Hunting greenheads on huge lakes and rivers can be tough — but really productive, too
Here’s an inconvenient truth: Mallards — a duck comfortable on sheet water, in creeks and marshes, or even feeding in ag fields — love big water. They roost on huge lakes and rivers, and loaf and feed at sprawling sloughs.
And all that water can make hunting tough, especially considering the natural wariness and unpredictability of mallards.
But here’s a more pleasant fact: Big-water greenheads can be difficult, but they’re not impossible. In fact, specialized approaches can let you enjoy great mallard hunting on huge waters. Consider these tips.
Before targeting big-water mallards, identify what areas they’re using and determine when and why they like those spots. Often, mallards use much smaller portions of big waters to feed, find shelter from wind or even roost some nights. Finding those spots lets you eliminate 90 percent or more of the water and shrink the playing field, making it easier to attract and decoy birds.
For example, I’ve killed loads of mallards on a 130,000-plus-acre lake near my home, and most of them have come from protected bays, small stretches of shoreline or, when ice forms in shallow areas, mid-lake points. Blindly plying the vast lake for mallards would be pointless most days. But focusing on mini spots the birds use during certain situations can be extremely productive.
Obviously, wind really helps funnel mallards from open water to smaller areas. When the flags blow straight and whitecaps form on open water, many mallards seek protected shorelines, calm harbors, marshy bays or even tributary creeks to escape the blow. Hunting such areas is simple, provided you can find adequate concealment. Simply throw out a few decoys, try to keep the sun at your back, and wait for ducks to flee rough water.
Likewise, when ice begins to form late in the season, mallard hunting improves, as many small backwaters, marshes and other hidey-holes lock up. Birds are forced into the remaining open water. Modest spreads along shorelines or mid-lake points can shine during that time.
Sometimes, you can’t shrink the field, and you’ll have to traffic mallards on big stuff. Two considerations can help: timing and visibility.
First, consider where, when, and why mallards move on specific waters. They’ll likely roost at secure areas of open water, such as a refuge, and then move to relatively shallow spots with food, such as smartweed, wild rice, wild celery or similar vegetation. Find those feeding areas, or at least identify spots between roosting areas and the feed, and try to set up there.
Wherever you set up, your decoys need to be visible. Use a generous spread, and make it appear natural. If mallards are the predominant duck on that water, go with several dozen puddle-duck decoys. When mallards associate with divers or coots — as they often do on the Mississippi River or similar areas — it’s wise to incorporate those birds into a mixed megaspread. In any case, your decoy spread should feature lots of motion, whether it’s spinners, pulsators, jerk rigs or something similar.
In many parts of the country, mallards roost on open water and then fly out to feed in smaller sloughs or ag fields at first light. They don’t return to loaf until perhaps midday, or sometimes even sunset. In those cases, you might focus on hunting midmorning until close, hoping to lure in birds returning from feeding spots. That can be hit or miss, but scouting should indicate where birds like to loaf and roost, depending on wind conditions or the proximity to their feeding area. Set up nearby, and hope to catch ’em on the return trip. Some days, you might do surprisingly well. Other times, you’ll strike out. But that holds true with mallard hunting in any scenario, right?
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.