Little Things, Big Differences

In duck hunting, sometimes little things make big differences in the number of birds you bag.

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Photo © Bill Konway

by Wade Bourne

Sean Mann is a stickler for his hunters' stuffing just the right amount of bean stubble into their layout blinds—not too much, and not too little. Mann, a world champion goose caller and call maker, runs a goose/duck outfitting service in eastern Alberta. In September and October, Mann guides hunters to some of the best waterfowling in North America. Still, even in this major staging area, where birds are more than plentiful, Mann says hunters must pay attention to small details to enjoy consistent gunning.

"I harp on this all the time," Mann says. "You can't be haphazard about your setup and your calling technique. Instead, you've got to be precise; you've got to be specific. You've got to be observant and analytical about how to make your setup and calling more natural and effective. I'm a serious hunter, and I want to utilize every trick I can under the framework of what's legal and ethical. I think that by doing so, I stack the odds in my favor. Other hunters can do likewise if they follow the same approach."

Little things! Every "serious hunter" like Mann employs tricks that make his spread look more realistic, that hide his blind better, or that make his hunting strategy more effective. Here are some ideas that Mann and three other waterfowl pros have for overcoming these birds' natural wariness and for luring them in for close shooting. Hunters anywhere can apply these experts' tips and expect their "batting average" on ducks and geese to go up.

Sean Mann: Go All Out for a Natural Approach

Mann and his clients hunt mostly in Alberta's rolling grainfields where Mann's scouts have located concentrations of feeding geese and ducks. The hunters arrive at a chosen location an hour before first light, and everybody helps set out the decoys. Layout blinds are arranged in a line near the downwind edge of the spread. Then each hunter begins stuffing stubble into the loops of his blind according to Mann's instructions.

"It's important to camouflage the layout blinds to match the natural look of the field," Mann explains. "If the field has a lot of stubble—a lumpy look, then you want a lot of stubble on the blinds. But if the field is barren looking without too much stubble, then you don't want to put much stubble on the blinds. You don't want to make them look like little muskrat huts out in the middle of nothing. The point is, make the blinds blend in, not stand out. We camouflage them to match the overall appearance of the field."

Further, Mann has his hunters cover their layout blinds only with stubble that is gathered on-site. "This stubble is sun-bleached and has a different look from stubble that is taken from a fresh bale. Again, you want as close a match to the field as you can get."

If Mann sees a "no wind" forecast on the news the night prior to a hunt, he instructs his assistants to take the layout blinds to the field a couple of hours early to let them collect a frost coating. "On those still nights, everything else will get frosty. A dark layout blind with no frost on it stands out like a sore thumb in a white field."

On the other hand, Mann is careful not to allow frost to collect on his full-body and shell decoys. "If you put these out early, they'll frost over quickly. Then, when the sun comes up, the frost will melt and the decoys will get wet and turn into mirrors. Canada geese don't like to come into mirrors." Instead, he sets out his silhouette decoys first, then he mixes in his full-bodies and shells right before shooting time, with too little time before sunrise for them to collect frost.

Mann is a stickler for calling technique on honkers. "Hunters would be better callers if they'd be better listeners," he explains. "Many hunters just make noise on their goose calls. They call at Mach 6, and they don't listen to what the geese are saying back. If they did listen, they'd hear the geese telling them what they want to hear. Sometimes they'll be very vocal, and other days they'll be silent or call very little. Hunters should pay attention to this and emulate how the real birds are calling.

"Also, listening in the last 200 to 300 yards is critical. Geese say things to each other during final approach that, if hunters duplicate them, they will trigger a landing response. So listen carefully between your calls, and try to copy what the geese are saying."

Barnie Calef: Make Ducks Land Where You Want Them To

Three-time world champion duck caller Barnie Calef of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, frequently hunts from a boat blind, and he's a stickler about decoy placement. Calef believes many hunters put too much emphasis on arranging their decoys to look natural, setting them randomly. Instead, Calef sets his decoys in specific patterns to cause ducks to land where he wants them to.

He explains, "When decoys are tossed out in a random blob, ducks will usually land on the outside edge of the spread, which can make for some tough shooting. Instead, I set my decoys very specifically according to wind direction to cause the ducks to drop in right in front of the blind."

Calef chooses a blind site so the wind will be blowing from his back, either directly or quartering. "I'll always set up on the upwind side of the lake or river so the wind is coming from behind me. This means the ducks will approach through the front door."

When deploying decoys, Calef "defines" his landing zone by setting an "L" pattern with goose floaters on one arm and duck decoys running out at a 90-degree angle. He explains, "Say the wind is quartering over my shoulder from left to right. I'll set a line of Canada goose decoys running straight away from the boat blind on the upwind corner of the boat. Then I'll spread my duck decoys across in front of the boat and down the reeds or brush line. With this arrangement, when ducks come in, they normally aim to land in the V between the goose and duck decoys, and they'll be clustered together and in close where my hunters can make their shots count."

Ben Gibson: Tips for Field-Hunting Ducks

Ben Gibson operates By-Pass Farms near Carrollton, Missouri. By-Pass sprawls across the Missouri River from the Grand Pass Conservation Area, which is a major stopover for mallards and other ducks migrating through the Show Me State.

Gibson offers both water and land hunts, but his specialty is shooting mallards in dry cornfields in the afternoon. He scouts each morning to find where ducks are feeding in fields. Then, when the birds go back to the refuge, Gibson moves in to dig pits to shoot the afternoon feeding flight.

"First, it's imperative to be in the right spot, then there are two more keys to success," Gibson explains. "Hunters have got to be completely concealed in the open field, and the decoy spread has got to be realistic both in appearance and pattern."

After checking the wind, Gibson hand digs pits several feet apart in a crosswind line. "I can dig five individual pits in around an hour. They're like one-man ground chairs, so when a hunter is sitting down, the ground level hits around the top of his shoulders. When I'm digging, I pile the dirt right behind the pit, then when it's time to hunt, I cover the fresh dirt and the hunters with Fast Grass. I show them how to pull the Fast Grass up around their head like a blanket. When they do this properly and sit still, they'll blend right into the corn stubble. Circling ducks will never see them."

Gibson's decoy spread is the second element in his field setup. "I set out eight dozen shells on plastic stakes that come with these decoys. I put them in a tight group just downwind from the pits. I face all the decoys into the wind, which is how real ducks feed in a dry field. Also, I push the stakes into the dirt only as much as I have to to keep them standing up. If the stakes are just barely in the ground, the decoys will wobble in a breeze, and this gives the spread some realistic movement."

Gibson continues, "Next, I set up two wing-spinner decoys on poles. I set one at the downwind edge of the spread, and I put the other one straight upwind of it near the front edge of the spread. When they're field feeding, mallards have a tendency to hop-scotch across each other out of greediness to get to the best, freshest food. Setting the two wing-spinner decoys in this manner relative to the rest of the spread mimics this hop-scotching, and I think it looks realistic to incoming ducks. It gets them excited about getting in there and getting some of that corn."

Lane Lyle: Blend In; Don't Stand Out

Lane Lyle of Clarksville, Tennessee, has hunted waterfowl on nearby Kentucky Lake for almost 40 years. During the past 17 seasons, he's maintained a blind on the north point of a prominent island near the lake's channel. He looks out over miles of open water, and he tolls in a mix of mallards, gadwalls, widgeon, and other dabbling and diving ducks.

An architect by profession, Lyle is a nitpicker for camouflaging his blind so it blends into this island/open-water scene. "Other blinds around me are covered in oak brush, which offers good concealment but which looks out of place in this willow and mudflat environment. Instead, I camouflage my blind with old washed-up logs and limbs and vines that I collect along the island. The most prominent features along the island banks are driftwood and root wads from trees that have fallen over due to erosion from waves," he explains. "My goal is to make my blind look like a root wad, and this works, because ducks come in with no hesitation."

Another thing Lyle is a stickler for is keeping plenty of cover around the shooting holes of his piano-box structure. "I line the holes with vines and weeds that I cut off the island to hide hunters crouching inside them. Then I'll add more camo as the season wears on and the holes start getting wallowed out. Ducks circling the point get a good look at my blind, and if they see anything the least bit unnatural, they'll fly away. So I take great pains to keep the shooting holes well covered."

Lyle also enhances his setup's natural look with special decoys. "My basic spread consists of three dozen super-magnum mallard decoys, then I add in several sleeper and feeder (duck butt) decoys for realism's sake. I also place four full-body standup decoys on a little tip of mud that runs into the water in front of the blind, and I throw a dozen diver decoys out to the side, apart from the mallard decoys.

"And my last touch is to place a great blue heron decoy several yards out on the flat away from the duck decoys. There are a lot of these birds on Kentucky Lake during winter, and using this confidence decoy is one more trick to convince ducks that all is well, and they should come in."

Devil in the Details

No two waterfowl hunting setups are the same. Each differs in location, physical components, flight patterns, etc. Each is also unique in what it takes to convince ducks and geese to work. Most setups share the same basic elements – blind/pit, decoys, calling, etc., but hunters apply an infinite number of special adaptations to match their particular spot and challenges.

This is where the little tricks arise. Virtually every duck and goose hunter conjures up ways to make his setup more effective. He daydreams about them in the off-season, rigs them in the preseason, then tests them on opening day. If a new idea works, he sticks with it, and over many seasons his tricks accumulate to form a more effective hunting system.

This is the essence of waterfowling. Ducks and geese are wary by nature. When a hunter learns to lure them in repeatedly, the satisfaction is sublime. And frequently, it's the little things –keeping frost off the full-bodies, a special decoy arrangement, adding motion to a spread, the blending of a blind into its surroundings – that turn the tide. In waterfowl hunting, great imaginations and little adjustments go hand in hand to build success. It's absolutely true that the devil – and the ducks – are in the details.

More Little Things That Can Make Big Differences

Close Calls - Timing is everything when calling ducks. As a rule of thumb, it's best to call ducks "on the corners." Picture in your mind an imaginary box surrounding the perimeter of your decoys and blind. When circling ducks reach the corners of this imaginary box, hit them with a comeback or greeting call. This helps keep the birds from drifting off or landing wide.

Numbers Game - Anyone who has ever hunted near a waterfowl sanctuary knows the birds associate safety with numbers. However, amassing a spread of several dozen decoys can be costly. A cheap alternative is to augment your spread with several dozen two-liter soda bottles or one-gallon milk jugs painted fat black or covered with a roofing tar mixture. These "trash decoys" are highly visible and move in the slightest breeze, making a valuable contribution to your regular decoy spread.

Go Natural - Permanent blinds certainly are hard to beat for comfort and concealment. However, as hunting pressure has increased in many areas of the country, waterfowl are getting better at identifying blinds and avoiding them. Before building a large blind in a productive hunting area, check to see if there is enough natural vegetation to hide yourself and maybe a hunting partner or two. Hunkering in cattails or brush may not be as comfortable as hunting from a permanent blind with a floor and roof, but you may bag a lot more birds in return.

Give 'em a Rest - Ducks and geese have become increasingly sensitive to hunting pressure in recent years, so waterfowlers should be careful not to overshoot local populations, especially during extended periods between cold fronts. By limiting your hunting time in a particular marsh or field to only two or three mornings a week and by not hunting during the afternoons, you will allow concentrations of birds to build between hunts, making your outings more productive and enjoyable.

Get Dirty - Muddy the water around your decoys by walking through them occasionally. Feeding or loafing ducks in shallow water will stir up the bottom. Do the same, and your spread will look more like the real thing to birds inspecting you rig from the air.

Don't Move - Be still in the blind, Watching birds work is fun, but if you do, do so without becoming a bobblehead, and wear a camouflage head net. Ducks will spot movement before anything else.

Keep 'em Clean - Make sure your calls are free of debris. Food particles and other matter can easily become lodged in a game call's reed assembly, resulting in awful sounds or none at all. Rinse your calls at regular intervals throughout the season.

Confidence Counts - Don't be afraid to experiment with confidence decoys. A couple of coots, a great blue heron, or a gull located near the edge of your decoy spread can make a difference to wary ducks.

Head Fake - If some or all of your decoys have swivel heads, take the time to vary head positions slightly as you toss out your rig. The overall effect will be more realistic than a rig where every bird has the same head position.

About Face - When wind and water conditions permit, set one tail-rigged decoy for every dozen or so front-rigged birds in your mallard rig. A few of these "backward" swimmers add a realistic touch, as all the birds in a flock of mallards seldom face the same direction at any given time. An exception, of course, is when the birds are alert to danger and prepared to take flight, a scenario you do not want your spread to mimic. Do not set the tail-rigged birds in high winds or when you are hunting fast-moving water. They tend to ride unnaturally in these conditions.

Cleanliness is a Virtue - Pick up your spent shotshells frequently. Staying on top of this annoying task is especially important if you hunt from a pit in a harvested or flooded field—or in any other open environment with little cover. Keep a bucket in your blind or pit and pick up your hulls at the end of every hunt. Polished brass is as foreign in a duck's dining area as pondweed and amphipods would be (or should be) in yours.

Idle Chatter - When calling heavily hunted ducks on calm days, try using the lonesome hen call rather than the greeting call to work and finish birds. In areas with heavy hunting pressure, mallards hear a chorus of greeting calls every time they pass near a decoy spread. When it is calm, and especially when it is both overcast and calm, try setting yourself apart from your competition. When birds get within working range, have one caller blow lonesome hen calls repeatedly. Mix in a little feed chatter as the birds circle, but keep hitting them with rhythmic lonesome hen calls until they finish. Sometimes on calm days this calling strategy can be very effective.

Duck Calling Triathlon - Hunters in open terrain—marshes, flooded fields, rivers—who can see and call ducks over significant distances should consider carrying three calls on their lanyards: one tuned for normal hunting conditions, one tuned loud for hunting in high winds, and one tuned soft for hunting on still, calm days.