With the exception of the weather, nothing has a bigger impact on waterfowl behavior these days than hunting pressure. While duck harvests have declined in recent years from the record highs of the late 1990s, waterfowlers continue to spend more days in the field and are bagging more birds than at most times in modern history. The widespread use of ATVs, mud motors, mechanized decoys, and other high-tech gear has also made duck hunters more mobile and effective than in the past, exerting ever greater pressure on the birds.
Waterfowl have reacted to the onslaught by becoming more elusive and challenging to hunt than ever before. To have consistent success in intensively hunted areas—especially on public lands—waterfowlers have to adapt their hunting tactics to the changing habits of the birds. On the following pages, Ducks Unlimited interviewed several of the nation's most experienced waterfowlers, who shared some of their secrets on how to fool highly pressured ducks.
Avoid the Competition
The most common response waterfowl have to hunting pressure is to find safe havens where they can feed and rest without being disturbed. On public lands, dabbling ducks such as mallards and black ducks often retreat to wetlands in remote areas that are inaccessible to all but the most dedicated hunters. One such waterfowler is Dr. Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota. Stephens has hunted waterfowl in more than a dozen states, from Maryland to Texas to North Dakota.
Most of his hunting takes place on public lands, where he works hard to locate hidden pockets of habitat that are overlooked by other hunters. "I like to study maps and aerial photographs of public areas and try to find places that are difficult to access," Stephens says. "Then I figure out a strategy how to get in there. I have always liked lightweight one-man boats like pirogues that can be paddled or polled into shallow, weedy, or stump-filled waters that can't be reached with larger boats and conventional outboard motors. On a national forest in the Mississippi Delta, for example, we used carts with bicycle wheels to carry our pirogues through the woods to sloughs that were far from the nearest road. That gave us access to a lot of spots other guys couldn't get to solely on foot or by boat."
Another way to beat the crowds on public land is to hunt at times when other hunters aren't present. In many areas of the country, waterfowl often leave large public wetland complexes before dawn and then return to rest later in the day. Gary Goodpaster, who serves as DU's director of special events in Memphis, has had good success for years on public land by hunting later in the morning after most waterfowlers have returned to their vehicles. "The vast majority of duck hunters on public areas like to get into the marsh and set up an hour or more before shooting time," Goodpaster says. "I like to show up around sunrise and drive around the periphery of the area or find a high vantage point where I have a broad view of the marsh. I look to see where the other hunters are, and I watch where the birds are going and what their flight patterns are. Once I have a good feel for what's happening, I frequently go somewhere, have breakfast, and don't return to the hunting area until around 9:30.
"By the time I put my boat in around ten o'clock," Goodpaster continues, "most of the hunters who were there well before dawn are coming back in, either with a nice bag of birds or because they're worn out and hungry. When I go in and set up, I often have the place to myself. And I often have great hunting. On crisp, cold days when birds are moving, you'll be amazed how much shooting you can get late in the morning. For mallards, eleven o'clock has always been a magic time for me."
Another option for waterfowlers is to take advantage of public hunting areas where access is carefully regulated. In Missouri, for example, waterfowl managers limit the number of hunters on state conservation areas to no more than one party on every 40 acres of habitat. Access is controlled through a reservation system and drawings held each morning on conservation areas.
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Andrew Raedeke, a waterfowl biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, explains, "Our waterfowl hunting program has two main objectives: to provide hunters with a quality hunting experience and to help new or novice hunters get into waterfowl hunting. By limiting the number of hunters and providing rest areas to keep ducks in the area, we try to give our hunters the opportunity to see and work a fair number of ducks without too much interference. Quite a few hunters get turned away on weekends from some of our more popular conservation areas, but most of our hunters accept it because they know that if we didn't limit the number of hunters in these areas, there would be too much competition to have an enjoyable or successful hunt."