By Wade Bourne
For some waterfowl hunters, it's a point of pride to get the birds so close they can almost feel the wind off their wings. Forget the treetop and edge-of-range shots. These hunters want ducks and geese backpedaling in their faces.
"I take great pleasure in not shooting birds until they're fully committed and hanging over the decoys," says Gary Goodpaster of Collierville, Tennessee. A former regional director for Ducks Unlimited, Goodpaster has pursued ducks for more than 45 years. He now hunts mostly in Arkansas on permanent moist-soil areas. "I rarely shoot at ducks that haven't decoyed within 25 yards."
"Getting ducks and geese in close is what this sport is all about," echoes Bobby Swineford, who has hunted waterfowl for 56 years and currently manages waterfowl hunting at Blandfield Plantation on Virginia's Rappahannock River. "For me, the ultimate moment is when birds come in and stick their landing gear down right in front of the blind. That's the premier moment in this sport. I've won. I've fooled them, and the shooting is anticlimactic."
Getting ducks and geese in close over the decoys may be more challenging on some days than others, but both of these waterfowlers committed years ago to strive toward that goal on every hunt. They have refined their skills and developed the patience to succeed. By following their advice, other hunters will improve their success while also increasing their enjoyment of waterfowling.
Scout for Success
Goodpaster says the first step in getting ducks in close is setting up exactly where they want to be. "I'm not talking about 50 yards away," he emphasizes. "I mean right on the X whenever possible. I spend a lot of time scouting to find this sweet spot. I prefer to scout during the same time I plan to hunt the next day, either morning or afternoon."
If he can't determine the X from long distance, Goodpaster will walk in carefully with binoculars to find the exact location of the birds. "Even if I get a little too close and move them off their spot, they'll usually come right back in," he says. "Meanwhile, I'll get a firsthand look and also a chance to figure out how to set up for the next day's hunt.
"The only time I don't try to hunt right on the X is when a very large number of birds are concentrated in one area because of ideal habitat conditions," Goodpaster continues. "I'll then try to avoid disturbing the main concentration of birds with gunfire by hunting the ‘edge' several hundred yards downwind. This provides great shooting for singles, pairs, and small flocks."
"I spend a lot of time watching birds," Swineford says. "I want to know where they're working, and I also want to hunt where I'll have the wind at my back. If possible, I want ducks or geese coming straight upwind to land. This provides the best shots for my clients, and it helps us bag our birds quickly and get out of the marsh, which minimizes disturbance for the remaining birds.
"Three elements are required for holding waterfowl on a property: water, food, and rest," Swineford adds. "We have the water and food, so our main challenge is managing disturbance. The less we disturb the birds, the more they will stick around. Taking low percentage, long-range passing shots generally increases disturbance because we have to fire more shells to get a limit of birds. So by getting our ducks and geese in close and taking only high-percentage shots, we reduce the disturbance factor. It's truly a management tool."
Disappear from View
Goodpaster hunts mostly from layout boats and small natural-cover brush blinds, while Swineford guides from pits and three-man A-frame blinds situated throughout the Blandfield property. Despite the differences in how they hunt, they share the same convictions about the need to disappear totally from the view of circling birds.
"I go to great lengths to hide my layout boats and myself," Goodpaster says. "Some hunters believe that using layout boats is a guarantee of success, but it's not. You still have to blend them into the natural cover. Then, once you are lying inside the boat, you have to be patient and remain totally motionless when ducks are circling overhead."
Goodpaster positions his layout boats where natural cover will help conceal them. "I like to set up in good cover such as marsh grass, smartweed, cattails, or a stand of willows," he says. "I especially like some natural high cover around my boat, because this will help shield movement when I come up to shoot."
Goodpaster covers his boat with an old piece of canvas, then army surplus camo netting, and finally natural vegetation on top. "It's just a fact: ducks are going to see you if you don't cover up well," he explains. "This is especially true on cloudy days. I spend at least 30 minutes before each hunt trying to get everything just right."
When hunting, Goodpaster wears a facemask and sometimes holds a handful of natural cover in front of his face when ducks are working. "And I stay absolutely still," he emphasizes. "I don't try to watch ducks when they're circling behind me. What really matters is that I can see them well when they come back around over the decoys. I rarely hunt with more than one other hunter, and I hunt by myself a lot because the more hunters you have to hide, the harder it is to keep everybody completely hidden and still.
"I also think many hunters focus too much on being ready at shooting time, and they ignore the need to cover up well," Goodpaster continues. "If I think I need to, I'll take the extra time to get everything just right, even if it means missing that first opportunity of the morning. This is a good investment for a quality shoot, especially with late-season birds."
Swineford's prefabricated three-man marsh blinds measure four by eight feet on the floor, and the front and back panels slope inward to a 33-inch-wide shooting hole at the top. The sides measure 40 inches tall. "We cover our blinds with natural cordgrass," he says. "We stand the grass up six feet across the back and ends of the blind and five feet across the front, so the grass is pretty tight around the shooting hole. When our hunters are sitting on the bench, they are always hidden in the shadows. Also, the blinds rest right on the mud, and their profile blends right in with the natural vegetation.
"Our guides paint their faces so they can watch the ducks work and know when to call," he continues. "We let our clients watch the birds work, too. That's just part of the fun of the hunt. But we encourage them to keep their movements to a minimum and to stay down under the cover. If ducks see any movement in the blind, they're gone."
Swineford also uses field pits for hunting ducks and Canada geese. "We bundle cordgrass together and lay the bundles over the shooting holes," he explains. "We'll totally cover the shooting hole from one end of the pit to the other. When birds are in range, hunters push the bundles aside and come up to shoot."
Set a Realistic Spread
When hunting ducks, both Goodpaster and Swineford depend on a small number of realistic decoys set to encourage ducks to land directly in front of them. Goodpaster never uses more than three dozen decoys, and sometimes he uses only a half-dozen in a smaller hole. "I like to be upwind of my spread, and I'll set my decoys so I have a landing hole no farther than 25 yards from my hide," he says. "Sometimes, though, I'll hunt crosswind from my decoys. Whether upwind or crosswind, the location of the best cover and the prevailing light conditions dictate where and how I'll set up.
"I believe motion is beneficial, but I don't use spinning-wing decoys and am usually too close to my decoys to risk the movement from pulling a jerk string," Goodpaster says. "But I do try to place my decoys where the wind can move them."
In the duck marsh, Swineford typically uses as few as six decoys in smaller holes and as many as 24 in larger holes. He sets them in natural patterns and quickly makes an adjustment if ducks aren't decoying in front of the blind. "I'll shift my rig to the left or right if the wind changes slightly and the ducks start hitting off to the side instead of the middle of the landing hole," he explains.
In the fields, Swineford puts out 120 Canada goose silhouette decoys. Because these decoys are one-dimensional, he sets them facing at different angles into the wind, which helps create the illusion of movement to circling geese. "I set goose decoys in family groups of eight and leave small openings between the groups," he explains. "If the wind is at my back, I'll set equal numbers of decoys to the left and right with a 10-yard-wide landing pocket in front of the pit. In a crosswind, I'll set most of my decoys upwind in a tight group, leave a 15-yard pocket in front of the pit, and then put about a dozen decoys downwind. With either set, no decoys are more than 35 yards from the pit. If geese start hitting the corners of the rig, I'll quickly make an adjustment. As with the ducks, I want the geese to decoy directly in front of the pit."
Say the Right Things
"I don't use calls a lot," Goodpaster says. "For me, calling is a backup as opposed to a primary tool. It's just something to provide a little extra enticement when I think the birds need it."
When ducks are coming toward his decoys, Goodpaster remains silent, and as long as they're circling, he lays off the call. But if they start losing interest, he will blow a plaintive comeback call, usually four to five notes, to hook the birds back toward the decoys. "I believe the greatest conservation tool ever invented is the duck call, at least in my hands," he says. "If you're in the right spot and hidden well, the ducks will come on their own."
Swineford is a more proactive caller, but he still doesn't overdo it. "Some days ducks want more calling; other days they want less," he says. "You have to watch how they respond to what you're blowing and make adjustments. On calm, warm days, which are the worst for calling, I'll use a softer call and maybe just blow basic quacks and little feed calls. If ducks are coming, I let them come on. I don't want to blow them out."
Swineford says his most effective call is a "little scolding call" that he uses when ducks are reluctant to work the decoys. "It's one long pleading note followed by several rapid follow-up notes," he explains. "Sometimes this pulls them in when nothing else will.
"One reason a lot of people take long shots is because they haven't learned to call properly," he says. "If you're saying the right things, you can lead birds right to the call."
The Big Payoff
If you have done everything else right, shots will be close, straight on, and easy. "I typically don't shoot until ducks are fully committed and as close as I think they're going to get," says Goodpaster, who shoots 12-gauge 3-inch Winchester Supreme steel 2s. "Then I rise up and take the time to smoothly make the shot. I think a lot of hunters panic at ‘show time.' Many hunters would shoot better if they didn't rush their shots."
Swineford, who advises his hunters to focus on an incoming bird's head instead of its body, shoots 12 gauge 2 3/4 inch Hevi-Shot 5s on both ducks and geese. "This combination is very effective if you're shooting the head and neck area of either bird at 25 yards," he says.
Swineford believes another benefit of getting birds in close before shooting is a reduction in crippling losses. "This is a good conservation tool," he says. "Plus, you don't lose a lot of hunting time chasing cripples. This allows you to move out of the hunting area sooner, which cuts down on the disturbance factor."
"It's a lot easier to be a good shotgunner on birds at 25 yards than at 50 yards," Goodpaster agrees. "So, if you find where the birds want to be, hide well, put out a realistic spread, don't move, and shoot straight, you'll get your share of birds. And by waiting for close shots, you'll have more fun and satisfaction in the process."