Field Tactics For December Ducks

Hunting waterfowl doesn't have to mean hunting over water. Ducks routinely feed in farm fields this month, and there are ways to find them. Our expert explains how! (December 2005)

Photo by R.E. Ilg

A stiff, chilly breeze whipped across the cut corn field as three hunting buddies and I labored to arrange our goose decoys one cold December morning.

There would have been enough daylight to clearly see at this time of the morning, but a heavy blanket of clouds that threatened to unleash the first significant snowstorm of the season cast a dark shadow over the land. It was a perfect day to try to bag a fat Canada goose for Christmas dinner.

We were just about finished with our dekes when one of my buddies called out, "Listen!" Over the howl of the wind I could hear the telltale whistling of beating wings. Before I knew it, a flock of about 20 mallards appeared overhead, pitching and spinning as they prepared to land in the middle of our spread. Before they touched down, however, the ducks spotted us standing with our jaws open, and they made a hasty retreat.

We scrambled into the ditch that ran along the edge of the field and stuffed shells into our shotguns. We barely got our chambers filled when another flock of ducks sailed toward our decoys. Just before these birds hit the ground, my buddies and I came up firing. Two drakes and a fat hen dropped among the cornstalks.

That scenario, which took place more than a decade ago, was my introduction to hunting ducks in December. Now, it's one of my most anticipated hunting adventures of the year.

FIELD HUNTING ADVANTAGES

When most waterfowlers talk about hunting ducks, they'll mention boats, flooded timber or reed-choked marshes, chest waders and floating decoys. After all, duck hunting is generally considered to be a water-based sport. But in agriculturally rich areas, hunting farm fields is an extremely productive way to put a few ducks in the game bag.

Die-hard duck hunters who have spent all of their time on the water will find it an interesting variation to their favorite game. In addition, it gives goose hunters the chance to add something new to their game bags, not to mention more days in the field.

SCOUTING FOR DUCKS

It's been said a million times before, but scouting is the key to hunting ducks in fields.

Ducks need to be near water. That's no secret. So, start your scouting missions by locating water that holds ducks. Generally speaking, productive duck fields are close to a body of water of some kind. It could be a farm pond or a huge lake. It could be a stream or a river.

Ducks move on the winds of the fall migration. You can never be sure exactly when they will show up in your area and when they will leave. However, you want to be ready when they are around, so check local roosting and rafting sites regularly.

Remember, too, that you're looking for puddle ducks -- mallards, pintails, woodies, black ducks, etc. Locating a big bunch of divers, like scoters, bluebills or oldsquaws, won't do you any good because these birds dine on (and under) the water. Puddle ducks are the only species that will leave their water roosts and head inland to find nutritious grains and other farm crops.

Once you've found your ducks, determine which way the birds go when they leave their roost each morning, and concentrate your search for farm fields in that direction. Harvested crop fields that hold water in low spots after a fall rain are super places to find ducks, but the birds will use these fields even when the ground is frozen or covered with snow.

Obviously, your best bet for hunting success is to find ducks feeding in a field and then seek permission to hunt that field. But you don't necessarily have to be in a field frequented by ducks in order to put a few in the bag. A field that's under a flock's daily flight path can also be productive. With a healthy spread of decoys and some judicious calling, you can lure passing birds into shotgun range.

DECOYS

Besides your shotgun, the most important equipment a field duck hunter must have is decoys. These help bring ducks to the hunter. The bulk of my field duck decoy spread consists of geese. That's right: geese. Live geese draw ducks to farm fields like magnets, and goose decoys help to mimic that attraction.

Also, goose decoys are bigger and easier to spot from long distances than duck decoys. Plus, if you're a goose hunter, they allow you to hunt with a sizable spread without having to go out and buy dozens of duck decoys. I have one dozen silhouette mallard decoys and one dozen shell mallard decoys that I'll take along on a field duck hunt. Around those fakes, I'll pitch about 100 Canada goose decoys -- shells, silhouettes and full-body models. If I'm hunting an area that features snow geese, I'll also put out at least a few dozen fake snows.

I'll strategically cluster my duck decoys along the inside edge of the spread where I want incoming birds to land. Ducks in the air seem to head toward ducks on the ground, even in the midst of a huge flock of Canadas or snows.

THE MOTION FACTOR

One tactic I've started counting on in recent years is adding some kind of motion to my field decoy spread. There are numerous motion duck and goose decoys on the market today powered by hand, wind and batteries. They do everything from flap their wings to bob their heads and even spin around. Motion adds life to an otherwise lifeless decoy spread. And to ducks that have spent weeks pitching into, and escaping from, motionless decoy spreads, a little movement can be just the trick to fool them one more time. (Before using any battery-powered motion decoys, check your state's hunting regulations to find out if they're legal. Some states don't allow the use of motorized decoys.)

If you don't want to invest money in motion decoys, you can provide the motion yourself. "Flagging" is the practice of waving a gray or black flag over your head while lying among your decoys. The premise is that passing ducks will think the flag is the flapping wing of a bird on the ground. It's an old goose hunters' trick, but it works great for field duck hunters as well.

Duck flags are a snap to make. Just take a 14-inch-square piece of gray cloth and staple it to a 2-foot-long black dowel. By waving the flag in a figure 8 over your head, you mimic the flapping wings of a stretching mallard. Once the ducks are headed your way, stop flagging before they are able to tell you're not a duck, or you risk spooking them.

Until I started flagging, there were many December mornings when I watched

flock after flock of ducks sail past my decoys without circling even once.

THE LAYOUT SETUP

The standard method for waterfowlers hunting ducks in fields is to lie out among the decoys. This works better than setting up near some type of cover, such as a ditch or fencerow, because ducks naturally tend to avoid overgrown areas where foxes, coyotes and other predators lurk. After they've escaped a few encounters with human hunters, they'll really steer clear of them. By lying among your decoys, you can set up anywhere in a field you want, even far away from natural cover.

On layout hunts, positioning decoys and hunters is vital to field duck hunting success. The key is wind direction. Ducks land into the wind. They may approach your spread from any direction, but when they finally decide to touch down, they will do whatever it takes to put the wind in their faces. Therefore, you always want to have the wind at your back, which will put approaching ducks in front of you.

The wind direction tells you which way the ducks will make their final approach. It's up to you to set your decoys so the birds will land in front of your gun barrel.

When setting up, keep the letters "U'' and "J'' in mind. These are general shapes for your decoy spread that you can use to direct the ducks to land where you want them. I like to use a U-shaped setup early in the season before the ducks have seen too many hunters. In this setup, I place my goose decoys in the shape of a U, with the closed end upwind, and a gap about 20 yards wide between the two posts.

Because incoming ducks land into the wind, they will enter the spread between the two posts of the U. Use your duck decoys to line the edge of the closed end of the spread. The hunters should hide directly upwind of the duck decoys, facing downwind toward the open area that will be the shooting zone.

As the season wears on and ducks have survived a few encounters with hunters, they become less likely to land in the middle of the U-shaped spread. This is when it's best to use the J-shaped spread.

You set up the J-shaped spread with the hook upwind, and the long and short legs of the spread extending downwind. Again, the duck decoys should be placed along the edge of the hook and the hunters should hide upwind from them. With this spread, the ducks follow the long leg of decoys in and land in the gap in front of the short hook.

Whether you set up a U or a J, remember to keep the posts fairly thin. I like to make them no more than two or three decoys wide. The bulk of my spread is placed at the closed end of the spread, around and behind the hunters, stretching upwind from the killing zone. Live ducks will head toward the fake ducks on the ground, feeling safe because of the cluster of decoys behind them.

One of the most common mistakes field hunters make in setting up their spreads is bunching their decoys too close together. When a spread is too tight, live birds sometimes land off to one side of the spread, often out of range.

When placing decoys, I drop one, take three steps, and then drop the next. This spacing helps avoid the problems of bunching.

Some field waterfowl hunters don't like the idea of arranging decoys in predetermined shapes. They say it's not natural. This is true: It's not natural, but field hunters use their decoys not only to draw live ducks into shotgun range but also to funnel them into a predetermined shooting area. If you scatter your dekes in an attempt to mimic the random wanderings of a live flock, you're guaranteed to have birds land behind you and off to the sides, making shooting difficult, if not impossible, in many cases.

HIDES AND BLINDS

An inexpensive yet effective way to hide among your decoys is to use some camouflage netting like a blanket to cover yourself while you're lying on the ground. Lie under the blanket with your shotgun across your chest in the port arms position. When it comes time to shoot, sit up and push the blanket out of the way with your shotgun.

If you're looking for something a bit more comfortable, but you still want to lie among the decoys, there are a number of companies that sell low-profile "coffin" blinds. These are one-man, camouflaged blinds that provide cover and protect you from the elements. Coffin blinds typically have some type of spring-loaded doors that fly open when you sit up to shoot.

If you must use a fencerow or a ditch as a natural blind, your setup will have to be a bit different than it would on a layout hunt. Because your hideout is in a fixed position, you must adjust your decoy spread to take advantage of the wind. If the wind is blowing left to right, or right to left, set up your spread in a J so the long leg of the spread is directly opposite your hideout, about 30 yards into the field, and the closed end is upwind.

So, if the wind is blowing from right to left, your spread is actually in the shape of a backward J. The idea with both of these setups is to corral the birds between your hideout and the long leg of the spread.

If the wind is blowing directly from your hideout into the field, set up in what I call a lazy U, in which the posts are widened so they flare out from the hook, which, again, should be about 30 yards from your position

Ideally, incoming ducks will sail directly over your head toward the hook. If the wind is blowing in the opposite direction, just flip the spread so the hook is close to your hiding place with the legs extended away.


With a healthy spread of decoys and some judicious calling, you can lure passing birds into shotgun range.
 

EQUIPMENT

For hunting ducks in a field layout setup, I use a 12-gauge shotgun fitted with a skeet or improved-cylinder choke. If everything goes as planned, your shots shouldn't be more than 20 or 25 yards. I shoot 3-inch steel shotshells primarily in No. 2 and 4. If I'm shooting tungsten or bismuth shot, which I've found to have better range and knockdown power than steel, I'll stick with No. 4 shot.

Remember, shots under these conditions are up close and personal. On layout hunts, you want open chokes and small shot to throw a dense, wide pattern at the birds. If you're using a modified or improved-modified choke and BB shot, you're going to miss more than a few birds. On the other hand, if you're using natural cover for your blind, stick with the tighter chokes and bigger shot, because your shots could extend out to 40 and 45 yards.

Calls are a necessity whether you hunt ducks in a field or on the water. If you're hunting by yourself, and you're using a mix of duck and goose decoys, carry both a duck call and a goose call. Or if there's a group of hunters, have some blow duck calls and others work goose calls. Whatever the situation, be sure to have a goose call along, because sometimes in a field setup, the best duck call is a goose call.

Tuck some thermoses filled with coffee, a few sandwiches and other treats into your daypack, and you're ready to go field hunting for ducks. It's a unique experience that's as exciting as it is rewarding.

Give it a try this year. You might never go back to the water again!

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