Finding Waterfowl Hotspots That Others Miss

Sure -- there's some good hunting at the big, popular tracts of public land that nearly everybody flocks to. But the action's just as good at out-of-the-way hot spots that many waterfowlers overlook.

Big-time waterfowling doesn't have to involve big-time crowds - as the hunters seen here plainly attest. Photo by Bryan Hendricks

As waterfowl hunting grows more popular, it's getting harder to enjoy hunting waterfowl on public lands. If you plan ahead and do a little homework, however, you can still find high-quality hunting on areas that others overlook. Some are hard to reach; others are amazingly close to large metropolitan areas. Either way, the hunting can be phenomenal. Just be careful about whom you share your secrets with - because secrets have a way of getting around.

Throughout the South, public waterfowl hunting areas are crowded throughout the season, especially in a good flight year. Even in poor years, hope springs eternal, and even marginal areas fill fast with people who hope they can find some decent hunting between the cracks, so to speak.

Some places allow daily access to a limited number of hunters through a lottery. Unfortunately, this requires hunters to participate in a pre-hunt drawing. If you aren't selected, your day is pretty well shot, because by the time the drawing is done, it's too late to go anywhere else. Other places with open access can be so crowded that finding a place to park, let alone hunt, can be a challenge. In those areas, you have to compete with a lot of other hunters trying to attract ducks to their spread or, worse, with skybusters shooting at ducks working your spread.

The most obvious ways to avoid these headaches is to lease a place to hunt or to get permission from a kindhearted landowner. Leasing is expensive, and landowners are often reluctant to grant access to people they don't know well. No wonder that regular people are abandoning waterfowling, leaving the sport to become the domain of the wealthy.

But before you retire your retriever and reassign your waders to fishing duty, grab a map of your state or county. Look closely and you'll see all kinds of public areas that offer potentially good waterfowl hunting. Such areas include the banks, coves and islands of major rivers or reservoirs. Smaller rivers and creeks also offer excellent opportunities for float hunters.

Along the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast, there's also some fine hunting available in the dredgewater ponds of the Intracoastal Waterway. Your state fish and game department probably manages land close to home that's well known for deer, turkeys or upland game, but totally disregarded for waterfowl hunting. It's likely that they have a number of ponds that seem to attract ducks throughout the year. You've probably seen ducks on these ponds while you were hunting other game and never considered returning to them for ducks.

The point: Excellent, overlooked waterfowl hunting opportunities are everywhere. Here's how to find them.

The South is blessed with many large rivers, some of which flow through several states. People fish them and enjoy pleasure boating on them, but come fall, they abandon them. All that's out there in the cold months are the ducks and geese that use them as travel corridors.

Most of the South's large rivers are public waterways managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The banks are privately owned, of course, except for a thin easement right along the shore. Sometimes these strips are only a few yards wide, but as long as you don't wander onto private land, you can hunt virtually anywhere along the banks.

My first duck hunt as a youngster took place on such a spot on a backwater of a large southern river in the 1970s. My dad, a pair of uncles and I stayed in a houseboat moored along the shore of an oxbow off the main river. In the mornings we motored through the flooded timber of an isolated backwater until we reached the bank.

There we beached the boat and covered it; then we crouched behind a makeshift blind. At first light, wood ducks, mallards, teal and gadwalls poured into that cove. It was pass-shooting, mostly, but the hunting was better than it was the next day, when we traveled a short distance to a world-famous state-owned public waterfowl hunting area.

Years later, I accepted an invitation to hunt geese with some friends along the same river, much farther upstream in a wide lake formed by a couple of navigation dams. We gathered at a large residential area on the south side of the river; the more-remote north shore was accessible only by water, so we motored around a bend into a wide cove until we ran aground on a mud flat. We threw out a spread of goose decoys, pulled the boats into the brush along the bank and enjoyed a cup of coffee as we listened to the cacophony of geese feeding in the nearby fields.

About an hour after sunrise, the geese lifted off and flew low right over us. All five of us got to shoot; three bagged a goose. Even though duck season had passed, I couldn't help but notice the small flocks of buffleheads that buzzed the cove well within shooting range. A fair number landed out in open water. Our host assured us that during duck season the cove was a magnet for mallards and other more common duck species. The only requirements to hunt that spot were the proper permits and a boat to get you there.

Large rivers almost always have sandbars along inside bends that can offer excellent waterfowl hunting. Ducks and geese like to loaf on the sandbars, but they also like to rest in the slack water between the bank and the bar. The only way to reach sandbars, usually, is by water, and you'll probably have to carry in some material to make a blind - but the rewards are well worth the trouble.

In addition, many large rivers also have wing dams to channel the current to the center of the channel. Behind these dams are still pools that offer shelter from wind and waves. These areas are very attractive to ducks. A bonus is that there's usually enough wood piled along the bank to make a blind. You can also hunt from the wing dam itself, which allows you to shoot from an elevated position over the pool. This will often give you a straight shot at ducks buzzing your decoys.

Hunting big rivers is fun, but it can be hazardous. Use only a boat rated for big water with a motor big enough to handle heavy current, and do not overload it. I use a 14-foot aluminum V-bottom painted with three different camouflage patterns to give it three distinct silhouette breaks; the interior is also painted in camo. I hide it a good distance from my setup, and it doesn't spook ducks. Make sure your dog, if you hunt with one, is trained to sit still while underway. A wintertime dunk in an icy river current can be fatal.

Usually one associates a float trip on a creek or small river with summertime fishing. In the fall and winter, such places are also great for bagging a limit of ducks. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you might kill a goose or two.

Waterfowl do travel along small rivers and large creeks that flow through agricultural areas, though not in the numbers that migrate along big rivers. Wood ducks inhabit these areas year 'round, but surprising numbers of mallards and gadwalls are present in late fall and early winter. Numbers are usually higher near the confluences of these waters and bigger rivers, but you can enjoy some surprisingly good hunting even in mountainous or hilly country.

I got my first taste of this type of hunting several years ago while float fishing for trout in the tailwaters of a big reservoir. Since duck season was open, I packed a shotgun, and it turned out to be a trip saver. My partner and I rounded a bend and encountered a small gravel bar with some slack water on the downstream end, with a nice patch of aquatic weeds in the shallows.

The cold December air, which to that point had been silent save for the sipping of our paddles in the water, erupted with panicky quacks as some 40 mallards launched skyward. My pump gun was up in a flash, and to this day I'm amazed that I only bagged one greenhead at such close range. Without it, the trip would have been a bust, because we didn't catch a single trout.

In addition to the mallards, wood ducks fly up and down these rivers all day long, and it's not uncommon for them to sail in over your head and splash down just out of gun range. Sometimes they'll float downstream just ahead of you, but if you start gaining on them, they'll flush. It happens fast, but if you're ready, you usually have enough time for at least one good shot.

Hunting smaller rivers is fairly simple. As you paddle or float downstream, you'll often encounter ducks, sometimes in large numbers, loafing in still pools as you round a bend. You're often well within shooting range before they flush, and you can score an easy triple on rising birds if your gun is up and if pick your targets and shoot quickly enough. The traditional method is for the gunner to sit in the bow while the stern man paddles. After the first guy shoots, they trade places.

If you're paddling alone, just lay your gun across the thwarts, with the safety on and the muzzle pointing away from you. For added safety, I wrap my thwarts in foam pipe insulation, which you can buy in tubes of various sizes from any retail department store. You can cut it to length and slip it over the thwart. This provides a non-slip surface that will keep your gun from sliding off the thwart and creating a possible hazard.

Most states have a few areas that they manage specifically for waterfowl. The hunting is always great there, but competition for hunting space there is almost always stiff. Instead, I have experienced some of my favorite hunts at areas that are virtually unknown for waterfowl. These upland areas always have ponds, and if they're near a river or stream of any size, they will attract ducks. I'm amazed at how often I find ducks on these ponds, and when I do, I make a mental note. Come fall, I always come back, and I never regret it.

For example: A couple of years ago I was hunting deer at a public hunting area in a hilly area with steep, rugged terrain. As I walked back to my truck, I spied a pond in the woods down in a small hollow. I did a doubletake when I saw a bunch of greenheads swimming around on it.

The next morning, about 30 minutes before shooting time, I returned and nestled against a tree about 10 yards from the bank. Shortly after sunrise, I heard wind rushing overhead, along with a short, quiet cackle. I responded with a short, quiet chuckle, and a mixed flock of mallards and gadwalls poured like confetti through the trees.

Firing three times, I dropped two plump mallard drakes as the rest of the flock thundered away. I'd barely had time to reload when, to my amazement, they returned, and I dropped two gadwalls with three shots. When they left the second time, they didn't come back.

Last year I had a similar experience when I was hunting doves at a public area adjacent to a major river. Most of the area was covered in high grasses, sunflowers and a variety of weeds, but every now and then I found scattered potholes here and there. I went back on the opening day of duck season and found a pair of hunters working the big pond closest to the access road.

I walked through the weeds until I found another pothole, but nothing came to it. From the corner of my eye I saw a shadow drop into the weeds about 75 yards away. I thought it might have been a marsh hawk - except that it never came back up. I crept through the weeds until I saw a large pool, but in front of me, the weeds gave way to open ground, preventing me from approaching from that direction. So I doubled back behind the pond, where the bank cover was high, but the ground was fairly open behind.

I crept along until I reached the midpoint of the pond. I looked out and saw ripples emanating practically from the bank. I kicked the rushes, flushing a flock of mallards practically under my nose. I dropped two greenheads, one banded, and a mallard hen with three shots. About 30 minutes later, a pair of green-winged teal jetted in and flared over the opposite bank. I dropped one with one shot. As he thrashed around, his mate was determined to land with him, but I declined to shoot so I could run down the cripple.

Four shots, four birds: a great way to break in a new shotgun. I returned a few days later and bagged four more.

Chances are good that there's a big reservoir within easy driving distance, and that it attracts a lot of waterfowl. Chances are also pretty good that it seldom if ever gets hunted.

Reservoirs have a lot of sheltered coves, islands and flats that attract many different species of ducks, and Canada geese. Like the major rivers, the shorelines of these lakes are in the public domain, which means that, barring regulations that say otherwise, you can hunt there.

This type of hunting can be challenging, because you're usually hunting over open water. This requires imaginative decoy spreads to funnel the ducks into a shootable approach. Sometimes there's enough cover on the shore to provide concealment, but it's often wise to bring a portable blind, or some material to make a blind.

A specially rigged hunting boat with pop-up blinds is ideal for this environment. If you're hunting over open water at the end of a point, you'll probably see diving ducks, like buffleheads and goldeneyes - even some canvasbacks. Brush up on your regulations so that you'll know what is and isn't legal game. In the coves and shallow areas, you might see more mallards, gadwalls, wood ducks and pintails.

While the areas described above might not provide what you might consider a classic waterfowl hunting experience, they often do provide just

plain old excellent hunting. If that's what you enjoy, then it's well worth the effort to find them.

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