by John Pollman
As waterfowl season creeps closer, preparedness is the key to success. There are decoys to rig, dogs to train and blinds to build, but the one aspect many hunters overlook is scouting. Stay ahead of the game with these scouting techniques and you may find yourself on the "X" on opening day.
So you've found a group of honkers in a harvested wheat field or just watched a group of mallards drop into a slough – now what? The following tips will help you turn a scouting discovery into hunting success.
The big picture
From August to April, it seems that Ben Fujan is always scouting birds.
Waterfowl from Canada to Missouri and back again are the objects of his obsession, and if this Avery Pro-staffer has learned anything from miles of scouting, it's that finding birds is just the first step in the journey toward a successful hunt.
"Probably one of the first things I want to find out is how this snapshot of activity fits in to their normal routine," says Fujan. "Sometimes the answer is pretty clear; other times you have to keep digging."
When you've spotted either ducks or geese on the water, Fujan says it is very important to identify whether or not you've found a main roost area. If it is a body of water that birds are hitting right at sundown, or you see them leaving right at daybreak, chances are it is best to leave that water alone.
"You really need to be careful of hunting on or even within ¾ mile of a main roost, as you can push birds out of an entire area pretty quick," says Fujan. "But if you've found where birds are spending the night, watch them the next day and follow them to their next stop. Maybe you can catch them at another smaller loafing area or feeding in a field."
Fujan says that ducks in particular will often leave their roost area and hit a small pothole before feeding in a nearby grain field. Spots like this can provide the hunt of a lifetime.
And don't be afraid to pay attention to even the smallest flock in the air.
"One little bunch of mallards can give away the location of a pile of birds, and even small groups can add up," he says. "If you find a small slough with only 75 ducks but then discover that they are coming to it in small groups of five to 10 birds at a time, you've found yourself an ideal hunting situation."
It's in the details
Once you've found birds on the ground, the amount of guesswork decreases quickly—it becomes more of a numbers game.
In terms of Canada geese, the rule is basically "the more the merrier." Fujan, who typically hunts with a group of three to five other hunters, is looking for a field holding 100-150 birds. But even more important than the number on the ground is how the birds are coming to the field.
"I'd rather hunt a field of 50 birds where the geese are coming four at a time instead of a giant feed where they are coming in three huge flocks," says Fujan. "Big flocks are normally so much harder to decoy. Smaller groups just seem to respond better to calling, flagging and the decoys."
But Fujan's number-one piece of advice for field hunting Canada geese is location, location, location.
"Setting up on the 'X' is absolutely paramount," he says. "Especially for early-season birds that are still bunched up in family groups. Being even 20 or 30 yards off the 'X' can make a big difference."
Fujan suggests waiting at a distance until the birds leave the field, then finding the exact spot where they were feeding. Look for the freshest droppings and feathers, then mark the spot in your GPS, or leave a cooler or a bucket—anything that is going to put you on the "X" the next morning.
When dry-field hunting ducks, Fujan is a little more of a stickler for numbers. He says 500 mallards is the minimum, as they tend to come to a field in large flocks. And if you do find a big mallard feed, make sure the birds are ready for a commitment.
"Seeing that tornado is cool, but you want to see those birds hit the ground," says Fujan. "You want birds that are loyal to a field, that are not bouncing back and forth like they are not sure what they want."
With ducks, there is a little room to fudge on setting up on the "X" in terms of maintaining good visibility of your decoys. But Fujan adds that you can rarely go wrong setting up where the birds want to be.
Putting it all together
In the end, turning a successful scouting mission into a great hunt is a matter of putting the puzzle together.
Fujan says that even the smallest piece—such as knowing the direction from which the birds will be approaching the field—can make a world of a difference in terms of how you position decoys and blinds, especially on a day with little wind.
But small pieces add up, and the final prize is a worthy goal.
"It ends up being a lot of time behind the windshield," he says. "But the more you know about what the birds are doing, the more likely you'll have a good hunt with your buddies the next day."
And that is time well spent.
More scouting tips