By Michael R. Shea
For many veteran waterfowlers, the thrill of scouting ducks and geese is second only to the exhilaration of hunting them. Savvy stalkers of marshes and fields often log hundreds of miles in their pickup trucks each year searching for prime waterfowl roosting, feeding, and resting spots. They also spend hours studying weather reports, tracking the fall migration, and mapping potential hunting areas.
Like detectives, these waterfowlers enjoy the work involved in putting together the pieces of the duck and goose hunting puzzle. They understand that the end justifies the means, and their extraordinary efforts are often rewarded with phenomenal waterfowl hunting.
The following 10 tips from these experts will help you scout more efficiently and effectively for better waterfowl hunting this fall.
1. Talk to Landowners Prior to the Season
Arliss Reed, an Avery pro-staffer from upstate New York, recommends reaching out to landowners long before the fall flights arrive. "In an area that gets lots of hunting pressure, a farmer might see a few hunters a week during the season," he says. "But if you make a visit at the end of summer, you can usually beat the crowds and increase your chances of gaining permission and valuable information."
Reed visits landowners in August. After gaining hunting permission, he asks the farmer specific questions, such as "When do you plan to harvest that field?" Through such queries he learns when the field will be available for hunting. He then tries to discover the lay of the land by asking about different crops in various fields. The conversation usually turns to other fields and other farms that may also be open to hunting.
"I'm always sure to ask them if they want any birds," Reed says. "If they don't, at the end of the season I'll give them a gift certificate to a sporting goods store or local restaurant. It's just a little something that says thank you for sharing your land. I don't pay a dime to hunt anywhere, but I do buy a few gift cards every season."
2. Follow the Birds
"Birds in the air, tires on the road." That's how Clay Hudnall, president of Field Proven Calls, sums up his goose scouting philosophy. He and his hunting partners spend a lot of time scouting early-season Canada geese in central Kentucky, following the birds as they leave their roosts.
"Early in the season, there are not that many fields available for hunting because the crops haven't been harvested," Hudnall says. "So in the morning we look for a roost, and then follow the geese with the truck. You may not be able to hunt where they're going, but if you stick with them long enough, you can usually find a spot to set up and decoy passing birds."
After locating where the geese are roosting, Hudnall will park the truck and wait for the birds to begin flying out to feed. He lets the first and second waves leave, then follows the third. "If the third group heads out in the same direction, I know that the roost will clear out and the geese are all going to the same place," he says. "If I lose them while following in the truck, I look for birds on the ground in that general area and usually find a good field to hunt."
3. Target Loafing Areas
"Whatever you do, don't hunt the roost," says Logan Burditt, of Heartland Waterfowl. "But if you find farm ponds or other loafing wetlands where ducks and geese are resting during the day but not spending the night, move in."
According to Burditt, roosts are generally bigger than loafing spots, and waterfowl use them primarily at dawn and dusk. When it's really cold, however, ducks and especially geese may stay on the roost later in the day. "Knowing the difference between roosting and loafing areas is all part of the scouting process," Burditt explains. "You have to watch and follow the birds. Did they feed on one body of water, then move to another one? It's like puzzle pieces you have to fit together."
4. Find Feeding Areas
Bobby Cole is president of Mossy Oak BioLogic, which sells varieties of sorghum and Japanese millet to provide forage for waterfowl. When discussing food plots for ducks, he likes to say, "If you build it, they will come." Similarly, his scouting advice is, "Find the food source, and you'll find the ducks."
Cole says that while most hunters can spot the difference between corn, beans, and alfalfa, they're often not as skilled at distinguishing between natural duck foods. "You should learn to identify wild plants in your area like smartweed, wild celery, chufa, sago, and duck potato-all prime duck foods," he advises. "Pay attention to plant densities, and if your state laws allow it, consider a little preseason weed whacking. Cut or mowed grasses will stimulate invertebrate production-another duck diet staple-but make sure you're legal."
When you find a honey hole full of duck food, the most important thing is to keep the pressure low. "If you're in there hunting it every day, the best groceries won't mean much," Cole says.
5. Scout Weather and Cover
Once hunters find a waterfowl feeding or loafing area, they will often set up in the exact spot where they last saw the birds. While this is sometimes a good idea, Rick Murphy takes a different tack. "We don't even look for the X in a given field. We look for the best spot to hide, and that's directly tied to the weather," says Murphy, a veteran duck hunter from New York.
"If it's overcast or rainy, that automatically makes it harder to hide. Birds can pick out more detail when there are no shadows or glare. Concealment is always a necessity, but it's even more important on cloudy, sunless days."
Murphy looks for any deviations in the field-a bump of dirt, a pile of silage, a deep tractor rut-that can help keep him hidden from the wary eyes of waterfowl. If the blinds stand out in the middle of the field, he hides them between crop rows or sets up only one or two blinds and rotates hunters in and out.
His last word of advice is to completely conceal the blinds before setting out the decoys. "If you're running late, the birds may decoy to half a spread," he says. "Good luck if you're standing around and brushing up your blind."
6. Watch Other Hunters
As part of his scouting routine, New York Avery pro-staffer Mike Bard likes to observe other waterfowlers in the field, just as long as he's not interrupting their hunt. "You can learn a lot by watching birds respond to other waterfowlers-what the guys are doing right and what they're doing wrong."
Bard says there are other times when going against the grain can work to your advantage. On mornings when the shooting is hot, many waterfowlers will head home with their limits well before noon. "If you watch and wait, you can often move into productive hunting areas after the other guys leave and have a great late-morning hunt. Be patient. That's what scouting is all about."
7. Build a Network
"Networking is a really good way to locate birds," says Matt Shappell, a conservation programs biologist for Ducks Unlimited in North Dakota. "Build your own network by actively seeking out other hunters, game wardens, and farmers, and keep working those contacts."
Shappell lives in a small town 75 miles south of Bismarck. While he is familiar with hunting opportunities in the area he covers for DU, he has broadened his hunting horizons by building a network of contacts in other duck-rich parts of the state. Now he trades information with these hunters during the season, and sometimes meets up with them to hunt waterfowl.
"Especially later in the season, right before freeze up, we'll see huge concentrations of ducks and geese in one area and none in another," Shappell says. "You'll have one field with thousands of birds. Often guys we know, or friends of friends, will find one of these concentrations, so it's easy to find a hunt somewhere."
8. Stay Flexible
Iowa Avery pro-staffer Travis Mueller has a busy life filled with the duties that come with being a husband, father, and provider for his family. Because he can't simply drop all of his responsibilities when hunting season comes around, Mueller pencils scouting into his calendar just as he would the kids' soccer practice.
"During the season I basically follow this routine when I take time off work to hunt during the week. I hunt Canada geese in the morning, enjoy lunch in the truck around noon, scout fields in the afternoon, then pick the kids up from school at 4 p.m.," Mueller explains. "I try to stay flexible, mixing up my routine when other responsibilities crop up or when the weather shifts."
Mueller says that when it's snowing or raining, geese will feed all day. However, when the migration is on, the birds are often up and gone by midday. "When this happens, I'll take a lunch somewhere around 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., then jump in the truck and follow birds in flight to see where they go."
9. Follow Migrations Online
There are several online tools that allow you to follow waterfowl migrations. DU's Migration Map is one of the most popular online tools for waterfowlers, with more than 20 million page views last season alone."The DU Migration Map, combined with the Migration Alerts provided by freelance writers, gives hunters access to vital information on the progress of the fall flight," says DU Web Editor Chris Jennings. Users posted more than 30,000 reports on the Migration Map during the 2013-2014 waterfowl season, and more than 25,000 waterfowlers signed up to receive a free email subscription to DU's exclusive Migration Alerts.
Click here to sign up for DU's Email Migration Alerts.
Savvy hunters can also find a wealth of information on websites that are geared toward bird-watchers. Sites such as eBird and the real-time migration forecast at BirdCast offer up-to-the-minute reports from thousands of bird-watchers across the nation.
"You know how hunters can be about their spots," says Pennsylvania Avery pro-staffer Bryn Witmier, a self-described "amateur birder" who stumbled upon eBird.org three years ago. "Birders are the opposite-they want to share that information and much of it is verified with second, third, and fourth sightings, so you know it's accurate."
10. Update Your Apps
Staying mobile is important when scouting waterfowl. DU's Migration App allows hunters to receive real-time reports about the status of waterfowl migrations on their iPhones and other mobile devices. Hunters can view reports from across the United States and Canada to keep tabs on the fall migration, and receive local migration and hunting alerts about waterfowl movements closer to home. In addition, waterfowlers can submit their own reports and access other features such as snow cover maps, links to state agencies and national wildlife refuges, improved search capabilities, report validation, and a built-in flashlight.
"Ducks Unlimited apps provide unique tools for waterfowl hunters to use either on their desktops or on their mobile devices at home and in the field," says DU Director of Digital Media & Marketing Anthony Jones. "The Ducks Unlimited Mobile App has ranked among the top 10 sports apps in Apple's App Store, and we continue to improve this and other DU apps for waterfowlers seeking tips, tactics, and scouting reports to increase their hunting success."