Tactics For Farm Country Ducks And Geese

Fill the truck with decoys because you're going to need them if you want to successfully hunt farm country waterfowl this month. Our expert explains how it's done.

Dawn was still a good hour away as my buddy's truck rumbled across the cow pasture. When we topped a small hill, his headlights washed across the small farm pond that was our hunting destination on this frosty November morning. Immediately, we spotted what we'd hoped for. The pond was covered with dozing Canada geese and a variety of ducks.

"It's gonna be a good day," said Ed, a huge grin on his face.

The birds swam nervously toward the far end of the pond, but didn't immediately take flight -- at least, not until we got out of the truck and slammed our doors. A sudden thunder of beating wings and honking geese shattered the morning quiet.

Within 30 seconds, the pond was void of waterfowl. We began scrambling to set up our decoys and our layout blinds. We knew the birds would be back and when they returned, we wanted to be ready.

By the time the first rays of daylight had displaced the black of night, we were hunkered down in our coffin blinds surrounded by 100 shell and full-body goose decoys. On the pond in front of us, a dozen mallard decoys and 18 fake Canadas bobbed up and down on wind-driven ripples.

I was fumbling with the calls on the lanyard around my neck when I heard the telltale whistling of wings overhead.

"Ducks!" Ed said in a hard, excited whisper.

Before I could even get the duck call to my lips, the birds were cupping their wings to land on the water.

"Take 'em!" Ed called out.

We both came up firing, just as the small flock of mallards touched down. By the time the echoes of our shotgun blasts had trailed off, two drakes and a hen floated motionless on the pond.

Ed was recovering the birds with a long, telescopic pole when I heard a honk in the distance.

"Ed, get back!" I yelled. "Geese are coming in!"

He dropped the pole and ran back to his blind with one drake in his hand. The other two mallards were still floating on the water.

Just as Ed closed the doors on his blind, a string of five geese glided over the top of the hill to our right. Obviously they were heading for the pond, but for insurance, I chirped out a few clucks on one of my short-reed calls.

The geese started double-clucking when they locked their wings and dropped their feet on their final approach to the pond. Just before they hit the water, I made the call.

"Take 'em!"

FARM POND BASICS

Farm country waterfowling is one of the finest hunting experiences the eastern United States has to offer. Their annual fall migration brings hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese south from Canada through farm country all over the region. A lot of hunters think of waterfowling as a big-water sport that's practiced on rivers and lakes. But I'll take a farm pond or a freshly cut cornfield near a large lake or river over big water any day.

Farm-country waterfowling can be as simple or as involved as you want to make it. Hunters who simply belly-crawl to the edge of a pond or creek and then jump-shoot unsuspecting birds bag more than a few ducks and geese each season. For this type of hunting, camouflage clothing, a shotgun and some shells are all that's required.

At the opposite extreme, decoys, calls and blinds are the order of the day. For many waterfowl hunters, there's no such thing as too much gear. I consider myself to be part of that school.

In farm country, there are two basic types of hunts you're going to encounter -- water hunts and field hunts. Some hunt might even be a combination of the two. But first, before we take a look at these two types of hunts, let's talk about how to find birds.

GETTING STARTED

During the fall and early winter, ducks and geese are fairly predictable creatures, especially in farm country. They spend their nights on water and then fly out to farm fields to feed during the day --shortly after first light, usually.

The ducks you'll likely see on farm-country hunts are primarily puddle ducks -- mallards, pintails, teal, widgeons, etc. Divers such as goldeneyes, ruddy ducks and canvasbacks are not likely to venture away from their big-water haunts. However, these birds sometimes show up on farm ponds if there's a large lake or river nearby. Don't be shocked if you spot a ring-necked duck gliding into your pond setup one morning!

At this time of year, scouting for ducks and geese is as simple as driving around looking for birds feeding on the ground. Generally, if you spot a flock on a farm one day, odds are they will be back the next day. As long as there's food available, count on birds returning to a particular farm throughout the season. Migrating ducks and geese need lots of energy for their annual southward trek, and once they find a good meal, they're reluctant to turn their backs on it.

Farms that have ponds in addition to crop fields are a waterfowler's paradise. These properties are the ultimate duck and goose magnets because they can meet both of the birds' primary needs for survival. They might not spend the night on a particular farm's pond, but they'll tend to stay on the property longer throughout the day if they don't have to fly out to find water after they've fed.

If you live in an area where waterfowling is popular, you might find the farms frequented most often by other groups who are already hunting geese. Fear not -- there is still hope.

To beat the crowds, find a farm that's on the daily flight path of locally-feeding flocks. Ducks and geese are like deer, in that they'll often take the same routes from their bedding areas -- roost water -- to their feeding areas. If you can find a spot under that flight path to hunt, you'll have a chance to draw birds to within shotgun range, using decoys.

PRE-HUNT PRIMER

Here's a trick I often use in such situations. Several weeks before the hunting season opens, I'll place a few silhouette decoys in a likely-looking crop field, or float some decoys on a pond, and leave them in place until the season opens -- with the farmer's permission, of course. This will attract ducks and geese that had been flying past the farm and make it the birds' new, preferred destination just in time for the season opener. (Don't use your best decoys

for this tactic, however, because they might get swiped when you're not looking!)

WATER HUNTS

If there's a better place to hunt farm-country waterfowl than on a pond, I haven't found it. Most farm ponds are rarely more than an acre or two in size, which concentrates the birds that use them into a relatively small area. That makes for some awesome shooting opportunities. (Think "fish in a barrel"!)

Among waterfowlers, there's a big debate about whether or not you should hunt a pond where ducks and geese spend their nights. This is called "hunting the roost." Some hunters believe that if you shoot birds on the water, they won't return to that pond again. My buddies and I have found that if we hunt a roost pond only first thing in the morning, don't hit it every day during the season -- and leave a few floating goose decoys out when we're not hunting -- that waterhole will attract birds all season.

In order to have a good morning shoot over decoys on a roost pond, however, you must arrive before daylight to flush the ducks and geese off the water. Over the years, every time we've done this -- without exception -- the birds have returned shortly after shooting time starts. And the action is great!

We've found that if we try an afternoon hunt over decoys, and flush any birds that might be sitting on the pond while it's light out, they're not as likely to return before dark. Of course, if you're just interested in jump-shooting birds, that's not a problem.

If the pond is surrounded by an open area such as a cow pasture or harvested crop field, plan on using both water and field decoys. If the pond is surrounded by heavy cover, such as tall grass or timber, stick to water dekes.

Whether we're hunting ducks or geese on our farm-pond hunts, my crew uses goose decoys primarily. They're bigger, which means they're easier to see. And they attract both ducks and geese, while duck decoys alone don't work as well on geese. Famed call-maker Sean Mann of Maryland once said, "The best duck decoy is a goose decoy."

And so far, our experience has proven Mann correct. The only exception we make is when we're hunting a pond in heavy timber. Then we stick to duck decoys, because geese rarely bother with these secluded holes.

When hunting ponds in open fields, we use our field decoys as cover. These days, we hunt from low-profile coffin blinds. The camouflaged blinds blend into our surroundings, and a few well-placed decoys around them hides us from the view of incoming ducks and geese.

Before we had these blinds, however, we simply lay down on our backs on camouflage mats. We wore camouflage clothing from head to toe and surrounded ourselves with decoys to hide us even more from the birds.

DECOY OPTIONS

Set up your blinds and your spread so that the wind is at your back. Ducks and geese might approach from any direction, but when it comes time to land, they're going to head into the wind. You want them gliding toward your setup rather than passing over you and heading away.

When you're hunting a pond that's in heavy vegetation or timber, your hiding options are endless. There should be plenty of natural cover for concealment. Just be sure to match your camouflage clothing to your surroundings.

How many decoys should you use? Well, if you're hunting a pond in open country, I don't think you can use too many. On some of our hunts, we've planted 200 -- mostly field decoys. Generally, we increase the number of decoys as the season progresses and the birds become increasingly wary.

When hunting in thick cover, you don't need as many decoys. On our timber hunts, we typically put out fewer than three dozen duck dekes.

If your farm doesn't have a pond, but does have a creek, use the same strategies just described.

FIELD TACTICS

Field hunting is the bread-and-butter for farm-country waterfowlers. Not all farms have ponds, but every farm has fields -- they wouldn't be farms if they didn't! It's in these fields that migrating ducks and geese find the energy sources they need to fuel them for their journey to their wintering grounds.

If you're hunting a farm that's on the daily flight path of flocks of ducks and geese, but isn't their ultimate destination, set up your decoy spread on the property's highest ground. This will give you maximum visibility to passing birds.

In this situation, you're also going to need plenty of decoys. After all, your goal is to distract flocks overhead from their normal daily routine and convince them that the farm down there is a prime feeding destination. In most cases, if you're using fewer than 50 decoys, you're wasting your time.

If you're hunting a farm being frequented by ducks and geese, your path to success is a little smoother. Depending on the farm, a field might cover 50 acres, or it might cover 500. Regardless of its size, it's important to find out where the visiting ducks and geese are feeding before you set up to hunt for the day.

This is a simple task. The day before a hunt, watch for birds landing or taking off and mark their location from a distance. Or before daybreak on the day of your hunt, you can walk around in the dark and search for waterfowl sign -- droppings and feathers, to be exact.

Ducks and geese leave a lot of excrement when they're feeding. They also preen continuously, leaving many feathers on the ground.

When you set up, make sure the wind is at your back. Leave a space in your decoy spread directly in front of you where the birds can land. Even better, set up your decoys in the shape of the letter J, U, or X. With any of these setups, you should position yourself at the closed end of the spread, with the open area directly in front of you.

Decoys do more than just attract ducks and geese. They way you position them helps dictate where the birds will land. The posts of the letters J, U and X funnel the birds toward the closed end of the letters, which means they'll be landing in your lap.

If you just set your decoys out in a big, unorganized mass, the birds could land anywhere. That means they might be hard to your left or right, or even behind you -- all of which makes for tough shooting.

SHOTGUNS AND LOADS

Hunting over decoys in farm country typically means you'll be shooting at incoming birds at close range. A 12-gauge shotgun fitted with an Improved Cylinder or Modified choke will allow you to shoot effectively out to 40 yards. Load up with No. 6 steel, tungsten or Bismuth for ducks only; No. 2 shot for geese only; or No. 4 shot if you expect to encounter both species.

My crew likes to work birds until they are literally right in our faces, sometimes taking shots at no more than 15 feet. In this situation, a Skeet choke is a must. Steel, tungsten and Bismuth shot tend to pattern tighter than

lead, so at these short ranges, you need an open choke to expand your pattern as quickly as possible. If you fired a shot through a Modified choke at a bird 15 feet away, there would be virtually no expansion of the shot pattern. That would be like firing a slug at your target.

If you're going to be jump-shooting or pass-shooting farm country birds, plan for longer shots -- say 50 to 60 yards. This shooting requires Modified or Improved Modified chokes and larger shot, such as BBs for ducks and T-shot for geese. You want a tight pattern filled with shot that has lots of knockdown power.

If you've never tried farm-country waterfowling, plan on giving it a try this year. Once you've experienced this type of hunting, you'll be hooked for life!

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