Low-Cost Duck Hunting
September 24, 2010
I don't belong to a fancy duck club or pay to hunt a managed marsh, but I get my share of ducks each season. Here's how I do it.
The author has developed a number of hunting methods that allow him to bag ducks without paying out a lot of bucks. He took this mallard by making a stalk on a location that he knew held ducks, and then jumped them off the water.
Photo by Gerald Almy
It was unusually warm that afternoon as I grabbed my 12-gauge double, stuffed a handful of shells in my pocket, and left the pickup. The crop residue in the field was brittle and dry, so I walked carefully as I approached the pond. Luckily, the wind was blowing toward me and would likely carry the sounds away from the ducks that I hoped were resting on the secluded, tree-lined waterhole.
The water's edge was only 40 yards away now, so I hunkered down into a belly-crawl position. Ever so slowly, I inched closer, the side-by-side gripped tightly in my hands.
When I finally crept to within 10 yards of the pond's perimeter, I peeked over the fallen logs and brush along shore. My heart leaped into my throat at what I saw! Dozens of ducks were scattered in and around the pond. Some were mallards, but most were wood ducks. It was a spectacular sight.
I knew the pond had the potential to hold quite a few ducks, but I wasn't expecting to find such an impressive flock of birds. For a moment I simply held myself up on my elbows and watched the brightly hued woodies and the drake mallards with their green heads glowing in the sunlight.
It may have been a subtle movement I made, or perhaps the sun glinted off my gun barrel. Whatever it was, several of the birds eventually grew wary and craned their necks suspiciously in my direction. I knew it was time to make my move.
Rising quickly, I took two steps forward to an opening that offered a good shooting lane and raised the shotgun. For a split second, there was total silence. It was as if the birds couldn't believe what had happened. Then instantly the pond erupted in a raucous splashing and an awesome roar of wildly flapping wings.
Forcing myself to pick out a drake mallard, I fired on the brilliant green head and then swung on a nearby drake wood duck. Both fell.
Normally, I would have been thrilled with the double, but with so many ducks on the pond, I quickly stuffed two more shells in the tubes and fired again. I missed cleanly with my third shot, and then connected on one more duck with that fourth and final shot.
That was one of the most awesome moments I had ever experienced in duck hunting. The sound of the flushing ducks making a raucous roar in dry fall air is with me even today. When I'd calmed myself down, I picked up the telescoping fishing rod I had at my side and cast a plug out to retrieve each of the three ducks I'd bagged.
To my surprise, though, not three, but five ducks were lying on the water. Evidently two mallards had flown behind the shot pattern on one of the shots. I had collected a limit of five ducks in a matter of minutes. And I had done it on a body of water most hunters wouldn't consider much more than a puddle.
Total cost of the hunt amounted to a few bucks for my four shells and a little gas to drive to the pond.
That hunt showed me that a dedicated waterfowler doesn't have to belong to a fancy shooting club or have lots of money to lease out a well-managed marsh to get his share of ducks each season. No guides are required, no fancy duck boats, no large numbers of decoys, or plush blinds. Just you and the ducks and the waters you find them on -- the kinds of places that well-heeled duck hunters don't even bother with.
Besides farm ponds like the one that held the huge flock of ducks described earlier, I also hunt small potholes, flooded lowlands, beaver dams, inland streams and rivers. Sometimes I jump-hunt them and occasionally I put out decoys. But there again, the cost is kept low because I only use about half a dozen. That's all you'll need on these low-pressured, neglected duck hotspots.
Too many people think duck hunting is just an exclusive sport for people who control large tracts of land, vast marshes and thousands of dollars worth of equipment. But the fact remains that ducks are available to anyone who wants to buy a hunting license and waterfowl stamps and try some of the less traditional places and ways of going after these migratory game birds. All you have to do is put in some time doing some pre-hunt scouting and door knocking to gain access. After that, just keep track of the waterfowl migration patterns in your area so that you know when the best time to hit the water will be.
No, I'll never pass up an invitation to hunt at a time-honored duck club, and I occasionally save up and shell out for a guided hunt as a special treat. But for a quick duck hunt close to home with little expense or equipment required, there are a number of options to turn to. Here's how I go about taking advantage of these opportunities, starting with the ponds, since that was the focus of my hunt described earlier.
PONDS & POTHOLES
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that 80 percent of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of a pond. Add to these the myriad small, still waters such as beaver dams and seasonal potholes that develop from overflowing rivers or heavy rains damming up in low areas and you have a vast array of overlooked, underutilized duck-hunting spots to make use of.
Pond hunting doesn't require large numbers of decoys. You can use 6 to 12, or simply jump-shoot the ponds and not use any decoys. Ponds also offer solitude -- something you can't always find on larger, more popular duck-hunting areas.
You can locate these miniature duck habitats in several ways. Driving backcountry roads and stopping to visit with farmers and mail carriers, talking with game wardens and studying topographic maps are all good strategies for pinpointing small ponds. Check them out before the season, looking either for the ducks themselves or for feathers and droppings indicating that they've been using the spot.
Two hunting strategies work well for bagging ducks on ponds. Personal preference, the lay of the land and habits of the local ducks will help you decide which is best for a given body of water. Jump-shooting is the easiest and most straightforward method. It's also exciting, starting with the initial search for game, then a careful stalk into range that can mean hunching down or even crawling on knees, followed by a flurry of intense, close-range shooting.
Try to get a look at the p
ond from a distance to determine which side the birds are holding on and what topographical features will offer the best approach. Often coming up behind the dam may be best, but brush, trees and gullies can offer other approach options. Get as close as possible before rising to flush the birds -- preferably within 30 yards or less.
Two hunters can approach the pond together, a few yards apart, if you know the location of the birds. If the pond is large and you don't know where the ducks are positioned, it may be better to move in from different locations to ensure that at least one person gets some shooting. Be careful that you're not shooting in the direction of your partner, however.
When a flock of anywhere from half a dozen to perhaps 50 birds suddenly rises, it's important to force yourself to select one target to aim at. If you drop that duck, then pick out another one in range and shoot at it. Be aware of the species you're shooting at, too, since the laws are very strict about how many of each duck you can bag.
If you have a retriever that will stay by your side until you flush the ducks, that's a big plus. If you don't, be sure to bring waders so that you can retrieve the fallen game or that you have access to a boat. As an alternative, bring a rod and reel with a treble-hooked lure to snag the ducks and pull them to shore.
Another strategy you can use for pond hunting is a more traditional approach -- waiting for the birds to come to you. Two methods will work: Either get in to the pond before daylight and await the ducks' return, or flush them off without shooting and wait for them to come back. With either approach, the technique is pretty much the same. You're relying on the attraction of that resting area to bring the birds in.
If ducks are on the water, try to flush them off subtly and quietly -- and in small groups. Just let a few of the most alert birds barely see some movement as you approach, then hunker down and let those fly off. Then move a bit closer and alarm a few more ducks, causing them to flush.
You don't want to scare the daylights out of them, just worry them a bit so that they won't be reluctant to return. If the birds leave in small, broken-up groups, chances are good they'll come back the same way --sporadically, in small flocks, offering extended shooting opportunities.
Never shoot at the birds on the flush if you expect them to return. Make your choice. Either jump-shoot and move on to another pond, or flush the birds off quietly and hope they'll come back.
The next steps are the same, whether you've flushed the birds off a pothole or sneaked in to the pond before daylight. You can set out 6 to 12 decoys if you choose, or you can skip them. I've seen times when the decoys seemed to help. On other occasions, I've just waited, hiding beside the pond in brush or a makeshift blind, and had the birds pour back in by the dozens. Use your judgment and see what the local birds seem to require.
When I'd calmed myself down, I picked up the telescoping fishing rod I had at my side and cast a plug out to retrieve each of the three ducks I'd bagged.
If you've chosen the right pond and set up before daylight, ducks will usually come pitching in as the first orange fingers of dawn illuminate the scene. If you flush birds off, expect to wait anywhere from five minutes to an hour before they return. Of course, the waterfowl won't always come back. That's the chance you take with this approach. But in most cases they will, especially if your pre-season scouting has showed that it's a pond or pothole the birds use often and that they haven't been hunted there recently.
You'll see them circling warily at first. Soon they'll drop down and you'll hear that thrilling rush of wings beating the cold autumn air as they drop closer, then watch transfixed as they pitch down confidently toward the water. It's one of the sweetest of all waterfowling experiences, and you'll have it basically for free.
RIVERS & STREAMS
Rivers and streams can offer equally productive low-cost, no-hassle duck hunting. Thriving populations of waterfowl use these flowages -- everything from big mallards down to the diminutive teal.
I use several techniques for river and stream ducks, but one of the most intriguing and rewarding tactics is float hunting. This method works on waters both large and small. On big, broad rivers, concentrate on one side of the flowage. Work the inside bend on turns or the side with the most cover such as logjams, small points or overhanging brush. Those are places that ducks can hang out behind on straight stretches.
On small streams you can generally stay in the middle and shoot at ducks that flush from either side.
Both johnboats and canoes can be used for float hunting. Johnboats are a bit more stable, but if you're familiar with canoes they can definitely be a good choice and are easier to maneuver through narrow openings between rocks and logs and in riffles. For safety's sake, difficult rapids should be portaged, and always wear a flotation device. For emergencies, bring a waterproof boat sack with a change of clothes, butane lighter or waterproof matches, and a space blanket.
It pays to either camouflage your boat or at least paint it a flat-finish olive, gray or brown. Sometimes I like to tie a bit of brush on the bow as well, to add further cover. The hunter in the stern should keep his gun pointed toward the back, away from the person in the bow, and he should only shoot at ducks that flare back upstream. The main job for that person is controlling the craft and slowly sculling the boat to put the bow hunter in range of ducks. Plan on switching positions a few times during the float, so each person gets a fair share of shooting opportunities.
Four to eight miles is a good stretch of river to float for a half-day hunt. For a full-day outing, six to 10 miles is feasible. Err on the side of too short a drift, though, rather than too long. It's no fun being out in the dark or paddling frantically to reach your take-out destination in fall or winter.
A second approach I use for rivers and streams is stalking along the bank. You must either hunt public land or obtain permission from the landowner before trying this method. I particularly like this tactic for small and medium-sized flowages, where any duck that flushes will probably be in good shooting range. Small streams also tend to have lots of brush and trees along the banks, plus bends and elevated banks. All of these features help you sneak up for close shots. This tactic is also a good one to use if the weather has been dry and boats tend to scrape bottom on a float hunt, flushing birds out of range.
The stalking method can also be employed in conjunction with float hunting. If you spot a group of ducks far ahead but there's no cover for a direct approach, pull off to shore and send one hunter on a circular stalk so that he comes in just downstream from the birds
. When he flushes them, chances are good they'll fly upstream past the other hunter waiting in hiding by the boat.
Dress in camouflage or drab-colored clothing when jump-shooting and work quietly along shore, parallel to the stream. If cover is thick, you can stay close to the bank. If it's sparse, walk 15 to 30 yards back from the water's edge, but loop up close to the bank every 50 to 60 yards or so to check for ducks.
The third method that's useful for inland river ducks is setting out decoys. Either set up a portable blind or build a quick one from shoreline brush and logjams. The best time for decoying birds is in the morning, when the ducks are flying to and from feeding areas. Points, eddies, edges of islands, sloughs and riffles are all good places to set up decoys. Six to 12 decoys are sufficient, and if you have to settle on one species, mallards get the nod.
I had only four mallard decoys in my truck one morning when I decided on the spur of the moment to hunt a small spot on a river bend where water had flooded over into a low area in a field. Those four were enough, though. The ducks spotted those two pairs quickly in the half-acre backwater, and for nearly an hour various groups of birds circled, set their wings, and glided into my small spread.
Unless it's a stormy day, after about 8 a.m. you can plan on pulling the decoys and either float-hunting or stalking for the rest of the morning. But, heck -- with any luck you probably won't need to. There'll likely be a limit of plump ducks nestled at your side ready to be plucked, dressed and chilled down for some delectable dinners in days ahead. And the cost for bagging them will have been only a few dollars for shells and gas to drive to the hunting spot.
That's a bargain I just can't pass up. How about you?