By Wade Bourne
The overgrown boat trail led to who-knows-where, but I was determined to find out where.
I nosed my boat into the small opening in the reeds. It was barely wide enough to slide through. The ditch ran straight into the cover some 30 yards, then it took a curving bend to the right. I jockeyed the throttle on my Go-Devil motor, powering over the shallow muck and decaying vegetation. Sawgrass fronds grew over the trail and brushed at my face and cap as I ran beneath them.
I plowed deeper into the cover – a hundred yards, then two hundred. The farther I went, the greater my anxiety became. If the trail dead-ended, I'd be in a jam! I'd have to push-pole my boat out backwards. There had been no place to turn it around. Still, I was resolute to motor as far as I could to see where the trail led.
Suddenly it opened into a pothole around a half-acre in size, and there was no blind on it. I was elated. This spot was open to whichever hunter got here first. I'd watched ducks work this area for several seasons. Now, when opening day arrived, I'd have another option for tossing out some decoys and trying to pull in a few birds.
I love scouting for new spots. It's almost as much fun as actually hunting (but not quite!). Scouting is like looking for treasure and anticipating the pleasures it could bring.
More to the point, I scout both before the season for new places and during the season to learn where ducks are working. I call this long-term and short-term scouting, and this reconnaissance is crucial to my hunting success. If the duck supply dries up in a given area, I can usually find a fresh one somewhere else and move there in short order.
Hunters who would enjoy some new scenery, who are tired of empty skies, or who are frustrated by competition on crowded public areas should take matters into their own hands. They should resolve to uncover several new spots before the season opens. By changing their landscape, they might change their luck. They should also scout continuously while hunting is going on to stay in the action. Hunters who move when the birds do enjoy more consistent gunning.
Here are some pointers for scouting for the upcoming season. When following them, start early, keep looking, and understand that he who scouts best now shoots most when the birds show up this fall.
The best way to approach scouting is like a military planner designing a campaign or a football coach drawing up a game plan. You begin with a grand strategy, then you build in contingencies. The more options you include, the more latitude you have when you need to make a move. In other words, if you have only one or two hunting spots, and they're not producing, you're stuck. But if you have a half dozen or more spots in different areas, odds are good that at least one will be holding birds.
So, how does a hunter line up a half dozen spots in this day of private leases and crowded public areas? You start by believing that you can find good, unpressured spots in virtually any state. Granted, these places won't just drop into your lap, but they're out there. They will be on the most remote corners of public hunting areas, the wildest stretches of rivers, and the deepest holes in swamps. (If they were easy to get to, everybody would be there.) It takes a certain mindset to uncover these places. Hunters who target them must have the tenacity to push harder and go deeper, and they must possess the right equipment to reach these way-back spots.
How do you begin looking for them? Obviously, this search must focus on public lands: waterfowl management areas, wildlife refuges, large reservoirs and rivers, military reservations, national forests, and other public lands that ducks and geese use in huntable numbers. Contact area waterfowl biologists and wildlife officers, and ask them for recommendations on overlooked opportunities.
I point to my own experience as an example of how this can work. I frequently hunt on two public management areas, two free-flowing rivers, and a huge Tennessee Valley Authority impoundment.
Both the management areas have numerous blinds and heavy pressure, but not the sections where I hunt. Several years ago I called the biologist who flies the local aerial waterfowl census during winter months, and I asked about possible freelancing spots. He told me about consistently seeing ducks in the far reaches of these two areas where hunters rarely venture.
These are places where the water is shallow, the brush thick, and the mud deep. Based on his lead, I subsequently scouted and found potholes in both places that have proven to be reliable hunting spots. They're hard to access, but that's why they're good.
I hunt the rivers when they're flooding or when a freeze is on. In either condition, large numbers of ducks and geese will shift to these big flowing waterways. And the reservoir is another freeze-out spot. It is close to the management areas and a refuge, and when the shallows lock up, the ducks head out to the big water.
As mentioned, some very specialized equipment is needed to scout and hunt in shallow backwaters and on large rivers and reservoirs. A shallow-draft johnboat (must have a semi-V bow!) is the ticket for hunting in thin water, and a long-shaft, direct-drive motor (Go-Devil, Mud Buddy, etc.) will plow through shallows and brush where an outboard is worthless. A portable blind on the boat is a nice extra but not a necessity.
Also, an ATV can be handy for running off-road trails, and a good pair of waders, a hiking staff, and a backpack will provide walk-in access to hard-to-reach hunting spots. A 4-wheel-drive pickup or SUV will allow boat launching on unimproved ramps.
A larger, deeper boat is necessary for running big water. High waves and strong currents can be dangerous, and a deserted stretch of river is no place to find trouble. Also, an outboard with enough power/speed to cover long distances on rivers and lakes is advisable. Sometimes you will have to run several miles before locating a spot where waterfowl are working.
A topographic map is indispensable in looking for new hunting places. I maintain an extensive map library. If I identify a new potential hunting spot, the first thing I do is obtain a topo map that covers it. Having good geographical references is vital in scouting, especially for figuring out how to get into an area.
Also, a GPS (global positioning system) makes navigation a snap. By marking and following GPS waypoints, you can weave your way through a swamp with confidence.
For those who can bear the expense, flying is one of the absolute best ways to scout for waterfowl spots. From the birds' perspective, you will spy places you never imagined existed. When you identify an area for scouting, you can hire a small plane and pilot and check it from the air, looking for potholes, sloughs, openings in green timber, etc. You can also figure out the best way to get into these places. Be sure to take your map with you on the flight, and mark it so you can follow up with an on-ground exploration. Truly, an hour or two in a small charter plane will pay long-term dividends in waterfowl hunting pleasures.
This is where the contingencies come in. You set your overall strategy – line up your spots - well ahead of opening day. Then when the shooting starts, you adjust and move as necessary to stay in birds.
Several factors will cause waterfowl to be drawn to an area, or abandon it. Perhaps the main one is food availability. If a spot offers choice feeding conditions, ducks and geese will likely find and utilize it. But if the food becomes unavailable (runs out, water drops out, water freezes, etc.), the birds will move somewhere else.
Rising and falling water is directly related to food availability. Rising water makes new food available to ducks, so these birds inherently come to a good, fresh flood. Conversely, receding water causes food to be less available and ducks to leave. A good rule to remember is to head upstream when a creek or river is rising and to reverse this direction when a high-water crest starts moving back downstream.
Hunting pressure can be a big influence on ducks' location. If pressure gets too heavy, these birds will abandon a preferred area. On some traditional shooting grounds where pressure is very heavy (Bayou Meto in Arkansas, Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee), ducks will pile up in dense, brushy thickets, not because this is ideal habitat, but rather because these spots offer sanctuary from hunters.
The task, then, is to scout frequently as the season progresses to keep up with bird movements and to adjust your hunting strategy accordingly. There are several ways to do this both electronically and physically.
The Technological Age has opened the door to electronic scouting for waterfowl. The Internet offers a wealth of data. A hunter can chat with other hunters anywhere, checking on how many waterfowl they're seeing. He can effectively keep up with the migration through Web sites such as Ducks Unlimited's official Web site (www.ducks.org). He can check waterfowl counts on area refuges. He can obtain the latest weather forecasts, monitor river levels, and run an entire intelligence-gathering effort from the confines of his computer station, literally keeping up with waterfowl movements from one day – or one hour – to the next.
Many waterfowl hunters employ another technological boon: the cell phone. Now a hunter can stay in touch virtually anywhere he goes. If he's hunting one spot and having no luck, he can dial up a buddy who's hunting somewhere else and inquire about his success. If he's into birds, the calling hunter knows it's time to move.
The key to all this electronic give-and-take is having a set of reliable contacts, and this takes time to build. Experience will teach you whom to trust--whose information is credible.
Then there are actual, physical scouting trips afield. Far and away the most dependable info you can gather will come via your own eyes. Hunters who do their own scouting reap obvious benefits. A friend might inform you that ducks are using a certain area, but it's best to be on-site to find the precise spot they're hitting. This may require a late afternoon scouting trip, watching from a road with binoculars, or perhaps running a boat into a marsh or down a river to find a spot for the next morning's shoot.
Many hunters don't have this luxury, however, and they must scout and hunt the same day. The temptation in this is getting in a hurry --set up the first place where you find a few birds, and you don't do a proper job of scouting.
Instead, keep looking until you know "this is THE spot," then toss out your decoys. Don't sidetrack your chances for a quality hunt just to get started early. For instance, a few years back a friend and I heard that ducks were using the Ohio River in western Kentucky, which was on a fast rise. The next morning we waited for sunup before we launched so we could see where birds were working. Then we started motoring through sloughs and backwaters, looking for action.
We jumped a few ducks here and there, but we never found a good concentration. Finally, after running more than 10 miles, we flushed at least a hundred mallards from a small hole in the willows next to a remote island. We set up there and had our limits of greenheads two hours later. By resisting the lure to stop before we were sure we were in a good spot, we found the honey hole.
Words of Wisdom
Many old adages expound the virtues of being prepared. "A stitch in time saves nine." "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." "Don't put all your eggs in one basket."
Here's a similar (albeit contrived) bit of wisdom for waterfowlers: "Scout none; little fun. Scout a lot; shooting's hot." Indeed, scouting and laying long-range plans are sure ways to improve hunting success. Then a hunter can update his strategies as the season progresses.
Again, scouting is fun. It's a way to jump-start the season and build anticipation for it. Indeed, it's like a waterfowl hunter's early installment plan. You pay ahead of time for pleasures that come later. The payment comes in the form of locating new places and scouting them out. The pleasures come in the form of cupped wings and legs hanging for a splashdown!
Wade Bourne is the author of "A Ducks Unlimited Guide to Hunting Dabblers" and "A Ducks Unlimited Guide to Decoys and Proven Methods for Using Them."