In the world of waterfowl hunting, hunters in deep cover can create the illusion of a safe location that offers food and social contact for ducks. Deep cover waterfowl hunting means the total concealment of the hunter, blind, and watercraft.
This is done using natural or synthetic materials that blend completely with the environment. Ducks see no outlines of the hunter, as little as possible of a blind, and the surrounding cover meets their expectations.
Deep cover waterfowl hunting is both a technical challenge and a mind game. The technical aspect is choosing and using materials for personal and blind concealment. The mental game is about identifying and using deep cover effectively in the field and on the water, and creating the ultimate illusion.
Wariness will change
Most duck hunters are aware that different species of waterfowl vary in their basic wariness and response to hunting situations.
Mallards may seem more guarded than say, wigeons or ringnecks. The degree of wariness in all ducks will change with local conditions. These can include gunning pressure, weather, the physiological condition of the birds, and other variables. Mallards eventually become decoy and call shy. They remain vulnerable to hunting deceptions only during low-light periods at dawn and dusk, or when heavy weather first sets in.
Wariness will change over the season. Bright cold days, especially with an influx of new birds, will have mallards and blacks responding perilously to calling that has been ignored since opening day. Courtship urges coupled with youth can be a dangerous combination for drake mallards in the presence of hunters.
Adults more wary
Adults of all species are more wary than young of the year, having survived at least one hunting season. In contrast, young birds are still growing in the fall and are drawn to locations with the promise of food. Hunting tends to be much more difficult in years where few young birds are produced. Deep cover is especially critical to hunting success in years with fewer young birds. When decoys lack the vital element of motion every movement and lapse in your visual cover becomes apparent to the birds.
Wariness also depends on context, which is the way a duck interprets its world and the threats and opportunities in it. The same wary mallards that shun decoys and calling over water may cup wings to land directly among goose decoys in a cornfield. A primary motivation in a cornfield is food. The focus becomes safety when the birds return to the water.
Adaptable birds, such as mallards and blacks, have multiple options for avoiding hunters. They all begin with recognizing a threat and following it up with some form of avoidance behaviour. It might be flaring off from movement or bright faces beyond the decoys at 80 yards. Over time and gunshots, birds learn to recognize decoys. It allows them to tune out calling and shy away from obvious cover deceptions, like poorly made or positioned blinds.
Ducks are highly visual, relying on their keen vision to detect and avoid threats. Studies have shown that ducks pick up motion and can see details of a hunting situation up to 3.5 times farther away than humans. Ducks also see a wider range of colours and ultra-violet light. This means when hunters survey the paint job on decoys or how the colours on their blind blend into the surroundings, they likely see a far different image than the ducks.
Beyond vision, ducks also identify “hot” zones where hunters are prevalent and tend to avoid these locations in their daily travels. Ducks also use memory. They note the sudden appearance of a blind in an area they use and treat it with suspicion. Experienced birds don’t react well to surprises. They also watch other birds in flight and on the water, noting their reactions to threats while remaining at a distance. These birds may learn how to avoid hunters without directly experiencing a shooting situation.
Using deep cover
Hunters can’t change how mallards interpret their surroundings. They can however, use deep-cover options to diminish or negate negative responses.
Two qualities of cover stand out for ducks and the hunter. The first is the colour and pattern of the cover. The second is the material it is made of and how or where it’s applied.
Hunters know there are fewer horizontal than vertical lines in nature. The back of a deer will betray its presence against vertical lines of tall maples. For ducks, rectangles have become synonymous with hidden waterfowl hunters. Yet we build boxy rectangular blinds on shorelines and over water. Boat blinds, with their lower but well-defined horizontal topline, stand out in marshes. Add a few bobbing heads and the blind becomes reminiscent of a puppet booth.
Even layout boats in open water have low, boxy lines. This diminishes their effectiveness for all but the least-hunted and therefore most naive species, such as sea ducks, mergansers, and longtailed ducks.
Change colours with season
The ultimate challenge to achieving deep cover is hiding the top third of your body. Doing so allows you to watch for birds and call without betraying your presence. My objective is to bring birds into 25 to 40 yards, which makes doubles and clean kills possible with good shooting.
Cover colour needs to change with the season. Early greens predominate on the marsh before giving way to the washed-out tans of dried cattail, bulrushes, and wild rice in the late season. I use a heavy grade of green and brown army surplus camo netting on my boat blind. Doubled up to reduce visibility from the outside. I also sometimes use a cheap camouflage tarp, cut to fit on the blind frame inside the camo netting, to block the wind and rain. It can be a blessing during cold days. The opening along the top of the boat blind is adorned with cedar woven into one-inch chicken wire mesh form mats. I can hold this up with forked branches to use as overhead cover. I also use cedar mats and larger branches to break up the horizontal line along the top of the blind, giving it a more natural profile. This cover finishes the boat blind well and works best for mallards when the boat is buried in surrounding cover.
By late fall, my boat blind is made entirely of commercial grass panels. It’s a natural solution that serves to blend the blind in well with dead cattail, wild rice, and other vegetation. I still carry some cedar mats and branches for possible extra cover, depending on my backdrop. I use folded grass mats which stick up like natural cover to help break up the blind.
Natural is the best
The ultimate mallard cover deception is to dispense with blinds and boats altogether. Instead, hunt from locations on shore or in shallow, weed-filled backwaters where you can hide in natural cover.
With no boat or blind, there’s little to attract the attention of incoming birds, apart from your own movements and actions. I use light chest waders to kneel or sit in the water surrounded by natural cover in the early season. In mid to late fall I move up to fully insulated neoprene waders.
I might use a layout boat, which I can paddle like a kayak to access stump-filled backwaters. I still prefer to hunt standing in the available cover. Shooting from the layout restricts the hunter to a fairly narrow arc, so I leave the boat or layout a short distance from my shooting location. Birds seldom pay any attention to either. Usually, I will pull my jon boat into or against available cover but don’t set up the blind. Leaving it wide open for easy scrutiny by birds. I often use the flat front deck to hold camouflaged articles. These include my hunting bag, coffee, and other conveniences. I move only as far as necessary to find good cover in an adjacent shooting location. This might be as little as a few feet away. Birds seem to be momentarily distracted by the empty boat but not alarmed by it. They almost always fail to notice a motionless, well-camouflaged hunter tucked into dense cover nearby.
Overhead cover difficult
I used to hunt on a beach near Lake Ontario, hidden in cedar cover with a canoe sitting on the gravel less than 40 feet away. We used to turn the canoe over and put paddles under it, but we noticed over time that even this small effort was unnecessary. We took several limits of mallards there over the years. Occasionally we’d drop a bird into the fully exposed, upright canoe, sitting on the beach.
Overhead cover is difficult to achieve while hiding up to your butt in cattails. If there are willow bushes or other shrubs, try to tuck in beside them. Cattail locations usually have a thick mat of old cattail at water level that will support the weight of a hunter. When accessing this dense mat, I always test the depth under the cattails to solid bottom. I also recommend wearing a life jacket and carrying a walking stick in case you slide through the mat. The tricky part about dancing on cattail mats is making a safe transition from your boat to the mat. Once on the mat, stick to the same trail and be sure to set up with good visual cover downwind and in front of you, where you expect most birds to approach. Enter the “blind” from behind and always in the same way to avoid crushing the cover.
Covert operations can fool wary mallards if you pay attention to detail and take the extra steps to locate good cover. When the mallard hunting gets tough, deep cover delivers duck dividends long after folks depending on luck have gone home.
Originally published in the Fall 2017 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine