Target acquired: Everything you need to know to hunt mallards
By M.D. Johnson
Ask any group of duck hunters from Washington state to Maryland what species is their favorite to chase, and chances are 95% of them will answer “mallards.” And with good reason.
Mallards or, in Latin, Anas platyrhynchos, are big, sturdy birds. Males, aka greenheads, tip the scales at up to three pounds; females, often called “Suzies” or simply “hens,” weigh in at two to two and one-half ticks.
With their iridescent green heads and black rumps adorned with a pair of sharply curled feathers, the drakes are unmistakable. Hens, like many females in the waterfowl world, are a drab brown — a rather blank canvas broken by a shimmering blue speculum bordered top and bottom by white. It’s an identifying mark shared by both sexes.
The most widely distributed of our North American wildfowl species, mallards can be found in good to excellent numbers in all four flyways; another reason they’re favored by ’fowlers nationwide. Mallards are hardy rogues, too, often remaining far north as long as they can find feed and open water.
The habitat (early season hotspots)
Opening day, mallards are typically locally raised birds — ducks that know the area and have a regular day-to-day routine.
With few exceptions, opening day across the U.S. comes with relatively mild weather, meaning there’s no great need for mallards, or any other species for that matter, to feed heavily. That said, early season hotspots are loafing spots. This translates into farm ponds, slow-water creek sections or the quiet corner of a larger marsh complex.
Once the gunfire begins, look for small flocks of these locals hiding out on unfamiliar waters (e.g., pasture ponds, secluded beaver pools or tiny backwater bays on the edges of major impoundments). And for gunners on the coasts looking to hunt mallards, don’t overlook the salt marshes.
Some may argue, but fooling early season mallards doesn’t compare to stumping Einstein on the subject of relativity. More important to success than decoys is scouting and, ultimately, location.
Still, plastic ducks do play a role. Spinning wing decoys, electronic or muscle-powered, can be extremely effective with these young-of-the-year birds. Stick one in an early-cut silage (corn) field, and it becomes a downright deadly addition to any spread. As for the decoys themselves, a dozen mallard fakes, with an emphasis on drab pre-color hens, will typically suffice — especially on small waters. Add two or three Canada goose floaters for confidence and long-range visibility, or in the event a parcel of September honkers invades your airspace. And a jerk cord; never leave home without one.
There’s no denying it; when you want to hunt mallards, mallard sounds attract mallards. But to give these birds something different to listen and — hopefully — respond to, try throwing a series of contented quacks at a passing flock with a new-on-the-scene call like Slayer’s innovative DUBAR single or double reed or their ultra-loud, user-friendly Whistler’s Mother 4-in-1 whistle.
Savvy callers save the volume and aggressiveness for later in the season, opting instead for subtle highballs, quacks and feeding chuckles, combined with simply being in the right place.
Gunners should go light during the early season, even when looking to hunt mallards specifically. A 2-3/4-inch 12-gauge hull packing 1-1/8-ounce of Hevi-Metal #4s at 1500 FPS is plenty for lightly feathered birds.
Expect geese? Three-inchers throwing 1-1/4-ounces of Hevi-Metal #2 will pull double duty, whether the target be greenheads or ganders.