By Wade Bourne, Copyright 2007
Many times, ducks respond to heavy hunting pressure by shifting to hard-to-reach places: the deepest swamps, thickest cover and other hard to reach places. They seek out such sanctuaries, so they can feed and rest without being harassed.
Yet you can still effectively hunt these wary birds by using special tricks, like stalking and subtle decoy/calling tactics. When executed properly, these methods reward hunters with thrills and up-close action.
DeWitt Nixon of Jacksonville, Ark. has hunted Bayou Meto Wildlife Management Area (WMA) for more than 40 years. He rarely misses a day in its famed flooded timber. Bayou Meto WMA is one of the best green timber reservoirs in the nation, covering some 34,000 acres and attracting clouds of mallards – and duck hunters - when water conditions are good.
This area is also infamous for heavy shooting pressure. On most days, it’s take a ticket and get in line to hunt Bayou Metro. Hunters race to claim virtually every hole in this flooded forest. When the shooting hour arrives, the sounds of gunfire roll through the woods like a Civil War battle reenactment.
Nixon says ducks quickly get educated by this pounding and react accordingly.
“They start avoiding the obvious holes and open woods, and they begin working ‘thickety’ spots where there’s better cover and less pressure,” he said. “These can be areas of buck brush or sapling thickets. They may be ironwood trees growing along the edge of a slough, or an area that’s recently been cut, and young growth is coming back up.
“Ducks don’t usually hit these spots in big numbers,” Nixon explained. “Instead, they do so in smaller groups – typically five to 15 birds. They’ll come down through the smallest opening in the forest canopy. Then, they’ll swim out into the brush where they can spend the day without being bothered.”
Nixon focuses his efforts on these reticent ducks, and he does it by “stilking” through the timber. “Stilking” is a hybrid word that he coined – a marriage of “still-hunting” and “stalking,” which is an accurate description of his technique.
“You watch which way the ducks are flying, and you wade through the woods in that direction,” he said. “You just cover ground until you find that little overlooked area where there are ducks, but no hunters.”
Nixon says when a hunter gets close to where he sees ducks going down, it’s time to get stealthy.
“If you’re good at slipping, you can ease right up on ducks on the water and get a jump shot,” he said. “Then, you can hunt where they flushed and know you’re in a good spot.”
Nixon says this is a one- or two-man tactic – no more! The fewer hunters there are, the less commotion. Minimal disturbance is essential in this ease-along style of hunting.
When “stilking,” Nixon wears full camo, including headnet and gloves. He moves ever so slowly, making absolutely no sloshing noises and as few ripples as possible. He likes to wade with the sun at his back, and he sticks to the shadows of the trees. He cradles his shotgun in his arms, and he never fidgets or makes sudden, impulsive movements.
“It’s hard to emphasize how much you must concentrate, how slow you must go and how quiet you must be,” he said. “One little finger movement or head turn can blow the whole deal. But, if you’re patient, quiet and totally focused, you can consistently slip close enough to resting ducks to get a jump shot. I’ve actually had them swim close enough to me to grab.”
Once Nixon finds an overlooked area where ducks are working, he typically quits wading and hunts from a fixed location.
“I’ll usually take along a few decoys in a backpack, and I’ll drop these in an opening where circling ducks can see them,” he said. “I like to set them like they’re swimming, with a hen in the lead, followed by a drake, then three to four drakes together to imitate younger birds that aren’t paired.
“If I have enough decoys, I’ll set a couple of hen/drake pairs behind this drake group or off to the side for a really natural look. Then, I’ll ease back into the shadows and watch and call sparingly when a flight appears.”
Nixon says heavily pressured ducks get call-shy in a hurry, so he avoids aggressive calling.
“I almost never blow hail calls,” he said. “And I quack sparingly. Instead, I make a mix of soft clucks and chuckles and gabbles, sounds that a dominant hen makes to collect her family group in a pressured situation. These calls are almost faint in volume, but ducks sailing overhead can hear them.
“Also, when ducks are circling, I don’t necessarily stop calling when they’re directly overhead. This is unnatural. I just keep still and call intermittently with those dominant hen sounds. This helps the birds home in on me.”
Occasionally, he’ll give a comeback call if a flight swings away, and he feels he’s losing them. However, he believes less is best when it comes to pressure-educated ducks.
Nixon offers one more tip for this situation.
“When ducks are flying over the timber, they’re looking for movement down on the water,” he said. “So I’ll kick water or use shaker decoys to make some ripples. You’ve got to have water movement. Decoys just floating lifeless are very unnatural.”
With the season in its final days, “stilking” ducks may be your best ticket to fooling hunting-pressured ducks. Give it a try.