Welcome to the Duck Lore Breakdown, an article series that corresponds with each episode of Duck Lore. In these articles, we’re going a layer deeper than the show, and we’ll go through the weather and hunt conditions, the target species and their environment, as well as episode-specific gear that we used and the technology behind some of that gear.
Duck Lore Season 1 Episode 6: Kansas
The Target Species The target species on this hunt was the mighty mallard. Kansas is a wintering ground stop for a lot of greenheads in the Central Flyway. It’s widely considered one of the best states for mallard harvest, with the birds accounting for third of the state’s total duck harvest in 2020.
Mallards are both the most prevalent duck in North America and the most hunted. They make up the bulk of the duck harvest in many states. They're so successful because they’re so adaptable; from a park in New York City to an irrigation ditch in Washington, they’ll find somewhere to nest and raise their young.
Part of that adaptation to the modern world has been their adaptation to agriculture. Over the years, humans have drained more than half of Kansas’ wetlands and replaced them with corn, wheat, and sorghum. That brutal loss of habitat has affected all ducks, but some less than others. Mallards have adapted to roosting on the large reservoirs, rivers, and even creeks throughout the U.S. and have taken to “dry field” feeding. In Kansas, you’re more likely to find mallards feeding in a corn field than a wetland nowadays.
But this year, those Kansas mallards weren’t in the cards for me personally, as I came down with COVID-19 the day before Ryan Callaghan and Seth Morris’ arrival. Unfortunately for me, Kace and I had to quarantine in the confines of my truck and bedroom while Snort, Cal, and Seth tried their hand at these green-headed beauties.
The Status of the Migration Usually in the first week of December, North and South Dakota’s lakes and wetlands are frozen solid and the majority of the mallards are working their way south through Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, and Arkansas. This season, the migration was behind schedule. Unseasonably warm temperatures spread across the Midwest. It was in the mid 50s in Brookings, South Dakota, the same week, a sharp contrast to the usual ice and snow.
Hunt 1 Weather Conditions Wind: SW @ 5-10 mph Sunny High temp: 68 Low temp: 36
Hunt Notes This morning there were some sights to be seen. What seemed like most of the roost got up and flew to a little pond right at first light and circled no less than 10 times. You couldn’t help but think that with more appropriate weather these birds would have dumped right in. Nonetheless, Cal and Seth were able to scratch out five beautiful mallards in two flocks. The rest went back to the roost and sat. Much to Cal and Seth’s chagrin, those ducks wouldn’t leave that roost during legal shooting hours for another four days.
Hunt 2 Weather Conditions Wind: SW @ 0-5 mph Sunny High temp: 76 Low temp: 38
Hunt Notes Last night, Cal and Seth scouted for fresh ducks but found nothing of the sort. They even checked out a list of spots I had recommended. There was no shortage of ducks; the problem was they were all content to sit on their refuges sunbathing, waiting to feed by moonlight. However, there were a few hundred mallards and goldeneyes using a nearby public area, which was the only real option for any success. The guys hunted there this morning but had no luck. Cal even called me to ask about changing the show name, because the ducks weren’t cooperating, and the pheasants were cackling all around. Damn the weather.
Hunt 3 Weather Conditions Wind: N @ 15-20 mph Sunny High temp: 68 Low temp: 38
Hunt Notes Once again, the guys spent a whole day scouting. But there just weren’t any birds to decoy since they were all nocturnal and sat tight during the daylight hours. Cal and Seth wanted to go home with at least a few more birds, so they changed strategies and spent all day jumpshooting. It was a perfect day for it—strong winds and warm weather had the ducks tucked up tight against shorelines. After calling a few landowners that had duck-laden ponds, Seth and Cal got a good look at the water through binoculars from nearby hills. Then they planned their approach and started the sneak from down below the dam. When they popped up over the dam, there was a mixed bag of at least 40 ducks in range. The guys did their part and killed five ducks on their best jump—two gadwall, a mallard, a bufflehead, and a ringneck. Don’t call it a comeback.
The Gear Breakdown
onX Hunt The most important piece of gear on this hunt was actually software. The public hunting areas we had planned to use for most of this trip just weren’t an option; the birds were on the refuge portions of the lakes, they were nocturnal, and just weren’t killable. So we took to knocking on doors for private land access instead. We hunted three private land spots; the transition pond and two jump shooting spots. We gained access to all three because of onXmaps. This is fundamentally my most used piece of equipment for freelance waterfowl hunting.
Also, let that be a reminder that ranchers and farmers and outdoors people should all be friends and work together on keeping North America’s wild places in great condition. Treat the land and the people with great respect and care. Consider this a huge thanks to the ranchers who trusted us to hunt their land.
First Lite - Casting Stripes It’s no secret that concealment is essential for hunting waterfowl. On the first hunt of this trip, Callaghan and Seth found themselves hiding in a wall of phragmites that perfectly matched the Typha pattern. For Cal running his dog Snort, this level of breakup could have posed problems. Instead, it gave us a great opportunity to see the First Lite casting stripes in action.
For those unfamiliar, “casting” is the term for directing your dog with hand and arm signals towards a downed bird. The problem to overcome is this: when you’re wearing a camouflage meant to hide you and you're standing against a marshy backdrop, it can be hard for the dog to see your directions, especially at longer distances. I’ve seen it many times; the handler gives a direction, and the dog sits with a blank stare as though they never saw the arm even move.
This idea behind First Lite’s casting stripe is simple yet novel. The casting stripe on the underarm of the jacket is hidden from view when birds are overhead and your arms are down but provides great contrast when your arms are out and your gundog needs a signal.
Federal Premium MeatEater Bismuth Ammunition Cal and Seth both shot Federal Premium Bismuth 3-inch #4 shot 1 3/8-ounce loads. When the ducks are decoying great and you’re shooting them up, ammo doesn’t seem to matter that much. But on hunts like this, when you’re taking advantage of every single shot you can get, it matters a lot. With first two flocks of the first day, the guys took sliding shots on ducks about 25 to 30 yards up. This is far from ideal, but they knocked birds down. Once you shoot this load, you realize how just specialized and high-performing a shotgun shell can be. Oh, and Cal used it for his pheasant too.
Lucky Duck Lucky HD I can hook this spinning-wing decoy to a remote control, and it has nice realistic size and visibility. This is my go-to spinner.
Lucky Duck Agitator HD A must-have for no-wind days. It splashes water all over the place and creates great ripples.
Dakota Decoy Collapsible Mallards These decoys aren’t just great for walk-in hunts, they’re great for light wind days. Because they’re less than half the weight of a normal decoy, they move in light winds a lot better than most.
Vortex Razor 10x42 Binoculars You simply can’t go duck hunting, or scouting for that matter, without a great pair of binoculars. Being able to see ponds from a distance is helpful when you’re trying to get on a good jump shoot.
Weatherby Tungsten Element 12-gauge Shotgun At this point we were three months into a rigorous waterfowl season, and these shotguns kept going bang. While they didn’t get a huge workout this week, I continued to be impressed with how you could put this shotgun into anyone’s hands and they’d feel comfortable with it.
FHF Chest Rig From scouting and holding binoculars to carrying spare shells on a jump shoot, the chest rig is something every duck hunter must try. I’ve used mine for everything from camera batteries to dog training in the spring.