Waterfowling Perfection: Green Timber and Greenheads

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Learn How to Succeed in Flooded Woods

Every duck hunter dreams of hunting flooded timber, but the game has many challenges. Photo © Bill Konway

Here’s what’s true: Duck hunting in flooded woods is the ultimate waterfowling experience. For those of us lucky enough to have grown up surrounded by it, nothing else measures up.

Flooded-timber hunting is mostly a sport of the southern Mississippi Flyway, because that’s where most of the flood-prone bottomland hardwoods are. But this style of hunting has spread. From Kansas to the Smokies, from Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico, state agencies, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and private landowners are getting on the green timber reservoir bandwagon.

The reason is simple: Flooded woods attract ducks — especially mallards and wood ducks.

Most GTRs have duck food, including macroinvertebrates, acorns and some grasses. But mostly, flooded timber is a place for rest and refuge. Usually, mallards feed in dry or flooded fields, or shallow, open water, and then head for the timber to loaf. The trees provide protection from the elements, and in cold weather GTRs stay open longer than open water. During those conditions, green timber hunting can be fantastic.

Simplicity is Sublime

Green timber hunting can be elaborate or almost ludicrously simple. Long-time private clubs usually maintain shooting holes in the woods, often with comfortable permanent blinds, and leave their decoys out the entire season. Many free-lance hunters on public green-timber areas install elaborate blinds on their duck boats, and use them for floating portable blinds, putting out decoys in whatever pothole, bayou channel or thin spot in the canopy they think looks good.

But it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Many green-timber hunters get by without that bother. Blinds aren’t necessary for green-timber hunting, nor boats, provided the water is shallow enough to wade. In many GTRs, some sections can’t even be reached by boat.

Maybe that’s why green timber appeals to so many duck hunters. It’s a minimalist undertaking, and the absolute necessities are few. In most green-timber situations, even decoys are more trouble than they are worth.

All you really need are chest waders, camo that blends, a compass or GPS, shotgun shells, a gun, a call and some ability to blow it. Anything else is unnecessary.

Leave the Pooch

Consider dogs, for example. Many hunters can’t wrap their minds around the concept of retriever-less duck hunting, and many hunters use dogs in green timber. But in most cases, the dog is more hindrance than help. Unless you’re hunting from a boat or permanent blind, you have to find a log or root-wad for the dog to climb on or carry a strap-on platform and fasten it to a tree. You must get the dog out of the water. Otherwise, even the hardiest Lab or Chessie will eventually succumb to hypothermia.

Some green-timber hunters are skybusters, shooting at ducks flying well above the treetops, but the real art and beauty of this style of hunting lies in getting ducks to break through the canopy and try to light on the water. Therefore, most green-timber shooting opportunities will be at close range, often straight overhead or immediately in front at 15 to 30 yards. Retrieves are usually short, even when you’re dealing with cripples. Public green-timber areas are often crowded, and because most owners of duck dogs seem to spend more time yelling orders at their dogs than calling to ducks, it's usually better if the pooch stays home.

Small Shot, Open Choke

Because of the close-range shooting, you don’t need as much gun for green timber as you do for, say, open-marsh pass shooting. Most duck hunters use 12-gauges, even in green timber, but in most cases, a 20 is more than adequate. Go no larger Nos. 2 or 3 shot with steel, and keep the choking to a minimum. Cylinder bore or one of the skeet chokes is ideal, and don’t go any tighter than improved-cylinder. Your goal is to kill the duck, not send a cannonball of shot through its middle and obliterate it.

Bismuth shooters can go a shot size or two smaller without trouble, stepping down to Nos. 3 or 4 shot. If you’re shooting Hevi-Shot, size 5, 6 or 7-1/2 are good for green-timber work. And for TSS enthusiasts, 9s and even 10s are perfect green-timber medicine. My preference lately is 9/16-ounce of a blend of TSS 9s and 10s in my 28-gauge Mossberg over-and-under with cylinder and improved-cylinder choke tubes.

Make it Easy for ’Em to Land but Hard for ’Em to See You

When picking a spot to set up, look for a break in the canopy. When ducks light in a flooded forest, they usually do it where there’s a hole and they can see through the canopy to the water. It doesn’t have to be big. The space left by a wind-thrown tree is large enough. The important thing is to provide ducks with a clear path to the water.

Wear full camo, including a hat. Donning your turkey hunting facemask is also a good idea. Green-timber ducks like to circle and check things out before committing, and a duck’s vision on the wing is almost as good as a turkey’s on the ground. And you’re usually dealing with multiple sets of those sharp eyes — sometimes a hundred sets or more, so concealment is vital. Watching them circle, work to the call and cup their wings and settle in is the most enjoyable part of the hunt, and with a facemask, you can watch the show without being spotted.

Make the most of whatever natural cover is available, including brush piles, tree trunks and fallen snags. Tree trunks are best because they offer a place to lean and provide head support, and because you can move slowly around the tree to keep it between you and the ducks. There are few places to take a load off when you’re in knee-deep water, and a sturdy tree to lean against can be a blessing after half a morning of dragging heavy waders through thigh-deep water. Fallen trees with dirt clinging to the root balls are also good.

Calling: the Name of the Game

Calling is extremely important in green timber. Because the trees hide most of the water, ducks in the air don’t expect to see many ducks down there. But they expect to hear them. Calling is a must.

You’d better be pretty good at it, too. In public green-timber areas everywhere, you’re going to compete with some of the best duck callers you’ll ever hear. If you can’t step up to the plate and compete with them, you’re not going to have many opportunities at close-in ducks.

The best timber calling strategy is variable. Pay attention to how the birds respond to what you’re doing, and then adjust as necessary.

Usually, the best game plan is to give ducks a short, loud hail call, and then soften your calling after you get their attention. Stop calling when the ducks are headed your way but are still 100 yards or so out. If they swing by wide or pass overhead out of shotgun range, resume calling as soon as they’re past your position. Usually.

Sometimes, though, they don’t respond well to that. At times, they only want that first hail call and flare if you call any more. Other times, they want loud, pleading calling all the way to the water. Timber ducks are as unpredictable as ducks everywhere else, so try different stuff to see what’s working that day.

Getting them into the trees is the real thrill, but sometimes, especially in heavily hunted public areas, they won’t do it. Some days, you must take them on an overhead pass. Don’t skybust, but if ducks are reluctant to break the treetops, modify your game plan. Shoot when they pass directly overhead, just above treetop level. The timber in most bottomland hardwood forests is usually less than 100 feet tall, which still gives you another eight to 10 yards of effective range above the treetops. You might have to go up on shot sizes, though.

Don’t Leave Too Soon

The best timber hunting is usually the first hour of shooting time and then again in late morning and midday. The 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. slot is often slow, so don’t get discouraged and leave when things get quiet. Often, the best shooting happens late.

It's not elegant, and it's not easy, but green-timber duck hunting is waterfowling at its finest and purest. Try it, and you’ll be back for more.

Where to Go

GTRs are scattered from Oregon to Maryland, but most are concentrated in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, where most of the mallards go. More than half of the public GTRs are concentrated in Arkansas.

Here’s a sample:

Tennessee: Hatchie NWR, near Brownsville; (901) 772-0501. 9,400 acres of seasonally flooded hardwoods, with 21 small GTRs.

Mississippi: Delta National Forest/Sunflower WMA, by Rolling Fork; (662) 873-6256. 60,000 acres of bottomland hardwoods, most of which floods naturally, plus five GTRs totaling 6,400 acres.

Louisiana: Red River WMA (39,000 acres near Ferriday, most of which floods naturally, plus a GTR); Boeuf WMA (48,600 acres near Columbia, much of which floods annually, plus two GTRs); Russell Sage WMA (16,400 acres near Monroe, natural flooding of most of the area, plus two GTRs.) Maps and more information from these areas are available from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries at www.wlf.state.la.us.

Arkansas: Bayou Meto WMA (32,000 acres near Stuttgart, with about 18,000 acres of green-timber hunting); White River NWR (165,000 acres near DeWitt, about 40,000 acres of seasonally flooded woods open to hunting, plus two GTRs); Black River WMA (21,000 acres near Corning, almost all of which floods annually); Felsenthal NWR (65,000 acres near El Dorado, with about 30,000 acres of open water and bottomland hardwoods, most of which is annually flooded and about half of which is open to hunting.) Information and maps of all these areas are available from the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, (501) 223-6336, www.agfc.com.

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