By John Pollmann
When it comes to waterfowling, professional guides have a decided advantage over the rest of us. It's what they do for a living. They spend more days afield and have the inside track on where to find the birds and how to lure them into shooting range. Fortunately, some guides are willing to share their secrets. Here's the inside scoop from seven of the nation's top waterfowling experts on how you can improve your chances for success next season.
1. Finding the X
Nothing comes easy when your job involves putting ducks and geese over the decoys on a daily basis, but veteran South Dakota guide Ben Fujan knows that the key to enjoying consistent success all boils down to one word: scouting. After years of pursuing waterfowl across the continent from Canada to Arkansas, this Banded-Avery pro-staff member has developed a process that makes it easier for him to find the X.
Fujan starts by exploring waterfowl roosting areas such as those found on refuges and other areas with large bodies of water. He then spends a day studying the birds' resting and feeding habits. "The idea is to find a pattern," he says, "and from there all kinds of opportunities will emerge for targeting birds within their daily routine."
Gaining hunting permission is another important step. Fujan uses a plat book or an app to track down hunting access and property owner information. And once he gets the green light from a landowner, he moves in for up-close surveillance of the birds' comings and goings.
"When scouting birds in the evening, I always keep watching them until they leave the area," Fujan says. "This allows me to see not only how many birds are out there but also exactly where they are going to roost. It's always easier to count the birds in the air, when they're moving from place to place. Plus, I can know whether they left on their own terms or were spooked out of the field. This is important information. When the field is clear, I'll drive out and mark exactly where I want to hunt, which will save me some time and effort the next morning."
Fujan begins the scouting process all over again shortly after a morning hunt. "It's always better to scout in the morning if you're planning to hunt around the same time the next day, so you can get a picture of what the birds are doing," he says. "Patterns can change quickly; you always have to stay one step ahead of the game."
2. Handling Hunting Pressure
The Great Salt Lake, in northern Utah, offers a range of waterfowling opportunities to rival any on the continent. During the fall migration, large concentrations of puddle ducks, diving ducks, geese, and even swans can be found here, along with hordes of waterfowlers vying to take advantage of the lake's ample public hunting access.
"Certainly, the biggest challenge of hunting here is the competition from other hunters, but I look at it as just that—a challenge, not a downside," says Rob Friedel, guide and co-owner of Fried Feathers Outfitters. "The way we handle this challenge is to try to be different from everybody else."
In his quest for originality, Friedel avoids deploying what he says is the typical decoy spread of two to four dozen mallard decoys and a single wing-spinner set on a standard pole. "I want the birds to see a little bit of everything, so I'll use coot decoys, gadwall decoys, all hen decoys—anything that helps my spread stand out and look different from the others," he explains. "And if what I'm using isn't working, I'll change it up on the spot. I may opt to go with more decoys or fewer. Sometimes we'll move to an entirely new location. It is important to be willing to change when things aren't working."
Amid all that change, motion is a constant factor in Friedel's decoy spreads. Instead of using a traditional spinning-wing decoy on a pole, however, he will often deploy jerk strings or a floating motion decoy to create movement on the water's surface. This helps bring the other decoys to life on days with little wind.
Although standing out from the crowd in an area of intense hunting pressure isn't easy, Friedel says that he enjoys sharing the lake's bounty with other hunters. "A great day for me is when I'm riding the airboat back to the launch after a successful hunt and I see other waterfowlers on their way out with straps full of ducks, too," he says. "That is what this is all about."
3. Controlling Your Retriever
Bill Schaefer, owner of High Desert Waterfowl and High Desert Retrievers in Grand Junction, Colorado, often hunts out of pits concealed in agricultural fields near the Arkansas River. As a top goose guide and professional dog trainer, he looks for ways to get the most out of his retrievers while keeping them safe and well-hidden during the hunt.
"Getting your retriever to transfer the skills he learned during training to an actual hunting situation isn't always easy," Schaefer says. "That's because you have to be able to set up your dog for success in the field. To do that, you must put him in a position where he can not only mark falling birds but also stay concealed and out of harm's way."
To accomplish those goals, Schaefer has started hunting his retrievers out of dog boxes dug into the ground on one end of his pit blind. A grass-covered screen on top of the dog box provides the retriever with a clear line of sight to mark falling birds. The screen also helps to keep the dog from leaving the blind too early.
"The advantage of using a dog box is that it allows you to have more control over your retriever," Schaefer says. "To prevent the dog from breaking, make sure the lid stays secure until you open it. You release your retriever when you're ready, and that helps keep him from flaring birds. It also helps keep the dog—and the hunters—safe from any mishaps."
Schaefer emphasizes that you should take care to introduce your retriever to a sunken dog box well before the season opens. He cautions, "Never assume that a dog will handle this—or any other new situation—without adequate training."
4. Coping with Weather
The abundant croplands near the Peace River in northern Alberta are among the first major food sources that migrating ducks and geese encounter as they leave their breeding grounds in the Boreal Forest and Arctic in early fall. Huge concentrations of waterfowl feast in these grainfields to build up fat reserves before continuing their long migrations south.
Trevor Manteufel, owner of Top of the Flyway Outfitters, says that finding birds in the area is not usually as challenging as coping with the weather. "The weather is the one thing that all waterfowl hunters have to battle, and it is the one variable that is completely out of our control," he says.
Manteufel adds that while cold temperatures, snow, and rain will change waterfowl behavior, the wind is often the most challenging element in any weather forecast. To avoid surprises, he and his guides use a variety of weather apps to determine what the wind will be doing and whether the day's plans will need to be adjusted.
"My biggest concern is how the wind is going to affect where I'm hiding the hunters," Manteufel explains. "If I've got a wind coming from a bad direction for hunting a certain field, I'll need to have a backup plan in place. But if I don't have a solid secondary field available, I'll make concealment the top priority."
Sometimes wind conditions will require Manteufel to hunt off the X or set up his decoy spread so the birds present crossing shots in front of the blind. "I've even decoyed birds coming from behind the blind because that was the only way to hunt the field in a particular wind," he says. "Having the wind in your face is less than ideal, but in this case, because the hunters were hidden really well, it worked. The birds had no idea we were there."
5. Preparing for Success
Years of pursuing puddle ducks, diving ducks, sea ducks, and Canada geese in the Chesapeake Bay region have taught Captain Dan Houck how to handle a variety of hunting situations. Houck, who runs Black Duck Outfitters on Chesapeake Bay, says that preparation is the biggest key to dealing with not only the changing weather and water conditions but also shifting waterfowl behaviors and patterns.
"Our hunting tactics are always based on how the birds are responding," Houck explains. "For example, we use layout boats on most of our hunts, but after a while the ducks will get wise to them. So one of the things that I'll do is carry silhouette decoys on V-boards. The silhouettes clip onto the layout boats to help break up their outlines on the water. And sometimes we'll ditch the layout boats completely and take the big boat out to pursue sea ducks."
Later in the season, hunting pressure will often force birds to abandon the edges of Chesapeake Bay. When that happens, Houck will hunt ducks in the main river channels, where the water depth makes rigging decoys and anchoring boats more difficult.
"If you aren't prepared to hunt in the deep water, things can become a disaster pretty quickly," Houck says. "It's a tremendous amount of work to hunt there, but if that's where the birds want to be, that's where I want to be."
6. Finishing Late-Season Ducks
If there is a tougher duck to decoy than a late-season mallard in eastern Arkansas, longtime guide Rusty Creasey has yet to meet it. "By January, a mallard that has made it this far down the flyway has seen and, more importantly, heard it all," Creasey says.
For that reason, the biggest change that this veteran green-timber duck guide makes during the late season is to his calling. "If that greenhead is doing what I want him to do, I simply don't call at him," he says. "Early in the season, you can get away with a lot of feeding chatter and extra stuff, but later you can hit the birds with the call only on the corners."
Creasey, who guides at the famed Coca-Cola Woods duck club near McCrory, says that late in the year he relies heavily on a jerk string to create motion in the decoys. When he does use spinning-wing decoys, he places them together in the timber outside the shooting hole. "It's almost like I'm trying to hide them," Creasey says. "The ducks, as they work the hole, can't see the spinners the entire time, so the motion comes and goes, kind of like what they would see from real ducks on the water. It's just something different from what they've probably seen the entire season."
Creasey adds that managing hunting pressure during the early part of the season is one of the keys to his late-season success. "At the beginning of the season, we never hunt big concentrations of birds on the property. We always try to hunt the edges, which keeps more ducks around and does little to educate them. By the end of the year, we are keying in on small pockets of ducks that have usually moved to areas of thick timber or brush. It takes more scouting to find them, but the work pays off," he says.
7. Building Permanent Blinds
The decision to build a permanent duck blind is not something that waterfowlers should take lightly, says Tony Vandemore, who has built dozens of these structures on Habitat Flats, a commercial hunting operation near Sumner, Missouri. As with tiny houses, which some of the more lavish blinds tend to mimic, they shouldn't just be slapped up without some advanced planning.
"It is rare for me to put up a new blind in an area that we have just started developing as waterfowl habitat," Vandemore says. "But after a year or two, I get a pretty good idea of the birds' flight patterns and which spots they really like on that particular piece of property. That kind of information is crucial in deciding where to put a blind."
When narrowing down a blind's location, hunters should consider how the structure will fit in with the surrounding natural vegetation, says Vandemore. He adds that he also tries to position the blind where he can use the sun to his advantage—so it's in the birds' eyes and not the hunters'.
"For pit blinds in flooded corn, I like to run the structures north and south, which gives me the option of having the sun at our back for morning and afternoon hunts," Vandemore explains. "In the timber, where we hunt almost exclusively in the morning, I like to position the blind on the east side so the rising sun is at our back."