by Wade Bourne

My partners and I were standing next to our vehicle on a Manitoba back road, watching mallards cyclone down a few hundred yards away into a swathed barley field. The large flight circled lower and lower, and then suddenly the birds disappeared. "Where'd they go?" one of my buddies asked. "Did they land in the field?"

I didn't think so. There had been no white wing flash evident from their backpedaling. It was as if the land had just swallowed the ducks up.

Then another flight appeared, and the same thing happened.

"There's something out there we don't know about," I observed to my partners. "Let's go take a look."

We had already talked to the owner of the field and had permission to hunt it. We loaded up our gear and started plodding toward the "twilight zone."

We had walked some 200 yards and were cresting a little ground swell when a third flight appeared. These birds made one big looping circle, and then dropped down. Now we could see where they were going. There was a line of thin vegetation cutting through the fieldthe border of a gully.

The ducks were landing in a drainage ditch below ground level. When we slipped closer, we could hear the quacking and chatter of birds that were crammed into a sunken ribbon of water that traversed this field. Instead of flushing them, we decided to retreat and return there to hunt the next morning.

Dawn found us back on the road, waiting for the ducks to fly out to feed. We were astounded at the number of birds that took wing. When they had departed, we made a quick move to get set up before they started coming back. We tossed half a dozen decoys in the sliver of water where the birds had roosted. Then we tunneled into some tall reeds growing up the sides of the ditch, and we waited.

The ducks started returning in less than an hour. A single mallard drake came first. He sailed straight in. My partner downed him with a clean shot, but before we could retrieve him, a dozen or more appeared. They floated in after a short half-circle.

Then there was a big flight, and another. All the ducks worked to within 20 yards of our hiding spot. We held fire until they were backpedaling to land in the narrow ditch, and we filled our limits quickly.

Big surprises come in small packages. Some of the best duck hunting can be found in some of the smallest, least obvious spots: a hidden slough, a crease in flooded timber, sheet water in a field, a cattle pond, a tidal pool or a hidden beaver pond. Most such spots won't attract the number of ducks we saw in that Manitoba ditch, but they don't have to. Just a few birds committed to a spot can provide blue-ribbon duck hunting.

Dr. Mickey Heitmeyer, Mike Moody and Joe Congleton are three waterfowlers who specialize in hunting small waters. Heitmeyer, of Puxico, Mo., is a waterfowl biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. He studies ducks for a living and hunts them avidly when he's not working.

Moody runs South Dakota Hunting Service out of Onida, S.D., and most of his duck hunting is centered on a series of potholes in the north-central part of the state. Congleton, of Knoxville, Tenn., is a lifelong duck hunter who earned his stripes on the mudflats and bays of his home region's Tennessee Valley Authority lakes.

These three men are aware of how good small waters can be, and each is a pro at locating and hunting these obscure spots. Not surprisingly, their theories and strategies for doing so are similar, and they will work wherever small waters and ducks coincide.

Locating Small Waters

"These places don't fall in your lap. You have to work to find them," Congleton says. "You have to drive around and watch where ducks are going. If you see some drop down behind a hill or into a creek, you just go check the spot out. That's how you find these little places that ducks use. Then, if they're on private property, you have to find the landowner and ask permission to hunt there. You have to make a concerted effort to do all this."

"There's no substitute for scouting," Moody echoes. "My parties hunt in the morning, then I scout in the afternoon for the next day's spot. We rarely hunt the same spot two days in a row. I drive through the countryside in my truck and watch where ducks are using. They move around a lot. Local ducks have places they prefer.

Migrating ducks may use different potholes. In either case, you just have to put in the time and effort to find the spots where there's plenty of activity."

Heitmeyer has a shortcut for finding small, duck-infested waters: aerial observation. "I do a lot of flying and duck counting in my line of work. It's amazing what you can see from the air, places you never knew were there. Believe me, when you look at the terrain from a duck's perspective, there are a lot of little hidden spots out there, especially after a hard rain or when a river is rising."

Congleton says it is "impossible to overemphasize the value of topographic maps, aerial survey maps and lake maps" in finding small waters. These maps show terrain features and access to potential hunting spots. "Once I saw a flock of ducks slide in behind a hill at the upper end of a reservoir embayment," says Congleton. "I couldn't figure out where they were going, but it became obvious once I looked at my maps. They showed that the feeder creek in the back of the bay curved around behind the hill, and that's where the ducks had to be going.

"The next day," Congleton continues, "a friend and I walked up the creek and found a perfect loafing area. We flushed around 75 teal, gadwalls and mallards off of it. It was just one of those quiet little places where they wanted to be. It was still inside the reservoir boundary, so it was open to public hunting. We shot that spot for several years and probably killed more ducks with less effort there than anywhere else we've hunted."

Decoy Strategies for Small Waters

Small waters typically require low-maintenance hunting tactics. These spots usually attract small numbers of ducks, so small, natural-looking decoy spreads are the rule.

"I use only a few decoys in these little holes of water," says Heitmeyer, "and I don't clump them up. Instead, I spread them out, maybe isolate them by pairs for a natural, contented look,"

Moody says, "If I'm hunting local birds, and they're coming in twos and threes, I don't put more than a dozen decoys in a pothole. This is typical for early in the season. I'll go with more hens or faded decoys to look like birds coming out of the molt.

"Later in the season, when the migrators start coming through in bigger flights, I'll set out up to two dozen decoys with good, bright paint jobs. With these birds, I want a little more persuasion on the water."

Moody also sets two wing-spinner decoys in his spread, spacing them several feet apart. "I'm a big believer in motion," he explains. "There's no question I do better using the wing-spinners."

Congleton is very conservative in his decoy approach for small waters. He sets out a half-dozen decoys with fresh paint jobs. He usually rigs one on a jerk-string to provide movement, but does not employ any type of mechanical decoy. "I want my decoys to look natural and relaxed to incoming ducks," he notes. "When hunting these little waters, I think being subtle is the key."

Calling Strategies for Small Waters

Being subtle also applies to calling techniques for ducks sailing into small waters. "They're not passing by. They're coming to your spot, so you don't need to call much, if any," Congleton says. "I just let them come without calling. If at some point I feel as though they need a little persuading, I might make one three-to-four-note greeting call, but no more. I stay off the call altogether if I can."

"Leave the call at home" is Moody's advice for hunting local ducks in small potholes. "I might use some soft whistling for pintails or wigeon, or maybe a couple of soft quacks for mallards, but you don't have to convince them to come. They're coming anyway. There's nothing to gain and everything to lose by calling a lot in this situation."

However, Moody says this changes when migrating ducks are coming in. "In this case, you're trying to gain the attention of passing birds, so you need more calling. With migrators, you should highball to them until you have their attention and they break toward your decoys."

Concealment Strategies for Small Waters

Savvy hunters know the importance of being concealed from view, and this is especially critical on small waters. The birds take a good look when coming in, and anything out of the ordinary will flare them. This is why hunters must do everything possible to blend into the surroundings.

For starters, hiding is easier when only one or two hunters are present. Concealing a group of hunters is more difficult. "I don't like to hunt these little spots with more than two hunters," explains Congleton, "and I try to hide in natural cover as much as possible. I rarely build a blind on such a spot. Instead, I hunker down in weeds or under brush with the sun and wind at my back when possible. Also, I don't hide right on the edge of a pond or slough. Instead, I move back into the cover a few yards."

Sometimes Congleton uses a piece of army camouflage fabric to supplement on-site cover. He and his partner always wear head-to-toe camo clothing that matches the natural surroundings in color and pattern, and he's a stickler for wearing a camo facemask. "You have to do a good job of hiding, and this includes your retriever as well," Congleton remarks. "A big part of hiding is being still. When ducks are coming, you can't move. If you wear camo clothing, utilize natural cover, and keep still, the birds probably won't see you."

Heitmeyer says the biggest challenge in hunting small waters is hiding in open areas. "To hunt sheet water in a field following a heavy rain, you need a layout blind or a layout boat. You have to keep a low profile and be totally covered. You should also make use of whatever natural cover is present, however sparse it might be. A layout boat covered with rice stubble or grass can be deadly."

In flooded timber, Heitmeyer hugs tree trunks or burrows beneath low-hanging willow branches. When the sun is shining, he hides in the shadows of trees or logs to blend into the terrain.

Managing Pressure on Small Waters

One final consideration for hunting small waters is pressure. Too much shooting will cause ducks to abandon a preferred spot.

"I like to rest a pothole for several days after we've shot over it," says Moody. "Also, I never hunt a pothole in the afternoon. I stick to mornings only, and when we finish hunting, we get out and let it rest. We don't hang around working the dog or watching ducks fly."

"I've always tried to keep an inventory of these little spots, and I've rotated hunting them about once a week," Congleton says. "It's like managing a dove field. If you shoot a spot too often and don't give the birds a chance to come in to feed and rest, they'll leave it. You have to resist the temptation to shoot a good spot too often."

Congleton keeps a logbook in which he has recorded scores of duck hunts over the years. As a result, he can go back and recall hunts and assess his successes and failures. "I've been able to find these little places wherever I've lookedeast Tennessee, north Alabama, on the Big Horn River in Montana and other locations," he says. "My harvest rate on these spots has been amazingly high. I've taken a lot of ducks with surprisingly little effortno boats, no hundred-decoy spreads, no 'hotel' blinds. Again, small waters give you maximum return for minimal investment. I think they're the best deal in duck hunting."