This article was originally published in the Nov/Dec 2005 issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine.
By Matt Young
With the exception of the weather, nothing has a bigger impact on waterfowl behavior these days than hunting pressure. While duck harvests have declined in recent years from the record highs of the late 1990s, waterfowlers continue to spend more days in the field and are bagging more birds than at most times in modern history. The widespread use of ATVs, mud motors, mechanized decoys, and other high-tech gear has also made duck hunters more mobile and effective than in the past, exerting ever greater pressure on the birds.
Waterfowl have reacted to the onslaught by becoming more elusive and challenging to hunt than ever before. To have consistent success in intensively hunted areas—especially on public lands—waterfowlers have to adapt their hunting tactics to the changing habits of the birds. On the following pages, Ducks Unlimited interviewed several of the nation's most experienced waterfowlers, who shared some of their secrets on how to fool highly pressured ducks.
Avoid the Competition
The most common response waterfowl have to hunting pressure is to find safe havens where they can feed and rest without being disturbed. On public lands, dabbling ducks such as mallards and black ducks often retreat to wetlands in remote areas that are inaccessible to all but the most dedicated hunters. One such waterfowler is Dr. Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning at DU's Great Plains office in Bismarck, North Dakota. Stephens has hunted waterfowl in more than a dozen states, from Maryland to Texas to North Dakota.
Most of his hunting takes place on public lands, where he works hard to locate hidden pockets of habitat that are overlooked by other hunters. "I like to study maps and aerial photographs of public areas and try to find places that are difficult to access," Stephens says. "Then I figure out a strategy how to get in there. I have always liked lightweight one-man boats like pirogues that can be paddled or polled into shallow, weedy, or stump-filled waters that can't be reached with larger boats and conventional outboard motors. On a national forest in the Mississippi Delta, for example, we used carts with bicycle wheels to carry our pirogues through the woods to sloughs that were far from the nearest road. That gave us access to a lot of spots other guys couldn't get to solely on foot or by boat."
Another way to beat the crowds on public land is to hunt at times when other hunters aren't present. In many areas of the country, waterfowl often leave large public wetland complexes before dawn and then return to rest later in the day. Gary Goodpaster, who serves as DU's director of special events in Memphis, has had good success for years on public land by hunting later in the morning after most waterfowlers have returned to their vehicles. "The vast majority of duck hunters on public areas like to get into the marsh and set up an hour or more before shooting time," Goodpaster says. "I like to show up around sunrise and drive around the periphery of the area or find a high vantage point where I have a broad view of the marsh. I look to see where the other hunters are, and I watch where the birds are going and what their flight patterns are. Once I have a good feel for what's happening, I frequently go somewhere, have breakfast, and don't return to the hunting area until around 9:30.
"By the time I put my boat in around ten o'clock," Goodpaster continues, "most of the hunters who were there well before dawn are coming back in, either with a nice bag of birds or because they're worn out and hungry. When I go in and set up, I often have the place to myself. And I often have great hunting. On crisp, cold days when birds are moving, you'll be amazed how much shooting you can get late in the morning. For mallards, eleven o'clock has always been a magic time for me."
Another option for waterfowlers is to take advantage of public hunting areas where access is carefully regulated. In Missouri, for example, waterfowl managers limit the number of hunters on state conservation areas to no more than one party on every 40 acres of habitat. Access is controlled through a reservation system and drawings held each morning on conservation areas.
Andrew Raedeke, a waterfowl biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, explains, "Our waterfowl hunting program has two main objectives: to provide hunters with a quality hunting experience and to help new or novice hunters get into waterfowl hunting. By limiting the number of hunters and providing rest areas to keep ducks in the area, we try to give our hunters the opportunity to see and work a fair number of ducks without too much interference. Quite a few hunters get turned away on weekends from some of our more popular conservation areas, but most of our hunters accept it because they know that if we didn't limit the number of hunters in these areas, there would be too much competition to have an enjoyable or successful hunt."
Let Other Hunters Work for You
In the absence of hunting pressure, ducks congregate on the best habitat they can find—frequently on intensively managed public land and private duck clubs. But once the shooting starts or resumes on these high-profile hunting areas, ducks often scatter to the winds. At such times, waterfowlers can enjoy fine shooting on neighboring marshes, ponds, and other wetlands that otherwise wouldn't hold many birds.
Living in a state with more than 100,000 registered waterfowl hunters, Joe Breidenbach, who serves as DU's director of fundraising and volunteer relations in Minnesota, frequently hunts on small, out-of-the-way places where ducks seek refuge after being driven by hunting pressure from traditional waterfowl hotspots. "In heavily hunted areas, the secret to success is finding the places where ducks go when they feel pressured," Breidenbach reports. "Once you find these places, they will often produce year after year. For example, early in the season, I hunt with a friend on a little pothole in the middle of a big cornfield that nobody knows about because you can't see it when the corn is up. You wouldn't find a duck in there before the season, but as soon as the shooting starts on the big water, the mallards just show up. You don't even have to scout it."
Goodpaster uses a different tactic. "If I can't find a place where I can get away from the madding crowd," he explains, "I'll take three or four decoys and set up near—but not close enough to interfere with—another group of hunters who've set up a large decoy spread in an open expanse of water. If you are well hidden, a small spread will often draw in a lot of birds that shy off larger groups of hunters and decoys."
Hunt the Fringes
When many hunters locate a large number of ducks, their natural inclination is to "shoot 'em while they got 'em." Given that ducks are often here today, gone tomorrow, this strategy makes perfect sense in many circumstances. But in secluded areas on public land and on private property where access is restricted, savvy waterfowlers have learned they can have more satisfying hunts and bag more birds by limiting their own hunting pressure on local concentrations of ducks.
"I hunt a farm in eastern Arkansas, and there are usually a couple of places on the property where there are large concentrations of ducks," Goodpaster says. "But I never bust them up. Instead, I'll go hunt little spots on the periphery, where I can pull in singles, pairs, and small flocks that break off from the main group. In fact, I don't even like to shoot into flocks of more than a dozen ducks. Most of the time, when you get really large flocks coming into the decoys, there are plenty of other birds around anyway, so there's no reason to shoot at them. I would just as well let the big flocks go and have them sit down someplace nearby, where I can hunt them another day."
Don't Have Blind Faith
Permanent blinds are an integral part of the waterfowling tradition in many areas of the country. But as hunting pressure has intensified, ducks have become conditioned to recognize blinds as a mortal threat and avoid them accordingly. Breidenbach contends that a major drawback to hunting from permanent blinds is that they limit the mobility of waterfowlers. "I like hunting out of a good blind as much as anybody," he says, "but the fact is you will have more success going to the ducks rather than trying to get the ducks to come to you. The birds are a lot less tolerant of hunting pressure these days, and if you shoot them in one place, they are likely to go somewhere else. I think this explains why many traditional duck hunting spots aren't producing as consistently as they once did."
"In my experience, it's always advantageous to avoid big, bulky-looking blinds," Stephens concurs. "Hunters now have a lot of tools they can use to conceal themselves without having to build a permanent blind. I have shot a lot of ducks the last couple of years hunting from a laydown blind, an Avery Finisher, on the edges of potholes surrounded by short pasture grass. I have also had good success blinding up with just a couple of panels of FastGrass strung between wooden poles amid clumps of cattails or bulrushes. The idea is to enhance whatever natural cover is there and create an inconspicuous temporary blind."
Give Your Decoys a Different Look
Waterfowl have also become adept at recognizing decoy spreads. Nothing spells danger to a wary mallard, black duck, or pintail like faded old blocks sitting motionless on the water. Chad Manlove, a DU regional biologist based in Mississippi, hunts extensively on public lands in the Midwest and Mississippi Alluvial Valley. In these heavily hunted regions, maintaining a top-flight decoy spread is a must. "To fool seasoned birds, your decoys have to look more lifelike than those used by everybody else," he says. "Before the season, I clean my decoys well and touch them up with paint to keep their colors looking bright and natural. I especially like to add white paint on the speculums and tails of my decoys to give them a little extra pop that ducks really key in on. It's also a good idea to periodically replace old decoys that have gotten worn out from heavy use. Last fall I sold my whole spread on eBay and bought a new rig of Greenhead Gear decoys for about the same price."
Manlove includes a mix of different types of decoys in his spread to appeal to a variety of species. "You want to give your spread a different look than what they are accustomed to seeing. Where I hunt, most hunters use only mallard decoys, so I often put out six shovelers and a couple of pairs of gadwall, wigeon, and pintails along with my mallard decoys. These decoys not only help draw the species they represent, but are also more visible from a distance than mallard decoys."
Above all else, however, Manlove believes that motion is the key to bringing decoys to life. "On still days, having a few decoys rigged on a jerk cord or battery-powered motion system is a necessity. Late in the season, if I'm in a good spot that ducks are using, I don't call much and rely instead on creating ripples on the water and movement in my decoys to draw birds in."
He has a good tip for maximizing the movement created by motion decoys in the spread. "A lot of hunters make the mistake of setting the bulk of their decoys too far away from their motion decoys. I like to pack a bunch of decoys in a tight cluster right around my motion decoys. This way, the ripples will move all the surrounding decoys like a flock that's actively feeding."
Watch the Weather
After several weeks of mediocre hunting, a dramatic shift in weather conditions can tip the odds in favor of waterfowlers by pushing new ducks into the area or making highly educated birds more vulnerable to hunting. Even after several months of hunting pressure, ducks will respond better to decoys and calling in inclement weather or when they are forced to migrate to unfamiliar areas. Now more than ever, waterfowlers should time their hunts to coincide with favorable weather.
"Most waterfowlers in Minnesota hunt during the first two weeks of the duck season and then switch to pheasants and deer later in the fall," Breidenbach says. "But late in the season when the weather finally turns, parts of the state have really good mallard hunting—as good as anywhere in the flyway. When the rice lakes in the north and the potholes in the Dakotas freeze over, an awful lot of mallards stack up on the wildlife management areas and waterfowl production areas in the southwestern part of the state, and there is generally very little hunting pressure at this time of year. You just have to watch the weather and be ready to go when the ducks are there, because they usually don't hang around for more than a week or two."
The type of weather preferred by waterfowlers often depends on where and when they hunt. "In North Dakota and other migration areas, some of the best hunting occurs when you've got cold, rainy, or snowy weather associated with low pressure systems," Stephens explains. "Under these conditions, ducks have to feed more to meet their daily energetic needs and to fuel up for migration, so they move more and feed more, making them more vulnerable to hunters as they trade back and forth between feeding and resting areas.
"In contrast, the best hunting on wintering areas often occurs on clear, windy days after a front has passed," he continues. "This weather often brings new ducks from the north that are easier to hunt. The colder temperatures and wind that accompany cold fronts also help southern hunters by forcing ducks to feed more and to seek shelter in protected areas like flooded timber or marshes where duck hunters can hide."
Despite all the advances waterfowlers have made in their gear and tactics over the decades, ducks always seem to stay one step ahead of hunters. And thank goodness for that. The remarkable adaptability of the birds ensures that as long as sufficient wetland habitat remains, there will always be ducks to hunt and pursuing them will never cease to be a challenge.