The X Factor

Going the extra mile to set up exactly where the birds want to be pays big dividends

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Photo © Bill Konway

by Wade Bourne

It's a dilemma nearly every public-land waterfowler experiences. Ducks or geese are piling into a particular spot, and it's not where you are. Flock after flock circles and pitches in as you watch and wish. 

You're close to the action, perhaps even close enough to hope you'll eventually get some shooting. But you don't, and you know deep inside that you won't until you set up exactly where the birds are going.

But often, setting up on the "X" is easier said than done. Waterfowl often feed and rest in areas that are wide open and devoid of cover. At other times, ducks in particular take refuge in flooded thickets that can be virtually inaccessible to boating or wading hunters.

So what's a hunter to do? Find a way to get to the birds no matter what. Here are the stories of four hunters who understand the importance of overcoming obstacles to set up on the X. By adopting their philosophy, you can enjoy more productive hunting this fall.

Don't Blow a Sure Thing

A few years back, Phil Sumner was scouting for an opening-day duck hunt on Tennessee's legendary Reelfoot Lake. Sumner was motoring his Go-Devil boat through a ditch in a swampy section of the lake when he saw a flight of mallards land some 200 yards back in heavy cover.

"I stopped and watched, and a few minutes later another flight hit the same spot," he recalls. "I didn't know of any holes in this area. It was just a jungle of buckbrush, purple loosestrife and cypress trees. I marked where the ducks were going in and then started trying to get to them."

Sumner snaked his boat through the cover to close some of the distance. Then he exited his boat and waded through the undergrowth until ducks started flushing.

"There were plenty of birds there for a shoot the next morning," he says. "They were down under the thick cover. I think they were there for seclusion and to feed on duckweed, which was covering the water. But there were no holes large enough to set a decoy spread. The vegetation was just too dense."

Well before dawn the next morning, Sumner and his hunting partners followed the route he had marked on his way out the previous afternoon. "We carried in only a dozen decoys, and we dropped one here, a couple there, wherever there was an open pocket large enough for the decoys to be seen from above," he says. "Then we hid behind a fallen cypress tree where the sun would rise to our backs."

The ducks came with the dawn. "We just crouched in the shadows, splashed a little water and called very sparingly," Sumner remembers. "Those mallards would almost land on top of us. We were exactly where they wanted to be, and all we had to do was be patient and let them get close.

"It all goes back to good scouting," he says. "I found where the ducks wanted to be and then figured out how to get back there in the dark. Then it was just a matter of hiding, being still and letting the ducks come. When you're where they want to be, you really don't have to do anything but shoot."

Sumner believes some hunters who find the X mess it up with too much calling or too many decoys. "You just want to blend into the spot, not change it," he says. "The ducks liked it before you got there, so there's no need to alter the equation. Just keep things simple, stay back in the shadows and let them come."

Make the Most of Surrounding Cover

One December a few seasons back, the lower Mississippi River was rising and pushing backwater into lowlands along the big waterway's banks. During an afternoon scouting trip, Pete Fulgham of Cleveland, Mississippi, found swarms of mallards hitting a timbered area beside an oxbow lake. The next morning before sunrise, Fulgham and two friends motored into the lake, set their decoys and then positioned their boat blind for what they hoped would be a quick shoot.

But when daylight came, they realized they had missed the X by about a quarter mile. "The ducks were hitting behind us in some thick timber," Fulgham recalls. "They were going in there by the hundreds. We looked for a way in, but since the area had been logged recently, the logjams and treetops were too thick for us to get through. It was frustrating seeing all those ducks going in and not being able to get to them."

One of Fulgham's companions had a late-morning family commitment, so the hunters boated back to the ramp. "When I let my friend out, I told him to be back at 2 o'clock. I was determined to find a way to get to those ducks."

Fulgham and his remaining partner went back and started looking for a way to penetrate the timber. "We pushed through logjams, fought through brush and tore up a prop," he says. "Thank goodness we had another one. We tried every possible access until we finally figured out how to get to the ducks. The area where we started flushing ducks was extremely thick and protected. That's why they wanted to be there."

At 2 o'clock, Fulgham picked up his friend and two additional hunters in another boat, and they followed him into the timbered maze. "This time we set up in exactly the right place, and it didn't take long to shoot full limits of greenheads," Fulgham recalls.

"The number-one rule of duck hunting is to be where the ducks want to be," he says. "And the number-two rule is don't forget rule number one. Ducks are going to go where they want to, and you have to go there too if you're going to be successful. You have to do whatever it takes to get there."

During the season, Fulgham scouts by boat and airplane. He checks the river gauge each day and looks for ducks at the edge of the flood line. He uses a GPS unit to mark the locations of large concentrations of birds and then explores in his boat to find how to get to the X.

"Once I'm there, I'll use natural cover and shadows to hide my rig," Fulgham says. "The ideal situation is to be able to nestle my boat blind in front of a couple of large trees with limbs hanging over me and the sun at my back. If natural cover is sparse, I'll cut some willows, buckbrush or other vegetation to add more camouflage to my boat. Getting to the right spot is the first step, but then you have to set up so the birds won't see you. When you do these two things, you're in for a good shoot."

Think Outside the Box

Avery pro-staffer Fred Zink of Port Clinton, Ohio, says that being in the right spot is more crucial than anything else in waterfowl hunting. He says if faced with a choice, hunters should sacrifice big decoy spreads and other cumbersome gear for mobility needed to get to the X. In fact, Zink remembers several Herculean efforts to get to the exact spot where geese had been feeding.

"Several years back, three friends and I planned to hunt a concentration of geese in a cornfield here in Ohio that had been chisel-plowed." Zink says. "A chisel is a ripper that penetrates the ground up to two feet. Farmers use it to allow their soil to retain moisture and to prevent compaction.

"On this particular morning, we knew where the X was, and we intended to drive there," Zink continues. "But when we got to the field's edge, we stopped the truck and walked out onto the plowed ground. And we almost sunk up to our hips. It was obvious we couldn't drive out to the X. We didn't even know if we could hike out there, but we decided to try."

After a quick strategy session, Zink and his friends opted to carry in only two layout blinds and a dozen decoys in two six-slot bags. Two of them would hunt at a time while the others watched from a nearby fencerow.

"We could have set up a much larger spread down in an unplowed bottom not too far from the X, but we decided it was more important to be on the exact spot with a few decoys than to be close with a lot of decoys," he says. "So we shouldered our decoy bags and blinds and headed out."

The resulting hike was like a death march. "Once we got started, we couldn't stop," Zink recalls. "We had to keep our momentum going. If we'd stopped, we would have sunk deeply in the mud. So we had to keep slogging. It took around 40 minutes to get to where we wanted to set up. Words just can't describe how hard that walk was."

Once they reached the X, Zink and his friends set up the small spread of decoys and deployed the two laydown blinds on matted corn stubble. Soon after two of the hunters climbed in the blinds, the geese started coming, and each flock made a beeline to the small spread. When the first two hunters bagged their limits, they swapped out with the other two, who soon had their birds as well.

"Then we had to walk out of that field with the same load we went in with, plus eight giant Canadas," Zink says. "I don't think we've ever worked harder for our birds, but getting to the exact spot produced a hunt that we'll never forget for the quality of shooting or for the amount of effort it took to make it happen."

The point? Hunting on the X frequently requires thinking outside the box. Hunters should be creative in figuring out how to get there and set up. It's a mistake to get in a rut and try to apply the same decoy sets and tactics to all situations. Adapting to the situation at hand can pay big dividends.

Monitor How Weather Affects Ducks

Before retiring to Texas, Lewie Moore spent years as a hunting and fishing guide in South Dakota. His specialty was hunting mallards from a boat blind, and his favorite area was the Missouri River downriver from the Oahe Dam. 

Irrigated cornfields dotted the rolling hills along the river. Ducks would raft on open water at night, fly out early the next morning to feed and then return to the river at midmorning. When they came back to the river, Moore and his hunters would be waiting.

"We called them 9 o'clock ducks, because that's about the time they would start coming back to water," Moore remembers. "Often they would have their wings set when we'd see them. I'd get their attention with my call, and that's about all it took. They would drop into the decoy spread, and we'd usually have easy shots at close range."

Moore hunted virtually every day of the season for many years, and he developed a sixth sense for where ducks wanted to loaf after feeding in the morning. "They would return to different areas under certain weather conditions," he notes. "Hunters need to remember where they find birds under specific wind, weather and water conditions and then go to the right spot for those circumstances."

For instance, if a strong cold front was approaching, Moore would find ducks in potholes closer to their feeding areas. "If ducks knew a freeze was coming, they would want to be close to their food source, and they would be coming and going constantly," he explains. "But if the weather was nice, the birds would rest on bigger water and feed at a more leisurely pace. Keeping a logbook will help hunters learn where to set up under different conditions."

Moore would scout daily to stay close to concentrations of ducks, and he says the birds would change locations frequently. "Several things would cause them to move," he says. "Too much hunting pressure, a change in food availability, a hard freeze or a rise or drop in the water level would move them overnight, and I'd move with them. 

When I noticed a drop in numbers where I was hunting, I'd go looking. I think too many hunters hunt old history. You have to hunt where the ducks are today, not where they were yesterday."