be.
“When it comes to duck hunting, hunting mallards in big, green timber is definitely the juice,” said Boatman, a 33-year-old duck hunter from Nacogdoches. “I’ve hunted lots of places, but there is nothing quite like the sight of bunch of mallards pitching through a hole in the tree tops and streaming in right in your face. I’ve seen where you could actually feel the wind off their wings because they were so close when they were trying to sit down. It’s the coolest type of duck hunting there is, no doubt. I think most serious duck hunters would agree with that.”
Jeff Harrell of Central Heights was quick to second the motion. Harrell is a 57-year-old inspector in the oil and gas industry, but he lives to hunt. He likes it particularly well when the game involves some vocal interaction between hunter and critter.
A crackerjack with a duck call, Harrell labeled hunting tall timber mallards as the pinnacle of the sport. It will lure hunters through tangled mazes of waist-deep muck laced with head-high briars. They’ll brave all sorts blowdowns, stump holes and other obstacles you can’t see in the pre-dawn darkness of a frosty December morning.
Never one to mince words, Harrell got straight to point when asked to describe the allure of coaxing greenheads through a mangled canopy of limbs and branches.
“There ain’t nothing like it when you hit them with the call and they circle back and start falling through that timber right in on top of you,” Harrell said. “Orgasmic.”
Finding success with big timber ducks is more than setting up in the nearest creek or hardwood riverbottom with a duck call in your hand and a staunch retriever at your side. It takes time, dedication and experience to score in this wet and rugged arena.
I asked asked Boatman and Harrell to share some tips that East Texas waterfowlers with access to big woods honey holes might use to help them fill their straps this season. Here’s what they had to say:
• Bluebird Mallards: Most people think the best duck hunting is during bad weather, but that’s not always the case when hunting big timber. When it’s cloudy the ducks can see down into the trees and pick out things they don’t like. I like a cold, bluebird day with a steady wind, but not too much wind. When it’s sunny, there are plenty of shadows to hide in, and the steady wind makes the birds line up better on their final approach.
• Stay Hid: Wear camo patterns that match the surroundings. I like the Natural Gear color the best, and you should always wear a facemask.
• Use a soft call: My experience in the timber has been that a softer call works better and sounds more natural. A loud call will blow them out of there. It echoes in a way that sounds unnatural.
• Stir Still Water: Make some splashing and kicking action with your feet. Wait until the birds are circling and before they turn back toward you kick your feet and stir the water to imitate ducks splashing around. Don’t splash around when they’re right above you or heading your way. They’ll key-in on your movement.
• The Right Choke: Use an improved cylinder choke. Most of your shots are going to be in your face and there’s no need for a tight choke.
• Finish the Job: If a wounded duck hits the water, keep shooting until it’s dead. A wounded duck can swim a lot faster than you can run through the water and limbs. They’ll get away from you and hide. Hunting in timber is not like open water where there’s no place for them to hide.
• Pass on the Woodies: If you’re wanting to go for a limit of straight mallards, let the wood ducks fly by right at daylight. Generally the wood ducks will fly early, and the mallards a little later.
• Midday Hunting: A lot of times mallards won’t start flying good until mid-morning. I’ve killed them as late as 2 p.m. Bring food and coffee and be prepared to wait the birds out.
• Dress For It: You’ll be standing in frigid water all day, so you’ll be a lot more comfortable if your feet stay warm. Wear the best socks you’ve got.
• Hands Free Hunting: Put a sling on your shotgun if you don’t have one. You can sling it across your back and use your arms and hands to help navigate around. Then hang it from the sling while you’re waiting on birds. Bring a screw-in hanger like you use for bow hunting to hang your gun and gear on.
• Location, Location, Location: Location is the biggest part of being successful. Duck hunters call this “Being on the X.” If you are not where ducks want to be, your chances of having a successful hunt are slim to none.
• Scouting: Scouting is crucial. Mallards don’t seem to stay in one location in East Texas quite like they do in other parts of the country. When you locate an area that is holding a concentration of mallards, it would be in your favor to hunt them as soon as possible. I have found them before during the week and went back three to four days later to hunt, only to find an empty hole of water.
• Hunting “New” Water: Newly flooded areas can be particularly good. Ducks like to feed in areas where the water has risen over ground that is normally dry. This newly flooded ground holds lots of feed, such as invertebrates, snails, and weed seed. The best time to hunt these flooded areas is when the water is rising or holding the same depth. The birds tend to leave to look for new feeding areas as the water starts receding.
• Hunt the Fronts: Weather is an important factor in a successful hunt. I like to watch for a big cold front to move in from the north bringing a drastic drop in temperature over a 24-hour period. The ducks tend to be out in front of the weather change by 24 to 36 hours and continue migrating south just below the freeze line.
• Small Spreads: East Texas is not on a major flyway such as the Mississippi and Central flyways. The ducks we see here are not used to 150 to 200 birds on a pocket of water as in Arkansas, Louisiana and other major flyways. For this reason I like a smaller decoy spread of about 12 to 15 decoys. It’s a more realistic scenario for the ducks.
• Make ‘em Move: Water movement is a huge deal because it makes things look real. I prefer to use a jerk string or a decoy that causes some ripples on the water. The jerk string is rigged by attaching two to four decoys (this number is usually sufficient). Putting ripples on the water in your decoy spread is a must on a calm day. Spinning wing decoys work on some days, but I prefer to stick with traditional decoys and a jerk string.
• Speak the Language: Learning to blow a call in the correct way and when to use it, will improve your odds of getting mallards in your decoy spread. A good sounding “quack” and some soft feeding chuckles are usually enough for hunting in East Texas.
—story by Matt Williams