by Wade Bourne
The spiraling flight of ducks reminded me of a child's top spinning across a flat table, only the table was a field of swathed barley and the birds, some 200 mallards, were eager to breakfast on the waste grain left among the stubble. I held desperately still in my layout blind as the lead birds descended toward our decoys. I watched but dared not move—not even an eyelid. The flock started landing around us. I could feel wind from the birds' backpedaling wings and hear them touching down on the straw-littered ground. I was mesmerized, exhilarated, even a little overwhelmed, but not so much so that I couldn't react when our guide finally barked, "Take 'em!" When he did, bedlam reigned . . . and then ducks rained!
Hunting ducks in dry fields is a challenging undertaking and a special pleasure. When ducks set their sights on a grainfield, they mean business, but cover is usually sparse in open fields, making it difficult for hunters to hide. Flights of field-feeding ducks are also typically large, which means many collective eyes scanning for danger. As a result, field-feeders commonly circle several times before lowering their flaps. But when they do, it's one of the most exciting moments in waterfowling.
Most dry-field duck hunting takes place in prairie Canada and in northern-tier states in early fall when the birds are staging for migration, but opportunities for dry-field hunting also exist down the flyways and into late winter. Dry-field hunting is less traditional down south, but it can be very productive for those who know when to try it and who have the right gear.
Several elements are necessary for success in dry fields. Hunters must find where ducks are feeding and must conceal themselves, usually in the wide open. They must also set out realistic decoy spreads and must call and shoot effectively.
"Dry-field hunting can be productive when more traditional methods aren't working," says Christian Curtis, of Sikeston, Missouri. "Ducks are under a lot of hunting pressure now, and what worked 20 years ago isn't working as well now. Sometimes it's the uncommon strategies that provide the best shooting, and when conditions are right, this one can be one of the best."
Here's how Curtis and other dry-field hunters take ducks when more traditional hunters may be struggling.
Unless hunting pressure is intense, ducks follow the same feeding routine on both staging and wintering grounds. They rest on secluded or protected waters and fly out to feed once or twice a day. Typically, ducks will eat early in the morning and again late in the afternoon. They ordinarily return to the same site until the food is exhausted or gunning pressure pushes them elsewhere.
Consequently, good scouting is crucial in dry-field hunting. Hunters must find where ducks are feeding, wait for them to leave, and then be set up and ready when the birds come back that afternoon or the next morning. Scouting is best done by cruising through agricultural country and observing where feeding flights are going.
Each fall Curtis and five friends hunt the vast grainfields of southern Manitoba. They gun only in the mornings and spend the afternoons driving and watching for concentrations of waterfowl in pea and barley fields. Sometimes Curtis and his hunting partners will find ducks and geese feeding together. Other times they locate and target concentrations of ducks (mostly mallards and pintails) feeding alone.
"We go up [to Canada] in three trucks, and each day after lunch, we'll head off in different directions," says Curtis. "We have maps to help navigate the back roads. The afternoon flight usually starts around three o'clock, and we'll drive and follow birds until we find where a group is working."
After locating a concentration of feeding birds, Curtis and his hunting partners will seek out the landowner and obtain permission to hunt. Then they return to the field and watch until the birds leave at dark. "If they go to their roost undisturbed, they'll almost always come back the next morning. This is why scouting is so vital in dry-field hunting," Curtis says.
"When the sun rises the next morning," he continues, "we want to be exactly where they were feeding the afternoon before." After ducks leave a field in the evening, Curtis drives in and places a marking flag so that he can easily find the feeding site the next morning before dawn. "Those Manitoba grainfields have some roll to them," he explains, "and it's easy to get confused in the dark. But when we find our flag, we know we're right." (Taking a GPS reading is another sure way to relocate a chosen hunting site in the predawn.)
This same scouting strategy applies farther down the flyway. Brent Carper, of Jacksonville, Arkansas, hunts in dry soybean fields near the Cache River, and Ira McCauley, of Defiance, Missouri, hunts in dry cornfields in the Grand Pass area.
Carper hunts in soybean fields before freeze-up. "I'll set up close to slash water," he says. "The ducks like to land in the thin water; then they'll march up on dry ground like little soldiers. It's important to observe where they're feeding and set up in just the right spot."
McCauley hunts his dry cornfields during a hard freeze, when shallow waters are locked up and aquatic foods aren't available. In this condition, ducks need more "hot" foods like corn to supply needed carbohydrates. "When a freeze comes, we watch where the birds are going, and we set up either where they're feeding or under the flyway to and from their feeding spot," McCauley says.
The layout blind has revolutionized hunting for waterfowl in dry fields. Prior to the advent of these portable, spring-open blinds, hunters had to dig pits (lots of work), lie flat on the ground (uncomfortable), erect above-ground blinds (unnatural looking), or hide in fence rows or other available cover (usually not in the right spot).
The layout blind solved all these problems. It blocks wind and rain, provides good support for the back and neck, and offers total concealment. With natural (or natural-looking) cover added, a layout blind will blend into any setting. It can be positioned however a hunter desires and turned easily if the wind shifts. Curtis, Carper, and McCauley all use layout blinds for concealment in dry fields.
"We generally hunt in cornfields, so we permanently attach cornstalk-colored Invisigrass [an imported natural grass called raffia] to our blinds," McCauley says. "This makes setups quick and easy." (McCauley sells Invisigrass through his Web site: www.momarsh.com.)
Before Curtis takes his Avery Finisher blinds to the field, he "muds" them. "I mix some dirt and water in a five-gallon bucket, and I'll smear mud all over the blinds and let it dry," he explains. "Then I'll take an old broom and brush most of the mud off. This leaves the blinds a dull dirt color. Then when I get in a field, I stuff grain stubble or pea vines into the loops on the blind covers. We always take a couple of rakes to rake up this natural cover, and we add enough to the blinds to make them blend into the field."
Like McCauley, Carper also camouflages his layout blinds with raffia, but dyes the fibers black or brown to match soybean stubble.
Other options for hunting in dry fields include goose recliners, hay-bale blinds, and various pop-up blinds, but the low profile and portability of layout blinds have made them the hands-down favorite for hunting waterfowl in dry fields.
The third essential in dry-field hunting is setting out a realistic, attractive decoy spread. Curtis uses a combination of full-body Canada goose decoys (approximately 60) and full-body stand-up duck decoys (approximately 80) even when hunting ducks only. "In Manitoba grainfields, geese and ducks routinely feed together, so this is a natural-looking spread," he says. "Also, the bigger, darker goose decoys help get the ducks' attention, and they hide our blinds better. They have a higher profile than the duck decoys."
Curtis sets a large cluster of decoys with arms angling out and downwind on each side, forming a shallow "C". Running 30 to 40 yards long, these arms serve to funnel incoming birds to the center of the spread.
"We'll group the goose decoys in the main cluster and run a few down the arms," says Curtis. "Then we'll fill in the arms and the downwind edge of the cluster with the stand-up ducks. We'll arrange our blinds six to eight feet apart in the middle of the spread and a few yards back from its downwind edge."
Carper deploys an interesting decoy arrangement in his Arkansas soybean fields. He has found that by the time ducks get to Arkansas, hunting pressure has made them wary of large decoy spreads. "I use a big decoy spread to attract high-flying ducks and a little spread to finish them," he says. "The birds will break down and circle a big spread, but they're reluctant to land in it. In the last couple of seasons, ducks have been a lot more willing to work to little spreads.
"So I'll set several dozen Flambeau Enticers [full-body duck decoys] about 75 to 100 yards upwind from the point where water meets dirt, and then I'll set six Enticers right at the water's edge. Ducks will circle over the big spread; then almost every time they'll work to the little spread."
Carper sets his blinds 15 to 20 yards outside this small decoy spread. In the wide open with nothing around them, they appear as muddy, weedy bumps in the field. "This is key," says Harper. "I never set out more than two layout blinds, and one is better. We've tried to hunt three, and when we do, our success goes down noticeably. The ducks are just too wary of them. There's too much for them to see."
In contrast, in Missouri's late season, Ira McCauley says the more decoys he sets in a field, the better the ducks work. "For a three-man hunt, we'll put out five or six dozen decoys (a combination of homemade silhouettes, field shells, and full-bodies)," he says. "I like oversize decoys, and I paint them all like mallard drakes. Drakes show up better than hens in the corn stubble." McCauley locates his layout blinds in the middle of his spread, upwind from the landing zone.
McCauley also strongly advocates using spinning-wing decoys in dry fields. "I'll use from one to three wing-spinners," he says. "I usually start with three and then gauge the birds' reaction to them. If they show any hesitation toward working to these decoys, I'll go down to two or one, and I may set it close to the ground to make it just a little more subtle."
"You can call if you want to, but calling in dry fields isn't nearly as important as it is over water," McCauley says. "When I do call, I give 'em the standard stuff:highball, come-on calls, feeding calls. In the fields, it's more about the decoys and being in the right place than about calling."
Carper echoes McCauley's thoughts on calling. "Our whole frame of mind is being subtle, so we don't use a call a lot in the soybean fields," he says. "We might make some soft quacks and feed calls, but if the ducks are coming, we let them come without too much calling. They've been hearing calls all the way from Canada."
But in Canada, ducks are more susceptible to calling because young birds comprise a larger percentage of the flock. "We call quite a bit," Curtis says. "The birds certainly aren't call-shy in Manitoba. They react well to aggressive calling, so we call just like we do if we're in a flooded rice field back home."
"Shooting from a layout blind is different," Curtis says. "You're lying down, and you have to rise suddenly and shoot from a sitting position. If you're a right-handed shooter, it's tough to swing to the right. You feel restricted.
"I'd recommend that before anybody starts hunting from a layout blind, they spend an afternoon shooting clay targets from it," he says. "This will help you get the feel for what it's like. It'll make a world of difference when the ducks are coming in."
Carper recommends canting the layout blinds slightly—to the right of the wind direction for right-handed shooters and to the left of the wind direction for left-handed shooters. This will provide a slightly off-angle shot and a wider swing arc than if the toe of the blind was pointed directly downwind.
Odds and Ends
McCauley says bright sunshine helps hide hunters in layout blinds. The blinds blend into the field better when there are shadows. "Clouds are no good," he says. "It's too hard to hide. If it's cloudy, we may stay home."
Last season during a hard freeze, Curtis imported his Canadian dry-field tactics to southeast Missouri, but he made one important change in his decoy spread. "We put out snow goose decoys instead of Canada decoys. We don't have many Canada geese in southeast Missouri, but we've got plenty of snows. You need to stick with what's natural. We were very successful with this setup."
Curtis also uses decoys with motion bases that move when the wind blows. "That extra movement adds just that much more realism to help pull in reluctant birds," he says.
When a freeze hits Arkansas, Carper has his best luck in dry soybean fields from noon through the afternoon. "It takes a while for the sun to thaw out the surface mud and free the beans so the ducks can eat them," Carper says. "They know this, and they don't come to feed until midday or later."
If Carper's hunting area receives a light snowfall, he will take an ATV into his hunting field and drive it around to muddy up his hunting site. "This is the same as busting a hole in ice," he explains. "It makes it look like ducks have been on the ground feeding." Then he sets his decoys and layout blinds in a normal manner and waits for birds to show up.
Here's the wrap-up: Long a favorite duck-hunting practice in northern production areas, dry-field hunting is also a viable option on wintering grounds when conditions are right. Hunters must learn to recognize the opportunity, have the right gear and decoys, and follow the dry-field strategies explained by Curtis, Carper, and McCauley. As Curtis said, these are different days for duck hunters, and uncommon tactics are called for.