By Wade Bourne
We were in Kansas, on a reservoir built for power generation and to store spring floodwaters, but the ducks didn't know that. They thought this lake was strictly for them, and they fogged it. My two partners and I crouched in buck bushes on an island and worked several flights of 50 mallards or more right into our decoys.
We were in Kentucky, on a Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) reservoir known for great fishing and summer houseboat vacations, but the ducks had their own use for it. A hard freeze had pushed them out of nearby swamps and sloughs, and the big water was a convenient resting spot. A buddy and I built a brush blind on an old roadbed and bagged a mixed limit of puddle ducks and two bonus Canada geese that worked to its downwind side.
We were in South Dakota, on the upper end of a reservoir on the Missouri River. The big river had been dammed for navigation and power generation purposes, but the ducks didn't know this, or care. To them, the reedy flats bordering the channel were the perfect loafing spot after a morning of feeding in nearby cornfields. My guide and I shot only greenheads as they dropped in from a bright blue sky.
Big reservoirs: Sometimes they offer the best duck and goose shooting to be found anywhere. When conditions are right, reservoirs are like magnets to these birds. Plus, most reservoirs are open to public hunting. They're large enough to allow hunters to spread out. And many reservoirs don't get enough pressure for waterfowlers to have to worry about spreading out. They have their pick of spots.
Still, many hunters regard reservoirs as the stepchildren of waterfowl spots. Other "family members" – swamps, potholes, flooded agricultural fields, green timber bottoms, cattail marshes – are more traditional and draw more attention from those who seek ducks and geese. Also, many of these places are easier to hunt than reservoirs. The latter can require major investments in time, equipment, and effort.
Nevertheless, big, manmade lakes can be hotspots. Hunters who learn their secrets and who don't mind a little spray on their face can run reservoirs and experience waterfowling that's wild, free, and unencumbered by club rules or management area regulations.
Medium- to large-size reservoirs exist in virtually every state. In recent decades, hundreds of these manmade lakes have been built to enhance water transportation, flood control, and power generation. Most reservoirs are owned by a government agency: Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management, Tennessee Valley Authority, etc. Some are owned by private power companies. Most of these reservoirs are open to public waterfowl hunting in accordance with state regulations.
Likely candidates for hunting are easy to locate and investigate. Most all reservoirs will show on a state road map. Pick one that's large enough to have promise, then call the appropriate wildlife agency or log onto their Web site to learn more about it, especially who controls it.
Next, check the controlling agency's Web site for such details as boat ramps, pool elevations, presence of refuges or waterfowl management areas, availability of maps, hazards to navigation, user fees, and so on. Copy the phone number of the office that directly manages the lake, and call the reservoir manager, ranger, biologist, or anyone else who can provide particulars about waterfowl hunting.
Some reservoirs will be close enough to a major flyway to attract large numbers of ducks and geese. Some will have refuges or management areas that draw and hold birds. Other reservoirs farther from flyways may pull in only a few waterfowl, but these shouldn't be overlooked. If only a few ducks and geese are using a reservoir, they might attract little attention from other hunters. However, if these bards are concentrated in one area and following predictable feeding/resting patterns, there might be plenty for a good hunt.
I have a friend who lives in east Tennessee, halfway between the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways. This is mountainous country and not exactly noted for attracting ducks. However, several reservoirs snake through this region's valleys, and they draw a smattering of waterfowl each winter. My friend scouts mudflats and islands where he knows ducks like to hang out, and he sets up where his chances look best. His typical bag may include a couple of mallards, a black duck, a gadwall, and a wood duck. He rarely sees a flight of more than a half-dozen birds. But by being patient and taking singles and doubles, he winds up most days with a decent bag.
Best Conditions for Hunting Reservoirs
Waterfowl may use reservoirs anytime, but the biggest numbers build up when food conditions are good or when nearby swamps, marshes, bottoms, or flooded fields are frozen or dried up. When a scarcity of shallow water exists, ducks move to reservoirs where open water is still available.
First, the food. This is what typically draws ducks to any area, reservoirs or otherwise. When a banquet is set for the birds, they usually show up with an appetite.
For instance, on T V A lakes near my home, milfoil and other water weeds grow in some shallow water back-bay areas. Widgeons, gadwalls, teal, and other ducks love this salad, and they will feed on it in droves. Hunters can set decoys in milfoil beds, hide in nearby shoreline cover, and have a heyday on unsuspecting birds.
Another unusual feeding opportunity occurs when a reservoir rises suddenly, inundating fresh grass and weeds, typically on flats in headwater areas. Keep an on-going check of a reservoir's elevation on its managing agency's Web site, and if the water jumps up, head to the shallows and watch for working ducks.
A third food-related condition on reservoirs is how lure crops on adjacent refuges and management areas have fared. If the growing season has been good and food is abundant, more ducks will be drawn to these areas, and there will be some spillover onto adjacent open water. But if crops have failed and food is scarce, fewer ducks and geese will be present during hunting season. So check the abundance (or scarcity) of crops on refuges and management areas before the season starts. Doing so can provide an important clue as to how many birds will be present when the migration is in full swing.
When it comes to weather, a hard freeze or a drought will herd waterfowl onto reservoirs. When a region's shallow water areas ice over or dry up, ducks and geese have two choices: move to big water, or head down the flyway. Usually, they will choose the former option, at least for a few days. They will raft up on the reservoir and fly out to feed in surrounding fields of corn, soybeans, or other high-energy grains.
The winter of 1978-79 was one of the coldest on record in the mid-South. That year two friends and I had a big floating blind on Lake Barkley in western Kentucky. When nearby shallow areas froze over, ducks and Canada geese moved to the lake in big numbers. They were flying out at dawn to feed, and they were returning to the lake around mid-morning, their craws stuffed with corn.
Our floating blind was anchored on a flat next to a submerged creek channel, and currents kept this area from freezing over. We had a big, visible spread of some 400 decoys. When a flight of ducks would return to the lake and see our setup, they would come straight in – no circling. We just kept an attentive watch, and when we spotted an incoming wad of mallards, we'd grab our guns and get ready to shoot. I don't think we could have scared them away.
Options for Hunting on Reservoirs
As the story above indicates, setting up a permanent blind and decoy spread is one option for hunting on a reservoir. The other option is being mobile, keeping up with duck and goose movements, and freelancing via boat or by hunting off the bank.
Maintaining a floating blind and a big static decoy spread is one of the most labor-intensive ways to hunt waterfowl. Building, transporting, and anchoring a blind are sizeable chores. Decoys must be rigged with weights heavy enough to hold in high waves and strong currents. (We used whole bricks on our Barkley spread, and they would still drag on occasion.) Open water hunters are continually straightening tangled decoys, chasing down strays, adding brush to their blind, and tending to a range of other chores.
However, when waterfowl show up on reservoirs, the rewards justify these efforts. Having a big blind on open water is one of the most enjoyable ways to hunt waterfowl. You stay comfortable. You can cook hot food and coffee. You can see ducks and geese coming from a long way, and you can watch them work.
The key to success with a floating blind is picking a good spot. You must be under an established flyway, where waterfowl normally trade back and forth, and preferably where they like to land and rest on their own. Don't pick a site arbitrarily. Instead, spend enough time scouting and watching flight lanes to know that you'll be in the traffic pattern. (Check with the managing agency before putting out a permanent blind--some restrictions may apply.)
There are enough tricks to maintaining a blind on open water to fill a book. Each season will teach you new lessons. You must learn how to anchor your floating blind so it will hold in a blow. (Use old car motors and chains.) You must learn how to make your spread more visible and attractive to passing ducks and geese. (Mix in a lot of goose floaters and magnum black duck decoys – or black plastic jugs – for increased visibility.) You must learn to adjust your calling style to long distances and ducks and geese set on going elsewhere. (Use a high-pitch high-volume call, and blow it until you're blue in your face, or until you're raising your shotgun to shoot.)
While permanent blind hunters are homesteaders, freelancers are the adventurers of reservoir hunting. They move around as the birds do, running in boats, wading onto flats, or building temporary blinds on the shoreline. This flexibility allows them to adjust to varying conditions and hopefully stay in the action as ducks and geese change locations.
A boat with a portable blind is the preferred means of freelancing on reservoirs. Even if he decides to hunt off the bank, a hunter needs a boat to cover water and scout for birds. When he finds them, if it's feasible to hunt from the boat, the portable blind will make hiding much easier than fashioning a temporary blind from netting or natural materials.
In my experience, however, a boat blind needs some natural cover to help it blend in. I've tried anchoring my boat blind in wide open water, and I've killed a few birds this way. But a boat-blind is much more effective if it's pulled into a fallen treetop or next to a log and touched up with cane or brush. (For hunting in wide open, shallow water, construct a simple boat slip with posts and 2x4 boards, and wire on some brush. Then pull the boat into the slip, erect the blind, and you'll be adequately concealed to work birds without spooking them.)
A freelancer's decoy spread typically numbers no more than four to five dozen, since portability is an issue. I rig with 8-oz. weights, which will hold in moderately rough water. I rig six-foot anchor lines. Rarely will I freelance hunt in water deeper than this.
As with permanent blinds, location is the key. Freelancers must find where ducks and geese are working, and set up there. They may be feeding in shallow back-bay flats. They might be rafted on the lee side of an island. They could be hanging on the inside of a main lake point. Just scout until you find them, then figure out where to set the decoys and how to hide.
Safety in Hunting Reservoirs
A strong warning is appropriate for hunters who run reservoirs. This style of hunting can be dangerous. Open water, high winds, and cold temperatures are a combination for disaster for those who aren't properly equipped. Don't set out on a big lake in a small, low-sided, underpowered boat. Instead, you need a seaworthy boat (at least a 16-footer) with high sides, level flotation, and enough motor to buck big waves. I also strongly recommend that the boat be equipped with a high-volume bilge pump to suck out water if rollers break over the bow.
Further, always wear a Coast Guard-approved life vest when the boat is running. Keep a kill switch attached to the vest. Carry a waterproof fire-starting kit on your person in case you get wet. If you go overboard, and you make it to shore, hypothermia can kill you if you don't get warm.
And finally, never embark onto a big reservoir in winter without telling somebody where you're going and when you intend to return. This way, if you have some problem and can't get back in, rescuers will know where to find you. (I always take my cell phone in a waterproof bag so I can call for help if trouble develops.)
Reservoirs are among the last frontiers in waterfowl hunting. They are places for venturesome hunters who enjoy their unmanaged nature. On reservoirs, hunters experience success or failure based on their own skills, not on what the guy in the next blind is doing.
But reservoirs demand proper respect. They can be treacherous when bad weather rolls in. Hunters going onto a reservoir must temper their enthusiasm with prudence. Failure to do so can lead to tragedy on a lake that'll show no mercy to hunters who toss caution to the wind.