by Will Brantley
Loose lips sink ships. A veteran public-land duck hunter shared that clichéd phrase with me when I was in college and learning the waterfowl hunting ropes. Indeed, if you don't want every other hunter in the area to know where you're shooting birds, it's best to keep quiet. It's a good tip, and sometimes the only advice a veteran hunter is willing to relinquish.
But waterfowling is a social sport. Hang around even the most tight-lipped hunters long enough and they will share good advice, particularly during the off-season—you just have to be listening when they do.
1. Look at the Big Picture
Scouting is critical to success on public land, but Ohio call maker Fred Zink advises hunters not to focus so heavily on seeing ducks that they overlook the big picture—weather conditions and duck behavior. "Finding ducks sitting on the water is great, but some public areas are so heavily hunted that ducks can't sit anywhere for long," Zink says. "So when we're scouting, we try to determine if we're hunting stale birds or new, migrating ducks. New ducks tend to land in the center of open water or in bigger holes because they aren't used to the area, so we set up in a larger hole under a north wind. But if it's been warm for a week or two and the ducks in the area have been hunted a lot, they'll try to find the thickest cover available so they can hide."
2. Spread Out in a Strong Wind
Casey Lewis of Lewis Outdoor Adventures routinely encounters strong winds in his Wyoming goose fields. He's found that when decoys are set behind his layout blinds in such a wind, geese often hang long enough to pick out imperfections. "When birds hover overhead and see the backs of the blinds, the game is usually over," Lewis says. "So in a strong wind, we set the spread a good distance from us downwind and leave plenty of room for the birds to land. Sometimes the decoys will be 70 yards away. When birds come over them, we stay on them with the call and flag, and they'll often finish within 30 yards of the blinds."
3. Feed Your Retriever the Right Diet
"Good nutrition and conditioning for your dog are important," says Justin Tackett, host of Ducks Unlimited WaterDog. "A busy retriever is no different than a professional athlete. Their bodies start to break down from the bumps and bruises. Sure, they're having fun, but with that fun comes mental and physical stress. The dogs that are in the best condition and receive the best nutrition will be better off. Make sure your retriever is being fed a diet with at least 26 percent animal-based protein. I personally like 30 percent. And a working dog's diet should also have a heavy dose of fat, at least 18 percent."
4. Sound Like a Raft
Mississippi call maker Greg Hood advises hunters to think beyond the basics when calling ducks. "I want my decoy spread to sound like a raft of live ducks, and if you listen to a raft of ducks, they don't perform a calling routine," Hood says. He advises hunters to break up greeting and comeback calls with various pitches and cadences, and not to underestimate a duck's hearing. "Getting a duck's attention doesn't take as much volume as many people think. When you're sitting in a blind and suddenly hear a hen quacking, you usually think she's very close. But a lot of times, when you look for her, she's just a tiny speck in the sky. Your sounds carry the same way."
5. When in Doubt, Use Oak
Tennessee waterfowl guide Steve McCadams has been brushing duck blinds for more than 40 years, and in most situations, he believes oak brush is the way to go. "From swamps and green timber to open water and flooded fields, brushing blinds with oak seems to work the best," he says. "Cane and various materials can be used to touch things up, but oak limbs are hard to beat for camouflage that lasts all season and blends in with most backgrounds—even when no trees are nearby." McCadams prefers white oak limbs cut before the first frost. "The leaves seem to stay on the limbs much better if they're cut while green."
6. Improve Your Reaction Time
Hunters who shoot trap, skeet, or sporting clays during the off-season sometimes develop a "high mount handicap," according to Patrick Flanigan, a Winchester exhibition shooter who lives in Wisconsin. "High mounts, where you start the firearm at the shoulder in a ready position, are great for competition shooting, but they're not typical for hunting," he says. "Your reaction time is crucial to making a successful shot in the field, and if your mind and body aren't accustomed to mounting the gun from a low position, you're less likely to knock down birds. So train yourself in the off-season for reaction time and form. Start with your gun in a low mount position and work on raising it to a comfortable high mount position after you see the target."
7. Downsize Late in the Season
Maryland Eastern Shore guide Tom Marvel typically hunts every day of the goose season. Late in the season when geese become decoy-shy, Marvel has success by switching to small spreads of ultra-realistic full-body decoys. "It's important to buy and use the best decoys you can afford," he says. "Personally, I use Greenhead Gear full-bodies. As the season progresses, show the birds something different from everyone else and cut your rig back to 12 or 18 decoys."
8. Run an Ice Eater on Cold Nights
Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Frank Bacon uses an Ice Eater, a machine designed to keep ice from forming around boat docks and marinas, in conjunction with a small generator to keep water open on cold nights. "We keep the Ice Eater attached to a custom stand made by Mallard View Outdoors. This stand controls the water flow in whatever direction we choose and has adjustable legs for water depth as well," Bacon says. "This is a great way to keep an open hole in a flooded field, slough, or anywhere else you hunt that is likely to freeze up. I run it all night with an oversized tank in shallow fields. The generator is very quiet, and it gives you a nice open spot to hunt the next morning."
9. Choose a Good Timber Call
Mississippi call maker Will Primos says several features are useful in a timber call. "I like a double-reed call that allows for both soft and aggressive calling in the woods," he says. "I like a dimple in one of the two reeds, which keeps them from sticking together. Some double reeds have a hole in the side of the stopper. With the hole uncovered, the sound is higher pitched, and it's low-pitched when covered. Also, when you put a duck call to your lips, the mouthpiece should be very smooth. If it's rough or sharp, you can't put the required pressure on it."
10. Find a Contented Flock
Snow goose guru Tyson Keller says it's important to evaluate the mood of a flock of light geese while scouting. "Finding a field with birds that are tightly packed and contented will probably provide better success than a field with birds that are spread out and moving around," he says. "A contented flock has found a good food source on the ground, while a flock that's moving may still be searching for food. The key to scouting is to find birds that will return to a field rather than birds that are still actively looking for food."
11. Clean Your Blind at Season's End
Virginia hunter Tom Ritter spends time maintaining his layout blinds at the end of a long season. "I use Final Approach X-Land'Rs, which have zippers at the feet," he says. "I hang them up and open the zippers to sweep out shotgun hulls, candy bar wrappers, and mud. I also remove any stubble that's still stuck in the straps. The raffia grass we brush with at the end of season isn't good for early season the next fall. I spray silicone lubricant on the zippers, let them hang to dry for a few days, and store them off the ground. This way, I know come September resident goose season, all I have to do is pull the blinds out of storage and they're ready to go."
12. Hunt a Traffic Field
Goose guide John Cristinziani says it can be difficult to hunt on the "X" all the time because fields full of geese are the first to attract other hunters. But setting up in a heavy traffic field, where birds often fly over but don't necessarily sit, can be the next best thing. "Scouting is the name of the game, but if you can't find a field filled with feathers, watch geese in the air to see which travel routes they're using to and from the roost," Cristinziani says. "Set up the biggest decoy spread you can in those traffic fields and use your calling skills to bring birds down."
13. Take it Slow in a Layout Blind
Rising to shoot from a layout blind presents challenges to good shotgunning form. Brandon Crowley, an avid layout blind hunter from Minnesota, says hunters must remember to take their time. "Be patient," he says, "and remember that shooting form is the most important part of making the shot. Lift yourself using your elbows with your hands on the gun, get the stock on your shoulder and your cheek on the stock, and always keep everything you need in front of you. Also, choose a comfortable blind with plenty of room for your hands."
14. Think Ahead for Your Boat Motor
Go-Devil's Warren Coco says hunters shouldn't wait until opening morning to crank their outboard or mud motor for the first time since last season. "Smart guys run their motors a couple of weeks in advance to be sure there aren't any problems," he says, "and they store their boats with a full tank of gas and fuel stabilizer." Coco, who is a DU Diamond Life Sponsor, doesn't leave shore without a few tools to get him out of a jam if something goes wrong. "I always have a Leatherman in my pocket, as well as a pair of channel locks, screw drivers, wire cutters, and a roll of tie wire. Also, a small propane torch can be a lifesaver in cold weather. You can use it to free up frozen starters or other parts, and it can start a fire, even with wet wood, in the event someone gets wet."
15. Make Diver Spreads Species-Specific
Certain diver species can be finicky about fully committing to decoys. "Some divers definitely like to sit only with their own kind," says Tim Bouchard, an Alaska sea duck guide. "If we're hunting buffleheads or goldeneyes, for example, we use only bufflehead or goldeneye decoys. And a lot of our success comes from the arrangement of our spread. For buffleheads, we set several little pods of five or six decoys, and for goldeneyes, we put out a big raft. If we're hunting bluebills, we'll usually have three dozen bluebill decoys in a J-pattern with a line of goldeneye decoys off to the side."