In icy darkness, David McEacharn maneuvered the 16-foot aluminum boat through towering timbers lining a river backwater.
"We should get some wood ducks at first light and then mallards," said McEacharn, a duck guide from Southern Wings Plantation in Delhi, Louisiana.
He stopped in a pothole, barely a wide spot between trees, deep in the swamp. On this bitterly cold, January morning, we placed only about a half dozen decoys in the pothole.
"Hunters don't need many decoys in flooded timber," the guide 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 cut back on the number of decoys because birds become decoy shy. Sometimes, we use a dozen decoys, sometimes only five or six."
With decoys set, we secured the boat against some brush. McEacharn stretched Army camouflaged netting over a rigid aluminum frame to cover the boat and motor completely. Panels on either side came up like a tent. When ducks appeared, he dropped one panel to permit firing.
As the sun rose, several mallards passed tantalizingly close, but always just out of range. McEacharn worked his call. The mallards circled as we waited anxiously beneath camouflaged netting. Wary after months of living as targets, they didn't quite commit to landing. Others whistled around or behind us unseen in thick cover.
After seeing ducks land elsewhere, we packed up, cranked up the outboard and headed to other potholes. Hunting from a self-contained boat equipped with a built-in blind gave us excellent mobility. Within minutes, we scanned the skies above the decoys in a new honeyhole.
In states with limited marshland, hunters must look for ducks under trees. Numerous forested potholes, rivers, creeks, lakes and swamps provide excellent waterfowl gunning. However, in thick flooded forests, hunters must search for ducks that can land anywhere. Ducks appear and disappear quickly as water levels and conditions change. Flooded timber hunters must remain mobile and adaptable.
"Hunters must do their scouting," McEacharn said. "Scouting is the number one tip. Scout before the season and during the season. If you have the option of moving, do it, but stay where the ducks are."
The three variables that move birds are food availability, water levels and weather. Ducks go where they can land, eat and feel safe. They don't always land in flooded timber to feed. Often, they feed in nearby crop fields and land in flooded timber to hide and rest. However, swamps do offer some food sources.
"Acorns and small pecans are excellent food sources for ducks," McEacharn said. "If you have an area with flooded oaks, move into it because birds feed on acorns if the water is shallow."
Most river hunters prefer low water conditions, which concentrate birds into smaller areas. Low water may force hunters to set up blinds along major waterways or lakes instead of in backwaters and oxbows, which may not contain sufficient water.
"Water level means everything to ducks on a river," McEacharn explained. "Puddle ducks like three feet of water or less so they can feed. Sometimes birds feed in the shallows, but they go to deeper water for resting and preening. Birds may land in deep water and swim back into the shallows if the shallows are too thick for them to land."
Weather dictates waterfowl activity. Mallards head toward flooded timber on bright days because they can see what lurks beneath the trees. Extremely cold weather could send ducks to rivers where currents break up ice and keep the surface from freezing.
While people can hunt flooded timber from boats, sportsmen may prefer to hunt on foot. Creek bottoms and secluded forest ponds offer outstanding gunning for wood ducks and mallards. Hunters can hide among the trees, often without decoys.
Some sportsmen use boats to reach hunting areas and then slosh through shallow water to hunt. They hide their boats a hundred yards or so from their stands. Sometimes, birds see the boats and veer off, hopefully putting themselves directly over hidden hunters. Sprinkle a few magnum decoys between trees. Occasionally splashing or gently kicking the water adds a little realistic animation to decoys and simulates the sounds of ducks feeding or landing.
John N. Felsher is an award winning outdoor writer for a number of national publications and the outdoor's editor for the Lake Charles, La. American Press.