By Wade Bourne
By sticking to the basics, these waterfowlers have found success without spending a fortune on gear and gadgets
Many duck hunters go for the gusto in pursuit of their sport. They build blinds that could serve as second homes. They acquire every motorized decoy available. They purchase expensive boats, guns, calls, and other gear. For this group, the sky is the limit, and the season—or the preparation for it—never ends.
Then there are the minimalists. These are hunters at the other extreme. Their boats and gear are ordinary. Their decoy spreads are small and without gimmicks. Their blinds are basic. And their mindset is to keep their hunting strategy as simple as possible. Find the birds, toss out just enough decoys, hide well, and load up.
Which approach is better? Each hunter must answer this question individually. Surely many prefer the all-out approach. Their energy and resources for this sport match their passion for it.
But just because the minimalists don’t go for the grandiose doesn’t mean they are any less zealous about duck hunting. Indeed, the opposite is often true. Many hunters take pride in keeping things simple. Plus, doing so allows them to move with the birds without encumbrance from “stuff.” Here’s a look at how four hunters pursue this back-to-basics style of duck hunting.
Minimalist duck hunters typically prefer boats that are simple and unadorned. Their boats are often small and light enough to be carried on top of a car or in the bed of a pickup. They can also be toted to the water and launched off the bank, and can be propelled by paddle power, push poles, or small outboards. Overall, minimalist boats are safe on quiet backwaters, but they might be risky on wave-tossed bays or rivers. They are designed for small loads, not large ones. And they are better suited for short runs than long hauls.
Bucky D’Agostino of Manahawkin, New Jersey, is a minimalist hunter who shoots puddle ducks and Canada geese on a beaver pond at the back of a 250-acre public lake near his home. He uses a canoe to reach this hole, which he says is the only way to access it.
“This lake is surrounded by farm-land, and over the years, silt has washed into the lake and collected in the headwaters area,” D’Agostino explains. “The upper part of the lake is only inches deep, and the beaver pond covers about 30 acres at the very back end of the lake.”
D’Agostino says there is no way to run an outboard through the muck to get to the beaver pond, and if a hunter tried to wade through it, he’d be up to his armpits in about two steps. But D’Agostino and a hunting partner can slide a canoe over the silt by digging their paddles into the mud and pushing the boat forward through the shallow water.
He uses a 14-foot Old Town that can carry two hunters. On a typical hunt, D’Agostino carries a dozen mallard decoys, three Canada goose floaters, and a 20-foot roll of burlap, as well as a thermos and an extra change of clothes in a waterproof backpack.
When D’Agostino and his partner reach the beaver pond, they drag the canoe over the dam and paddle a short distance to their hunting site. The canoe allows them to penetrate thicker cover and tighter spots than they could in a larger boat. “We’ll tuck into the oak trees bordering the beaver dam, hunting in the shadows and natural vegetation,” he says. “We pull the boat up on the bank and cover it with the burlap. We keep the canoe handy so we can slide it back into the water quickly if we have to chase a cripple.”
Besides canoes, other good boats for minimalist duck hunters include kayaks (even lighter and more maneuverable than a canoe), layout boats (good for hiding in open areas), and small johnboats. All these craft will provide the portability and versatility a minimalist hunter needs.
The same adjectives that describe a minimalist hunter’s boat can also apply to his or her decoy spread—small, portable, and simple. In contrast to the “more is better” philosophy, minimalists opt for just a few decoys that are easy to deploy and maintain. This kind of spread rarely features battery-powered wing-spinners or swimmers. But it’s precise in its simplicity and quite effective in the places and situations where minimalists typically hunt.
“I’m definitely a minimalist,” says veteran duck hunter Richard Simms of Chattanooga, Tennessee. “I’ve never gone for the big blinds and oversize spreads. I’m a freelance, portable kind of guy. I don’t wait for ducks to come to me. Instead, I find them and hunt where they want to be. Very rarely will my partners and I hunt the same place two days in a row.”
Specifically, Simms prowls flats and backwaters along vast Tennessee River lakes in southeast Tennessee and northeast Alabama. He scouts regularly to find concentrations of ducks.
“If you hunt where ducks want to go, decoys are almost an afterthought,” Simms says. “Now, I’ll always put out a few. I think it gives working birds confidence to see other ducks where they want to be. But if I’m hunting in flooded timber or a swamp, I won’t put out more than a dozen decoys, and if I’m hunting open water, two dozen is usually plenty. Again, being in the right spot is everything.”
Simms’ decoys are old Herter’s Styrofoam blocks that are flat on the bottom. They are lightweight, and they move well in little wind. “These decoys have a lot more motion than the ones with weighted or water keels,” he says. “They’re old and beaten-up, and their colors have faded. But I still use them because of how they move. I’ve never had a time when I thought ducks flared off them because of their weathered look. When ducks are circling a hundred yards up, I don’t think they can see anything but bodies and shapes anyway.”
If the wind is slack or he’s hunting in a wind-protected spot, Simms will rig a jerk string to create ripples on the water. “Many times I’ve seen an actual physical reaction in circling birds when I’ve pulled my jerk string,” he says. “This is one thing I feel is very important with a small rig.”
Simms scatters his decoys 10-20 yards downwind or at a crosswind position from his shooting spot. He uses a mix of gadwall and mallard decoys, as these are the main species he hunts. Occasionally, if he’s hunting in a swamp with thick aquatic vegetation where gadwalls are predominant, he adds a few coot decoys to one side of his spread. “Gadwalls like to hang around coots and feed on the vegetation they pull up,” he explains, “so the coot decoys provide a natural attraction.”
Simms also sometimes sets a pair of pintail drakes on the outside of his spread. He believes the large amount of white on their heads and bodies stands out in a drab setting, and this helps catch passing ducks’ attention.
Each minimalist duck hunter will have his own ideas about decoy spreads. But once again, the common thread is small size, portability, and movement. And just as in selling real estate, location is the overriding factor in pulling ducks to small decoy spreads.
Some fancy blinds feature everything from electric lights and appliances to card rooms and flush toilets, but not those of the minimalists. Blinds built by these hunters match their “bare bones” approach. They are great for hiding hunters, but creature comforts aren’t a consideration.
This is because a minimalist’s blind may be nothing more than a shaded crease in a tree trunk or a marsh seat hidden in cattails. If a man-made blind must be used, it’s likely portable and quick to erect and take down. Such blinds can be positioned exactly where ducks are working and where hunters have easy head-on or crosswind shots.
Greg Cole’s portable blind certainly would qualify as no-frills. Cole, of Greenfield, Tennessee, hunts a shallow swamp on the Obion River. He wades in and picks a hole to hunt in the swamp each morning based on wind direction. He carries his blind materials with him and erects his blind each morning before shooting time.
“The main component of my blind is a 15’x3’ piece of camouflage netting, the wavy-cut military kind,” Cole explains. “I roll this up and carry it like a bedroll on top of my backpack. I also carry three 3-foot sticks inside the roll to support the blind.”
After choosing his hunting spot, Cole unrolls the net, stretches it vertically, and uses plastic zip ties to secure the ends to surrounding brush or saplings. Then he sets up the three sticks to serve as interior supports for the netting.
“I don’t put my blind at the edge of the hole,” he says. “Instead, I set it up 5-10 yards back in the brush from the upwind edge of the hole. I want it to blend in with the natural cover.”
Next, Cole attaches 20 Mojo Ghillie Bundles to the net at random locations. These are bundles of faux grass, which he carries in his backpack. He fastens the material onto the net with clothespins to give his blind a three-dimensional look. Lastly, Cole cuts several willow saplings and drives them into the mud along the front of the net to break up the outline even more.
It takes him about 20 minutes to erect this blind. When it’s finished, it stands only three feet high, as Cole is a firm believer in maintaining a low profile. Also, the blind is situated with natural brush in front of as well as behind the net.
Cole and his partners sit behind the net on marsh stools and are careful to remain motionless while ducks are circling overhead. They also always wear facemasks and call very little to close-working birds.
“My blind, Ghillie Bundles, shells, and shotgun weigh around 25 pounds total,” Cole adds, “so I can carry them in and out without too much effort. This allows me to move around and set up where I want to, and the ducks almost never see me.”
Many other minimalist hunters have developed their own portable blind systems for boats, laydown blinds, and other hides. While the materials and designs may be different, the goal is the same: to allow hunters to go where the birds are and to hide effectively with minimal expenditure of time and effort.
The minimalist philosophy can also apply to shotguns and other hunting accessories. For example, Scott Glorvigen of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, hunts small lakes and backwater sloughs in his home state and in the Dakotas. He paddles a 14-foot Old Town Predator kayak to reach spots that are inaccessible to hunters with bigger boats. Since taking up this style of hunting three years ago, Glorvigen has assembled the following collection of gear that complements his minimalist hunting techniques.
Shotgun: “I carry a Remington 870 Super Mag,” he says. “It never jams. It can get wet or muddy, and it keeps on shooting.” Glorvigen has also put a sling on the shotgun, which allows him to wade hands-free and carry other gear.
Blind bag: “I like to carry my shells, headlamp, GPS, chemical hand warmers, thermos, snacks, and other extras in one bag. I store my ammo in hard plastic boxes that have 25 separate shell holes. This keeps the mud and moisture out, and it allows me quick access when the shooting is fast.”
Calls: “I carry a Canada goose call, mallard call, diver call, and dog whistle on my lanyard. That’s it.”
Folding tripod stool: “I slide the kayak sideways into some cover and set up my tripod stool in the cockpit to get me off the floor of the boat. I can swivel and shoot better this way.”
Extra paddle: “I take an extra T-handle paddle (besides my standard double-bladed kayak paddle) for safety and to help pick up decoys.”
Expandable blind: “Hunter’s Specialties makes a ground blind that stretches out to 12 feet. Sometimes I use this to help conceal the kayak in areas where cover is sparse.”
Glorvigen carries all this gear plus a dozen decoys and his retriever in his kayak. “Everything has to fit in the nose or stern of the kayak except my dog,” he says. “He rides between my legs. When using a kayak, it’s a big advantage to have a dog that will sit still and mind his manners.”
With this gear and strategy, Glorvigen can pick up and move quickly if the ducks tell him he’s in the wrong spot. “I normally hunt multiple spots on any given day,” he says. “This style of hunting has opened up opportunities I never knew existed.”
The hunters featured above know what works for them in their specific settings. But it’s not their methods that are most important. Instead, it’s their mindset. It’s their confidence in their ability to experience high-quality shooting with minimal equipment, but major effort.
Other hunters can do likewise on beaver ponds, hidden sloughs, prairie potholes, spring creeks, sandbars, islands, backwaters, and countless other out-of-the-way places. And these honey holes are waiting for wade-in, walk-in, paddle-in hunters to come and find them. Indeed, minimalist hunting is always an adventure, and many times the shooting is anticlimactic compared to the challenge of finding and figuring out these overlooked waterfowling hotspots.