Ducks the Second Time Around
September 24, 2010
Not every hunting trip is a success. The birds may not fly, your setup can be a little off, or you hunt the wrong place at the wrong time. Learning from failures is the hallmark of a journeyman hunter.
By Marvin D. Bibby
The flashlight beam bobbed along the crosscheck far off to my right, then stopped as its holder scanned the area on both sides of the check. It made no sense to me. Those were dry fields. The nearest water was a quarter-mile away, the nearest parking lot a good mile and a half in the opposite direction. I slogged along, watching the light come toward me, trying to puzzle it out.
Ten minutes later the clatter of plastic decoys announced the flashlight owner's arrival.
"Can you help me?"
The flashlight beam caught me square in the eyes, then bounced down to his outstretched hand and crumpled map.
"Can you show me where we are on this map?" His breath was hard and labored.
"A buddy said he knocked them dead on a pond out here last Wednesday." The flashlight beam skittered off into the dark. "But I can't find any water."
I looked at my watch. Thirty minutes until shooting time.
"Is there water around here, somewhere?"
I pointed down the road and explained that there was a good-sized pond in heavy tules 150 yards farther down the path.
"Anyone on it?"
I explained that I did not know.
While exploring a new area, author Marvin Bibby discovered a small pond that held a drake wood duck and drake mallard. Phoby by Marvin D. Bibby
"Anything down this road?" He pointed in the direction I was walking.
Several ponds, I explained. Some close, some far. He could walk a ways with me if he wanted. I would point some out.
"No," he said. "I'll go this way."
He turned abruptly, crossed a culvert and started down a narrow check. I explained to his retreating back that it went to the same place I was going, and that his way was harder, but he just grunted and clattered off. At the next crosscheck, he was there again.
"Why don't we walk together?" I suggested.
He prattled on as we walked, and I listened - not because I'm a nice guy, but because I'm a writer and you never know when a conversation will prove useful. He wanted to bag a wood duck. He had some woody decoys and a few mallards. He had never hunted here before, but a friend had sure done well last week. He must have passed the place, because the pond was supposed to be by the parking lot.
I pointed out a 2-acre section of tules, weeds and potholes surrounded by trees and explained that it was a favorite of wood ducks and the occasional mallard. He studied the area while I studied my watch - 15 minutes until shooting time.
"Looks awfully small," he concluded, finally. "What about that section up ahead?"
I bit my tongue, and explained that was the pond I planned on hunting; that if he really wanted wood ducks, this was the place for him. But, the other pond was big enough for two, and if he wanted, I'd give him the choice of which end to hunt. He pondered the opportunity forever.
"What do you think?" he asked.
Exasperated, I pointed out a path on the other side of the ditch in front of us, explained that it ended in the middle of the far end of the pond and that I was setting up at this end.
I left him studying the ditch, obviously concerned that it was too deep to wade.
With the sun breaking over the horizon, I set out my decoys while large flocks of ducks and geese winged their way overhead, making a beeline for the closed zone from the surrounding fields where they had been feeding. At the far end of the pond, my new best friend blew steadily on his call, pleading with the passing flights.
I shook my head and adjusted my decoys, knowing that these birds would not decoy, that it would be at least 30 minutes until singles and pairs began to straggle in from the opposite direction, looking for a place to loaf and preen for the rest of the day.
But it was actually closer to an hour before that happened - 10 minutes after the clatter of plastic had marked my new friend's passage back the way he had come, his hunt over, a long walk ahead of him. That's when a pair of mallards circled low over the now vacant section of pond he had just abandoned.
Every hunter has to hunt an area for the first time. There is no crime in that. But taking off with a gazillion decoys in the middle of the night and thrashing around in a strange pond looking for a place to set up will not produce many ducks.
THE FIRST TIME AROUND
Most hunting articles talk about scouting. But scouting involves more than taking a peek at a map, or glassing a pond with binoculars from a half-mile away.
Sure, that is where you start: the maps, the glassing, the pre-hunt planning. They all help. But they will not get you there. I have had guides point out a specific place to hunt, then glassed the spot from a distance, studied the map till my eyes burned, all to have it unravel the next morning when I tried to set up in the dark. Add some fog, or snow, throw in a little ice, and you compound the problem.
There is nothing wrong with traipsing off in the dark to a strange place. I have been doing it now for over half a century. But why set out your decoys? Odds are that your first set will be in the wrong place and you will have to move it. And that first set is far easier than a second, or a third. At some point a decoy line snarls, a weight comes loose or you fall down in the mud, and be assured - it will happen just when you are inundated with ducks.
Why not wait a few minutes for the first blush of dawn, see what is going on and then set up? If there is an open pond with ducks working, you will see it - and you can probably judge much better the best place to set up. Twenty yards can mean the difference between a full s
trap and going back to the truck for more shells because you just can't quite seem to find the range.
Most successful trout fishermen learn to read water. They understand the places that trout like to lurk and feed, and they fish those productive sections. Successful duck hunters learn to read water in a similar way.
Every hunter knows that puddlers prefer small ponds and divers like big water. But that basic distinction is about what a species eats and how they feed. Public wetlands often provide shelter and space for ducks to loaf and preen, and the feeding habits of the ducks using it may well be secondary. And although every pond has its sweet spot, that spot can change over the course of the season or vary in different weather. These changes can be so small that they are difficult to discern but so large that ducks pass over just out of range or from the wrong direction.
Most ponds have a current to them. An unseen path through the air that ducks consistently ride on their approach to the blocks, especially that final glide just before they cup their wings and drop their feet - the point where even I cannot miss. But on most public wetlands, the natural hides and the sweet spot do not match. They are not even close. And if they do match, the sun will be in your eyes. The geometry of the glide path and the sweet spot and the hide may well force you to face away from your decoys, to take that passing shot as ducks make their final swing, or shortstop them overhead before they reach the blocks. It is all about compromise. That is the nature of hunting ducks on public land.
A DECOY TALE
Last season, I set up on a pond that had been shooting well for me on previous hunt days. On my way in, I jumped a small flock of mallards from a sheltered cove surrounded by tules. I set out my blocks and waited for them to come back. Well they did, but they circled high, then split off to the far edge of an adjacent pond and set down next to the outer boundary of the shooting area. And singles and pairs followed them over the next two hours.
Exasperated, I decided to make the hunt a "scouting day," picked up, ditched my gear, and stalked the section the ducks had entered, which was covered in dense tules threaded by narrow channels of thigh-deep water hiding six inches of mud.
By the time I was 30 yards in, the ducks started getting up. I held my fire and kept at it. With an article in the offing, I wanted to see if I could find the cripple. It took another 20 minutes and 100 yards before I heard her. A hen mallard using a single quack in a steady low tone was less than 20 yards away. I listened for a few minutes, then tried to sneak up on her. She heard my boots sucking mud and fell silent. Ten minutes passed and she would not repeat her call. But a drake mallard began a quacking chirp in another channel on the opposite side of the dense tules from where I stood. His calls became frantic, loud and insistent. You could actually hear the worry in his voice.
For kicks, I tried my Iverson, a single quack with little inflection, three times, about 10 seconds apart. He lowered his voice to a steady chirp and two minutes later came into view when he swam into my channel from behind the tules. He swam back and forth in small circles a few yards away, a single eye glued to mine, realizing that something was very wrong. Then he stopped - stared at me for a full minute, his neck stretched, craning his head from side to side, trying to figure it out. Suddenly, he erupted into the air, his angry quacks, shrill and insistent, loudly proclaiming his irritation at having been fooled. This drake was searching for his crippled mate. He knew where she was supposed to be and he was bent on finding her - even willing to accept my amateur calling as a sick message from his sweetheart. From midmorning on, it is not unusual to find ducks piling into a tiny pothole in heavy cover - cover that hides a crippled bird hit earlier that morning in the mad rush to shoot at first light.
But, as interesting as this is, there is not much to be learned from it about calling or setup. It is often possible to get some decent jump-shooting by stalking such a pond, but you have not discovered a hidden "honey hole." I don't know why that is. I have tried to hunt in places that consistently drew cripples with decoy sets ranging from six to 50, then with singles and pairs of immaculately painted decoys. I have tried varieties of calls and suffered in silence. But nothing worked. If a good pond is open, the ducks preferred it, and my decoys did not seem to stand close enough inspection to change their mind. A live bird can lure ducks into places where they will never decoy. I suspect it has to do with subtle movements and the very special cries of a crippled bird.
THE SECOND TIME AROUND
Hunting on public shooting areas is a cumulative experience. The odds of taking many ducks - other than on opening day - by just showing up at any old pond and throwing out some decoys are against you. But if you spend that first day watching, looking, and checking, and the second time out looking a little more, by the third time out you should be taking birds.
Try off-season scouting to increase your success during the first part of the season. Learn about current pond and crop conditions and discover new geographic features that could influence the hunting. Many public shooting areas are farmed for hunting; crops are rotated, and different sections are flooded or burned. New acreage is added. Few shooting areas remain static from year to year. Many have shooting areas open to the public in the off-season. Almost all have some type of wildlife viewing opportunities and many have recreational consultants that will talk to you about the coming year's plans. Take a camera, take a drive, walk the area, volunteer for a clean-up day. Those activities will pay huge dividends when the season starts.
As crazy as it might sound, try to do something new each time you hunt. Force yourself to try a new section on your shooting area, or explore a new place altogether. Ask questions of the staff resources at headquarters. Almost all areas have someone who will help you.
Be sure to keep a journal about each place that you plan to hunt, followed by a diary of each hunt. That diary will not only help you decide next year the best place to go on any given day, it will force you into thinking through and planning your trips. And it may well change your stance on hunting, taking the focus away from a full strap and turning it more toward the experience.
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