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Mallards are large ducks, typically weighing up to 3.5 pounds, with round heads and wide bills. Male Mallards, called drakes, have iridescent green heads, brightly colored yellow bills, and grey bodies. Female Mallards, called hens, are much less colorful, with brown heads and brown mottled bodies. These birds typically live in wetland areas, both fresh and salt, in all manner of both natural and manmade habitats. Groups of the ducks will have a safe place called a roost, often a pond or secluded marsh area, where they spend the night. Then, at sunrise, they will leave this roost and travel to feeding areas. These feeding areas vary greatly depending on time of year and location, but are usually bodies of water with some type of edible vegetation or agricultural fields holding grains. They typically focus on a variety of aquatic plants like milfoil, pondweed, and insects, as well as grains like millet, corn, and wheat in these areas.
Mallards are without a doubt the most sought after of all the species of waterfowl. They are hunted all over North America, and good populations of the ducks are found throughout Europe and Asia. No matter the region, Mallards are migratory birds. Every fall, Mallards begin their long journey south to warmer regions. These migrations are largely weather dependent, so peak times may vary from region to region. Nevertheless, certain areas do receive larger portions of the migration. Arguably the best state in the United States is Arkansas, and the massive amount of both food and habitat here leads to hunters harvesting over half a million mallards annually. Another big water mecca for greenheads is Missouri, due to its extensive wetland area. North Dakota is at the top of the list as well, as massive agricultural fields bring huge numbers of birds from Canada every season. Finally, the Western flyway brings big numbers of mallards to Washington and Montana, making the hunting in these states especially good. However, do not think that these are the only places you can kill a mallard, as places throughout the country offer excellent mallard hunting, provided there is adequate food and wetland habitat.
Mallards are typically hunted two different ways, depending on the terrain. Most often, they are hunted over water using decoys. Hunters will take any number of decoys, varying from a half dozen to 10 dozen depending on the scenario, and place them in natural positions on the water’s surface. This fake group of ducks suggests to the live ducks flying overhead that this spot is not only safe, but that there is also food in the area. Ducks have incredible eyesight, and can see even the most minor details when flying over decoy spreads. Because of this fact, hunters go to great lengths to conceal themselves, both with camouflage clothing and in blinds. A variety of blinds are utilized, all of which are situation dependent. For example, sloughs on private land are often outfitted with pit blinds. These blinds are under the ground, either made of concrete, metal, or wood, and offer incredible concealment with zero silhouette, making hunters nearly invisible to birds. Those hunting public land often make their boat a blind, using artificial frames combined with plants or debris from their hunting area to conceal their whole boat. Other times, if the cover is adequate, hunters will simply sit or stand in the water and hide that way.
Once the decoys are set and the hunters are in their blind or otherwise hidden, it is time to hunt. Hunts start at morning shooting time, which is typically thirty minutes before sunrise. This early start requires the aforementioned preparation to take place sometimes an hour or two before shooting light. However, the early start is well worth it, as ducks are far less easily spooked at lowlight. First light action is always chaotic, and it very is possible to shoot a limit of birds in just the first few minutes. However, as the sun rises higher in the morning sky, it may take more doing to fool birds into coming into your spread. One useful technique is calling, a method that Mallards respond extremely well to. Both mallard drake and hen calls are used, however the hen calls are the most common. The hen call resembles the classic “quack” that most people associate with ducks, whereas the drake call is more of a low humming sound. The amount of calling used usually makes or breaks the sequence. If a hunter calls too much, he is more likely to make a mistake or make the bird think something is wrong. There is no perfect sequence or rhythm, as hunters must learn to read the ducks reactions and adapt throughout the interaction.
The final step in the process is the shot. Ducks may circle the decoys several times, or simply dive bomb into the spread. No matter the approach, ducks must land into the wind. They use this opposing force in conjunction with the “cupping” of their wings to slow themselves down before they hit the water. Once they cup up, they are exceptionally vulnerable, as they are slowing down. Usually, there is one hunter calling the shot. When he or she thinks that birds are as close as they are going to get, they will signal for everyone to start shooting.
There is great debate among duck hunters as to what combination of shotguns and what shells are the most effective. As a general rule of thumb for mallards, hunters use semi-automatic 12 gauge shotguns paired with 3 or 3 ½ inch shells loaded with #2-#4 steel shot. Mallards are large, intelligent ducks, so this heavy shot size is needed to knock them down, especially when at a distance. Although it is much more expensive, non-toxic shot like steel or tungsten is required by law when hunting ducks. Finally, it is recommended that hunters use either modified or full chokes when hunting mallards, as this extends your effective killing range.
Those looking to hunt Mallards must purchase both a base license, a state waterfowl permit, and a federal duck stamp. Seasons vary depending on the state, but they typically begin in October or November and continue through the beginning of January in order to coincide with the fall migration.