Images and story by gnatoutdoors.com
If you were going on a trip to a place called Mallard Manor in Mississippi in the dead of winter you’d think you’d be safe to assume that you would be crushing the greenheads. That would be true except for the old waterfowling bugaboo- weather. When you have a mild winter like the one we enjoyed in 2015-2016, most mallards don’t make it to Mississippi. The same is true of northern Arkansas. They have no reason to. With lots of high-energy corn, mild weather and the season closed in places like Iowa and Missouri, why leave? Add to that changes in agricultural practices that have affected waterfowl migrations and during some years those fat, red-legged mallards have no reason to visit the Magnolia State.
“With all the cold and snow we had up north the last two years we had great shooting,” declared Mallard Manor head guide Dwayne Kelly. “This year with how warm it has been the ducks are just not coming down, but that’s a trend that we seen for the past 20 years or more.” Besides being short-stopped up north by an unlimited food supply and mild weather, changes in the way Mississippi farmers go about their business has hurt duck numbers. “It’s really been a combination of things,” lamented Kelly. “Last year it actually got too cold and we were froze out by Thanksgiving. You just can’t win.”
One thing ducks migrate to Mississippi for is food. Acres and acres of harvested and unharvested rice and soybeans, and now more corn, use to attract and hold thousands of waterfowl during the Mississippi winter. But in recent years more and more farmers are resorting to earlier germinating varieties of soybeans, corn and rice that allows them to harvest crops earlier and earlier in the season. Most crops are now out of the field by August and many farmers harvest their crops in July. Blackbirds gobble early crops up before waterfowl even arrive. By harvesting during the summer, there’s less chance for crops having to be left in the fields because of a fall deluge and crops that are missed sit on the stalk for months and months rotting making them less attractive to waterfowl. Soybeans still in the pods turn black, rot and fall to the ground or bottom of flooded fields.
Without the attraction of high-energy food sources, mallards prefer to stay up north where they can gorge on corn. Other ducks that can exist on or prefer seeds, insects and vegetation still make their way to Mississippi, but when that is the only game in town, hunting suffers.
Planting crops earlier and earlier is compounded by the fact that farmers are using more and more efficient herbicides. Today’s herbicides kill everything. There was time when crop fields would be filled with weeds, brush, shrubs and other vegetation where ducks could hide, roost and feed. Not these days. Herbicides, like Round-Up, kill everything, including weeds and grasses that would normally cover islands, dikes and levies. Dirty farms no longer exist. Those days are gone.
Those same weeds, brush and vegetation would grow on islands, edges, high spots and hummocks that could be found in the fields. Instead of the monogamous, flat fields like you see more and more of today, fields use to be irregular, rolling, weed-filled and more attractive to waterfowl. Now many farmers practice what is called precision leveling or furrow irrigation. Fields are basically tilled, leveled and then gradually sloped from one end to the other. A water source (well and/or pump) or spring rains provide water, which then runs downhill in the furrows irrigating the field when gravity takes over. The process is very efficient, cost effective and allows the field to be drained very quickly. Doing so allows some farmers to harvest in the summer and plant a fall crop before any migrating fall waterfowl even arrive.
While the weather had not been conducive to sending masses of mallards south, there was some frost on the pumpkin our first morning at Mallard Manor. Host Charlie Holder of Sure Shot Game Calls had warned us to dress warm. “How cold can it be?” I thought to myself. It was 2 degrees when I left Cheyenne, Wyoming the morning before. Still, the damp 27-degree chill seemed colder and our guide, Blake Cook, had to use the Polaris ATV to make a hole for the decoys in the frozen, flooded soybean field.
Hunting in the Mississippi gumbo would be impossible without an ATV. Not only did we need it to break ice, the logistics of getting to the blind or pit with guns, decoys and equipment would be difficult at best even though the lodge was just over the horizon on the first morning. There was knee-deep water in the fields and clutching mud underneath that would snatch a hunter’s ankles like a horror film monster and pull you under. The Polaris ATVs and UTVs were impervious to the conditions and proved to be a godsend.
Blake ran the Polaris Sportsman ATV in circle to create a hole and to muddy the water to simulate a place where ducks had been feeding. He placed the mallard and teal decoys in little pods to simulate feeding birds. The wind was less than ideal coming at an angle into our hide in the hedgerow. Blake placed the decoys out a little further than usual so the ducks could work parallel the hedgerow while coming in to land. The horizon was a rosy blush still as ducks began splashing in the decoys in the early morning light.
Once the sun got up a bit and Blake announced it was shooting time, the ducks quit. We didn’t see a duck for close to an hour. While the mallards had not shown up in Mississippi yet, the geese sure had. Thousands of geese could be seen filling the air in every direction. The geese were a combination of snows, white-fronts and small Canadas. A big flock of raucous snows were roosted in the field behind us and with any luck they would come out in our direction.
The guides at Mallard Manor don’t pay any attention to the geese during duck season, even though it would seem there’s certainly is plenty of opportunity. Kelly explained that the geese are difficult to pattern during duck season when the fields are all flooded. Once duck season ends and they start to draw the water off the fields, the snow geese start going to specific winter wheat fields and are easier to pattern. The Spring Conservation Season opens on Feb. 1, which allows unplugged guns, electronic callers and more liberalized hunting methods. That’s when the southern boys get after ‘em. Kelly said it’s not unusual to kill 100 to 150 white geese in a morning.
To hunt the white-fronts wouldn’t require nearly as much time and effort. Setting up three or four-dozen, full-bodied white-front decoys looked like an easy way to kill a limit of specks, but no one was doing it. Guides and their clients at the lodge routinely shoot a half dozen geese by accident each day over the duck spreads. If I didn’t have any mallards to kill and there were all these geese around, I would have been pounding on the geese if clients agreed to help put out a huge white spread.
Snow geese lifting from the field behind us were cutting the corner of our field on a low path. I suggested to Blake that we send someone down to the corner of the field and try to waylay the geese before they were gone, but about then a single hen shoveler skirted the decoys and Austin Van Gilder dropped it. Then, a trio of green-wings dive-bombed the spread and the group managed to scratch down a chestnut-attired drake.
The honking behind us intensified and a flock of snows that had lifted off the field were coming right over us. Picking a hole in the tall pin oaks, I lined up on a snow-white gander and the Hevi-Shot stiffened the goose. It angled down before crashing in the ice sounding like a thousand shards of breaking glass.
Duck action ramped up. Apparently the blast of unexpected cold had the ducks sleeping in, but now that the sun was up there were ducks in the air. Steve Rice was the lookout. He stood out slightly from the fencerow we were hiding in and announced incoming birds. The potpourri was a mixture of green-wings, shovelers and gadwalls. Several flocks of pintails skirted the spread, but they were ducks that had been there for a while and knew the boundaries and safety zones. The pintails could be had, but it’d take some weather and wind for them to make a mistake. Today wasn’t the day.
Shooting remained steady and at one time we had several ducks down in the decoys. We jokingly cast Blake “Back!” to retrieve the downed birds since he had the youngest legs. He returned with two outrageously colored drake shovelers and a strikingly handsome drake gadwall. Hunters up north never get to see shovelers in all their glory, except in the spring.
We’d just had a discussion about breaking in your new spouse gradually to the idea of putting dead stuff on the wall with a couple of newlyweds in the group. We were all fawning over the spectacular colors on the male shovelers, the iridescent purple-green head, its rust-colored chest and garish orange feet when newly kept man Austin Van Gilder announced, “I’m getting him mounted!” I told him if I had room in my menagerie I’d be taking one home with me, too.
While the guides apologized for not shooting a bunch of greenheads, I don’t think anyone really cared. Personally, I’d rather shoot a variety of waterfowl on any given trip than just kill one species. A greenhead is a greenhead. Rarely is there any difference. But one of the attractions of duck hunting is the variety. How often to you get to shoot shovelers in their full plumage and admire the remarkable black and white striped feathers contrasting the sky blue on a shoveler’s wing or inspect the subdued, elegant colors on a drake gadwall or see a bull sprig with spikes as long as a fillet knife?
Ducks, mainly spoonbills, continued to bomb the spread, but Blake announced it was time to go. The hunting had just started to get good and ended all too quickly. As Blake collected the decoys, the rest of us readied our gear and picked up our empty hulls in addition to a multitude of others that littered the fencerow.
As we peeled off our waders in the mudroom at the lodge, snow geese began piling into a rye field fairly close to the lodge’s dog kennels. A big wad of specks were feeding in the field with them. After brunch, the flock of snows numbered close to a thousand birds and more were coming to land.
Plans were to shoot some five-stand in the afternoon so Dwayne Kelly announced, ”Ya all might as well shoot those geese before they scare ‘em all off.” A plan was devised for six of us to sneak through the truck barn, down the side of the dog kennels and then jump the geese. The plan worked to perfection. We were probably 50 yards from the geese when we stepped out from next to the dog kennels and all hell broke loose. When the shooting stopped, 30 Ross, Snows and eagle-headed Blues were flopping on the ground. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
The next morning found us in a pit in a flooded soybean field that had a swath of corn planted in the middle for food and cover. The corn was long since gone. The blind had only produced one spoonbill for the group the morning before, so our expectations were modest at best, but today was another day. It was warmer than the day before with light winds, so the chances that a bunch of greenheads had blown in overnight were nil. Still, we knew that there were plenty of other ducks in the area.
Like the day before, the ducks didn’t fly early and it was well after shooting hours before we killed the first duck. Once the flights started, shooting was steady with the same mix of shovelers, teal and gadwall as the day before. Our heads were on a swivel as birds strafed us mainly from behind. Dwayne scolded us about our bobbing noggins and warned us about ducks that had played the game. Still, we had 15 ducks down and had retrieved 13 plus two bonus white-fronts before Dwayne pulled the plug. Our group had killed one greenhead in two days that came in like a speck from the stratosphere and never flapped his wings, like you’d expect a migrant to do. I don’t think anyone cared that we hadn’t shot a pile of mallards.
The status of Mallard Manor is up in the air. The place has been for sale for several years and several investors have expressed an interested. It’s a fabulous destination. If nothing else, the accommodations are first rate and much can be said for the fried catfish, barbeque and vanilla pudding.
If nothing happens, Dwayne Kelly said that God willing they’ll be offering hunts in 2016, with a few changes. “I’d like to lease more ground and leave more of the crops for the ducks,” he said. “More moist soil management would help keep more ducks around, too. Right now about the only thing we have for water are cypress swamps.” More food and water should equate to more mallards if Mother Nature cooperates. If not, there’s always smiling mallards.