By Mike Gnatkowski
Sometimes the best duck hunting can be in places you’d never expect. Secluded ponds, out-of-the-way potholes, drainage ditches, flooded cornfields or slow-moving streams are often places that other hunters avoid or don’t envision as being little honeyholes. Finding them requires some work and often a bit of luck, but by scouting and using your imagination you can find some great duck hunting in small places.
One of the great things about hunting waterfowl in small places is that you don’t need a whole bunch of gear. Usually a pair of waders or hip boots and a half-dozen decoys is all you’ll need. There are times when a float tube or canoe can come in handy. I like to keep a few yards of camouflage netting in my decoy bag so I can quickly throw up a makeshift blind or cover up with it if I decide to lie in a field. That’s about all you need. Binoculars help you zero in on locations that you see ducks using. You don’t need a whole bunch of decoys because most of these little duck nirvanas you find won’t have enough room to set many decoys, and it won’t take many to attract passing birds. Most times the ducks you’ll be shooting in these hidden hotspots will be birds that are already accustomed to being there and will require little coaxing. They will normally be puddle ducks – mallards, wood ducks, black ducks, teal or widgeon – that travel in smaller flocks. Calling can help attract ducks to your location, buonce they get a fix on your position, just shut up and let your decoys do the rest of the work.
Hunting ducks in small places will be up close and personal, so you don’t need 10-gauge shotguns and full chokes. Quite the opposite. Shots will normally be close, from 25 to 30 yards, and you’ll want a more open choke and smaller shot than you’re probably used to. A dense open pattern will kill more ducks at close range. And you want to make sure to put plenty of steel in the air for sure kills. Improved cylinder barrels and No. 4 steel is a good combination most of the time.
You’d be surprised how little water it takes to create a waterfowl haven. That’s exactly why many waterfowlers overlook them – they don’t think they’re big enough to attract ducks, especially numbers of ducks. Don’t look at the big picture when looking for ducks in small places. Learn to recognize and identify duck hotspots on a smaller scale.
There was an expansive public marsh that I used to hunt that was very popular with hunters. The marsh bordered a refuge, and hunters would line up along the firing line to pass-shoot ducks leaving the refuge to feed. Waterfowlers farther out in the marsh would lure ducks into decoy spreads as they returned from feeding. Most hunters would use boats to get out to the outer edges of the marsh to hunt, or walk the dike out a half-mile or so to set up to pass-shoot. Most hunters walked or boated right by several secluded potholes not far from the parking lot.
I was sitting in the parking lot at midday when I noticed a big greenhead come sneaking low out of the refuge. He was below the radar of the hunters lined up farther down the dike. He didn’t go far before he quickly dumped into one of the little potholes on the edge of the marsh. It was only a short time before another mallard rose up out of the refuge, getting barely higher than the trees, glided across the dike and lit just about where the first duck had landed. My light bulb turned on. It didn’t take long to figure out that I might be looking at one of those undiscovered duck honeyholes.
I pulled my waders on, grabbed the shotgun and a half-dozen dekes, and set off through the marsh. Approaching the spot where I had seen the ducks land, I stashed the decoys and slowly slithered through the cattails. As I rounded a clump of cattails, a big greenhead erupted from the marsh, showering me with spray. I recovered in time to dump the mallard. I tucked another mallard into my game pouch a short time later. I then returned to a swimming-pool-sized opening in the cattails and tossed out the few decoys I had. A half-hour passed before I spied a mallard get up in the marsh, gain altitude and slip out of the refuge at the intersection of the dike and the parking lot. As the duck approached I let out with a loud greeting call and the mallard instantly put its flaps down, dumped wind and tried landing on my head. He never knew what hit him. A bonus black duck turned what had been a poor day into a good hunt by observing and taking note of a small niche other hunters ignored.
Often, these types of places produce best at midday after ducks rousted from the marsh have had a chance to settle in or they get restless and go looking for a secluded oasis. Key is to have an open mind, keep your eyes open and don’t disregard any spot that you see birds using as a potential hotspot.
A friend of mine is very successful at hunting ducks in small places on managed waterfowl areas because other hunters neglect them. Prime areas are quickly taken by lucky hunters early in the season, but some areas don’t see hunters for weeks on end. That doesn’t mean that ducks don’t use them. In fact, some of these areas become duck havens because no one hunts them and the birds are rarely disturbed. My buddy routinely picks areas that aren’t considered hot areas that are usually out-of-the-way and haven’t been hunted. He’s often rewarded with a good shoot and he has a cadre of backup locations for future hunts.
One of the best friends of hunters who like to hunt ducks in small places is the beaver. Industrious beavers create a lot of ponds and sloughs that make for perfect out-of-the-way duck habitat. Mallards, wood ducks and black ducks like using the flooded timber created by beavers. To find these duck hotspots you need to scout constantly. Keep track of where you see beaver activity during grouse hunting trips, during the bow or rifle deer seasons or when snowmobiling, and make it a point to visit them during the waterfowl season. If ducks aren’t using the ponds when you arrive, wait until evening. Many times the birds will be off feeding elsewhere and return to roost on the pond toward evening. The sky can be full of birds as the sun slips behind the horizon.
Wildlife biologists can steer you toward areas that have high beaver numbers. Talk to hunters, trappers and anglers who might be able to lead you to beaver ponds. If practical, you might want to even rent an airplane for a short jaunt around areas of beaver activity to pinpoint ponds. Beavers can create a lot of small-water duck havens in a short period of time. Where there was only a trickle of water today can be a pond of several acres tomorrow. And it won’t take long for the ducks to find it.
Jump-shooting is a great way to capitalize when hunting ducks in small places. Doing s
o requires that you know the lay of the land. Approaching pools or ponds from behind the dam is usually a good tactic. Take into account the wind direction. Birds will usually be stacked up on the leeward side of the pond. If you can, use binoculars to view the pond before you start your sneak so you have an idea of where the birds are concentrated. Two hunters can post at opposite ends, and usually both will get shooting when the rousted birds circle and come back. The fun part about jump-shooting is that you really never know how many birds are going to go up. It might be two, it might be 200. It’s a great way to spend the midday hours between flights.
Floating smaller, secluded streams or rivers while jump-shooting is a scenic and pleasurable way to enjoy the sport. These isolated slow-moving waterways attract ducks throughout the season from opening day right through freeze-up. Early in the season, ducks that were born and raised on the river will be present. Later, ducks shot off surrounding lakes and marshes will seek out the seclusion and comfort of small streams. As the season comes to a close, smaller streams and rivers are one of the last vestiges of open water for waterfowl.
Hunters should pay special attention to laws governing float-hunting and jump-shooting.
There really isn’t any typical small-water hotspot for ducks. Some small-water hotspots can be here today, gone tomorrow. Drainage ditches that are only a trickle probably won’t attract many ducks most years, but pick a fall when autumn rains fill them up, and they become duck magnets. There was a drainage ditch that bordered a field that we had leased for duck hunting. The field was planted with buckwheat, and the birds bombed it most of the morning, but when the flights slowed at midmorning my hunting buddy Rick Morley decided he’d take a stroll along the ditch. He came back a short time later with a fist full of blue-winged teal. He said that there was quite a bit of water in the ditch and it was full of duckweed and teal.
Croplands that might be high and dry one year can become duck hotels when heavy fall rains flood the fields. The sheet water attracts ducks because they have everything in one location – food and water. Many times these isolated puddles aren’t visible from roads or other vantage points, so you need to keep your eyes peeled for birds pitching down into depressions in the terrain. Often, watching ducks working a field this way will lead you to a hidden, albeit temporary, waterfowl windfall. Getting close to these birds can sometimes be difficult. The best tactic is to flush them up, throw out a few dekes and lay down on a foam pad or air mattress. It’s usually not long before the birds start filtering back. It can be a sloppy, but rewarding, affair.
There have been times when I’ve reaped big dividends by creating my own little duck hunting honeyhole. My brother and I were hunting an area managed for waterfowl late in the season one year and we were curious as to why no one else had taken any of the positions in the field we had chosen. We found why when we arrived and found the flooded cornfield was frozen in an inch or two of ice. Undaunted, we broke ice out to our assigned spot and walked the canoe around in a wide circle to break the ice. We then shoved the sheets of ice under each other to create an open pothole. The tactic worked like a charm. Mallards flying overhead, seeing the open water, pitched in with reckless abandon and we easily filled our limits.
Springs or currents that keep pockets of water open can be the same kind of draw when it gets cold and open water gets scarce. It doesn’t take much surface area to attract a bunch of ducks when water is at a premium.
Retrieving dogs are a good idea whenever you’re hunting small places. These hidden hotspots are usually thick, nasty spots that neither man nor beast would consider going into. That’s why the ducks like using them. They can rest and feed there, and no one is likely to bother them. Drop a duck in one of these places and the chances of you finding it without a dog are often pretty slim.
That was exactly the kind of spot my friend Pat La Porte took me to a few years ago. He told me how the birds just poured into this overgrown pond in the afternoon. He said that there wasn’t a lot of water but if I wanted to bring a few decoys, we could. We should have no problem filling our limit. Joining Pat and me was my son Matt on one of his first duck hunting trips.
We followed Pat along an oak ridge before veering off on a trail that led off into a watery maze of tag alders. Pat trudged off into the quagmire with his chocolate Lab, Max, in tow. I gave Matt some instructions on wading, urging him to take his time and place one foot at a time. Hummocks and sharp sticks presented plenty of obstacles that could puncture new waders or cause an unwanted dip in the murky water.
I could still hear Pat sloshing though the swamp when it sounded like all heck broke loose. Wings were thrashing and there was a crescendo of raucous quacking, squealing and whistling going on. Dozens of ducks rose from the swamp and wheeled above the tag alders, only to circle a couple of times and flutter down somewhere else in the tangles.
Matt and I took our time. Making sure to put one foot ahead of the other, we slowly made our way to where Pat was waiting. I expected to see a fairly sizable opening in the tag alders where we could put out some decoys. When we busted through the last stand of alders, Pat was standing in the middle of a pool of water that I could almost spit across.
“This is it,” he said as he tossed out our spread of six decoys.
“There sure were a lot of birds sitting in here,” I said.
“Ya,” said Pat, “and they’ll be coming back shortly. Let’s get hidden.”
Pat had fashioned a makeshift blind with some camouflage cloth around it on a platform with a bench seat. It wasn’t much, but it was all we needed. It wasn’t long before the birds started filtering back. Singles, twos and threes would pitch into the little hole without circling. Max did his job by rounding up the cripples in the jungle. By the time the sun started to set, we’d had a darn good shoot from such a tiny patch of water.
It just proves that sometimes the best hunting for ducks is in very small places. Maybe you should take advantage of the situation this fall.
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