September 28, 2010
Beading in on cupped-up singles and doubles in beaver ponds and small creeks has big advantages over open water and rafts of hunters. (December 2007)
Photo by Brian Strickland.
Anyone who has ever shared a picnic in a big-city park, played a round of golf or floated a small stream in a canoe knows that puddle ducks don't need expansive bays or sprawling marshes to thrive.
Species such as mallards, teal, wood ducks, ring-necked ducks, hooded mergansers and buffleheads are particularly common on small bodies of water.
And while ducks on ponds and creeks are typically found in pairs or small flocks of a dozen or fewer -- compared to the tens of thousands that gather on big water -- they tend to be available throughout the hunting season. And hunters often have little competition on them.
For example, take the afternoon I had on a beaver pond last year.
Half an hour before the close of legal shooting time, the first mallards broke over the tops of the fir trees.
Through the thicket of tules between the water and me, I could see them circling the marsh in large, high gyres. I blew a pair of high-ball calls, trying not to sound too loud in the timber-fringed valley.
They approached slowly, in lower and tighter circles. I saw them crane their necks, inspecting the mallard blocks in front my blind where I hid with my yellow Lab, Lily.
Soon, two drakes braked toward the water. I could hear their wings and saw their white bellies and orange feet. I swung on the lead bird.
It fell heavily, tumbling. Lily was after it before I could say a word.
I got another mallard 15 minutes later, then hiked the half-mile through the woods back to my car.
That pond isn't listed on any maps. Even the area's topographical map shows only a large marsh.
I've never seen another hunter there, nor seen any trash or tracks to indicate that anyone else bothers to visit it.
But if they did, they'd find a pretty pond covered in lily pads, surrounded by tules and cattails, in the middle of a large marsh.
The size of the pond has varied over the decades, depending on the activity of the beavers, rainfall and storms. One thing that doesn't change in small-water duck hunting is the ducks.
Where I hunt, mallards and green-winged teal nest in the dense vegetation upstream of the open water.
When the sedges turn golden, migrating birds drop in. From time to time, I see buffleheads and hooded mergansers. This particular pond lies only about five miles from the coast, where tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl trade between the big tidewater bays and estuaries.
Not surprisingly, these large concentrations of ducks attract hundreds of hunters. Most of the activity takes place on public hunting areas or a handful of zealously protected private duck clubs. Those public areas bristle with hunters, and the private ones cost a lot of money.
To hunt on this beaver pond, the only thing I need to spend is energy. Even better, the ducks here usually stay put through the season, unlike the coastal birds, which move around with the tides and in search of food.
During extended bad weather on the coast, when wind and big waves make thing uncomfortable, many of the saltwater birds fly inland. When that happens, I often encounter waves of ducks seeking refuge on the pond.
A FUN WAY TO HUNT
The late Charlie Waterman -- widely regarded as the most eloquent and sensible outdoors writer of his generation -- once summed up his duck-hunting philosophy this way:
"You can only shoot one duck at a time."
In other words, while it may be thrilling to see thousands of ducks rising in unison over a coastal bay or interior rice field, you need to single out an individual bird when you raise your gun.
Indeed, the easiest way not to kill a duck is to shoot blindly into a passing flock.
Ducks can also absorb a lot more punishment than most upland game. It is both prudent and responsible to keep shooting at a bird until folds up and falls hard.
And with a three-shot limit, that doesn't give most hunters very many chances at doubles or triples.
So what does it really matter if you see ducks in twos, threes, fours or even 200, 300 and 400 at a time? The limits are the same, after all, and so is your effective shooting range.
Without so many distractions and competition, you will probably actually do better -- and almost certainly have more fun -- once you get the hang of it.
TYPES OF SMALL WATERS
Although small-water ducks inhabit a variety of settings, the best hunting for them occurs on three basic types of water:
'¢ Small lakes and ponds on public land or private timberland, especially those off-road or behind permanent or seasonal gates,
'¢ Beaver ponds, and
'¢ Remote sections of streams and creeks where road access is limited.
The pursuit of ducks on all these bodies of water is surprisingly similar, whether you're hunting them on high-desert marshes or coastal rain forests. For starters, you'll nearly always have to find them yourself. Many of these areas are basically unknown in terms of waterfowling, and the ones that are hunted will probably be as jealously guarded as grouse coverts.
Also, because few guides offer these sorts of trips, you're going to be on your own. You won't usually need a boat, with the exception of a canoe or a kayak. In fact, boats are usually more trouble than they are worth.
But a dog is a necessity because even stone-dead birds tend to drop into dense vegetation where you can easily lose them.
HOW TO FIND THEM
Begin your search for small-water duck hunting destinations at home. The large-scale national forest maps, Bureau of Land Management maps or state-forest maps are a good place to start. Known as "planimetric" maps, these documents feature geographical features such as mountain peaks, public-land boundaries, ri
vers, lakes and road networks. They do not usually reveal the small ponds and wetlands we are focusing on in this article.
On these maps, features to look for include concentrations of blue water. Clusters of lakes are often connected by extensive networks of wetland, which may contain ponds and beaver ponds. Also look for creeks and rivers that meander through areas that have no road crossings. In addition, many major timber companies also produce maps that identify holdings open to hunting.
The next step involves refining your information. That involves topographical maps. As their name implies, these maps show topography -- the terrain. They also cover much smaller areas, in much more detail. They reveal still waters of less than an acre, as well as small wetlands along creeks and streams.
Look for the little blue marsh symbols and areas adjacent to lakes and ponds where the contour lines are far apart. This means flat ground, and these habitats will hold the standing water that ducks like.
Focus on water that isn't much more than a mile from the nearest road, because usually you'll need to hike in or out in the dark. Any farther than a mile, and you'll find it difficult to manage safely.
On rivers, you want slow-moving reaches, with a lot of meanders -- and again, widely spaced contours because these areas attract ducks.
Topos will also help you eliminate some areas from your scouting. When I see dwellings and other buildings identified, I eliminate these areas out of hand. The maps also define what types of roads connect to bodies of water. If access looks easy, I usually pass by these waters as well.
Also, you should ignore sections of streams where the contour lines are tight together, indicating steep watercourses. Canyons are seldom good waterfowling areas.
But on a map, I once discovered a section of a low-gradient desert creek. You could put in at a road crossing on state wildlife department land, float an entire eight miles through public land and then take out at the next bridge.
Once you discover a promising area, drive out to it well before the season opens. At this stage, you want to get a lay of the land, because some of the older maps are out of date.
During the 1980s, I hunted a large beaver pond along a creek that flowed through timber company land. When I returned to it several years later, there was an elaborate stone fence at the gate, and I could see the green metal roofs of mini-mansions in the distance.
No more duck hunting there!
Finally, if you are at all gregarious, stop by a sporting-goods store or general store and ask about locations that seem promising.
I've lived most of my life in the countryside, and its residents can be as taciturn as their reputations. But if you're friendly and display some local knowledge, you may be surprised at how much information you obtain.
In digging for information, much of your success depends upon on how you ask.
This approach probably won't do you much good: "The place my buddies and I hunt back near the city is real crowded now. We're looking for a new place to hunt ducks. Any good places around here?"
On the other hand, this may get you surprising results: "I've been coming up here for years to fish, and I always thought that those ponds along the North Fork might pull in some ducks in the fall. Have you ever gone up there?"
Finally, get out and buck the brush.
I'm always amazed how few hunters seem to have much taste for bushwhacking, but it's often the only way to locate genuine, unpressured small-water duck habitat. Moreover, it isn't always as hard as it sounds.
In recent years, many timber companies and state and national forests have gated their roads, while others allow vehicle access only during big-game seasons.
However, those roads into lakes and ponds still exist, and you can often scout lakes easily on a mountain bike. A summertime exploratory trip down a remote reach of creek in a canoe can be part of a fishing trip or family adventure.
If you see ducks, especially those with chicks, during summer on a lake or stream, you can be pretty confident it will hold birds -- probably more of them -- during the hunting season.
When it comes to beaver ponds, if you stay in touch with local game wardens, they might tell you their general locations.
Fishing books sometimes mention beaver pond locations. But eventually, you'll have to pull on a pair of waterproof boots or waders and take a hike.
You can usually hunt small lakes and beaver ponds similarly, although the scale of your hunt may be different. Because ducks roost on or near these areas, you won't usually encounter morning flights. You usually jump resting birds in the morning.
It's tempting to blast away, I admit, but it's a better idea to let the birds fly. That'll give you time to spread your decoys and get set up. If they're resident birds and haven't been alarmed by shooting, usually they will return fairly quickly, and you could call them in to your decoys.
At the opposite end of the day, ducks that have been feeding away from the pond will begin to return during late afternoon.
If you arrive before the ducks, you can often enjoy excellent shooting over decoys right up to the end of legal shooting time.
As for decoys, you probably don't need any more than a dozen mallards blocks. I don't carry more than a half-dozen into small ponds. A few teal decoys often turn the trick on these small birds, though, and a bufflehead or hooded merganser seems to give other birds a sense of confidence.
I usually connect three or four decoys on a line, so I can toss them from my hiding place.
There's usually an abundance of shoreline vegetation in these areas, and I've never bothered with a blind.
Small portable blinds are a good idea in areas without cover. But remember that small-water ducks know their environs the same way your cat knows the neighborhood: Anything new or unusual looking will set off alarms. Make sure the blind matches the vegetation.
Also, a collapsible stool is a good idea because the ground is nearly always soggy. If your dog is trained to, it may even sit on a stool.
Finally, safety is important on these waters because usually you will be quite some distance from any help. For th
at reason, it is a good idea to hunt with a partner always.
If you do hunt alone, carry a cell phone and always leave information about when you will return and precisely where you are hunting. It is easy to twist an ankle or become disoriented in a swampy area. You want people to know how to find you.
Be especially careful floating on rivers, where you can encounter everything from barbed wire across the stream to fast water that isn't on the map. I always consult paddling references, most of which are online these days, before putting a canoe in the water.