February 05, 2016

Field Staff National Field Staff Iowa - Matt Leonard, NFS
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Iowa - Matt Leonard, NFS

iowa-matt-leonard-sunset-big-duck-strapPlease welcome Matt Leonard who was born and raised in southeast Iowa.

He grew up hunting mallards and Canada geese on the Des Moines River.

Now he does most of his hunting on the Chariton River around Lake Rathbun, but when the weather freezes the shallow water, he heads back to the Des Moines River.

The water there doesn't freeze up until about mid January, usually after the season has closed.

He killed his first duck at six years old and has been addicted to waterfowling ever since.

Matt says he hasn’t killed a lot of banded birds, ten ducks and eight geese, but he makes up for it by decoying birds close and making clean kills. That’s the way he was taught by his father and it’s just the way he does things in his blinds.

Give Matt a big welcome. We love his style.

First Birds

The first duck that I killed was a mallard hen on the Des Moines River, near Ottumwa, Iowa. I was 6 years old. It seems like a long time ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was hunting with my dad and brother from my dad’s boat blind, not far from our house. My brother had just killed a drake mallard out of a pair, when a single hen lit into the decoys. My dad handed me my grandfather’s 20 gauge shotgun, an old Winchester pump, and loaded one shell into the chamber. I slowly raised the gun up and out of the boat blind, slid the safety off and killed that mallard hen. I will never forget the look in my dad’s eyes after that shot. I think he was more surprised that I killed her than I was. That day was the day that waterfowling became my addiction.

The first goose, however, came much later. I had just turned 18 and was hunting with a couple of friends from town. We were hunting in Northern Iowa during the early goose season on Little Swan Lake near Ruthvan, Iowa. We drove for six hours overnight to hunt geese, and with no trailer lights to boot.

Back then, we hunted over a junkyard of decoys. Quantity over quality used to be our motto. We had 50 to 60 goose decoys crammed into a 16 foot jon boat. About halfway across the lake, with the wind blowing about 40 mph, the motor died. After a tense moment, we finally got the motor re-fired and navigated to the spot where we were going to set up. We got our geese in a hurry that day! Out of the first group that decoyed, I killed a Canada goose and was very excited. I don’t think I told the guys at that time that it was my very first goose. It’s tough enough being the new guy in the boat. I’m sure you all know what I mean.

Hellwater Band

It was the fall of 1996. We were hunting a public area near Lake Rathbun called Goodwater Marsh. It was cold that morning and the area had developed some skim ice. After we busted up the ice, we set our decoys.

Not much was happening that morning. There were plenty of ducks mind you, but we were having trouble finishing them due to no wind. My dad had noticed a few flocks of mallards working the river and we thought that’s where they were landing.

I grabbed five decoys and left the rest on the bank hidden in the weeds. We began the long hike to where my dad had spotted the ducks. It was one of the worst walks I had ever made. The weeds were well over our heads.

When we got to within about 200 yards from the river’s edge, the ducks began to lift from about a five acre pothole. It was a few at first, and then about 500 to 600 mallards. I wouldn't have even thought of bumping them out of there if I had known that many were sitting on the water. In that situation, I would have rather had the birds leave on their own, and then made my move to set up.

But as luck would have it, they came back in full force.

There was only one dead tree on the west bank to hide behind. So being the young kid, hunting with his old man, I chose the side with the sun right in my eyes. Not my favorite way to set up.

We waited about 20 minutes, and then the ducks began to work back into the pothole. The first flock of about 25 birds caught us a little off guard. They were just about to sit down on the water when I saw them. I only got one shot off because they had decoyed right in front of the sun. It was more of a “Hail Mary” shot than anything else.

Luckily, I dropped a drake mallard. And it was banded too. All my dad said was, "It’s about time.”

We finished up the day with eight drake mallards, one green-wing teal and a ringneck . Not full limits, but one heck of a day. After the hunt, my dad re-named the spot “Hellwater”, because that’s what you have to go through to get there.

In the end, if you put in the time, effort, and go the extra mile, good things will happen.

Hunting Preferences and Techniques

I have been hunting for  about 17 years. In that figure, I only count the years that I have been making my own decisions in the field. I have actually been hunting with my dad and brother for as long as I can remember. We typically hunt public ground, but on occasion we are found on private property in our blinds on the Chariton River on our friend’s land. He has approximately 1200 acres of WRP (Wetlands Restoration Program) land.

I consider myself a dedicated waterfowler and I’m always trying to find ways to get my birds closer.

I can’t say that we have one specific way of hunting that we use day in and day out. We normally let the birds tell us what to do.

We primarily use a small spread of decoys when we hunt mallards. We like to set our decoys very tightly like feeding mallards, with soft calling, clean decoys and good camouflage.

Absolutely no spinners. I’m not going to say that I have never used them before, as I have, and have had very good success with them. Their use has turned guys that have never killed any ducks into duck hunters, which is a very good thing for the sport of waterfowling. Spinners are a tool for people to use, but I feel they are helping to kill too many young birds. Another reason that I don’t use a spinner is because we do a lot of walk-in hunting and they tend to be a burden when hiking for over an hour to a hunting spot.

Also, I don’t like to hunt the same spot two days in a row. A waterfowler has too many options, whether it’s hunting from a boat blind, layout boat, ground blind, or hugging a tree. You have to keep an open mind when hunting because it’s too easy to fall into a rut. Don’t become a creature of habit.

The reason I like to hunt is to just get away from all the day to day things and just be the person that I feel like I was born to be. It’s the morning air, the people that I have met, the sound of a mallard’s wings cutting the air, and the passing of knowledge to my children that make it so rewarding. Shooting, it’s just the bonus.

Earthquake in Arkansas

Duck and goose hunters, like all hunters, have stories. Some are funny and some are about the massacre. I have a lot of stories to tell. Some good and some that aren’t worth telling again. All are memorable to me!

One of my favorite stories is about a trip that my hunting buddy, Chuck Craver, and I took to Arkansas a couple of years ago. We were hunting with a good friend of ours, Pat Pitt, at his club. It was early in the afternoon on the last day of our trip. That morning it was frozen up and not much was going on so we headed back to the camp house for some breakfast. Afterwards, we sat around watching TV and getting things packed up from our week-long hunting trip.

After lunch, Pat said we needed to go for a drive. It was not typical for us to hunt in the afternoon. We had been scouting for a while when I spotted a large flock of mallards working over his blinds. We got our gear ready and headed toward the pit. As we approached, the ground began to shake. There were thousands of mallards in the field, as well as pintail, widgeon, gadwall, and green-wing teal. We weren’t even able to settle into the pit before the birds started working back in. We had a few things in our favor that afternoon, the wind and the sun at our backs, and thousands of ducks working above us. Not a bad combination.

The birds were hanging over the decoys when we picked our shots, and as quickly as it started, it was all over. It was a great afternoon to be in the field. Good shooting, good friends and two straps full of ducks. We ended up with 12 drake mallards, three drake pintail, two gadwall, and one widgeon. Not a bad day, but I still haven’t lived down the ten yard drake pintail I missed though, and probably never will.

Geese on the Move

One of my favorite goose hunting stories is when we were hunting about six miles up the Des Moines River from Ottumwa on a sand bar. It had just snowed the night before and the geese had not made it to us yet. It was cold that morning with the wind blowing out of the north, hard, probably about 25 to 30 mph. If it was going to happen, it was going to be today. The conditions were perfect.

The first part of the morning was pretty slow. We only had a handful of ducks in the boat when the geese started to move out of the north in big migrating bunches. It was a good thing that we brought a boat load of decoys because we were going to need them.

The geese that day were flying high and on a mission southward, but they wanted the call. Every bunch we shot that morning was hanging over the decoys. We had five guys in the boat with us that day and we made quick work of the geese, pretty easy to do when they were in your face at 20 yards. We wrapped up the day with ten Canada geese and four ducks.

The next day there was an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 geese on the river. Great hunting was had until the end of the season.

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