Mallards suddenly appeared — mysteriously and seemingly out of nowhere — and begin to fly around the waterhole dotted with molded plastic representatives of themselves.
Each circular pass narrowed and the flight-level lowered, much like a funnel, until the wing beats were clearly audible through the chilled, thick air, and the ducks were just above gun range.
The birds made one last circle, cupped and committed to the decoys with a breast-first attitude.
The guide lowered his call and began whispering to his hunters.
“Don’t move; don’t move; don’t look up,” he cautioned.
The lead duck was just above the water when its wings started working in reverse, and the guide called the shot.
“Now! Take ’em boys,” he shouted.
Duck hunters live for those moments, but they rarely get them without either forking over big bucks to hire a guide or putting forth a whole lot of work of their own.
Jacob Sartain, for one, enjoys the labor.
“Active duck management, in the way I approach it, we’re talking about a lifestyle,” said Sartain, a self-professed duck nut from Madison. “You decide, ‘I’m a duck hunter and I’m going to do it, even if it’s a year-round deal’ — and that’s exactly what it is. Intense duck management is a year-round effort.
“I did it. I realized I was a duck hunter. I’m a waterfowler. It’s not just who I am or what I do; it is what I am. I don’t play golf. I don’t have other hobbies. I enjoy the work, from the last day of one season to the first day of the next and beyond.”
The bottom line, Sartain said, is simple.
“You have to be willing to make that commitment or to hire somebody to do it, or be satisfied with what you get naturally,” he said.
To help others get the most out of their duck seasons, Sartain agreed to share his duck management plan, which truly starts the day the previous season ends.
“There are four basic parts, beginning in the spring, which I consider the most crucial and involves planning, summer habitat maintenance, fall site preparation and then the winter hunting season,” Sartain said. “Even when the season is open, the work continues to refine the habitat.
“Work on the next season begins the day the preceding one closes: That’s when everything that happened that season is still fresh on your mind and you can log it.
“I keep a record of every hunt, such as weather conditions, duck numbers, kills, and what worked and what didn’t.”
There’s not much physical labor to do February through March, but it is important to leave the habitat in place.
“I make sure there is plenty of post-season habitat for the ducks, because it is important for ducks to imprint on their minds that this was a place where they could rest, feed and be secure,” Sartain said. “That includes ducks that are still residing here and ducks that come back here in the reverse migration back north.
“They are just like humans in how we will develop favorite places to stop when we travel — for fuel, food and even bathroom breaks. They are the same way; they imprint to places they feel comfortable.”
Sartain uses the previous year or years to begin formulating his plan for the coming year and next duck season. That includes which areas will be used for what purposes.
“Of your floodable acres, you want 20 percent in row crops, 50 percent in moist-soil grasses, 10 percent in roosting habitat and the remaining 20 percent in marginal open water for mixed-use habitat,” he said. “In February and March, you can evaluate which areas were productive and when. Your log from previous seasons should include things like, ‘We killed them standing against those trees in a south wind, and overcast skies.’”
Every little detail helps.
“The most important thing in planning is to let nature be your friend,” Sartain said. “When you sit down to map out your property for duck habitat, you look at the components you’re going to have, and then plan the habitat so that nature works for you and with you but not against you.
“Mapping out the property includes areas for moist-soil grasses, crops and roosting habitat.”
That last factor shouldn’t be ignored.
“A lot of people concentrate on food and water, and overlook the important roosting aspect,” Sartain said. “We’re talking about establishing an area where you can attract ducks into to spend the night, where you rarely, if ever, hunt.
“That’s important, because the way I look at it is that if I let them roost off my property, I have given them the opportunity to go elsewhere — and I’ve given somebody else the opportunity to kill them.”
All ducks, including woodies, roost on the water, and good roosting habitat includes a lot of vertical cover, including dense, tall (5 to 6 feet high) coffee weed and willow trees (10 to 20 feet). Flooded WRP and CRP fields can be ideal.
“That cover allows them to get low out of the wind and lock in their thermal temperature,” Sartain said. “I have two spots I can maintain roosts year after year, and I only hunt there rarely, like when I can get in and get out quick, like when we have a serious freeze and everything else is frozen out and we can get in, shoot a limit and get out without permanently ruining the sanctity of the roost.”
During the planning and after the ducks have left, Sartain keeps his eyes on nature and the habitat for a signal that it is time to remove the standing water from his duck holes.
“You need to be standing by to let Mother Nature tell you when it’s time to pull the water off,” he said. “You want to be planting duck holes in corn in May, but since duck habitat is wet or moist soil, you have to wait until it’s dry enough to plant.
“Usually in late April I am ready and looking at the forecast, and watching for a good week of dry weather ahead. When I see that, I go in and drop the water out as quickly as possible. A quick drop will leave the ground clean and ready to row up and plant.”
Land with a first-time corn crop will require more intensive work, like disking, but otherwise if it’s been drained properly it will be good to go.
Time for crops
Corn being a 120-day crop, Sartain times plantings to be mature in September.
“That means my window for planting corn is May 1-30, with the closer to May 1 the better,” he said. “(Soy b)eans I can plant as late as June, so I get a little bigger window. That works for a guy whose plan for corn didn’t work out: He can still move to beans in mid-June.
“Corn is better than beans, but beans are better than nothing. Corn will stay valid as a food source longer than beans.”
Once the row crops are planted, Sartain tends to them while keeping his eye on the rest of the habitat. He wants his moist soil areas ready to be turned into mud flats by Aug. 1, and that means maintaining water on those areas through June and July.
“That’s very important,” Sartain said. “Moist soil is moist soil. If you want to push your yield on grasses, keep the soil moist; don’t let it dry. These grasses need moist soil.
“If you can’t control or maintain water on your property, then just keep it boarded up (dammed) and let Mother Nature try to keep it moist.”
Time for grasses
On Aug. 1, Sartain turns his attention to grasses, which he considers moist-soil crops. They include barnyard grass, Pennsylvania smartweed, flat sedge, chufa sedge, sprangletop, duck potato and tooth cup.
“Grasses are a 60-day crop, and I want them to peak in October,” he said. “That means I need them planted around Aug. 1. As soon as the crop makes, and I can walk in and see the seeds are ready, then I go and put the water right back on it.
“By Halloween, I want that moist-soil habitat flooded and ready for ducks. I always get my first ducks around Halloween, and I know I am going to get them in November: I want my moist soil ready.
“I want it be where when the ducks fly in and look down, they’re thinking, ‘Man that’s the best-looking spot I’ve seen yet; that’s where I’m going.’”
The finishing touches
Sartain said that, after his grasses are planted, he turns his attention to fine-tuning his habitat for the late summer and fall months.
It is a time to work on blinds, for instance, and any other project that requires your intrusion into the habitat.
“By Nov. 1, you want all the site work done so you can stay away and out of the area,” Sartain said. “Let the ducks start coming in, and be danged sure not to give them a reason to leave.”
Then it’s time to reap the benefits of work — but the job is not done.
From Nov. 1 through December, Sartain said it’s important to stagger flooding to create new food-rich habitat.
“If you’re in a group with hundreds and hundreds of acres, you don’t flood it all at once,” he said. “But if you are the average guy with a small amount of acres, you need to flood it all. By the time ducks start arriving in November, I have flooded my moist-soil habitat (grasses), with my (corn) still dry.
“The idea is to give the ducks the moist soil for the front end of the year, when that’s the kind of food they want and need. By time season opens — Thanksgiving — you want to have no less than 25 percent and up to 40 percent of the habitat flooded. From opening day to Christmas, you want to exceed 50 percent, and after that, flood it all.
“You want that fresh food later in the season. The colder it gets — January — that’s when the most ducks come in, and ducks, especially mallards, want the freshest food supply.”
Then it’s time to forget the work and concentrate on hunting.
“They No. 1 key that people need to understand is that there is no off-season,” Sartain said. “If you wait until summer, you’re too late. But failures can also come when people just don’t have time to stay with it. For instance, they make time to plant corn but then walk away from it, and it gets overrun with weeds. Another failure is not watching the moist-soil acres and letting them dry out.
“Active management is a lifestyle that requires a commitment and a lot of work, one season to the next.”
The benefit, for hard-core duck hunters, is that there is no true season, and the work can become just as pleasurable as the hunting experience.
“It’s year-round, and I love it,” Sartain said.
Editor’s note: Jacob Sartain is a partner in Sartain Heritage Properties, which deals in agriculture, timber and recreational land transactions. He is also owner of J. Sartain Development, a land development company that designs and manages property to fit the desires of the landowner.