East Texas Big-Water Ducks

The major reservoirs in this region can draw ducks in a big way, and you can cash in on that attraction by following this expert advice.

Kyle Rowe took this pair of mallards from a decoy spread on a wide flat at the upper end of a big East Texas reservoir.
Photo by Robert Sloan

The open water of the big East Texas lake was full of flooded timber, lots of logs and tons of aquatic vegetation -- all of it attracting ducks like a magnet draws iron.

Jim Copeland and I were easing out into the middle of the lake, where big ducks like gadwalls and widgeon like to work. We were in Jim's 14-foot Skeeter bass boat, which was rigged up for open-water hunts. At the time -- several years ago -- it was a new rig. It had the pointed bow, and the swivel seats had been removed for the duck season. With two hunters, two bags of decoys, and assorted other gear, it was loaded. But that boat made a great blind for the type of hunting Jim liked to do.

Once we were in the right area, the decoys were tossed out. We used long sheets of burlap to cover the boat. For a low profile on the open water, we sat back to back in the bottom of the boat. It was one of the best ways to hunt from a boat that I've ever experienced. The combination of Jim's calling and a well-camouflaged boat made for plenty of great hunts. Typically, those hunts resulted in limits of gadwalls, a few widgeon, and the occasional mallard.

Hunting from a boat is still one of my favorite ways to hunt ducks at the big East Texas lakes like Rayburn, Toledo Bend and Richland-Chambers. That threesome of lakes will tend to draw lots of ducks throughout the season. But being a successful waterfowler at those lakes is not always as easy as you might think.

Kyle Rowe and Denny Copeland have figured out how to make it worth their while: They hunt out of an 18-foot War Eagle boat that's made to handle big water. "It's perfect for our type of hunting," said Copeland. "It'll carry lots of gear like decoys, camouflage, guns, dogs and up to three hunters. The main thing is that it's big enough to cross open water safely. And it's dry."

Copeland and Rowe don't always go to the same lake to hunt. They wisely move around from one lake to another depending on where the ducks prefer to be. If they're having slow hunts on a lake that previously held plenty of birds, they scout other nearby lakes.

"Scouting is the No. 1 thing that keeps us on birds," said Rowe. "We don't mind trailering our boat from one lake to another. That's where a lot of hunters mess up. If you limit your hunts to one particular lake, you're setting yourself up for some very slow hunts. Birds move around from one lake to another; good hunters will stay with them."

An apt example of what Rowe was talking about occurred one day when we set up on a big East Texas lake that had been holding big numbers of mallards and pintails. We'd made a Friday hunt that delivered easy limits of mallards capped off with a pair of bull sprigs. We went back on Saturday and had a slow hunt. After picking up the decoys, we made a run up to the north end of the lake and found birds rafted up in the back of a big cove. We set up in that cove the next morning. As expected, those mallards and pintails came into that particular cove, and were totally surprised.

One thing that's sure to move birds around on a big lake is shooting pressure. And that can be a problem on some of the more popular East Texas duck-hunting lakes.

On one particular hunt with Copeland and Rowe at Richland-Chambers Lake, we discovered a huge buildup of birds on a wide-open flat that we'd found one afternoon while scouting. We got there well before daylight the next morning and set up a spread of seven dozen decoys.

We were putting the finishing touches on the boat blind when two boats rounded the bend and headed our way. We waved them off, but to our dismay they went past our spread and set up 100 yards downwind.

As the birds began filtering in, those guys would blow something akin to a Halloween whistle and then sky-blast at anything wearing feathers. That type of pressure will move both ducks and hunters out of an area.

Being courteous is mandatory for waterfowlers hunting the public lakes of East Texas. If you have a rude group move in, don't confront them; it's usually best to just pick up and leave. If you get their boat numbers, you can report the incident to the local game warden.

Pot-licking can always be a problem on public hunting lakes. It's not unusual for a group of hunters to move in and set up where you recently had a profitable hunt -- not a very respectable thing to do, but part of the deal when you're on public water.

"That's happened to us on more than one occasion," said Copeland. "Most of the time we set up to hunt later in the morning, or even in the afternoon. That's a tactic that has really helped us avoid other hunters. At times you can get some good flights of birds in early. But most of the time you can get some excellent shooting in after most of the other hunters have packed up and headed on down the road."

I remember one particular day on which Copeland, Rowe and I were launching the boat. Three groups of hunters were pulling their rigs out of the water.

"How's the hunting?" I asked.

"Very slow," said one guy. "Had a pair of gadwalls go by, a few coots and way too many water turkeys. That was about it."

One thing that's sure to move birds around on a big lake is shooting pressure. And that can be a problem on some of the more popular East Texas duck-hunting lakes.

We left the dock and headed to the same area those guys had been hunting. By 9:30 we were set up with mallards coming in to the decoys. It was a spectacular hunt, and nobody knew what the drill was. That particular location, in a bunch of willows off an extended point, provided us with some of the best hunts of our lives.

Detailed camouflaging is often overlooked by hunters as they set up on big public lakes. I've seen guys hunting from a flat-bottomed boat that's been camouflaged with a can of paint. The trick is to brush up your boat. Always carry along sheets of camouflaged netting; burlap is very good. I like to carry along a small saw for cutting limbs that can be placed around the boat. Vegetation like hydrilla can be draped over the limbs, along with some of the camo material. The most important thing is to rig

the camo and brush so that it gives you some sort of overhead cover. Ducks that can clearly see inside your blind will flare.

At times, you won't even need a blind. If at all possible, get out of the boat and lean up against a tree. When I was a kid, we used fishermen's innertubes for blinds. We'd sit in them and drape vegetation over the canvas cover. That was deadly. We also used tree stands, just like deer hunters. Ducks don't expect to see hunters in elevated tree stands.

Decoys are always important, but large spreads aren't always required for a good hunt. If you'll be hunting in an area that's pretty tight, like a cove or slough, you might do best by putting out three of four small groups of decoys. Conversely, if you'll be hunting on a wide-open body of water, seven to 10 dozen decoys can often be the best option.

Copeland and Rowe always carry along a dozen magnum-sized mallards and pintails. "I like the bigger decoys because they stand out more," said Copeland. "The magnum-sized drake pintails really stand out. We'll set about six of them in front of the spread. If you've got a little bit of wind to move them around, they are very effective."

One important thing to remember is to rig your decoys with enough line and weight to keep them in place. And here's another tip: When putting out decoys and picking them up, do it as a team. Have one guy at the helm, one on the bag and another handling the decoys.

Successfully calling ducks can be a tricky deal on public water. At times you'll really need to cut loose to bring 'em in. At other times, very little calling is best. If you're back in a cove or slough, aggressive calling is often the way to let ducks know where you are. However, if you're set up out on a flat where your spread is easily seen, you might want to tone down your calling. In most situations, you'll do best by getting their attention with a hail call. Once the birds are heading your way, a few subtle quacks along with a feeding chuckle will often set 'em down in the decoys.

Regardless of what lake you hunt, don't forget to play it safe. Don't take the risk of crossing rough open water in a small boat. And always wear a life jacket.

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