Ducks Ain't Stupid, You Know!
September 24, 2010
Hunting ducks on public land requires some special considerations if you are going to be consistently successful. You may even have to leave home without your preconceptions -- and your decoys.
"How'd you do?" I asked.
He shook his head, eased the front of his overburdened cart down to rest against a patch of weeds, and then leaned forward against the handles. Pushing his hat back, he scrubbed a hand across his forehead before waving it back at the pond behind him.
"They were setting up on my decoys all morning," he lamented. "Make one pass high - then they'd flare off." The hunter shook his head again, leaning over his cart to poke at a robo duck nestled atop two dozen decoys. "Can't figure out why they wouldn't come in."
What went wrong for this hunter? Why does it happen so often on public shooting areas? Has this happened to you?
Only the ducks know for sure why they do what they do, but our ability to gather intelligence on them is increasing. What we do know is that consistent success typically comes to those who are stealthily patient and who can stay just as still as any other kind of predator.
HOW ABOUT BLINDS? Blinds work great on private clubs and to hide a big boat on open water. But there is a big difference between a submerged tank, a carefully brushed boat or permanent blind, and standing on a hummock of land surrounded by staked camouflage cloth in the middle of a public shooting area.
Each year, I watch hunters set up in the sweet spot of topnotch water only to flare ducks with their homemade blinds. With each passing hour, their lack of success makes them more animated; it's almost laughable to see their camo-capped heads clearly visible above the fabric, swiveling constantly in search of birds.
Here's where the picture comes together: no blind, good camouflage with limited movement, just a smattering of repainted decoys, and calling only when called upon. Photo by Marvin Bibby
When I was young it seemed I was always trying to build something that would help the hunting - a magic bullet that would improve my hunting success. Blinds, carts, decoy bags - I took a whack at each of them.
One season I decided that I needed to be totally hidden from a duck's prying eyes. I built a portable blind out of PCV pipe and burlap that looked like a cross between an igloo and an old-fashioned outhouse. It had so many connections I had to number each one to fit it together in the field. After a lot of practice in my driveway, I could put it up in 15 minutes.
In knee-deep water at 3 a.m., it didn't work nearly as well. An hour after daylight, blind finally erected, I sat huddled in the blasted thing, peering out through a narrow opening over a couple of dozen decoys. The ducks sailed right in. But they were gone before I could bring my gun to bear through the tangle of drop-down curtain covering the front.
In those days I was outfitted in surplus military garb of faded jungle green or khaki, with only an occasional camo pattern. All helped me blend with the background, but some kind of a blind was almost essential.
Times have changed. Pick up any hunting magazine and somewhere in it are advertisements showing camouflaged hunters almost invisible against brush, or tules or grass. These days there is a camo material that duplicates almost any feature found in nature, which leads me to one ultimate conclusion:
Blinds have become irrelevant.
DECOYS One of those battery-powered decoys whose wings either rotate or flap does not guarantee success. In fact, a robo duck may guarantee failure.
The spinning wings of a motorized decoy can indeed grab the attention of high-flying ducks. More often than not, however, those same moving wings will flare ducks long before they are in gun range, especially as the season progresses.
Even traditional decoy tactics present hunters have a double edge. Used correctly at the right time of the season, they can be effective; used incorrectly at the wrong time of the season, they are the kiss of death - especially so at well-used shooting areas on public land.
It does not take ducks long to have imprinted on their awareness that certain sections of favorite waters are dangerous, and that those drab plastic blocks are not really their friends.
So why use decoys?
Decoys do far more than attract ducks. They distract the duck's attention from the hunter in his hide. We need that distraction to focus a duck's eyes on something other than us as he makes his final swing before gliding to within effective range.
But that doesn't suggest large spreads, either. For close-in ducks, a large, uniformly painted decoy spread weakens this visual focus and provides a greater likelihood that some element of the spread will spell danger. Perhaps a pair will do.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION As with real estate, successful duck hunting is all about location. You have to go to where the ducks are or where they want to be.
On public land, ducks, especially big ducks such as mallards, will only work specific areas of specific ponds. As the season goes on and the weather becomes colder, ducks spend more daylight hours in search of calories. They work ponds or sections of ponds all day in singles and pairs, not in large flocks.
PAINT 'EM UP Seldom does a season go by that a hunter doesn't stop and ask to look at my decoys. Those who make this inspection are always amazed when I tell them that they are factory decoys - I've merely repainted them. What I fail to tell most such visitors is how simple this painting process is.
For standard plastic ducks, I like to use acrylic paint; the brands I like are Aqueous Hobby Color and Tamiya Color. Available at most model or hobby shops, both brands have a large selection of flat paints that blend well to yield the various shades of bills and body markings.
The iridescent head of the drake mallard requires some special attention. Use Aqueous' metallic gold as a solid base for the head; next, paint Tamiya or Aqueous clear blue and clear green over the base coat when it's still wet, and highlight it with black and violet after that dries. This combination yields a deep fluorescent blue-green and adds the depth, tint
s and colors of real feathers much better than just painting the head green will.
To deaden the gloss, use Coverite's Black Baron No. 9018 flat clear spray aerosol. This is great for all decoys - flattening the sheen/gloss while adding depth to the paints and protecting the colors for several years. A new coat can bring old paint to life.
For the foam bodies of brands like Featherflex, I use marking pens, as I have not found a paint that will stick to these shells for any length of time. The pens are easy to use, and the colors last about 10 trips out, after which they must be retouched - but you eliminate the peeling characteristic of factory latex paints.
For retouching, a black pen will suffice and takes only a few minutes. Again, on a drake mallard head, use a yellow pen; then go over that with a blue pen, finally adding several lines of black and purple to create shading and tones. Painted properly, a Featherflex head will have the iridescent sheen of a live mallard, while the softness of its foam creates the illusion of real feathers.
HUNTERS, SHOOTERS AND SOCIALITES Historically, one aspect of duck hunting has been that of a social activity, its epitome being found in the classic private duck-hunting club.
On public lands you will find socialites -interested as much in an outing with their friends as in the hunt - and shooters. Shooters typically walk the roads, checks and firing lines, measuring success by the number of shells expended rather than by the amount of game taken.
Then there are hunters. They are solitary predators in search of prey, and they are consistently successful. You see them, week in and week out, in parking lots and at check stations hefting straps loaded with mallards.
Socialites and shooters can be seen on most public shooting areas ensconced on a key pond almost any Saturday, shouting and laughing and shooting at birds well out of range on their first pass. Then they shoot again, only to claim the occasional cripple with shouted directions from friends left behind, standing in line on the nearest check. I always wonder why they even use duck calls.
If the ducks are so deaf that they can't hear the shouts and laughter and conversations, how do they hear the call?
Have you ever tried to stalk a duck? Sound is generally what makes them flush. In heavy cover, seldom is the hunter seen; it is the sound of his approach that cries the warning. The noise of a hunter's progress wading across a pond can flush ducks 300 yards away.
SETTING UP Like successful turkey hunters, successful duck hunters blend into their surroundings, but it is not just a matter of sitting still. It is something more tenuous than that. Sometimes it calls for being in the open.
Unlike turkey hunting, hunter movement, in itself, is not always bad for the intrepid waterfowler. We have all had the experience of going out to adjust a set of decoys and having ducks try to set down while we're still thigh-deep in slough water. Usually we'll have left our guns behind, so we just grunt in frustration and get back to our hide as fast as possible to await their return.
Several years ago, my partner and I were hunting in the Klamath Basin on an overcast day with a slight wind. An hour before the 1 p.m. quitting time, we decided to give up, as birds simply were not working. My partner remained behind to load our canoe while I set out to gather the decoys. Still hopeful of a stray bird, I took my shotgun with me.
On the far side of the decoys, 50 yards from the nearest cover, I stopped to survey our spread. Suddenly, teal in twos and threes began to zip through our decoys.
Classically bent over to lower my profile, I watched out of the corner of my eye as a single teal dropped straight toward me. I dumped him at 20 yards. Before I could retrieve the bird, another pair sped overhead, circled once and dropped into the set not 10 yards from me. I missed one as they flushed in alarm, but connected with the second. For the next 15 minutes I stood bent over in the middle of the decoys taking teal, one after the other, until my limit was filled. All my partner could do was watch in open-mouthed amazement from a patch of tules until we traded places. Then he did just as well.
That experience was an eyeopener, and I have worked on variations of the theme ever since. Properly camouflaged, I am convinced that a wading hunter does not always flare birds. Instead, there seems to be something about the act of mounting a shotgun that does the damage. Perhaps, like anything else, prey learns key triggering factors to identify danger. A pointed gun is obvious. But it could also be something as simple as eye contact or reflections off the broad planes of an unmasked face.
PUTTING IT ALL TO WORK Mallards are a most suspicious species. You would be too if given their situation.
Late in the season, single drakes will on occasion work in close to a set, but ever since the first month of the season pairs and flocks rarely go within 50 yards of a large group of decoys. I am convinced that the larger the spread, the less likely mallards will decoy in close. Instead, a carefully painted pair of mallard decoys set out in a small puddle in the midst of cover offers the best chance for getting mallards to work within effective range.
Be careful when you pick a place to set up. Piles of shell casings and mashed-down tules are sure signs that someone before you found this to be the ideal spot. The birds will know it well.
On most ponds, a specific patch of tules, a shallow spot, or a small island will be the most attractive place to set up. But ducks soon learn that such a place is a favorite spot for hunters. Regardless of how well concealed you are, the place spells danger.
I take photographs of ducks after the season is closed by constructing elaborate blinds out of natural vegetation on prime duck ponds in state wildlife areas. Several times I have set up in a patch of tules that had been used heavily over the course of the season by hunters. Although ducks would still set down in the decoys, it's always on the edge farthest away from me. They would eye my hide warily, and then they would swim away, always in the opposite direction from my blind. Those ducks believed that the patch of tules I was hiding in still spelled danger, even long after the season was over.
Whenever I build a blind in a non-hunted area, the birds' wariness is somewhat subdued.
Hunters invariably like the centers of ponds. However, in getting there, they often overlook areas directly adjacent to roads and paths. Ducks like edges where they can find shelter from the wind, get feed and find a place to get out of the water.
Set up right and camouflage well in such an area, and it is not necessary to even watch for a drake mallard. When one l
ocks onto your smartly designed and deployed pair of decoys, he will begin to call. Soft and constant, the call is much different from that of a hen mallard.
Spot him as he sweeps away from your decoys and turn him with the single clucks of a lonely hen. Remember: You're in the spot that this duck wanted to go to even before he saw your pair of decoys.
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