October 21, 2016
When it comes to hunting, and whether your quarry is a bugling bull elk, a wide-racked whitetail, or a wary greenhead, nothing works all the time. No one knows that better than the waterfowler.
Ducks can prove some of the toughest customers around when it comes to the art of deception; that is, the ability of we humans to outfox those "dumb ol' ducks." Time and time again, we're made to look foolish as flock after flock circles and locks up, only to grab altitude at the last minute and disappear.
But the tips that follow, while no absolute guarantees, are some of the most consistent game-changers I've learned in more than 40 years of calling myself a duck hunter.
BE A JERK!
It was 20 years ago, if not more, when legendary duck caller, Buck Gardner — World Champion, Champion of Champions, and then some — said these words I'll never forget. "If I had to choose between a duck call and a jerk cord, I'd pick a jerk cord."
A man who made his reputation and who makes his living building duck calls is willing to set them aside for a jerk cord? Absolutely.
When it comes to putting ducks on the water, a jerk cord is much more than simply a length of string, a little weight, and a couple of decoys. A jerk cord brings an otherwise stagnant spread to life. Real ducks move; they swim and splash. They tip up. They preen. All of which creates movement, and that movement in turn imparts distortion — ripples and waves — on the water's surface. Plastic ducks, a.k.a. decoys, for the most part do not.
A jerk cord embeds motion where there is none. That's true whether it's a web-like affair featuring multiple arms, shock cording, and capable of handling eight fakes, or merely 100 feet of 550 Paracord, a 3-pound grapple anchor, and three Hot Buy mallards. Anything that attracts attention via motion, and then holds that attention by bringing your decoys to life, definitely should be listed in the waterfowler's plus column.
SET A CARNIVAL SPREAD
A friend of mine referred to my rig as a carnival spread. Admittedly, my blocks — 10 drab early season hens, a pair of Canada floaters, and a half-dozen bright, mixed drakes — are different. However, for public-land birds accustomed to seeing cookie-cutter rigs of 36 mallards, this collection of fakes attracts attention like a big-lunged carnival barker.
The carnival spread works for three reasons. One, it's visually different. Two, the various species turn a mundane spread into something realistic. Three, and numbering 18, the spread is small compared to the vast majority. If there were a fourth factor, it would be the duo of Canada floaters, blocks that transform this spread from a ducks-only to one attractive to fowl large and small.
There is a method to the madness behind the decoys that make up the carnival spread. Early season birds typically are drab; hence, the emphasis given the 10 hens. The variety of species — mallards, pintails, widgeon, shovelers, gadwalls, teal, and even coots — contributes to overall realism, as well as enhances the confidence factor. The two Canada floaters add a high-profile, natural flair, while both working as confidence decoys and providing something other than ducks for passing geese to see. The six drakes add a splash of color and act as long-distance eye-catchers.
HIDE IN PLAIN SIGHT
It's a problem for duck hunters everywhere: Plenty of birds, but nowhere to hide. Water too shallow for a boat, and too deep for a layout blind. But there are muskrat houses scattered here and there. And a clump of thin willows. So you slip a raffia grass gillie suit poncho over your shoulders, and then put yourself right into the middle of things. Literally.
You can make your own suit, a fine DIY project, or purchase one all ready to go afield. However, buying an assembled suit is much easier. Pant and jacket combos are available, but a poncho is all you really need when hunting ducks.
If the targets are puddlers in shallow water with marginal native vegetation, set yourself as close as possible to what's there. If no cover exists, scout the birds, letting them tell you where to place your hide. A 5-gallon bucket with lid doubles as a seat and dry storage for extra gear. Your goal is to become an unassuming muskrat house so set your decoys randomly yet close around your position, with a small landing hole on the downwind side.
SLEEP IN AND SCORE BIG
When it comes to duck hunting, the Dawn Patrol is great. But sometimes the best time to start throwing decoys is at 9 or 10 in the morning.
To hunt mid-morning successfully, it's essential you know when the flights take place. Gear is minimal — a commitment to observation, binoculars, and a watch. Find a good vantage point, and make notes on what time and from which direction. Do the birds circle, or drop straight down?
Mid-morning ducks don't dawdle. They know where they're going, and they set down quickly. Once you've found that area, research it. Public land or private, Google Earth provides a mile-high look at the honeyhole. And then the work begins.
Now that you've found the "X," it's best to arrive an hour or so before the birds typically return. Give yourself plenty of time to get situated without hurrying. Birds already there? It's to your benefit to bite the bullet rather than shoot. Walk up, flush them out, and let them leave. Then, it's time to set your spread quickly and get under cover.
PATTERN AND PRACTICE
You've put each of the preceding pieces of advice into play, and — wonder of wonders! — there now are two dozen birds, fully committed, making their final approach from downwind. As the front of the flock touches down, you stand. BOOM! Miss. BOOM! Miss. BOOM! You now have three empties to show for your efforts. Oh, and your retriever's totally disgusted look.
This tip is perhaps the most elemental, yet the most significant in terms of filling a duck strap. Prior to the season, or at any time during the season, take time to pattern your shotgun and then practice. Shoot a variety of the steel shotshells you intend on using, and experiment with a number of different choke tubes. And then practice. It doesn't matter whether the game is formal trap, skeet, sporting clays, or a box of pigeons and a hand-thrower out behind the barn. The bottom line is to practice.
You really don't want to see those disappointed glances from the dog, now do you?