By Wade Bourne
For some waterfowlers, the words "public hunting area" conjure up images of crowded boat ramps, fierce competition for spots, and incessant calling. Others shrug off these annoyances and point to the bountiful waterfowl hunting opportunities available on national wildlife refuges, wildlife management areas, and other public lands. Both perceptions are correct to some extent.
Managed public lands typically attract plenty of ducks. They also draw large numbers of hunters. Here are seven surefire strategies to help you bag more birds on these come-one, come-all waterfowl hunting areas:
1. Locate the Best Spots
It's a fact: certain spots are simply duck magnets. For a variety of reasons, some places on public hunting areas consistently attract more birds than others. Hunters who learn the best spots and gain access to them will experience more consistent shooting than those who don't.
Here's an example. Years ago my partners and I were hunting on a public wade-in area in west Tennessee. All waterfowlers were assigned to numbered sites on a first-come, first-served basis. Through experience, we learned about a secluded spot in the back of the area that was a veritable honey hole. It was just one of those places where mallards and other puddle ducks wanted to be.
Other hunters also knew this was a good spot, so we made it a point to be the first to get there whenever we hunted it. We would get up early enough to arrive at the blind an hour before legal shooting time, and wait in the dark. Hunters who showed up later had to go elsewhere. I don't ever remember getting to this spot an hour early and finding someone else already there.
The takeaway: ferret out the good spots. Ask the area manager or a local conservation officer to point out the places that consistently draw more birds. Check harvest reports for blinds or specific units that have the best track record. Scout during nonhunting periods to learn where the ducks want to be.
Blinds on some public hunting areas are allocated ahead of time via drawings. Other blinds and sites are assigned on a daily basis. In either case, hunters who know the best spots can make informed selections when their turn to choose comes around. Learn where the best places are and go all out to claim them, and you'll bag more ducks.
2. Hunt When Others Don't
As a rule, the less pressure a public area receives the better the hunting will be. This is why hunting on weekdays is usually more productive than hunting on weekends, when more waterfowlers go afield. Other good times to hunt include holidays, opening days of hunting seasons for other game, and when extreme weather keeps many hunters indoors.
Here's another scenario. If a popular local wildlife management area (WMA) is gunned heavily on weekends and rested on Monday and Tuesday, hunt it on Wednesday. Your chance for a good hunt should be higher on the first day the area reopens to hunting.
Certain times of day might also offer less competition and better hunting. Ducks often become programmed by hunting pressure. If pressure is heavy early but slackens as the morning wears on, the ducks might start feeding later in the day, when the disturbance from hunters is lower.
The point is, be alert for any opportunity to hunt on public areas when other hunters aren't likely to show up. If you're there when others aren't, your odds of enjoying a good shoot will increase.
3. Hunt Where Others Can't
He who works the hardest often fares the best. True of life in general, this old adage also applies to duck hunting. Here's a shining example. Several years ago I wrote an article about two hunters from Little Rock, Arkansas, who frequented the state's renowned Bayou Meto WMA. Bayou Meto's flooded timber draws a lot of birds, but this area also has a reputation for drawing big crowds.
These two hunters made a habit of venturing into the most inaccessible reaches of Bayou Meto. They would motor as long as they had sufficient water to float their boat. Then they would climb out and start wading into thick, brushy woods through water that was only a few inches deep. This was where mallards liked to go to escape the hunting pressure in more popular-and more accessible-areas.
By working hard, these two hunters left the crowds behind and went where the ducks wanted to be. They outthought and outworked their competitors, and in doing so they consistently bagged limits of greenheads.
To increase your chances of success, hunt outside the box. Seek out and explore places that are hard to reach. Study maps and aerial photographs to find spots where ducks may go to escape hunting pressure. Learn to use a GPS-an invaluable tool for exploring backcountry. Consider hiking and wading in or using a Go-Devil boat and motor, a canoe, a kayak, or any other means of accessing new territory.
4. Hunt Multiple Areas
Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Many states have multiple WMAs and refuges in close proximity to each other. As weather and habitat conditions change, waterfowl will move around from one place to another to take advantage of new opportunities to feed and rest. At times, ducks trade between these areas like Saturday-morning yard-sale shoppers. Hunters who keep up with the ducks' movements and follow them can stay in the birds, while those who stick to one spot are likely to experience hit-or-miss shooting.
Several years ago, a friend and I towed a boat-blind rig to Kansas. We scouted several small public reservoirs and found few ducks, before finally hitting the jackpot. One lake was hosting several thousand mallards. These birds were flying out at dawn to feed in surrounding grainfields, then returning to the lake to rest in midmorning. My partner and I bagged easy limits of close-working greenheads from the same spot four days in a row. We did so because we were mobile. We kept moving and looking until we found the ducks.
Don't be a homesteader. Instead, draw up an itinerary that includes several public hunting areas within a specified region, and keep moving and prospecting until you find ducks.
5. Stand Out in a Crowd
On public hunting areas, tactics that grab the attention of working ducks are often more effective in tolling birds than a more passive approach. Nowhere is this more evident than on Tennessee's Reelfoot Lake. In a setting where blinds are close together and many hunters vie for the same ducks, professional guides often put out permanent spreads that sometimes number in the thousands of decoys. They also employ multiple wing-spinners and other motion decoys. And they are expert practitioners of Reelfoot's legendary aggressive calling style-loud, continuous, and demanding. Sometimes several callers work together to capture and hold ducks' attention as the birds circle and descend into shooting range.
This is not to imply that you have to put out as big a spread, add as much motion, or call as loud as a Reelfoot guide when you hunt on public land. Each situation is different. But you will gain an edge over the competition if you set out more decoys than the hunters around you, add some motion to your spread, and use insistent calling to attract the attention of passing ducks.
You can grab the attention of ducks in other ways as well. Make your decoys more noticeable by adding white to your spread in the form of pintail or spoonbill drakes. Or paint a few decoys flat black. These stark colors are more visible at long distances than drab-colored or faded decoys. Sometimes flagging draws long-range ducks as well as it does geese. Do whatever you have to do to get noticed, and you'll have better odds of bringing birds into your decoys.
6. Hunt in Favorable Weather
Waterfowlers who time their hunts to coincide with favorable weather conditions can stack the odds in their favor. Frontal passages, heavy rain, snow, cold snaps, rapid thaws, fog, high winds, and other weather conditions can cause ducks and geese to move and be more eager to work to decoys and calls.
You should always keep an eye on the weather and plan to hunt when new birds are likely to arrive, or when "local" birds are more prone to move around. On classic waterfowling days, the migration is in full swing and new arrivals often work with reckless abandon. Exceptional gunning can also be had when a weather change causes ducks that are already in the area to become more active.
Here's a good example. A friend of mine hunted on a WMA in Missouri a few years back. Nighttime temperatures froze the flooded cornfields where ducks had been feeding, but by midmorning the temperatures rose into the 40s and melted the ice. The ducks responded by feeding later in the morning. My friend observed this pattern and began hunting between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. By then, other hunters were giving up and heading in, but my buddy was ready when the ducks showed up for brunch. He took a full limit of greenheads several days in a row.
Public waterfowling can go from slow to red hot when weather changes move the birds. Hunters who understand this and adapt accordingly can increase their chances for a banner shoot.
7. Remain Flexible
Finally, if the ducks aren't coming your way, try something different. Change locations, calling styles, decoy strategies, and so on. Keep your options open, and remain adaptable and mobile.
When hunting public areas, it's crucial to prepare for several options so you can quickly switch to a backup plan if you need to. If plan A isn't working, go to plan B, and then to plan C.
When it comes to public waterfowl hunting, dealing with other duck hunters can be just as important as dealing with the ducks. The Golden Rule should always apply. If hunters would be considerate of each other and treat others the way they'd like to be treated, hunting on public areas would be a lot more enjoyable and productive for everybody. That's a fact that's as true as it is simple.