In the world of the duck hunter, elements are always changing. But, with the right adjustments, a hunt that may appear to be heading south can be turned around. Most of the time, all it takes is basic common sense. It all revolves around your gear, tactics and the chosen place to hunt.
A classic example of what I'm talking about occurred with a couple of buddies that I've been hunting with for decades. We got a call from a friend saying that one of his small ponds for watering his dairy cattle was covered up with ducks. Better than that, he extended an invitation for us to hunt the pond throughout the rest of the season.
More often than not, if something sounds too good to be true it usually is. But we were willing to give a small-pond duck hunt a shot. We made a scouting trip to the dairy farm and sure enough the pond surface was filled with several varieties of ducks. But the cover around the watering hole was sparse, as in dirt and grass. There was no way to set up a typical box blind. The ducks would be on to that in a hurry. Then, all of a sudden the answer was plain as day. We would use layout blinds, the type so often used for hunting geese.
We showed up the next morning well before daylight and began setting up our ambush blinds. Two layout blinds were set up next to the water, and covered with hay. The end result was better than expected. We were practically invisible. And as ducks began coming in to the pond from the feeding fields we had easy shots and quick limits.
You never know what's going to bring ducks in from one hunt to the next. Several years ago I made a coastal duck hunt with Skip James, a saltwater fishing guide at the time, and avid waterfowler. But from the get-go I had my doubts about his sanity. We motored across a bay and ended up at his well-built blind on a shallow flat. He pulled out a plastic bag and produced about a dozen of what he called "pixy stick propeller" decoys.
"What the heck is that?"
"They're plastic propellers on sticks," he answered casually. "We'll stick 'em up among the decoys. From far away they look just like ducks flying in and around the spread."
I was having some serious doubts about that concept, until about two hours later as we counted ducks to see how close we were to our limits.
Like I said, you never know what's going to work.
As a kid we were always trying to get the upper hand on ducks. For years our family had a duck-hunting spot on a wide-open reservoir covering about 500 acres. It was loaded with thick aquatic vegetation that ducks loved to eat. We started out hunting from the big traditional duck blinds, the type that you could pull a boat into.
Unfortunately, it didn't take long for the birds to get wise to all the "thatch huts" on the lake. Then one day I was watching an outdoor show featuring anglers fishing from canvas-covered inner tubes. Next thing you know my brother and I ordered a couple and rigged them up for duck hunting. They were basically truck tire tubes that were covered with canvas and fitted with a comfortable seat and backrest. We covered them in burlap and with some of the vegetation that grew around the lake.
They blended in perfectly; we had a low profile that completely fooled the ducks. The only malfunction was when we had to relieve ourselves. Also, in a coldwater situation our legs would kind of go numb. But that was a small price to pay for one more classic duck hunt.
Most good duck hunters are decoy freaks. We're always tinkering with them and can never have too many. But there are a couple of things you can do to a spread of decoys that will set them apart from what the other guys are using. One little tactic is to mix coots and assorted shorebirds in with the spread. Dwayne Lowrey is a very successful duck-hunting guide. Early one morning at the boat ramp we were having a cup of coffee and I noticed a stringer of odd looking duck decoys.
"Are those coots?" I asked.
"Yep," answered Lowrey. "Don't leave home without at least a couple of dozen of them. I'll mix them in with the regular spread of decoys. They make the spread look a little more like the real deal."
A couple of duck hunting buddies of mine don't leave the dock without at least a half dozen magnum-sized decoys. And after hunting with them a few times and seeing how well the big dekes work, I now have my own. Here's how you want to set up the magnum-sized decoys. First put out your spread. Then determine which way the ducks are most likely to come in. The big decoys are always placed out front where the ducks will see them on their first fly-by. When using magnum decoys it's always best to set out drakes. Big drakes show up real well and can be seen from a long distance.
I love to tweak decoys. The more realistic a decoy looks the more birds you'll get shots at. There are three simple things you can do to give your decoys more pizzazz. One is to add paint to faded decoys. For example, you can paint the bills of mallard decoys. On others, add a touchup wherever it's needed.
Second, when buying decoys always get the ones that have a head that you can turn from left to right. I've always thought that a set of decoys all looking the same way appeared unrealistic. Conversely, if their heads are looking left, right and forward it's a more lifelike spread.
Third, just about all decoys have a hole in the front and back of the keel. Tie half your decoy anchor cords on the back, and the other half on the front. That way, how they'll float and drift gives the impression that the ducks are at ease.
The first time I saw a floating decoy butt I laughed. Not anymore. If you've ever taken the time to watch ducks on the water, about half of them are swimming with their heads up, the other half are heads down and butt up, feeding. That's why it's always good to have a dozen or so decoy butts mixed in with your spread.
The rage for the past several seasons has been to use motorized motion decoys. The decoys with white twirling wings can be seen from a long way off. And they definitely attract ducks. Well, some of the time. These days it's rare to see a decoy spread that's not perked up with some sort of a motion decoy.
I can guarantee you they work, really well on most hunts. But over the years a lot of ducks have come to know what a motorized decoy can deliver -- steel shot. With that in mind, one of the worst things you can do is set up a motorized decoy and let it run throughout the entire hunt.
The best thing you can do is have a remote controlled decoy that will twirl its wings with the push of a button. That is the best-case scenario. When you see ducks at a distance, turn on the decoy to get their attention. When the birds move your way, turn off the decoy, and work them in on the call. If they begin to move off, then you can bring the decoy to life. It's kind of like a teasing yoyo.
On many hunts I've seen ducks move in on a motorized decoy but flare after a low pass. Use the effect of the twirling wings sparingly and you'll have more birds in the bag.
Here's another valuable tip: Those of us who have used motorized decoys extensively have found that a backup battery is worth its weight in gold!
There are also vibrating decoys that will move some water around; they're great on those hunts with very little wind. I also like the decoys that are propelled around in circles. Basically, any kind of motion that stirs up the water is good and adds life to what might otherwise be a dead spread.
One simple trick to add a lot of motion to a spread is to tie a string to a decoy and move it when ducks are working. My favorite rig is simple and very effective. First I take a coffee can and fill it with concrete. While the concrete is wet I insert an eyebolt. That's the anchor. When you are on the water, run a line from the decoy, through the eyebolt and to the blind. The can sinks on bottom under the decoy. When you pull on the line the decoy bobs under and pops up. It makes a lot of commotion. You don't have to actually yank the decoy under water. A gentle tug on the line will suffice. Do this little trick with three lines and you might be surprised at the end result.
So how many decoys do you really need to bring in ducks? That's the million-dollar question. And it can differ on any given day on any given spot. For example, if you're hunting on a secluded backwater pond, then you don't need that many decoys. In that situation anywhere from six to a dozen will work. But if you're out on a wide-open bay, then you can't have too many decoys.
During mid-season hunts or later, you'll want to cut back on the numbers of decoys you use. The birds will become wise to them in a hurry. That's especially true if you're hunting on water that gets a lot of shooting pressure. One way to keep late-season ducks off guard is to pick up your spread after every hunt. If you leave the spread out all season, I guarantee you the ducks will flare from them. It's not that much trouble if you're hunting with three or four people. Also, when you pick up the spread the chances of your decoys getting stolen drop down to zero.
One of the great things about duck hunting is that target birds are call friendly. I don't know what's better, calling in a long-bearded gobbler in the spring or working a flight of mallards to within 25 yards over the dekes with a call. Both are exciting.
Duck calling is a major part of the waterfowling adventure. But up front there is one rule of thumb when calling ducks -- practice makes perfect. I always keep a duck call in my vehicle, so I can quack my way down the road.
One of the most unpleasant things you can tolerate on a duck hunt is bad calling. I hunted with a guy one season that thought he was a duck-calling maestro. Fortunately, he had more ducks on his hunting spot than he could run off. Regardless of all the guy's atrocious calling, the birds continued to pile in. It absolutely drove me crazy!
Bad calling has fouled up more hunts than you can shake a stick at. On the other hand, good calling can make for an unforgettable hunt. One of the most thrilling things you can see on a duck hunt are birds that are called right in over the decoys. It's a sight you'll never forget.
Calling to ducks is usually best during the first two to three weeks of the season. That's when the birds are getting educated. By the middle and later weeks of the season, most ducks are wise to calling. Amateurs can get away with mediocre calling early on. But expert calling is what you'll need for the late-season ducks that have heard everything from Halloween-type calling to the stuff that is just short of the real deal.
Less calling is most often best at the end of the season. The best late-season calling usually begins with a high ball to get their attention. Once the birds are showing some interest you'll likely do best by letting them come in on their own. If they turn away, give them a few low and subtle quacks. There are times when no calling at all is the best tactic to use.
I think a whistle and soft quacking is a very good combination when you've got a mix of ducks. However, you can do way too much whistling. If you've ever listened to whistlers you might have noticed that they do not whistle real fast. It's more like a staggered whistle. Usually when they are making hurried whistling sounds they are on point and spooked.
Quite often it's the little things, as in details, that make a good duck hunt come together.