Waterfowl Bonus: Public-Land Puddlers
December 25, 2018
Note: Game & Fish Magazines teamed up with our sister publication Wildfowl to bring readers pertinent info, stories and tactics for this waterfowl season.
I’ll be honest. I didn’t always waterfowl hunt on public ground. In fact, I’d hunted ducks for probably a dozen years or more before ever stepping foot on a state-owned wildlife management area. Back when I slipped into my first set of chest waders, we were still hunting land that my father had grown up hunting.
But the times changed. Owners passed away, property was sold, and slowly I found myself spending more and more days on public ground. Some of the experiences were incredible, others not so much. But good or bad, birds or no, one thing has always remained a constant when it comes to public ground — the learning curve. The hunters who are successful on public ground are constantly learning. They roll with the punches and improvise. They adjust, and they adapt. What’s more, they get up earlier, stay later, scout more, and walk or boat further. In essence, they just work harder and smarter than everyone else around them.
Those who think public land is public land is public land when it comes to waterfowling are wrong. Hunters standing knee-deep in Arkansas green timber are going to look at public land a little differently than do hunters crouched in a boat blind on the Missouri River. And both of these parties will have opinions that include gear and tactics, quite varied from hunters that spend time on the tidal waters of southwest Washington.
True, a mallard is a mallard, regardless of location; however, how he’s hunted in any given environment or setting across the country is, in all likelihood, going to differ from place to place. The bottom line is it’s almost impossible to offer up a blanket statement that suggests mallards are best hunted using “Tactic X” on public ground. There are, however, some common denominators — elements in the public waterfowling equation that hold true, regardless of location.
“Pressure, food sources and water levels,” said Travis Mueller, territory manager with Banded Holdings. “In terms of pressure, you have to find a spot where the birds can rest and feed unmolested. Does such a place exist on most public areas? Absolutely, but people often overlook them.”
Maybe it’s a small spot close to the road, and they don’t want to look stupid hunting there. Maybe it’s tough to get into that particular spot. The biggest mistake people make hunting public ground is finding a hole and hunting it the very next day.
“It’s important to watch that spot long enough to know it wasn’t a fluke the birds were there,” said Mueller. “I always have Plans A, B and C ready to go.”
Food is another of these common variables. If the weather is stable, birds don’t need as many calories, so Mueller doesn’t concentrate on food sources during the early season, or even mid-season. The birds typically loaf during the day and come out to feed at night. However, if a front is coming in, or they are getting ready to migrate, they switch gears and start feeding heavily.
The third critical aspect regards water levels.
“Puddle ducks don’t want to sit out in the middle (of the bay) all day long,” said Mueller. “They don’t want to fight current or wind. They want to get where they’re comfortable. Where they can rest and relax.”
As such, low water makes hunting a challenge. Birds aren’t going to stick around long if all they have is a mud flat to sit on. They need decent food and cover.
“With high water,” said Mueller, “it’s a matter of finding the birds. They’re spread out, taking advantage of new food sources that keep popping up as the water rises. High water introduces an entirely new element, particularly to scouting.”
The most significant commonality, suggests Mueller, lies in waterfowlers themselves, as duck hunters are stubborn and set in their ways.
“A lot of them aren’t willing to change, once they believe they have things figured out,” said Mueller. “The thing is, ducks are always changing and adapting. Adapting to pressure, weather, food and water levels. You have to be willing to change. If you want to hunt public land and be successful, you have to go the extra mile. Make mistakes, and above all, learn.”
PRIORITY ONE — SCOUTING
Back in the day, we put boots on the ground and binoculars to our face, and we scouted. It was all about the windshield time. If we were lucky, there were two or three of us, each one sitting on a different body of water until we had the information we needed. For some, myself included, conversations with area managers proved insightful.
Old school scouting still works; however, the 21st century has afforded public land hunters some technological advantages. Based in Montana, onX (onxmaps.com), while not making scouting easy, can certainly make the process of finding and researching potential locations a mite easier.
Responsible for the day-to-day operations of the company’s product line, as well as serving as the “voice” of the customer, Matt Seidel, an avid waterfowler, used the onX technology with great success on an out-of-his-comfort-zone hunt last season.Starting with his laptop, Seidel used a combination of aerial imagery, along with onX’s landownership overlay, to create a map of potential. Waypoints he chose visually based on information provided by the map synched automatically to his mobile device. Once on the road, the technology allowed him to pinpoint these pre-chosen locations geographically. It then became a matter of, once again, going old school, with the help of the tried-and-true method of boots and binoculars.
“This (technology) helps a hunter find public land that’s not marked,” said Seidel. “It helps you find that potential. And it helps you get back to these spots in the dark, as duck hunters are prone to need to do.”
FOOLING PUBLIC-LAND WATERFOWL
Volumes have been written about the “magic key” to successfully hunting waterfowl on public land. Truth is there’s isn’t one — and yet there are many. Adaptability is one. In-depth continual scouting is another, as is the willingness to work harder and smarter. Still, frustrated waterfowlers continue to search for that secret strategy; that one thing, done differently from all the rest, that will, without fail, convince greenheads to voluntarily fall from the sky and onto the strap.
Bill Saunders sees this as a quest for duck hunting’s Holy Grail. A former competitive goose calling champion, Saunders, when he’s not fishing, crafts a full line of high-end duck and goose calls, as well as works from October through January for his Big Guns Waterfowl Outfitters guide service.
“The number one mistake I see public-land duck hunters make is overcalling,” said Saunders. “Even good callers overcall. It’s just too much. It’s unnatural. I listen to the guys on the refuge below me. They call and call and call, and I watch the birds react negatively. Oh, they might kill a handful of goldeneyes or buffleheads, but they’re not killing the puddle ducks.”
Instead, Saunders suggests calling moderately, or, given the day-to-day differences in the birds themselves, not calling at all. Which brings up the topic of realistic decoy spreads.
“I see a lot of spreads, public rigs or private, set unnaturally,” said Saunders. “The spreads look scared (because) they’re set too tight. Or they’re set in unnatural positions or locations based on the wind or the terrain or the vegetation. Poor decoy placement is definitely a problem.”
Another issue is lackluster equipment. Sure, not everyone can afford the latest and greatest, but, according to Saunders, there is no excuse for not keeping decoys clean. Saunders recommends painting decoys to touch them up and customize them as much as possible. Mallard decoys that are essentially a blob with a little green and a little dirty white are not going to cut it.
Other strategies Saunders suggests include adjusting spread size. He recommends going super big or small and ultra-realistic, and he suggests breaking away from traditional all-mallard rigs — possibly with a ton of widgeon with a handful of mallards, for example.
“Some of the best public-land hunters I know,” Saunders said, “sleep in and don’t go out until late morning or early afternoon. Guys get tired. They get frustrated and start kicking the sand at noon because they’ve had a bad hunt. Listen to where the shooting’s coming from, and don’t wander in until one o’clock.”
Finally, hunters have to hide as well as possible. Sure, some areas have designated hunting blinds, many with some traffic, but that is not an excuse to not take a good look at the blind to make sure that hunters, dogs and even coffee cups can’t be seen.
It’s not easy to decipher, this public land waterfowling code. Still, the elements are there for everyone to study hard, work hard, scout hard and be smart to break out of the routine.
DUCKS AND THE SINGLE GUY
Nine times out of 10 when I hunt ducks solo on public waters, I’m doing so out of a 10-foot fiberglass Aquapod skiff. The Aquapod allows me a greater range as opposed to simply walking; I can go farther, leaving more hunters behind, and I can access places bigger boats can’t. Yet a skiff allows me to carry everything needed to be successful alone.
This includes multiple species of decoys, my blind, which consists of four 6-foot, 1x1 stacks and a 4x8 piece of netting to which I tie swatches of grass and foliage. Now all-mallard rigs are not only boring, but ducks have seen countless spreads of them by late season.
Given that, I mix mallards with a variety of puddlers, such as pintails, widgeon, shovelers, gadwall and a handful of teal. Also, a half-dozen coots in a clump to one side with a jerk cord takes little space and works wonders. All of them set up as Texas rigs, as they are ridiculously quick to set up and tear down, especially for the soloist.