Hunting Light

What's required to scale down, wade in, and become a member of waterfowling's foot cavalry

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Photo © Corey McDonald

by Wade Bourne

Boat and trailer. Outboard motor. Portable blind. Life jacket, heater, spotlight, paddle, push pole, anchor, rope, fire extinguisher, spare battery, bilge pump. Decoys. Decoy bags. Waders, shells, calls. Wing-spinners. Water shakers, spare string, spare anchors, spare AA batteries, jerk string rig.

Bulk. Weight. Expense. Intricacies, complications, breakdowns, frustrations!

What ever happened to simple duck hunting?

What ever happened to bagging up a few decoys, pulling on boots, and striking out into a marsh or flooded timber? Whatever became of using muscle power instead of horsepower? Whatever happened to depending on grit instead of gizmos?

In the last several years, scores of new waterfowling gadgets have appeared on the market. No argument, many of these offer big improvements in performance, comfort, and convenience in the pursuit of ducks and geese.

Still, hunters on a budget or those who wish to simplify their strategies can hunt light and bag their share of birds. Hunting light centers on paring hunting strategies to the bone and gearing back to basics. It doesn't mean forsaking modern accessories, just choosing and using them with more focus.

Hunting light requires a conscious effort. It's a mindset as well as a method. Here's what's required to scale down, wade in, and become a member of waterfowling's foot cavalry.

The Hunting Light Attitude

Again, hunting light means keeping tactics simple and gear minimal. It means scouting to find ducks, then moving in and setting up quickly. It means using special, lightweight decoys and making a blind from whatever cover is available. In essence, hunting light is a fundamentalist approach to duck hunting – K.I.S.S. for quacks!

I made a hunt several years ago that's a good example. The season was set to open in west Tennessee, but water and ducks were scarce. A few flooded fields were holding birds, but these were leased and unavailable to hunters at large. The situation looked bleak for freelancers.

But my friend Jeff Lannom had a sleeper spot in mind. He knew of a swamp bordering the Obion River that almost always held water. A quick scouting trip before opening day confirmed that a few mallards and wood ducks were using it. He called and invited me to join him.

"What do I need to bring?" I asked.

"Just waders and shotgun and shells," he responded.

The next morning, we met before sunup and drove into the river bottom. After booting up, Jeff led me by flashlight to the dredged-out Obion and down over its steep bank onto a shallow sandbar. We waded slowly into the current. Water ran close to my wader tops, but it didn't spill into them. Soon, we were scrambling up the opposite bank.

Then, we walked 100 or so yards into a buck brush and cypress swamp until we came to a small beaver pond. Jeff had carried in two decoys, a standard drake mallard and a duck butt wobbler that stirred up ripples when he flipped a switch. Shooting time had arrived by the time he'd set these decoys in the middle of the quiet little pond.

"Find a tree and hug it," he instructed me. His blinds were as simple as his spread.

We didn't hammer the ducks that morning, but we got a few. When the shooting commenced, birds were flushed out of the private fields, and they started trading up and down the bottom, looking for a spot where they could loaf without being disturbed. Some spied the beaver pond in the swamp, circled in for a closer look, and were seduced by the two decoys and the ripples from the wobbler. Jeff only chuckled on his call – never highballed. The shots we got were right in our face.

This hunt stands out as one of the more memorable in my 40-plus years of duck hunting. This wasn't because of fast shooting. Indeed, action was fairly slow—a single here, a double there. But I enjoyed the hunt's simplicity and the sense of adventure it fostered. I'd sampled hunting light in its truest form, I liked it, and I'd practice it many more times in the seasons ahead.

Gearing Up for Hunting Light

Duck hunters who hunt light are the equivalent of backcountry hikers. They focus on essentials, and they consider both the necessity and weight of the gear they tote. The whole premise of this style of hunting is going where other hunters can't – or won't – go, and the less you have to carry in, the easier it is to get there.

The first item of gear for hunting light is a good pair of camo waders. These waders should feature a combination of lightweight, toughness, and roominess for easy walking and climbing (over logs, up and down banks, etc.). Heavyduty suspenders are a must, and a pouch for carrying small items is handy. My favorite waders for this style of hunting are neoprenes that are reinforced in the knees and butt.

Item number two would be a shotgun with a sling for ease in carrying. When slung over the shoulder, a short barrel (26-inch with choke tubes) facilitates easier walking in brushy cover. Also, a matted, synthetic stock shotgun is desirable because of its resistance to scratches, rust, and other hazards of walk-in, wade-in hunting.

A camo backpack is third on the list. The pack will be used to carry decoys, spare clothing, snacks, and other essentials. (When walking in, store your parka in your backpack to avoid overheating.) A backpack is better than a decoy bag for walk-in hunting because it rides higher on the shoulders and better balances the load. Also, backpacks have compartments where clothes and other gear can be stored separately from decoys. A medium-size pack is best. Again, weight and portability are the main considerations.

A neoprene shell belt is handy for toting in shotgun shells. Fill the loops, and then strap the belt around the waist.

Additional items for hunting light include a pair of duck calls, a camo facemask, a small hatchet for building an on-site blind, a small headlight, and a compass and fire- starting kit for emergencies. And one more strongly recommended item is a lightweight walking/wading staff. A staff will provide needed stability when traversing beaver runs, brush, and other similar obstacles.

Decoys for Hunting Light

Walk-in hunters need special decoys, and manufacturers have met this need in spades. Since portability is essential, decoys for hunting light must have minimal weight. They must also be compact, so that several will fit in the backpack.

Flambeau's Pontoon Perimeter Mallards are a good example. These decoys are stackable; they have no keels. A half dozen can easily be carried in a backpack. Also, Pontoon Perimeter Mallards are air-filled for buoyancy, thus light in weight. Because of this buoyancy, they move realistically in the slightest breeze. They are extremely lifelike, with rotating and sleeper heads. Since walk-in hunting is done at close quarters, six of these decoys set on a slough or in a timber hole are plenty to attract passing ducks' attention.

A brand new entry in hunting light decoys is the Blackwater FUD (Fold Up Decoy) from the Blackwater Decoy Company. When in use, this decoy has a 3-D, full- body effect, but it folds flat for storage and transport. The FUD decoy is very lightweight, transportable, and affordable.

Carry-Lite's Inflata-Coy is back by popular demand. This synthetic rubber decoy was pulled from the market several years back, but continued demand for it from hunters convinced Carry-Lite to reintroduce. The Inflata-Coy is flat and rubbery out of the water, but it catches air and expands to full-body size when dropped from two to three feet onto the water. A dozen can easily be carried in a plastic grocery bag. These decoys weigh 12 ounces each.

Feather Flex Magnum Mallards are foam shell decoys that weigh one pound per dozen. These decoys have detachable heads. They are crushable, meaning they can be rolled up and jammed into a backpack for easy, compact transport. Then, when unrolled, their "memory" returns them to their original shape. These decoys swim actively on the lightest breeze.

Finally, standard-size hollow plastic decoys can be used when hunting light, although they are the least desirable in this style of hunting because of their bulk and weight. A half dozen standards will fill a large backpack. Standard decoys with closed keels weigh approximately a pound each.

Owing to the type decoys used and the small waters where they will be deployed, anchors can be micro-sized. Large washers have plenty of weight to hold foam, rubber, or FUD decoys in place. Old spark plugs are heavy enough to anchor Pontoon Perimeters or standard-size hollow plastic decoys.

Movement is desirable in any decoy spread and especially in small wind-protected holes where walk-in hunters set up. Again, by nature of their light weight, many of the decoys mentioned above will swim convincingly in the lightest breeze. However, a water shaker (like Jeff Lannom used) may add just enough extra realism to coax in ducks. The Expedite Quiver Magnet H20 is a good option. This device looks like a floating hockey puck. It is powered by two AA batteries. When turned on and anchored among the decoys, it wobbles continuously and gives off ripples that look like those produced by ducks feeding. It can work wonders on calm days, and it weighs mere ounces.

Another option for adding movement to a spread is an old-fashioned jerk string. Carry in several yards of heavy twine and a short bungee cord. Tie one end of the bungee cord to a stationary object (tree trunk, log) on the other side of your shooting hole, tie the other end to the jerk string and run it back to your shooting spot. Attach a decoy to the string. Rigged in this manner, when the string is pulled, the bungee cord will provide an elastic effect and cause the decoy to swim back and forth and create ripples.

Hunting Light Blinds

The word "blinds" is a misnomer in hunting light. "Hides" would be more appropriate. Waterfowlers who hunt light utilize whatever natural cover exists. Their main consideration is blending into the landscape – escaping ducks' view. Man-made structures and comfort rate distant seconds.

Waterfowlers who hunt light huddle against trees, as Jeff Lannom and I did. They burrow into reeds and vines next to open water. They hunker among roots of blown-down trees. They cut cane stalks and cottonwood branches and jab them into the mud.

One thing to remember when fashioning a temporary blind is that overhead cover is as important as side cover. Many hunters build blinds that offer good lateral screening, but they neglect the view from the top. Ducks circling above can look down and pick out any object or movement that's unnatural.

One good idea is to backpack in a square of camo netting to supplement natural cover when building a blind. The hand ax mentioned earlier can be used to chop down saplings for a frame. Then, the net can be erected and supplemented with natural cover for a fast, effective blind.

Hunters should consider three other factors relative to portable blinds: camouflage clothing, shadows, and movement. Walk-in hunters should have camo everything – jacket, cap, boots, and gloves. Second, shadows provide some of the best camouflage in nature. When possible, build your temporary blind where it'll be in the shade. And third, keep movement to a minimum when ducks are working. It doesn't take but one untimely turn of the head to spoil what was a very good opportunity. But if a hunter will hunker in shadows and keep still, ducks are most unlikely to see him.

Scouting: Key to Success

If they were soldiers, waterfowlers who hunt light would be in Special Forces. They are anything but conventional. Instead of following the pack to areas where pressure is heavy, they look for out-of-the-way waters where pressure is nonexistent or light, and birds come to loaf unmolested.

Such spots exist on both public and private property, but it takes gumption to find them. Hunters should study topo maps and aerial photos for possibilities. They should quiz people who are in the field frequently – biologists, game wardens, wildlife area workers, foresters, county agriculture agents, trappers, and others who might provide a lead on a place to check out.

When such a pond or pothole is identified, it's time for the legs to take over. Checking out new country is fundamental in hunting light. Study county road maps for backroads, railroad rights of way, power lines, and other means of accessing hard-to-reach areas. Find a way to get near a potential hunting spot, and then take off cross-country to locate it.

One of the best times to conduct such scouting is right after hunting season ends, when ducks are still present and water conditions are similar to what they will be the following fall/winter.

As you reconnoiter, you'll head down many dead-ends, places that sounded or looked promising, but turn out to be duds. But by being persistent, you will eventually locate one or two hidden gems that ducks like and where no one else is hunting. Then, you're set for seasons of private, unspoiled hunting pleasure.

I've got a new spot to check out this coming season. It's a large pond on a friend's farm, and it's only a few miles from my home. He tells me ducks hit it every year, but no one else hunts them. He says I'm welcome to give them a try.

It sounds like a place that might give me one good hunt a week. Slip in, hide in brush on the bank, use only a few decoys, call very little. In other words, I'll be hunting light. Little effort, no expense, great fun. Duck hunting just got easier, and better!