Timber Duck Hunting

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duck call
Timber duck hunting require 3 essentials: a duck hunter, a duck call and ducks!

Shooting can be fast and furious. Hard-to-see ducks in tall timber can be on top of you before you realize they are near. You must decide in a split second if they’re within range, if they’re going to drop in or if they should be taken on the pass.

You probably would take more birds if you stuck to pass shooting exclusively, even though it’s tricky to track, lead and shoot a bird in the scant seconds before it’s swallowed up in the maze of branches. Too often ducks that appear to be coming in will circle and circle, then disappear when they spot something out of place. But resisting pass shots holds a special reward. Few sights in the sport of hunting are as magnificent as a flock of ducks skimming the winter-bare treetops, wings cupped in classic fashion, as they drop from the sky into a flooded forest.

Several years ago a duck hunter accompanied Arkansas outdoor writer Jim Spencer for a timber hunt on Bayou Meto. At age seven, Spencer moved with his family to nearby Stuttgart, the Rice and Duck Capital of the World. At eight, he started pestering his dad to take him duck hunting.

“Dad hunted Bayou Meto and the White River bottoms,” Spencer recalls. “It was tough hunting, poor-boy style, with no boat and lots of walking through flooded timber. I was too little for that sort of stuff, but that didn’t keep me from wanting to go. Finally Dad told me I could go when I got big enough to wear a size-five hip boot, the smallest they made. I think I grew to fit those boots when I was 10. They were still too big, but I told Dad they fit just fine. Those black gum boots didn’t have any insulation, and I remember my feet would get so cold I couldn’t even feel them. I rarely wanted to call it quits, though, and even when I did, I never said so because I was afraid I wouldn’t get to go next time if I wimped out.”

duck hunter
A small opening within the flooded woods provides a hotspot for the almost invisible duck hunter by the big tree on the right.

Those early hunts began a lifelong love of waterfowling. Now 59, Spencer has hunted ducks from Saskatchewan to Mexico and from Washington State to Chesapeake Bay.

“There’s better teal/pintail/gadwall/wigeon hunting in south Louisiana, and it’s going to be hard to forget hunts I’ve had on the Platte in Nebraska, on the upper Mississippi near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and in the Lake Erie marshes,” he says. “But when you’re talking about flooded timber hunting for Mallards, the best is here in Arkansas.”

The duck hunting tips one can glean from Spencer, tips based on half a century of timber-hunting experience, are invaluable.

How to pick a site for a ground blind: “In timber, look for openings where there’s a blowdown to let the ducks into the canopy, and look for open flight lanes, especially downwind, that let you track ducks as they swing and approach.”

How to duck call: “Learn to call as well as you can. Let the ducks be the teacher. Try something, and if they don’t respond favorably, try something else. Sometimes they’re call-shy and will flare from loud, frequent calling. Other times you have to talk them all the way to the water or you’ll lose them.”

How to hunt public land: “Be willing to go the extra mile. Lots of hunters won’t go very far past the spots they can reach in a boat. You can find good hunting even in a crowded area if you’re willing to go to the trouble to get to tough places.”

Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area is Spencer’s favorite public hunting spot “because even with the crowding, it’s still one of the world’s best public areas.”

Wading into flooded timber at first light, Jim Spencer and a duck hunter took a stand in a small opening and watched thousands of Mallards trading overhead. Most were too high for shooting, but Jim’s expert duck calling convinced several to drop in. At noon, when shooting hours ended, they had six Mallards for their efforts.

timber duck hunting
A duck hunter and his Lab watch the sky for incoming ducks.

It wasn’t the ducks they killed, however, that made this duck hunt so memorable. What this duck hunter will remember most is what happened after the shooting ended and they unloaded their guns. At Jim’s urging, they sat on a log and watched.

“Be perfectly still and quiet,” Jim told them, “and you’ll understand why this type of hunting is so special.”

It started as nothing more than a trickle. Mallards that flew high all morning started cupping their wings and dropping onto the water beneath the tall pin oaks. Within minutes, the trickle became a flood. Mallards were splashing down all around them. The soft whistling of their wings filled their ears. They covered the shallow water like a warm feathered blanket.

At this point, the most amazing thing happened. With no place to land, the thousands of ducks still flying above them were forced to circle and look for open water. And as they circled, they became a huge feathered whirlwind. They sat there, three duck hunters in the eye of the storm, and watched, mesmerized, as the birds swirled round and round us.

It was one of the most incredible wildlife spectacles they had ever seen. Moments like that, after a successful duck hunt, embody the true green-timber experience.

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