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Timber Duck Hunting
This is the story of a duck hunt that a duck hunter will never forget.
Three friends me in east Arkansas’ Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area, a picturesque bottomland that often has been called “the epicenter of green-timber duck hunting in America.” They launched one of the duck hunter's big flatbottom duck boat amid a massive gathering of other duck hunters, and headed west on the woodland boat trails, following the spotlights of other duck hunters until they reached Brushy Creek in the heart of WMA.
From here, the duck hunters waded more than a mile through the flooded timber, negotiating stump holes and ankle-grabbing brush in three feet of water. The location seemed remote, but there were plenty of other duck hunters around, even on that Monday morning.
They spent a couple of hours moving from one spot to another, trying t
o find an opening in the timber situated a decent distance from other waterfowlers. It wasn’t easy. These bottoms were covered in dense stands of hardwoods with a thick understory, and there are always plenty of duck hunters. After several maneuvers, however, this group of duck hunters managed to find a spot with just the right set of conditions.
Two of the duck hunters were excellent duck callers, and it didn’t take them long to garner the attention of some Mallards trading over the timber. The birds were wary; finesse was required to convince them to visit their hole. They circled over and around their little opening a dozen times before finally cupping their wings and dropping from the sky like big metal-flake hailstones. It was almost an anti-climax when the three duck hunters each dropped a mallard.
Another short walk took them to another hole, where there were more ducks trading through the timber. These Mallards were high but close enough to respond to the hails of the veteran duck callers. The birds disappeared in the trees, then reappeared, only to vanish again in the low ceiling of clouds. But the duck calls were convincing.
The ducks turned and and circled the hole—once, twice, three times. The duck hunters followed their movements through the mosaic of timber, heads down so the ducks wouldn’t spot them. The ambush was set.
The Mallards cupped their wings. The woods fell silent. They could see the orange legs of the ducks outstretched to meet the blackwater bayou. Emerald heads luminesced against a gray-and-brown background. Wings whistling, the birds gave to the pull of gravity and fell through the trees. A dozen. Two dozen. Fifty. A hundred Mallards dropped from the leaden sky and lit on the icy water. No one even breathed. It was too precious a moment to shatter with gunfire.
But somewhere within the flock, a wary hen flushed. Keen senses told her something was out of place. The entire flock followed in an explosion of swamp water and feathers. Duck hunter instincts took hold, and a volley of gunfire rang out. Two of the duck hunters rounded out their limits, and the third duck hunter dropped a drake as it circled behind him.
By noon, they were celebrating their good fortune over cups of coffee at a restaurant in Stuttgart. Other duck hunters were coming in, too. All agreed it had been a fine morning for duck hunting green-timber greenheads.
Duck hunters have been pursuing ducks in flooded timber for thousands of years. The ducks come to eat acorns, moist-soil plant seeds and invertebrates. The hunters await them.
Occasionally a diving duck such as a Redhead or Lesser Scaup may drop in, but most waterfowl in these environs are puddle ducks, or dabblers, which don’t submerge their bodies to feed. They find a perfect dinner table in the shallow water that inundates hundreds of thousands of acres of woodlands each year as big delta rivers overflow their banks.
The Mallard is the bird targeted by most who duck hunt the bottomland hardwoods, followed distantly by the Wood Duck and other duck species such as teal, Gadwalls and Wigeons. Interestingly, Mallard hunting in timber is largely responsible for the development of the duck call. Because they evolved in these wetland hardwood forests, Mallards depend on audio cues to lead them to the openings where other ducks are feeding. Duck hunters learned to make and use duck calls that imitated these cues and brought the ducks close enough to shoot.
This is the essence of timber duck hunting. The duck hunter stands beside a tree in flooded timber, blows a duck call, kicks some water and brings Mallards or other ducks fluttering down through the branches. You don’t require a hunting boat, a dog or even duck decoys, although these figure into most people’s hunting. Timber shooting can be distilled down to three essentials—a duck hunter, a duck call and ducks.
The duck call is the key. Flying birds must be directly above a duck decoy spread before they can see it. Consequently, the oversized blocks of duck decoys used in open water or field hunting don’t work here. Sound in the form of duck talk attracts birds in green timber.
Duck hunters try to “read” the ducks and call when appropriate, using a combination of hail calls, feeding calls and quacks to bring birds in.
Duck decoys, though not necessary, can help you build confidence in your setup. You don’t need many—just a dozen or so placed in a small opening to keep the birds coming those last few critical yards. Blending into the shadow of nearby trees, some duck hunters call while others slosh the water with enthusiastic kicking to get the duck decoys moving around and create the impression of Mallards feeding on acorns.