Be Mobile for Ducks

When the ducks won't come to you, it may be time to go and find them

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Photo © Bill Konway

By Ron Spomer

When I was a kid there was never a shortage of prairie potholes in South Dakota, but sometimes water was scarce. That’s when we abandoned our decoys and crawled up to isolated stock ponds, often little more than rectangular holes dug 10 or 12 feet deep in pastures and sloughs. Texans call them tanks. These collected what little rain we got—and sometimes ducks.

"Okay, you guys ready?" Richard would whisper. We’d nod, double check our actions and safeties. “Keep those barrels pointing ahead and nobody stand until I say so. And keep your butts down!" Then we’d walk, bent double until our mentor began duck walking, then crawling on all fours. Finally, we’d be bellying like snakes in the grass, four abreast until Richard held his palm out. He’d ease his head up, then back down. Sometimes he’d grin and point right or left, indicating in which corner of the pond our quarry was floating. Then we’d all scramble up shooting.

"One teal? One teal? How could you guys fire nine shots and get just one teal? There must have been a dozen greenheads in there," Richard would chide and tease us as we tossed dirt clods to wash our bag to shore. Certainly we suffered more than our share of duck fever, but I think competition was our ruin. He who shot first shot best. Or so we imagined. As a result, we usually flock shot and missed everything.

Given their druthers, most waterfowlers would rather decoy ducks than jump them. But we aren’t always given our druthers. Sometimes and some places we’re practically forced to jump-hunt. During prolonged drought in pothole country, nine wetlands out of 10 might be dry and the tenth little more than muddy. This dearth of moisture inspires most migrants to keep on flying. Decoys in an isolated stock pond no bigger than the average backyard garden aren’t likely to generate much interest.

Incongruously, too much water can also necessitate jump-shooting. Thousands of inundated North Dakota potholes spread birds far and wide. One flooded Arkansas rice field is a magnet. Ten thousand is problematic. One flooded river bottom concentrates birds. Half a state under water spreads them too thin. With umpteen thousand roosting and feeding options, dabblers can easily overlook you no matter how large your spread or how good your calling. 

Weather also lends an unhelpful hand. Under balmy skies, ducks might fly no more than a morning lap or two around their chosen roost pond. Push them off in the dark and toss out your decoys, and they’ll merely fly to another flooded bottom and stay. This tendency to loaf increases under minimum hunting pressure. Combine calm, warm days with a mid-week hunting lull and you’re looking a jump-hunt right in the eye. 

"Look at all those mallards tucked into that little eddy," Dave Lockwood said as we interrupted our river’s-edge quail hunt. Our dogs had scoured two miles of riparian brush without finding a bird. “I think this quail hunt is about to turn into a duck hunt." We shed our blaze-orange vests and filled our pockets with nontoxic shells, kenneled my setter, and put Lockwood’s German wire-hair at heel. Then we began to sneak. 

Sagebrush, incongruous though it may seem, is fairly common around western duck habitat. Waist- to head-high, it provides great stalking cover. So does a cutbank, and we had both. When we rose to full height at the edge of the cattails, a baker’s dozen drakes and hens rose quacking. Two greenheads splashed back, and Autumn swam out to retrieve. “Heck, there’s more meat here than in half a limit of quail," I pronounced as I hefted my drake. “I’m gonna marinate these breasts in Italian salad dressing and grill them tomorrow night." As we walked the high bank back toward the truck, talking, two drakes and a hen flushed from flooded reeds. I dropped my bird and threw up my over-and-under in time to add a second greenhead to my bag.

Neither my partner nor I was surprised that a trio of mallards had held tight while two noisy hominids bore down on them. I’ve seen it time and again over the years. So long as the birds have complete visual cover, they sit as tightly as an old ring-necked pheasant. Not even gunfire can dislodged them. During my later teen years, after the water came back to our potholes and we began hunting with waders, calls, and decoys, my young partners and I quickly figured out this seemingly bizarre duck behavior. As we hunkered beside a muskrat hut, awaiting visitors to our half-dozen decoys, we’d often notice mallards spiraling into a far end of our slough. “There ain’t any open water back there, is there?" Tom asked. 

"I didn’t think so, but those ducks do." After an interminable half an hour or so without action, Tom’s feet got so itchy that he felt he just had to exercise them. “You go check out those birds back there and I’ll wait with the decoys," I suggested. “They might come over if you jump them." Splashing and crunching, my blonde partner disappeared into the jungle of yellowing reeds. I soon forgot him as an exploratory band of teal began strafing the slough, eventually buzzing close enough to offer a shot. I shot behind the first, naturally, but my second shot caught a plump drake, and I figured I’d gotten the better part of the deal. A few minutes later I saw a pair of birds flicker up from the reeds down Tom’s way, but he didn’t fire. Moments later they swung low over the decoys, and I dropped a gadwall hen. Then all was quiet for a quarter hour before three muffled shots drew my attention. A big bunch of puddle ducks was rising from the far end of the pothole. When Tom waded back 30 minutes later, he was carrying two big mallards. “They were in a puddle no bigger than a bedroom and mostly mud," he said. “I practically stepped on them before they flushed!" 

After that, we inevitably roamed the far corners of whichever slough we set up on, usually by midmorning, after flights had slowed and birds had settled in for their midday naps. Regardless how often we’d shot over the decoys, we’d jump birds—usually mallards but sometimes gadwall, teal, and wigeon—closer than we thought any self-respecting duck should have sat. Sometimes we’d flush and shoot one duck, then put up another during the retrieve. They’d be sitting in little oases of open water surrounded by acres of nearly impenetrable rushes or in the impenetrable rushes themselves. Did they swim into cover as we approached? Whatever the reason, they offered close, easy shots, though we worked like mules to reach them. An hour or two of bulling through tangled rushes left our groin muscles aching for days.

 Now, more than 30 years later, I’m less eager to wade butt-deep water and bust thickets of bulrush and cattails, but not totally averse. Desperate times call for desperate measures. In October 2000 I developed wanderlust after two hours standing beside John DePalma and a motionless set of blocks in a South Dakota backwater.“Where are all those ducks going?" I asked as flock after flock passed high overhead and arrowed down somewhere far beyond our wall of sheltering cattails. 

"Somewhere out on the big lake," John answered. “Probably in the middle where no one can reach them." 

"Well, I’m gonna investigate. Wanna come?" DePalma chose to stick with the decoys while I ripped my way through an initial wall of wetland vegetation that soon had me sweating. Within a hundred yards, the jungle opened until I was able to waltz around and between clumps. The farther I went, the lower the ducks flew. Eventually I could hear them gabbling, despite a strong wind. Ahead, the reeds thinned and opened into a long, narrow, wind-tossed bay. And it was filled with ducks. Mallards, pintails, and gadwalls mostly. A few teal and wigeon. I planned to jump the bunch and shoot a couple if possible, then go back for John and the decoys. But as I glided toward the edge of the bay, a drake wood duck flushed so close that he looked like a handful of crayons tossed into the air. I couldn’t resist. During the melee that followed, a drake mallard crossed in front, and I was able to add him to the bag. That made a long push through muck and cattails more than worth the effort. 

Some forms of jump-shooting are considerably easier than wading or crawling. Bob Farris, who breeds versatile pudelpointers in Meridian, Idaho, likes to brush up his boat and drift a certain big, western river.“When the water’s up, we jump mallards sitting tight against the islands," he explains.“They feed back in the flooded grass and just sit in the flooded willows." Farris usually drifts close to whichever bank has the least current. When approaching an island, he aims for the side with the most current. Then, I anchor at the end of the island and walk across it with my dog at heel to jump ducks sitting in the lee or eddy on the other side." The dog, of course, retrieves, eliminating a lot of chasing with the boat. I once watched Farris and one of his rangy, dark brown pudelpointers hunt a mid-sized Idaho river with a stiff current. When one duck splashed down crippled, the dog swam after it until both were but specks far downstream. Farris didn’t seem overly concerned.“Oh, he’ll be back. And he’ll have the duck." He did.

Most float-jumping involves small streams and canoes. Such minimalist craft are easily hauled from site to site, quietly maneuvered, and easily disguised with a bit of brush or grass stuck along the bow gunwales. Shooters generally take turns at bow and stern, the bow rider shooting while the stern paddler controls the drift. Standard procedure is to hug the inside bank at bends, anticipating flushes from the quiet eddy below. Expect woodies and mallards from behind downed logs and inside brushy tangles where floating forage collects. 

Before taking your four-legged duck fetcher in a canoe, be certain he is steady to wing and shot and can remain still and balanced in the bottom center of the craft; a dog standing with its forelegs on the gunwale or shifting rapidly from port to starboard isn’t going to increase your fun or safety. Generally, retrievers aren’t necessary when float-hunting small waters. 

A productive variation on canoe shooting is to beach the boat just before likely looking bends, then crawl over the bank and above the far side before shooting. Watch for birds downstream as you slowly rise, then scour the new, closer water as it opens to view. If nothing flushes at your feet, loop overland as necessary to come in on top of distant flocks. 

Possibly the toughest web-footed habitat to jump-shoot is flooded timber. A confusion of trunks, logs, and branches camouflages ducks. Move too fast and they’ll see you before you see them. Spot them before you move, and then go slowly, keeping a trunk between you and the birds, and you might get the jump on them. Woodies that feel secure in flooded cover often squeal as they forage, giving you an audio target to stalk. Mallards, of course, gabble and chuckle on the water. A painfully slow stalk and head-to-toe dark camouflage that matches local timber are essential for success at this game. 

Big, open lakes and reservoirs are also challenging, but at least you can see birds from a long way. My buddies and I have had our best luck by glassing shorelines from afar with a good binocular. Our favorite setup is a quiet cove or steep bank with birds tight to shore or roosting on it. Some type of stalking cover is essential, a high bank being ideal since it absolutely blocks your prey’s view until you rise above it. Barring that, a tall fringe of vegetation—the denser the better—suffices. Even short grass will do if you’re able to belly beneath it. While your stalk is under way, resist poking your head up more than absolutely necessary. Avoid noises like crunching vegetation, too. Windy days or wet ground cover minimize this. Once a single bird is alert, the whole flock will nervously begin drifting out from shore. It doesn’t take them long to get out of shotgun range. Don’t stand too early, either. Inevitably, birds will be farther from cover than you anticipate. And forget rushing them to get within range. They’ll flush before you can get within shotgun range, even if you’re wearing track shoes. You simply have to sneak close enough.

Regardless of where or when you jump-shoot, be on guard against flock shooting. A dense flock of birds coming off small water—or a distant, unseen flock flushing belatedly in the background—can result in disastrous collateral damage. The phrase “raining ducks" was coined by a jump-shooter. This might have been a fortuitous event in the days of market hunting, but it’s criminal now. If you find yourself stalking a big flock, school yourself to intentionally pick an isolated bird on the edge of the group. Don’t lose control and pump two or three shots into a dense flock or you’ll be paying a visit to the game warden. And always watch the flock as it wings off. Now and then a stray pellet catches an untargeted bird in the lungs, and it will fall far from the jump site. 

There’s a nice gastronomic advantage to jump-shooting—you’ll shoot most of your birds in the back, instead of the breast. Try for head shots if you can, and you’ll recover birds perfect for plucking and roasting.

Some self-described purists abhor the idea of jumping-shooting a duck, implying practitioners are short on calling and decoying skills, if not ethical standards. The terms “unsporting" and “ambushing" come to mind. I can appreciate this sentiment. Once you’ve heard wind ripping through cupped wings and seen the flare of orange feet over decoys you’ve set, the rear end of a departing mallard pales by comparison. On the other hand, if you’ve never crawled 100 yards over frozen clods of earth or tried to worm your way through a screen of dead cattails that rattle like bones, perhaps you aren’t qualified to judge. Why shouldn’t stalking be as legitimate as trickery? One can argue that evading the eyes and ears of a flock of roosting puddle ducks while crawling inside shotgun range is a lot more challenging than hiding in a box and tricking them with artificial imitations of safety. 

If you’re bent on taking a duck to dinner, either approach is legitimate. It’s just that, sometimes, one works better than the other. So go ahead and jump.