Insider Guide to Public-Land Duck Hunting

Veteran public-land waterfowlers share their secrets for finding great hunting

By Wade Bourne

“I don’t have a good place to hunt” is an all-too-common lament among North America’s waterfowlers. Many duck and goose hunters don’t have access to private lands, leases, or clubs, so they are relegated to public areas and the vagaries that come with them. Hunting pressure can be heavy. The number of birds using an area can change quickly. And the shooting can be anything but consistent.

But hold on! The other side of this coin is that many public areas offer great duck and goose hunting. Some are managed intensively and attract large numbers of waterfowl. On these areas, hunting pressure may be heavy, but hunters who learn to work around it can still enjoy reliable action. Other public hunting areas draw fewer birds, but they may also attract fewer hunters. As a result, the birds-per-hunter ratio may be just as high as it is on the more popular public areas, but the competition may be less intense.

Virtually all states have public areas where any waterfowler with a license and minimal gear can enjoy good sport. Granted, hunters have to learn when and how to hunt these places. But if they’re willing to work and have the expertise to handle the competition, they can find good waterfowl hunting on them.

Michael McGowen, Marc Murrell, and Mike Checkett have considerable experience hunting waterfowl on public areas. McGowen, an insurance agent from Albemarle, North Carolina, hunts both upland reservoirs and coastal marshes. Murrell, who manages a nature center in Wichita, Kansas, focuses on wildlife management areas, public reservoirs, and rivers. Checkett, a communications biologist on Ducks Unlimited’s national staff in Memphis, Tennessee, was formerly the waterfowl project leader for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, and he still hunts often on this state’s public waterfowling areas.

By borrowing from the knowledge and experience of these three waterfowlers, you may be able to find excellent public hunting for ducks and geese. As these hunters will tell you, “public” can still mean “productive.”

Locating Public Hunting Areas

Most states have management areas or refuges (state or federal) where waterfowl are concentrated and public hunting is allowed. These places are usually subject to special regulations (drawings for hunting spots, day or time restrictions, etc.) to control hunting pressure. More widely accessible public areas—natural lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, for example—may not be managed for ducks and geese, but the birds will frequent such habitat when conditions are right. Such places are typically open to public waterfowling in accordance with general statewide hunting regulations.

McGowen, Murrell, and Checkett offer the following advice on how to find good public waterfowling spots:
  • Become Internet savvy. All state game and fish agencies provide information on their websites about public hunting opportunities, including locations, site maps, special regulations, and harvest figures. Also, browse waterfowl websites (including www.ducks.org) and hunting forums about public areas.

  • Search for hunting possibilities on all public property. Major navigable rivers, Corps of Engineers and TVA reservoirs, BLM lands, U.S. Forest Service properties, national wildlife refuges, military reservations, municipal lakes, and other public lands are worth checking out for overlooked hunting possibilities. Pay special attention to finding access points where boats may be launched or where you can enter on foot.

  • Call state wetland managers or wildlife biologists and ask where you can find good public hunting. Biologists monitor waterfowl numbers and activity on public areas, and they generally like hunters to take advantage of their management efforts.

  • Use aerial photography and satellite imagery to look for small hidden wetlands on public areas that may be better known for upland game hunting. Waterfowl are sometimes drawn to such wetlands after a heavy rain because higher water levels can provide access to an abundance of new food.

  • Scout for hidden wetlands from the air.  Hiring an airplane and pilot can be costly, but an hour’s worth of scouting from a duck’s perspective may uncover opportunities that other hunters don’t know are there. If you fly, take maps and a GPS to mark spots and make notes on how to reach them.

  • Scout as often as possible, both before and during hunting season.  When searching for public hunting opportunities, the amount of scouting done is usually directly proportional to the number of leads uncovered. When it comes to finding public hunting spots, the best detectives uncover the best places.
“Good public hunting spots don’t just fall into your lap,” Checkett explains.

“You have to work to find them. But they’re out there waiting to be discovered by hunters who put in the time and effort to do so. The bottom line is that you don’t have to have your own lease or club to enjoy good waterfowl hunting. You just have to be good at utilizing the public opportunities that are out there.”    
 

Tactics for Hunting on Public Areas

Once you have done your reconnaissance and located some good public areas, how do you make the most of the waterfowl hunting potential they offer?    

In many cases, hunting success on public areas boils down to one factor: handling pressure. Hunters who avoid pressure or work around it enjoy good shooting. Those who are less skilled at dealing with hunting pressure will generally be less successful.

Here are some tips from McGowen, Murrell, and Checkett on how to take full advantage of the opportunities available on public hunting areas:

  • Go hunting the first day after a rest period. For instance, if a management area is closed Monday and Tuesday to rest the birds and then reopens Wednesday, be there that morning. Hunting days following any closure typically offer the best shooting.

  • If possible, avoid popular areas on weekends and holidays. Although weather and migrations still play a role, hunting is usually better during weekdays when fewer hunters are out.

  • Be mobile. Be ready and willing to move with the birds. Hunters may have to hike, wade, or boat into hard-to-reach areas where waterfowl are working. A small boat with a mud motor can be ideal for reaching remote, shallow areas where standard boats can’t run. With safety always in mind, a deep-draft boat with an outboard may be a better choice for large rivers and lakes where long runs in rough water are the rule. A boat-blind is often helpful for hiding when hunters reach remote spots where birds are working.

  • Be sure to carry additional means of hiding the boat or building a blind in natural cover. You may need pruners or an ax for cutting natural brush (if allowed), grass mats, camouflage netting, burlap, etc.

  • Consider using a layout boat or a ground blind in a waterproof liner for hunting large open areas where standing cover is sparse.

  • Study flight patterns to determine the best times to hunt. Sometimes the midday period is best, as birds return to rest areas after feeding early in the morning. This can be especially true when the moon is full.

  • Go hunting on a public waterfowl area on opening day of deer season. Many hunters will be in the woods instead of on the water, so waterfowl hunters will have less competition.

  • Purchase and learn to use a GPS. Doing so will allow you to navigate to and from remote sites where birds are working, even in the dark.Plan hunts according to weather changes, both current and anticipated. After a heavy rain, go to newly inundated shallows where fresh food is available. During a cold snap, shift to big water that’s still open. Try to hunt whenever an approaching cold front might push new birds down the flyway.

  • Use as many decoys as feasible. Ducks and geese find reassurance in a spread that resembles a refuge setting.

  • On open water, use magnum duck decoys and add some goose decoys to your rig to increase its long-range visibility.

  • Experiment with calling styles to determine which the birds like best on that given day. In a competitive calling situation, the loudest, most aggressive caller may fare best on some days, but on others, a subtle or even silent approach can be especially effective.

  • Have one or more spinning-wing decoys available. On public areas, if other hunters are using spinners, hunters who don’t have them may be left out of the action. If you have a couple on hand, you have the option of using them as you see fit.

  • Be patient. Later is often better as waterfowl frequently trickle back into public hunting areas after most hunters have left.  

  • Persevere! Of all tips for hunting public land, this one is probably the most crucial. Hunters who aren’t willing to work for their birds will likely be disappointed with the results. But those with a stick-with-it attitude who are mobile and flexible in their hunting tactics and who have realistic expectations about hunting on public areas will fare well—perhaps not every day, but often enough to provide plenty of enjoyment to keep them coming back.

“Hunting on public areas is a ‘learn as you go’ experience,” Murrell says. “You have to keep scouting and moving to stay in the birds. And you have to make adjustments, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t. You also have to realize that places change from year to year because of droughts, floods, or different food conditions. The main thing is not to get discouraged if you have a slow day. All waterfowl hunters know that tomorrow might be better. We live by that hope. Tomorrow might be that golden day, so don’t give up too soon.” 

Point-Hunting on Mainstream Reservoirs

Michael McGowen frequently hunts on reservoirs along a major river that runs north-to-south through North Carolina. He says when the duck migration is on, birds fly the main channels of these impoundments. McGowen intercepts them by setting up on points at the mouths of bays that extend back from the channels.

“I hunt from a boat-blind,” he says. “I like to pull my boat into a deadfall on a chosen point. Then I’ll cut extra limbs or brush to blend my boat-blind into the natural cover. I’ll usually set out around three dozen oversize mallard decoys. Sometimes I’ll also use a spinning-wing decoy, and if the water is calm, I’ll add a couple of duck butt wobblers to make some ripples. Altogether, this setup can be very effective when ducks are moving down the lake.

Undoubtedly, this simple strategy will work in other states where similar conditions exist.