October 01, 2020
By Lynn Burkhead
In all truthfulness, it didn’t look like much the first time I saw it. And because I had fallen into the standard waterfowling trap of bigger is better – especially as it relates to duck hunting hotspots – I almost turned the landowner down on the offer to hunt there.
After my first hunt produced a near limit of ducks and a lone goose that wandered in, it’s a good thing I didn’t follow my gut instinct since that spot has turned into one of my go-to locations for more than a quarter century now. Unwittingly or not, I had stumbled onto something truly special, even if it is a bit on the small side.
Charlie Holder knows the concept of bigger isn’t always better quite well. Despite being a waterfowl hunting celebrity of sorts as the man who owns and operates Sure-Shot Game Calls in Groves, Texas, he has found small water success on personal hunts near home, on TV show expeditions across the country, and even while on big media camp events in waterfowling destination hotspots.
“Yes, indeed,” says Holder. “Sometimes, small water hunting – or what I call pothole hunting – can be the best.”
Holder recalls a favorite hunt from 20 years ago when he, Sure-Shot founder Jim “Cowboy” Fernandez, friend Billy Halfin, and legendary Gulf Coast waterfowl guide Terry Harris proved that concept correct on one of Texas’ most famous duck hunting properties, the voluminous Pipkin Ranch.
“It’s 30,000 acres of rice fields and salt marshes bordering the intercostal waterway to the Gulf of Mexico,” said Holder. “Terry had previously cut out a small quarter acre, 10-inch deep pothole in the middle of a prairie with a raised blind next to it.”
In other words, in a sea of endless duck hunting options, this wet spot didn’t look like much when Holder first waded in that morning. But as he was about to find out, looks can be deceiving, especially when it comes to duck hunting holes.
“This part of the Central Flyaway sees few greenheads (mallards) and specks (white-fronted geese, also known as specklebellies),” said Holder. “Many times, we mostly harvest gadwall, widgeon, snows (snow geese), and a few pintails and resident mottled ducks. But Terry had timed the passage of a front in sync with our hunt beautifully and we hunted that small, meager looking spot, finishing with a four-man limit, solely consisting of fat mallard drakes and specklebellies.”
Hundreds of miles to the north in the Red River valley that separates Texas from Oklahoma, Jim Lillis has seen the same thing in a few decades of duck hunting action. While he has often chased migrating waterfowl from the cockpit of a roaring airboat or the rear bench seat of a big motored johnboat propelling him down a river or across a big reservoir, some of this Texan’s fondest memories have come from spots where it’s hard to get a boot wet.
“Yes, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found that to be true,” said Lillis, a retired senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited who lives just east of Sherman, Texas. “One of those hunts was especially memorable, even if we were hunting a small area of sheet water in the corner of a (big) wheat field that didn’t seem to promise much. Believe it or not, we only used about 12 decoys and actually called very little.””
But even so, they did a lot of shooting that morning, quickly bagging limits of ducks on a spot that most other hunters would have walked past.
“It didn’t look like much, but the day was superb and three of us shot three limits of greenheads in short order,” said Lillis. “One was a very close friend of mine, a game warden from Uvalde, who died young at 48.”
In a career filled with big hunts on big water, one of Lillis’ fondest memories was on a spit of water barely big enough to drown a flea. But despite its size, it’s a hunt he fondly remembers several years after the fact.
No matter what part of North America you hunt, there is undoubtedly a small waterfowl hunting honey hole somewhere nearby, from a backwater slough to a patch of wet timber to a small farm pond or stock tank. While not all offer up great waterfowling, many do, especially if you’re willing to work hard to get the details just right.
And that’s a spot that offers some water, some shelter and seclusion from predators and the weather, a bit of food, and of course, a few ducks. Since these spots don’t typically look like much to the casual observer, seeing ducks pitch into the spot is the most tell-tale sign of all.
“Scouting, scouting, and more scouting, that’s the key,” said Holder. “These are spots where you can’t arrive late, and you can’t get there not knowing where the proverbial “X” landing zone is. If you just show up and don’t know where to play the wind correctly, where your blind and decoy placement needs to be, you can be just off and it can make for a miserable experience since you aren’t likely to see a lot of duck traffic to begin with.”
Dakota Stowers, a young, hard-working guide who operates a booked out guide service dubbed North Texas Outfitters near Wichita Falls, Texas, notes that in the world of duck guiding in an area better suited to cotton and tumbleweeds, you make a living by scouting first and hunting second.
So much so, in fact, that last year, he put tens of thousands of miles on a brand new pickup truck, burning up the highway in a daily afternoon road warrior search for the next small water hotspot that he and his band of guides would use on a half-dozen multi-person guide trips the following day. Does it work? Well, let’s just say that his two lodges stay booked out up to a year in advance, thanks to surprisingly good duck hunting, sizzling dove hunting, solid turkey hunting, and more than few record-size white-tailed deer.
“Scouting is definitely the key for the success we have,” said Stowers, who has been featured on several Outdoor Sportsman Group television programs like Mojo Outdoors. “Without it, we just simply wouldn’t do very good out here.
“For us, as soon as we get done with a morning hunt, we’re busting our butts and driving many miles. With all of the small waters we hunt, you have to drive around a lot and scout the waters you’ve got.”
For the most part, Stowers’ outfit is hunting small stock ponds, or cattle tanks, that feature a dam and a few acres of water at best. Sometimes, it’s simply a patch of flooded ground where water has pooled after heavy rains. But regardless of the small-water makeup, there are a few keys to getting a duck shoot just right, including matching the hatch with the correct numbers and appropriate species of duck decoys needed to produce a good hunt.
“Try to make it look like it did when you scouted,” said Stowers. “If there weren’t dozens of birds, then match that with a smaller spread. But if you saw 100 birds on the water the afternoon before, then I want at least 2/3 of that number of decoys out (the next morning).
“And pay attention to the species of ducks that you saw – if it was mallards and gadwalls, then those are the decoys I want bobbing on the surface of the water the next morning.”
While some ducks can shy away from spinning wing motion decoys in heavily pressured public hunting areas like those in Holder’s Gulf Coast backyard, the opposite is sometimes true on a small, unpressured duck hole.
“If it’s small, then a correctly-placed and well-positioned single MOJO (spinning wing decoy) has been known to help out,” he said.
Lillis – who has a mountainous collection of duck calls including several from Holder’s Sure-Shot Game Calls company – says there are a couple of mistakes to avoid on small water duck hunting holes.
“Over calling is one and not being hidden well is another,” he said. “Small water has the birds looking at everything as they pitch in, so you better be well camoed and hidden in a good makeshift blind made of natural materials that match your surroundings.”
Holder agrees, noting that while he may use his company’s Yentzen One2 double-reed design to power call early in the season or on a windy day, small waters often demand – especially the later the season gets – softer and more subdued sounds. For that, he turns to the double-reed Yentzen Classic, a walnut call design that Fernandez used to capture the 1959 world duck calling championship in Stuttgart, Ark.
“One more tip,” said Holder. “And that’s to make the right choice for ammo and choke selection. Typically, we’re hunting small waters with #4 non-toxic loads shot through a shotgun with an improved cylinder choke on the end of the barrel. That tends to produce better close-range patterns on a small pothole if the wind isn’t blowing a gale. And personally, we like the Remington Versamax Waterfowl Pro shotguns and the Peterson’s Premier Blue shotshell loads on our hunts.”
Lillis, who often shoots a weathered Benelli Super Black Eagle and Winchester #2 non-toxic loads, adds his own final tip.
“Yeah, try and set up your decoy spread and blind with the sun and wind to your back if you can,” he said.
Why? Because if you get that detail wrong, the result can be a can’t miss shoot that turned into a boring few hours spent in a duck blind.
But hey, failing to get the wind and blind position right on a small water hunt also gives you a readymade excuse if you happen to swing and miss on decoying ducks.
And what’s that? Simple – the sun was in my eyes. When you shoot as poorly as I often do, you learn every excuse in the book.