In icy darkness, the guide maneuvered the 16-foot War Eagle aluminum boat through towering timbers of a Mississippi River backwater. Giant cypress trees festooned with Spanish moss rose like hairy skeletons from the inky, frigid swamps.
"Sometimes, we can't even get the boat up in here," said David McEacharn, a duck guide from Southern Wings Plantation in Delhi, La. "The river is rising. It must have come up four feet since yesterday."
McEacharn skillfully eased the boat between immense trees and through flooded brush. Occasionally, the boat tilted as it pushed over a submerged cypress knee or stump hidden by darkness.
"We should get some wood ducks at first light and then some mallards," he said.
McEacharn selected a pothole deep in the familiar flooded swamps, barely a wide spot between trees. Surrounded by tall timbers and thick brush, he chose this spot to throw out a few decoys with the help of Mike Caruthers of Caruthers Marine in Vicksburg, Miss.
A Bitterly Cold January Morning
On this bitterly cold, overcast January morning, we placed only about a half dozen decoys in the pothole. More would have surely filled this tiny opening, not allowing ducks to land.
"Hunters don't need many decoys in flooded timber," McEacharn explained. "A flooded timber set may take a couple dozen decoys early in the season or just a few in late season. After the halfway point in the season, we always cutback on the number of decoys because birds become decoy shy. Sometimes, we use a dozen decoys, sometimes only five or six."
With that task completed, we secured the boat against some brush and erected the blind. McEacharn stretched Army camouflaged netting over a rigid pyramid-like aluminum frame to completely cover the boat and motor. Panels on either side came up like a tent. When ducks appeared, he dropped one panel to permit firing.
"The blind is the key to river hunting," Caruthers added. "When ducks come in range, we drop one side and shoot. Nets are tough and even when going through saplings or flooded brush, we can't tear them up."
Still well before shooting hours, we waited in ambush for ducks to appear. Unseen swamp denizens began awaking with all manners of creaks, squeaks and twitters. Even before shooting hours began, we could hear unseen wood ducks whistling through the trees, calling to each other behind us. Barely seen because of the overhanging trees, the eastern sky softened to a pale pink. Occasionally, dark-whistling blurs silhouetted against lightening clouds raced overhead to places only they knew. Wisps of pallid fog rose in spirals from frosted ebony water. A shiver, not one caused by cold, but anticipation, danced up my spine. In a few more minutes and we could legally fire.
Wood Ducks Appear
Wood ducks fly at first light, sometimes before first light. Several flocks of wood ducks came over us unexpectedly in the dim light as shooting hours began. We tracked pairs and singles through the trees where they flew through the darkness as if guided by radar. Some crash-landed into thick brush near the blind. They land where they want to land and don't need much open space.
"Typically, mallards don't land in cover that's too thick, not like a wood duck," McEacharn said. "A wood duck is a kamikaze; he'll land anywhere he wants to, thick, thin or wherever. Mallards are afraid of predators in thick cover and typically land in a more open area where they can see. They will go down in a fairly thick area, but most of the time, during windy, cold days, they'll land in the open and swim into thickets."
Finally, a flock of the swift, handsome birds materialized to the right. Briefly, they dipped below the treeline to check out the plastic visitors invading their swamp. Beyond the decoys over the opposite end of the pothole, they kicked in afterburners as we reacted. One striking drake tumbled from the group, hitting with a thud in heavy cover at the sound of gunfire. We waited for more.
"Mallards typically fly a little later, usually between 8 a.m. to 10 a.m.," McEacharn said. "They like to see where they are going and to see into the cover under the trees. My ideal day to kill mallards in flooded timber would be cold in the 20s, clear and bluebird bright."
Mallards Pass Close By
As the sun rose, several mallards passed tantalizingly close, but always just out of range. McEacharn worked his call to attract them. They circled and circled as we waited anxiously beneath the camouflaged netting. Wary after months of living as targets, they didn't quite commit to landing. Many others whistled around or behind us unseen in this thick cover. In this high-water situation, ducks could land anywhere in the flooded swamps.
"Hunting mainly flooded timber, we may not call as loud or as often," the guide said. "Even though it is late season, depending upon the weather, we could still have fresh birds in the area. We mix in a combination of calls. We mix in a widgeon whistle or pintail whistle. We also mix in low tones of a mallard drake. Use that when birds fly overhead. A feed call is a very effective call if hunting a feeding area such as a rice field or marsh, but in flooded timber, they are coming into backwaters to rest, not to feed."
Without warning, a broad-winged pair shot over our heads at blinding speed less than 20 feet above us. They took us all by surprise in the limited visibility cover. Mike managed a quick shot over his head and brought down a greenhead.
After seeing ducks land in other potholes, we packed up, cranked up the 40-horsepower Mariner outboard and headed to other honeyholes. Hunting from a self-contained boat equipped with a built-in blind allows hunters excellent mobility. Within minutes, we picked up the decoys and headed to other duck holes. Within minutes of stopping, we had the decoys arranged again and resumed scanning the skies for more greenheads.
"Hunting out of a boat is comfortable," Caruthers said. "We have to be mobile when hunting river ducks. We can get up and move to find ducks and set up in a few minutes. Because we can move easily, ducks don't get used to seeing blinds. We can keep up with the birds as they move up and down the river."
Some spots produced action, others only anticipation. Before noon, we bagged two greenheads, some gadwalls and one drake wood duck. Being selective, we passed on several opportunities, waiting for birds to flutter into the spread in a landing attempt.
Please read more in Part 2.