Have ever put your heart and soul into setting up the perfect duck blind and decoy spread only to find the that the ducks had ‘flown the coop’ just before you started hunting them? Did you make a mistake or was it something more innate to the ducks?
By Jay W. Anglin
My duck lease was void of the one thing most important to hunting success: ducks. Only a few days prior it was been teeming with birds, and I thought I had hit the jackpot. The day before I planned to hunt it, the birds disappeared. What happened?
Ducks baffle hunters when they vanish for no apparent reason. Lots of things cause birds to vacate, but areas with high hunting pressure are more prone to end up in the duck doldrums. To make matters worse, when new ducks migrate into the area, they often quickly fall in line with birds that have been pressured into lockdown mode, and they all end up avoiding places that pose potential trouble. Advantage, ducks.
In these situations, experienced hunters switch to rapid-strike special-ops mode. They carry less, move fast, and get back into where those birds are hiding.
Whether you are dealing with stale ducks during a mid-season lull in migration, or sketchy birds that have been impacted by something more sinister—such as a trespasser—just because you aren’t seeing them, doesn’t mean they aren’t around. Though they will often eventually return to the best spots, there is no reason to stop hunting when there are birds likely right under your nose nearby.
Scouting is always important to success, but when pursuing game that can fly away and vanish into the vast countryside, it’s even more critical. Ducks don’t need much to make a living; some water, a decent food source and some security from predators and inclement weather is about all it takes. Tiny water holes and hidden backwaters that are plentiful throughout duck country will almost always hold birds that bomb in like they own it. Advantage, hunter.
Circumstances such as temporary sheet water in fields, flooded woodlots and beaver-dammed creeks and ditches typically don’t last long. Food sources disappear. Water dries up. If nothing else, ice may lock the birds out quickly if the mercury drops below freezing. Then again, a wide spot in a creek or a spring-fed ditch that stays open during frigid weather may offer the best hunting opportunity of the season.
Given the right conditions, many of these spots will attract waterfowl year after year. While they don’t always amount to slam dunk hunts, these hidden treasures do allow us to strip away a lot of the laborious and time-consuming logistics associated with big water and field hunts. Advantage, hunter.
Savvy hunters know they need to kick it into high gear and capitalize on these waterfowling gems as soon as possible. When playing small ball with ducks, there are some important things to consider.
Small Ball Logistics
- Scouting is key, skip a hunt and follow birds from A to B. Have your binoculars ready and use Google Earth to narrow down possibilities quickly. If you don’t know the road grid, use a Gazeteer or the mapping app on smartphones to find your way around. You’ll likely have to cover ground efficiently to keep eyes on the birds.
- Use plat books, Beacon (beacon.schneidercorp.com), the onX Hunt smartphone app or good old-fashioned door knocks to track down landowners and gain permission.
- Scout and follow-up with landowners quickly, it’s very likely another hunter has noticed the birds too.
- Be sure to ask questions. Small, ducky spots are often isolated and difficult to get to. Ask where you can and can’t go. What lanes are drivable and where to park, etcetera.
- Make sure you’re not going to interfere with other hunters using the property (or the property immediately adjacent for that matter). Nothing will ruin a morning quicker than a guy screaming from a nearby tree stand. This goes for both parties.
- Don’t invite the entire crew. Think fast and light with a smaller footprint. This isn’t the time for a mega-shoot.
- Off-the-beaten-path duck hunts require few resources. The attraction is already there, so birds don’t need a ton of coaxing. Strip your kit down to the bare minimum.
- Don’t get carried away with decoys. Rather, take a half-dozen or so of the most realistic decoys available in multiple poses. Decoys like Avian-X’s Topflight Backwater Mallards and Topflight Preener/Sleeper Mallards maximize realism and are ideal choices.
- Don’t overcrowd what little water is exposed so the real birds have plenty of space to attempt to land.
- If the water is filled with vegetation or extremely shallow, consider removing the anchors from decoys to lighten your load, especially if it’s a long hike.
- Make sure the majority of decoys are clean drakes, they pop better so ducks see them quicker.
- If water depth allows, wear knee boots for ease of walking and to avoid wear and tear on waders.
- Skip the spinning wing decoys in most cases. Birds are coming straight to the spot and spinners are cumbersome to carry.
- Some of these secluded spots offer enough cover to hide a hunter or two but don’t smash it down or you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
- A blind may be necessary, especially in open fields with sheet water. Carry a single portable blind such as a lightweight, which can comfortably conceal multiple hunters and sets-up quickly.
- Use open chokes and carry minimal ammo with smaller shot sizes such as steel 6s and 4s (This is also a great opportunity to use lighter gauge shotguns.)
- Bring a bird strap; you’re going to need it.
- Pick up spent shells – leave no trace!
Small duck spots can provide the best gunning of the year, so don’t wait; do your homework and take care of business. When my expensive duck lease was void of birds, I didn’t sit around crying about it. The next morning, I followed a handful of birds to a tiny water hole a mile away that–until that moment–I had no idea existed. A quick phone call later, and I was in. The next morning, my boys and I made it home with full straps before the rest of the Anglin clan got out of bed.