Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.
Traditionally, waterfowlers have hunted geese on land and ducks over water. But that mindset may be changing. More and more waterfowlers are discovering that puddle ducks spend plenty of time on dry land. Targeting them in the fields where they feed can pay big dividends.
Manufacturers of hunting accessories are jumping on the bandwagon, too. Several companies are now creating very lifelike field-duck decoys and equipment that makes hunting ducks in fields more practical and productive than ever. Fact is, you can shoot a limit of ducks these days and never get your feet wet!
It was probably 30 years ago when I started hunting ducks in the fields. We’d watch the birds leave the refuge and follow them up to 20 miles out into the surrounding corn fields. Back then we didn’t have GPS, lay-down blinds, spinning winged decoys and corn field camouflage. Our success was modest, but when everything clicked, it provided some great shooting for big, fat mallards.
Get Out And Scout About
More than any type of waterfowling, hunting ducks in fields requires scouting. If you’re not where the ducks want to be, you’re usually wasting your time. The only way to know where the ducks are is to follow them or find them. This requires an investment in time and energy, but you can be rewarded in spades.
Ducks don’t spend all their time in the fields. They spend the majority of their time on the water. Finding concentrations of birds on the water is key for success. The birds might be using large natural lakes, marshes, reservoirs, rivers or streams. Certainly, ducks will be using the water throughout the season, but their numbers generally build as the season progresses and the migration intensifies. You need to scout regularly to monitor the numbers of birds around and the potential for field-hunting success.
Remember, you’re looking for puddle ducks. Big rafts of divers might look inviting, but it’s the puddle ducks — like mallards, widgeons, pintails and wood ducks — that are going to be visiting local farm fields.
Some of the best field-hunting for ducks typically occurs late in the season when migration numbers are peaking, water sources are at a premium, and high-energy grain is a necessity. However, that doesn’t mean fields can’t be productive right from the opening bell.
Last year, opening day saw my son, Matt, my friend, Sue, and myself set up in a hay field adjacent to some flooded woods that a bunch of woodies and mallards were using. Even though we only put out field-goose decoys, we reasoned that some of the ducks headed for the timber might come our way and give us a look.
Not only did the ducks give us a look, they dive-bombed our spread! We quickly shot our limit of wood ducks and a few bonus mallards. We were standing up about to begin picking up the spread when two wood ducks came screaming in and landed almost at our feet! The next morning was a repeat performance, and I enjoyed still another outing last season where we shot wood ducks in our field-goose spread.
Once you find a concentration of birds is when the work begins. Scouting requires an investment in time. The task can be made easier if you and your hunting buddies combine your efforts and maximize your time and scouting.
Ducks typically leave their roost twice daily — once in the morning and once in the evening. Start close to the water and get a general idea of the direction the birds are headed and light out after them. Go armed with a pair of binoculars, a plat book and a hand-held GPS unit. If you lose the birds, wait along the flight path. Another flight will be along shortly.
Knowing the lay of the land and farming practices in the area can be a big help. Having an idea ahead of time which farms have corn, peas or wheat planted can give you a pretty good idea what direction the ducks might be headed.
You can also do some of your scouting while you’re out hunting upland birds or bowhunting for deer. Becoming friends with your local mail carrier or UPS driver can provide some scouting shortcuts, too.
Setting Up for the ShootOut
Once you find some birds working a field, make note of the exact location in the field where the ducks are landing. Setting up on the spot where the ducks were last feeding will make fooling approaching ducks much easier.
Generally, setting up near the middle of the field is best or on the far upwind end of the field. Ducks that have played the game will shy away from trees, ditches or clumps of weeds that can hide predators and hunters. The new lay-down blinds make hiding easier than ever, and if you take the time to cover yourself with some natural cover, you can become nearly invisible.
Before you can hunt, though, you need to get permission. Use the plat book or a rural municipality map to identify the landowner; then, start knocking on doors. It’s a thankless job but a necessary one. Often, landowners are far removed from the actual property, and you may need to do some phone work to make contact with the right person.
Don’t take rejection to hunt private property personally. However, once you gain permission to hunt private land, cultivate and cherish the relationship. Offer the farmer some of your bag; send a nice Christmas card with a token of your appreciation; or just tell them how much you appreciate the opportunity to hunt. Just about any show of appreciation will go a long way toward being invited back. Leave the field in at least as good a shape as you found it. Pick up your empty shells, don’t leave ruts in the field, and pick up any other trash you might come across.
Decoying the Ducks
You don’t really need duck decoys to hunt ducks in fields. Goose decoys work almost as well. Goose decoys are big and highly visible, and ducks frequently feed where geese are feeding. However, adding some of the new field-duck decoys that are on the market can be the coup de grâce for attracting ducks into shotgun range.
Realizing the need and demand for quality field decoys, several manufacturers now make very lifelike field-duck decoys that look and move just like the real thing. Green Head Gear (www.greenheadgear.com) makes a line of full-bodied duck de
coys that feature unparalleled realism. The decoys feature ultra-realistic paint jobs, sleeper, resting and active heads and motion stakes that make them look alive. GHG also makes shell-type duck decoys that utilize a universal motion stake for added movement. For more information on GHG products, give the company a call at (800) 333-5119.
Flambeau Outdoors has been a decoy manufacturer for years and has answered the call for field-duck decoys by adding The Enticer full-bodied field decoy to its line. The Enticer features a unique one-piece design that makes it ideal for use in the field. Flambeau also offers a Pontoon Perimeter mallard decoy that can be used in the fields or on water. It has a removable head so it can be easily stacked for transport. And Flambeau’s Master Series Extreme Mallard Shell is the largest field-shell duck decoy on the market. Its one-piece design results in a durable, highly realistic decoy. For more details on Flambeau’s line of field-duck decoys, contact the company at its Web site — <a href="http://www.flambeau.com/" target="_blank" www.flambeau.com — or give ‘em a call at (800) 232-3474.
G&H Decoys’ American-made decoys have been a leader in the industry for decades. The company’s mallard shells set the standard for field decoys. G&H’s over-sized mallard shell decoys are durable, with lifelike paint schemes, and feature removable heads that come in Sassy Suzie greeter, rester, feeder and preener positions. A stackable shell construction makes it easy for hunters to carry several dozen into the field. For more information on G&H Decoys’ full line of decoys, visit the company online at www.ghdecoys.com, or call (800) 443-3269 for more information.
Spreading the Decoys
Ducks are drawn to field-goose decoys, but the sight of a few of their brethren on the ground usually seals the deal. Combining goose and duck decoys offers the best of both worlds. My typical field setup involves setting the goose spread in a wide U-shape, with the open end downwind.
Ideally, place the most lifelike decoys, like full bodies, at the far downwind end of the spread. The bulk of the decoys are placed at the upwind end of the spread, and the decoys gradually thin out along the arms of the “U.”
It’s a good idea to leave small openings along the arms where birds can land. We often clump the decoys here in small family groups of five to 10 decoys. The blinds can be positioned along the arms of the “U” and at the very upwind end of the spread.
The duck decoys usually are placed in the center of the spread along with a couple of spinning-wing decoys to steer the ducks into the middle of the set. Ducks don’t normally land right with the goose decoys, but they want to be close because they know where the geese are, is where the food is.
If the ducks won’t commit to landing in the center of the spread, we’ll move the duck field decoys to the ends of the arms of the spread and place our blinds accordingly. If we’re using just field-duck decoys, we’ll place them in a long “J” shape, clustering the decoys at the top of the “J,” while placing fewer decoys toward the tail of the “J.”
As a general rule, cluster the decoys if the weather is cold and spread them out more if the weather is mild.
How many decoys you use is a matter of personal preference and logistics. If you can drive into the field and have a trailer full of decoys, go for it. Most times, it seems like you can’t have too many decoys. Still, often two or three dozen decoys are all you need if they’re in the right place and you’ve done your homework.
During rainy falls when sheet water often accumulates in the fields, you can spot a few field decoys on dry ground and put half a dozen floaters in the water. The setup is deadly.
Motion can be a big aid in attracting attention to your spread and sealing the deal. Geese seem to shy away from spinning winged decoys, but ducks seem to love ‘em. The sight of a duck flapping its wings means there are birds on the ground and there’s food to be had. Ducks greedily hop-scotch each other when feeding in fields, hoping to get to the next cob of corn ahead of their brethren. A spinning-wing decoy can imitate this frenzied motion and attract ducks from a distance.
Flagging is another way of attracting ducks to your decoys. Ducks and geese are always flapping their wings when feeding or resting in fields. Fluttering a black flag is a good way to attract a passing flock’s attention and imitate feeding birds. An alternative is to add wings, called Flapperz, to your decoys. The wings attach right to the decoy with Velcro strips and flip and flop in even the slightest breeze. For more information on Flapperz, call (269) 857-4838 or visit the company online at www.flapperz.com.
Cover Up with Camo
Hiding in a cut wheat field or corn field can be difficult, but doing so has never been easier with today’s camouflage patterns and equipment. Modern camouflage patterns blend right in with whatever type of cover you’re hunting. The intricate mixes of shadows and leaf configurations make hunters nearly invisible, even in sparse cover.
The best place to hide when field-hunting is among the decoys. That can be as simple as lying between a couple of corn rows. Make sure your feet and face are hidden, too. If there’s snow, simply throw a white sheet over you or wear white camouflage.
My 50-year-old-something back isn’t up to that kind of duress anymore. I use a lounge-type chair that is thickly padded, comes in corn field camouflage, is highly mobile and doesn’t take up much room. Cover yourself with a camouflaged piece of burlap and you’re invisible.
Other hunters go one step farther and use the popular layout blinds with great success. Ducks have keen eyesight and are unusually spooky when approaching a field spread. To be successful, you need to be well hidden.
Calling All Ducks
Calling can be a great attraction when hunting ducks in fields. A long, loud hail call is great for getting the attention of passing flocks, and a greeting call mixed in with a few feed chuckles will help convince wary ducks they are missing out on a free lunch.
Because you’re probably going to be using goose decoys along with your field-duck decoys, bring a goose call, too. Goose and duck seasons often run concurrently, and both calls act as confidence calls in many cases. If you’re hunting with a group, a couple of hunters can be blowing goose calls, while the others make quacks and chuckles to produce the ultimate attraction.
Get Your Gun Right
Don’t spare the gun when hunting ducks in the field. Unless you’re hunting in the expansive fields in Canada and the birds are still naïve, it’s kind of rare to have ducks just plop right into the middle of your spread.
Often, ducks are cautious — skirting the field edges without really committing. While still in range, they might not be flapping down in your face, and by the time
you sit up, shoulder the gun and get on a duck as he catches the wind, he’s a little farther away than you expected.
For that reason I use a 12-gauge shotgun breached for 3-inch shells stoked with No. 2, No. 1 or even BB steel shot when I’m hunting fields. If you’re using some of the newer non-toxic loads, like Kent’s tungsten matrix, No. 3 or No. 2 shot will work fine. If the goose-hunting season is open, there’s a good chance you might get a crack at some geese, too, so you’ll want the bigger shot.
Gogs — Duck Hunters’ Best Friends
If you have a dog that minds and will stay still when field-hunting, he or she can be a godsend for running down cripples. Otherwise, throw some No. 7 steel shot loads in your pocket for cripples. A wing-tipped mallard can easily outrun a stumbling, bumbling hunter through a maze of cornstalks, and a few light steel loads will make the chase much shorter.
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Even though they’re called waterfowl, water isn’t the only place to hunt ducks. Give field-hunting a try this fall, and you may never get your feet wet again!