Jumping Sooner Ducks

Many of our savvy waterfowlers find this tactic perfect for hunting ducks on small waters around the state. (December 2008)

Some of my friends -- the diehard duck hunters who own 200 decoys, camouflaged boats, a dozen square yards of camo netting and 100 pounds of Labrador retriever -- make fun of my favorite method of duck hunting.

I'm a pond hunter.

Oh, I enjoy a frosty day standing waist-deep in icy water in the shallows of Lake Eufaula as much as anyone else.

But I grew up in northwestern Oklahoma where big reservoirs are few and far between, and where migrating ducks often stopped for R&R on the many farm ponds and stock tanks that ranchers and farmers built on their lands.

And even though I now live near Tulsa, with a dozen large reservoirs within an hour or two of my house, I still enjoy a day of jumping ducks off of farm ponds, creeks, bottomland areas flooded by beaver dams and other such small bodies of water.

Some days it doesn't take long to bag a limit of mallard drakes while hunting ponds. And the diversity of species I find on ponds seems even greater than on the big lakes.

You never know if the next group of ducks to circle the pond will be mallards or pintails or redheads or teal or widgeon or what. I've seen everything from buffleheads to the rare (in this flyway) black ducks cupping their wings and landing on the small ponds I sometimes hunt. I usually shoot only mallards or gadwall or teal, but I do get to see a variety of species on small waters.

My son, a college student now, keeps our freezer full of duck breasts, often by hunting right here in the urban area within the suburbs of Tulsa. He and his young friends often come in with a mixed bag of ducks, as well as the occasional big Canada geese, which frequent the ponds on the outskirts of Tulsa. That's especially true along the Arkansas River, which a variety of waterfowl seem to use as a local flyway.

Some of the local creeks that flow into the Arkansas also attract ducks and geese. Although I haven't shot at a wood duck in many years, local creeks often have breeding pairs of woodies in spring and summer, and you may see plenty of that colorful species during the hunting season as well.

Actually, my son and his young waterfowling buddies don't always jump ducks from those small, local ponds and creeks. They may make a small decoy spread and hide in shoreline brush. But they sometimes employ the old sneak-and-jump technique as well.

For many years we have had access to a large ranch that has seven ponds. We hunt deer and quail there, but the ponds have provided many days of waterfowling fun. We go from one pond to the next, creeping up from below the dams or behind shoreline trees and brush to flush the ducks into flight. All but one of the ponds are small enough that ducks are within range, even if they are at the far end of the pond. And they usually are. That's because most of the "sneaks" usually take place from below the dams, at the deeper ends of the ponds, while the ducks typically dawdle in the shallower, upper ends of the ponds where it is easier to dive or dabble for food.

And even on the largest pond, where ducks at one end of it are 50 or 60 yards from the other end, we are able to "double team" them because the upper end of the pond has a thick stand of trees that can hide one hunter while the other flushes the birds from the dam end. One hunter pops up over the dam to flush the birds, and any that flush from the upper end stand a chance of getting shot as they rise over the treetops. The hunters there are hidden within shotgun range.

The birds on that property often fly only from one pond to another, so birds that we miss on one pond can sometimes later be found on one of the other ponds on the same ranch. We may get two or three chances at the same birds before we either bag them or they fly down to the nearby Arkansas River.

You don't even have to wear camouflage or drab clothing when you're jumping ducks this way. Oh, it can help, especially if you are trying to sneak through brush to get a look at the pond to see if there are birds there. But if the earthen dam hides your approach, you can wear pretty much anything you want.

In fact, we have even taken a break from quail hunting, attired in blaze-orange vests and caps, to sneak up on and bag a few ducks from the ponds.

We often bring a handful of No. 4 steel loads along with our No. 8 quail loads, just in case there are ducks on the ponds while we're bird hunting. I believe it is illegal to carry lead loads when you are hunting waterfowl, so we totally leave our quail loads in the truck when we try a "duck sneak" on a pond. Even though the chance of being checked by a game warden while on private property is slim, I don't want to risk a ticket for carrying the shells, even though we comply with the law and use only the steel loads for shooting ducks.

We usually try to jump ducks from ponds toward the end of a long walk while quail hunting. That's smart thinking on our part, because three or four fat mallards can add a heavy load equal to multiple limits of quail in the bulging game pouch of a hunting vest.

Sometimes we can drive past the ponds and look over the ducks from a close vantage point. Because the cowboys feeding cattle or the oil-well pumpers checking their wells drive past the ponds daily, the ducks typically do not fly away, even when a vehicle rolls past a few yards from the pond bank. As long as you don't stop or open doors, or do anything else out of the ordinary, the birds may continue to feed or rest on the water as a pickup rolls past. We can drive past a pond and then park 100 yards away, hidden from their view, and then sneak back on foot to flush the unsuspecting ducks.

It doesn't always take a large pond to attract ducks. I've jumped ducks from "ponds" that were actually only rain puddles no bigger than a two-car garage.

In the flat lands of Western Oklahoma, where seasonal puddles sometimes form in crop fields and pastures, those small bodies of water are sometimes covered with ducks of several kinds. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to sneak up on most of those ponds, though, because they are on flat land with no pond dams to hide behind and no nearby trees or brush to hide a hunter's approach.

If, however, you find such a puddle that ducks are using, it's possible at times to use a layout blind to wait for ducks to approach. Concealment is difficult in a field of bright green wheat grass only 5 inches high, or even in a short-grass pasture, but it can be done. Besides creating a blind that blends in, it is important to remain as

motionless as possible when birds are approaching in those no-cover situations.

Ponds are not the only small waters where "jumping" ducks is possible. In much of Oklahoma in the past 30 years, the population of beavers has exploded. Beavers are so numerous that the agriculture department employs "government trappers," also known as animal damage control specialists, to trap and shoot beavers and to destroy beaver dams.

But the beavers always seem to stay a jump ahead of the trappers and are constantly building new dams and flooding small creek bottoms, bottomland pecan groves and similar low-lying areas.

Such newly flooded areas can draw big numbers of ducks, especially if there are pecan trees dropping nuts into the water. And if an area is a bit marshy already, and is grown up in smartweed or other marsh vegetation that ducks use for foods, then when the beavers flood the bottom and give the ducks some water in which to swim, the abundance of food there is a big attraction for hungry birds.

Another small-water opportunity: hunting from a canoe, kayak or johnboat along small creeks, but you must be careful doing that in Oklahoma. Here, most small creeks flow chiefly through private properties.

Where I live, near Tulsa, there are several creeks in every direction from town that flow through farms and ranches and pecan groves and, over the years, I've obtained permission from several landowners who allowed me to launch a canoe on their land to hunt ducks or squirrels while afloat.

It should be noted also that it is illegal to shoot waterfowl while actually under power from a motorized boat. But easing slowly and silently around a tight creek bend using only paddles can sometimes allow at least one person in the canoe an opportunity to shoot.

And on at least a couple of the creeks where I have hunted in the past, ducks gather in the still waters near the mouths of the creeks where they flow into the Arkansas River. Putting out a dozen or fewer decoys and tucking your boat into the bushes, or camouflaging the boat and shooting from onboard, can provide a productive hunt.

Farther up on some streams a hunter might find wide spots with some shallows, where currents are slow, and where a small decoy spread will bring in teal, mallards or other ducks.

There are also small-water duck-shooting opportunities on public lands throughout Oklahoma. I've jumped ducks from ponds on state-run wildlife management areas throughout the northern half of the state, from as far west as Ellis and Harper counties, all the way to the counties that border Arkansas.

Some WMAs even have temporary marsh areas that are seeded with millet or planted with smartweed and are flooded in early fall to attract migrating waterfowl. On most of those areas, a man can hunt from the shore or from the elevated dikes that form the temporary pools, or from a float tube or from a small boat.

Hunters can find more information about those waterfowl marsh hunting areas at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation's Web site, www.wildlifedepartment.com. The department's public hunting lands atlas of WMA maps also shows the areas on the individual WMA maps.

Topographic maps are another valuable resource for locating ponds and creeks. However, areas flooded by beaver dams won't be shown on maps.

There are good small-water areas on some of the federal wildlife refuges in Oklahoma. My son and I have hunted a couple of those places on the Deep Fork refuge near Okmulgee. An old oxbow of the Deep Fork River, which holds water year 'round but is cut off from the actual river except during periods of flooding, has provided us with several good days of shooting. We sometimes take a canoe when we go there, and other times we just pack a few decoys into backpacks and walk into the area from one of the paved parking lots.

If I don't take a canoe, I have been known to carry a fishing rod equipped with a large, multihooked topwater plug. The plug can be used to retrieve downed ducks that are floating in water too deep to wade.

If you plan to hunt one of the state or federal public tracts, check with the local managers or look at the agencies' Web sites because open season dates, daily shooting hours and such are sometimes different on those areas than on private lands. And don't forget to leave your lead loads at home.

There are small-water opportunities in every part of Oklahoma. Even in the mountainous and hilly country of the far southeastern counties, there are backwater sloughs in the creek bottoms and stock-watering ponds on many farms and ranches where ducks can be found.

And even out in the most arid parts of the state near the Texas Panhandle there are spring-fed wetlands where ducks gather. A friend of mine has a turkey-hunting spot in Ellis County where there is a very small pond that is kept full year 'round by a seeping spring. It is in a small low-lying area where the turkeys roost nightly because the spring water nurtures numerous large cottonwood trees. The "pond" is about the size of my living room, and it is virtually hidden by the surrounding brush and overhanging cottonwood branches. But I've watched dozens of ducks circle and land there in the evenings until the pond is practically paved over with mallards and teal.

It's a favorite pastime at the hunting camp to sit in the evenings and watch the turkeys fly to roost and watch the ducks come to the tiny pond. Many evenings I have been amazed by how many ducks can crowd together on such a tiny amount of water.

I think that tiny pond attracts so many birds because water is scarce in that area. I know of one other small pond about a quarter-mile away, but no other ponds can be found within at least a couple of miles.

Of course, in much of Oklahoma virtually every square section of land contains multiple ponds. There are literally hundreds of thousands of ponds in the Sooner State.

So even if you don't have a big camouflaged boat and a garage full of decoys, it is possible to find small-water duck hunting opportunities throughout Oklahoma. And it usually requires much less equipment and work than hunting on the big lakes out of larger boats and with huge decoy spreads.

But don't forget, even if you're hunting small ponds on private lands, you still need to use non-toxic shot shells and to have the appropriate stamps, licenses and the migratory bird harvest information permit when you go into the field. And be sure those repeating shotguns are plugged so that they hold no more than three shells, including the round in the chamber.

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