by Wade Bourne
Big bucks! No, not the kind that grow antlers, but what many duck hunters spend to fund their sport: private clubs, fancy blinds, pricey shotguns, super-sized decoy spreads, and more. This is one undertaking that can suck up money like a bowling ball in quicksand.
But it doesn't have to be that way. Hunters can experience quality duck hunting while sticking to a budget. Penny-pinching hunters may have to hunt a little harder and smarter, but they can still find high-quality waterfowling.
So, if the recession has left a lasting impression, your credit card is maxed out, your kid's college tuition has skyrocketed, and you can't afford 24-carat duck hunting, don't despair. The quality of a hunt doesn't always rate proportionally to its cost. Here's how to cut corners to hold duck hunting expenses down and still enjoy great shooting.
Hunting Spots for Budget-Minded Hunters
For starters, forget the private clubs and leases. Owning or leasing a prime duck spot can cost a prince's ransom. However, there are plenty of options available to budget-minded hunters. All you have to do is find them.
First on the list are public areas: wildlife management areas, refuges, public reservoirs and natural lakes, free-flowing rivers and streams, military reservations, state and national forests, BLM lands, utility company lands and Ducks Unlimited projects.
Public areas? Aren't they always overcrowded and hyper-gunned? Some are, but others aren't. The best-known areas with the most ducks can be mob scenes. However, other areas that don't draw as many birds may still offer good shooting. This is where the "hunt a little harder" part comes in. Finding such spots takes some legwork, but they do exist and can be uncovered and enjoyed at little or no cost.
Another option is figuring out how to outhustle the competition on heavily pressured areas. This may mean going in earlier, walking in deeper, or staying out longer. For instance, when I was in my late teens and early 20s, a friend and I hunted a public wade-in area in west Tennessee where spots were available on a first-come, first-served basis. One hole in this flooded bottom drew ducks like a magnet. To claim it, my pal and I would wade in two hours before shooting time. We had some long, cold waits for sunrise, but we also took many limits of greenheads there. Other hunters weren't willing to get out so early, so we routinely claimed this prize.
Budget-conscious hunters shouldn't rule out hunting on private lands. Good shooting may be available to those who find landowners willing to grant hunting permission. This is especially true after heavy rains push backwaters into croplands or pastures that aren't normally flooded. Ducks throng to such "new water," and some landowners will grant hunting permission. You'll never know until you ask.
Also, don't overlook private ponds and watershed lakes. Small waters can draw surprising numbers of ducks. Glassing from public roads is the best way to find these places. True, some landowners will turn you down, but others might grant hunting permission.
Float-hunting is almost a lost art, but sometimes small rivers and streams can hold good numbers of ducks. This is especially true during a freeze, when shallow wetlands are locked up and the birds shift to moving water.
One other point: you don't have to be in the heart of the flyway to experience good duck hunting. In fringe areas, ducks may be fewer in number, but hunting pressure will also be reduced. As a result, a hunter who finds a few ducks outside a popular flyway might have them all to himself.
I've hunted from duck blinds whose owners had invested small fortunes on electricity, plumbing, full kitchens, and even lounge areas. But these features certainly weren't necessary for hunting success. Many of my best hunts have come as I've huddled in brush, leaned against trees, or sprawled in muddy fields or on sandbars. In other words, a fancy blind or pit is a wonderful amenity but not a requirement for duck hunting success.
To the contrary, hunters can disappear from the birds' prying eyes with only a minimal disbursement of dollars. Highly effective blinds can be constructed with a few poles (cut your own), some camo netting, plastic zip ties, and natural vegetation.
Natural vegetation can provide the best of all concealment when it comes to avoiding detection by circling ducks.
Indeed, one of the best blinds I ever had was one a partner and I constructed in shin-deep water in a flooded soybean field. We drove four corner poles, attached shooting rails across the front and back, and then stacked long bushy oak branches teepee-style against the rails. Circling ducks never saw us as we huddled beneath the brush.
A layout blind is another excellent option for budget-minded hunters. Some initial investment is required, but a layout blind's twin advantages of mobility and full, fast concealment more than justify its cost. Layout blinds can be used in open fields, mudflats, sandbars, and other spots where ducks like to work and hunters without layout blinds have difficulty hiding.
Then there is the no-blind (and no-cost) option: concealing yourself in natural cover. On-site cattails, saw grass, willow trees, tree trunks, and other natural vegetation can provide the best of all concealment when it comes to avoiding detection by circling ducks. Just remember, you need cover overhead as well as in the front and back. Also, a marsh seat or shooting stool is handy for lowering your profile and saving your back as you hunker in natural cover.
Low-Cost Decoy Spreads
The decoy spread is another area where hunters can cut expenses. While there's no question that hunting over a large spread of realistic decoys is effective, just a few good decoys set in the right place can also entice ducks to come in. In my opinion, being on the X is more important than having a four-star spread. In many cases, a couple of dozen decoys will suffice.
In situations where ducks will be working close or there's no competition, standard-size (less expensive) decoys will fill the bill. When purchasing decoys, alert hunters can save big bucks by looking for catalog or website "hot buys," online postings, and even estate sales. You can buy used decoys and touch them up, and you can also save a few dollars on rigging costs by purchasing heavy nylon line (brown or black) and making homemade anchors (pour small paper cups full of concrete or mold weights from melted scrap lead).
And then there are black plastic bottles. Years ago my hunting partners and I collected several dozen one-gallon milk jugs, dipped them in cold roofing pitch thinned with gasoline, and let them dry. Then we rigged these jugs with line and anchors and scattered them among the regular decoys in our large open-water spread. By doing so, we greatly increased the size and visibility of our setup for very little expense. The ducks loved this spread. They would land right beside the jugs with no hint of suspicion.
Saving Dollars on Equipment
Besides blinds and decoys, duck hunters use a broad range of other gear, and with almost every purchase, there is an opportunity to cut costs. For instance, hundred-dollar acrylic or wooden calls are nice to own, but many companies make $25 plastic calls that play beautiful duck music.
There may be some prestige in shooting a handsome over/under shotgun or a high-dollar autoloader, but more ducks have probably been taken with field-grade pump shotguns than any other type. Pump guns such as the Remington Model 870 have been favorites with duck hunting guides for decades.
Since lead shot was banned for waterfowl hunting, ammo companies have marketed a range of nontoxic shot alternatives, including modern alloys that are even denser and more effective than lead. However, these shells are expensive, costing $2 to $3 apiece. In my experience, less expensive steel shot loads are capable of cleanly taking ducks at reasonable ranges. At the ranges at which most decoying ducks are taken, steel shot loads will perform nearly as well as their more exotic counterparts at a fraction of the cost.
Waders are one area where duck hunters shouldn't scrimp on quality. Tough waders with good foot insulation and features including pockets, shell loops, and D-rings are recommended. Most hunters prefer neoprene waders for their flexibility and warmth, but nylon waders cost less and still offer great service.
Hunters frequently need a boat to pursue waterfowl, but new camo-covered boats and outboards can definitely be budget-busters. Instead, consider buying a used rig and camouflaging it yourself. Just be sure to buy enough boat to hunt safely on the waters where you'll be hunting. Also, for two-man hunts on smaller, quieter waters, a canoe or johnboat and paddles are a low-cost alternative to a larger boat and motor. Both canoes and small johnboats can be transported on top of cars or in pickup beds, thus saving the expense and maintenance of a trailer.
Duck hunters commonly use camo clothing, a blind bag, binoculars, a thermos, flashlights, decoy gloves, mechanical decoys, and other accessories. But none of these items is an absolute necessity. Consider what you would like to have and what you can afford, and then assemble your gear accordingly.
Save Money; Hire a Guide
For some hunters, saving money may actually mean hiring a guide for a couple of hunts each season instead of hunting on their own. This may sound incongruous at first—spending money to save money—but it's actually not. Comparing the cost of a guide to buying gear and all the other expenses involved with hunting on your own may tilt favorably to the first option. Also, when hunting with a guide, the odds are favorable that you'll be hunting in a good spot, in a quality blind, and over a hunt-tested decoy spread. As a result, if you can hunt only a few days a season, a guide may be the best value for your limited hunting dollars.
Strategies for Hunting Ducks on a Budget
Finding hunting spots and having the essentials are important, but it all comes down to what you do with what you have. Budget-minded hunters should look for a niche—a place, strategy, or time that other hunters don't know about or won't interfere with. Waterfowlers on a budget need to make up in knowledge and ability what they lack in cash, and there are several good ways to do this. One obvious way is to find a hunting spot that's not overrun by competing hunters. Such spots are out there, but, again, they take some legwork to find.
Try to find ducks that other hunters aren't pressuring, and then figure out how to hunt them.
For instance, I know a group of young Tennesseans who drive to Arkansas several times a season to hunt on a small state wildlife management area that receives little gunning pressure. Several years ago, they found a spot where a few ducks were working, and they've enjoyed many good shoots there since.
Another dependable strategy is learning where ducks go under various weather and water conditions and moving with them. After a heavy rain, fresh floodwater rising into fields or bottomland woods can attract large numbers of ducks. During a hard freeze, ducks may shift to rivers and lakes where water is still open. On a big lake, try setting up on an upwind point at the mouth of a feeder creek where trading ducks can see your decoys. On rivers, just run until you flush ducks (usually in a pocket or an eddy next to the bank), and then set up where they were resting.
By learning where and when to hunt, waterfowlers can stay in the action. This may require wading far back into thick cover on a public area where ducks have been pushed by hunting pressure. It may mean timing hunts to coincide with weather changes. It may mean scouting doggedly to find out-of-the-way beaver ponds and sloughs where birds like to loaf.
When it comes to hunting strategies, cost-conscious hunters should remember two Cs: complacency and creativity. You must replace the first with the second. Don't do what everybody else is doing and become comfortable with leftovers. Instead, try to find ducks that other hunters aren't pressuring, and then figure out how to hunt them.
Have the Right Mindset
Hunting ducks on a budget involves being frugal rather than frivolous. It means spending on necessities, but not gimmicks. It requires making up in effort what you conserve in cash outlay. Overall, duck hunting on a budget involves a mindset of thriftiness, but not an acceptance of mediocre shooting. There was nothing second-rate about the hunts my partner and I enjoyed so many years ago on that Tennessee wade-in area or on scores of similar hunts since. More dollars don't necessarily equate to more ducks. Waterfowlers who hunt on a shoestring can still fill their duck stringers, and the satisfaction of doing so has them laughing all the way to the bank.