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Insider Guide to Public-Land Duck Hunting

Veteran public-land waterfowlers share their secrets for finding great hunting
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Tactics for Hunting on Public Areas

Once you have done your reconnaissance and located some good public areas, how do you make the most of the waterfowl hunting potential they offer?    

In many cases, hunting success on public areas boils down to one factor: handling pressure. Hunters who avoid pressure or work around it enjoy good shooting. Those who are less skilled at dealing with hunting pressure will generally be less successful.

Here are some tips from McGowen, Murrell, and Checkett on how to take full advantage of the opportunities available on public hunting areas:

  • Go hunting the first day after a rest period. For instance, if a management area is closed Monday and Tuesday to rest the birds and then reopens Wednesday, be there that morning. Hunting days following any closure typically offer the best shooting.

  • If possible, avoid popular areas on weekends and holidays. Although weather and migrations still play a role, hunting is usually better during weekdays when fewer hunters are out.

  • Be mobile. Be ready and willing to move with the birds. Hunters may have to hike, wade, or boat into hard-to-reach areas where waterfowl are working. A small boat with a mud motor can be ideal for reaching remote, shallow areas where standard boats can’t run. With safety always in mind, a deep-draft boat with an outboard may be a better choice for large rivers and lakes where long runs in rough water are the rule. A boat-blind is often helpful for hiding when hunters reach remote spots where birds are working.

  • Be sure to carry additional means of hiding the boat or building a blind in natural cover. You may need pruners or an ax for cutting natural brush (if allowed), grass mats, camouflage netting, burlap, etc.

  • Consider using a layout boat or a ground blind in a waterproof liner for hunting large open areas where standing cover is sparse.

  • Study flight patterns to determine the best times to hunt. Sometimes the midday period is best, as birds return to rest areas after feeding early in the morning. This can be especially true when the moon is full.

  • Go hunting on a public waterfowl area on opening day of deer season. Many hunters will be in the woods instead of on the water, so waterfowl hunters will have less competition.

  • Purchase and learn to use a GPS. Doing so will allow you to navigate to and from remote sites where birds are working, even in the dark.Plan hunts according to weather changes, both current and anticipated. After a heavy rain, go to newly inundated shallows where fresh food is available. During a cold snap, shift to big water that’s still open. Try to hunt whenever an approaching cold front might push new birds down the flyway.

  • Use as many decoys as feasible. Ducks and geese find reassurance in a spread that resembles a refuge setting.

  • On open water, use magnum duck decoys and add some goose decoys to your rig to increase its long-range visibility.

  • Experiment with calling styles to determine which the birds like best on that given day. In a competitive calling situation, the loudest, most aggressive caller may fare best on some days, but on others, a subtle or even silent approach can be especially effective.

  • Have one or more spinning-wing decoys available. On public areas, if other hunters are using spinners, hunters who don’t have them may be left out of the action. If you have a couple on hand, you have the option of using them as you see fit.

  • Be patient. Later is often better as waterfowl frequently trickle back into public hunting areas after most hunters have left.  

  • Persevere! Of all tips for hunting public land, this one is probably the most crucial. Hunters who aren’t willing to work for their birds will likely be disappointed with the results. But those with a stick-with-it attitude who are mobile and flexible in their hunting tactics and who have realistic expectations about hunting on public areas will fare well—perhaps not every day, but often enough to provide plenty of enjoyment to keep them coming back.

“Hunting on public areas is a ‘learn as you go’ experience,” Murrell says. “You have to keep scouting and moving to stay in the birds. And you have to make adjustments, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t. You also have to realize that places change from year to year because of droughts, floods, or different food conditions. The main thing is not to get discouraged if you have a slow day. All waterfowl hunters know that tomorrow might be better. We live by that hope. Tomorrow might be that golden day, so don’t give up too soon.” 

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