Waterfowl hunter. Photo by DougSteinke.com.jpg



Summer vacation is here, but class remains in session for hunters who want to improve their waterfowling skills before fall. You can start by learning the fundamentals of scouting with these tips from the pros.

Start Scouting Now

Summer is the perfect time to get a jump-start on scouting for places to hunt. Mike Bard, a hunting guide and owner of a hunting club in western New York, says he focuses on three things during summer scouting trips: water levels, local bird populations, and food sources.

“Knowing what the water levels are like in the area gives me an idea of where birds might concentrate when fall rolls around and where they might move to escape hunting pressure during the season,” Bard says. “Locally produced ducks and geese are a prime target for me in the fall, so I plan my scouting trips based on the hatch and where the birds were most successful.”

Bard says he also checks in with landowners to discuss their plans for planting and harvesting crops. All of this helps him determine where to scout during the different stages of the season and migration. “The daily feeding habits of ducks and geese change throughout the season as different crops are harvested,” Bard explains. “Knowing where and when the new food sources will become available helps save me time and money when scouting in the fall.”

His conversations with landowners are also about nurturing relationships. “By being friendly, respectful, and helpful, doors may open to hunting opportunities that you did not even know existed,” Bard explains. “Farmers might even be willing to provide timely information in the fall about feeding patterns or bird numbers, which they might observe because they are out on the land every day. And in the bigger picture, building relationships with landowners is essential to the future of waterfowl and waterfowl hunting. The time and energy that we invest in making a real connection with those who care for the land will ultimately help protect our waterfowl hunting traditions.”

See the Big Picture

Scouting during hunting season is all about trying to understand patterns of duck and goose behavior on the landscape. Thousands of miles on the road and hours of staring through binoculars at flocks of ducks and geese have taught veteran South Dakota waterfowler Ben Fujan important lessons about scouting.

“Finding the birds is just the first step. Figuring out how this snapshot of activity fits into the bigger picture comes next,” Fujan says. “Sometimes the answer is pretty clear. Other times you have to keep digging.”

Fujan says there are three things that he wants to know. “First, I want to figure out where the birds are roosting at night, so I know what kind of pressure I’m going to be putting on them if I hunt. Setting up too close to the roost can push birds out of an area, but if I can stay a mile or more away, there’s a good chance that I won’t disrupt the place where they are resting. If I don’t disrupt the roost, the birds are probably going to stay in the area and give me additional hunts in the weeks to come.”

It is also important to know how the birds are coming to a field or body of water. “A field with 50 birds that are coming in four at a time will create more shooting opportunities than a giant feed of several hundred birds that are all arriving in one flock,” Fujan says. “Smaller groups also seem to respond better to calling, flagging, and decoys.”

Finally, Fujan says he wants to know if the birds are committed to a spot—something that may take a day or two to figure out. “Mallards are notorious for circling. That big swirling flock looks great from a distance, but I don’t know if they are committed to a spot until I see them on the ground or water. Sometimes you don’t have a choice and you have to hunt where you can hunt, but if I can observe the birds settling into a pattern of landing to feed, then I know I’ve got a really good chance at having a hunt to remember.”

Waterfowl hunters scouting field. Photo by Craig Bihrle.jpg

Craig Bihrle

It’s All about the X . . . Until It’s Not.

Setting up in the right place is pretty important for waterfowl hunters. No one knows this better than Trevor Manteufel, a waterfowl guide who splits his time between northern Alberta and Arkansas, which happen to be two great locations for mallards and white-fronted geese.

“The entire goal of scouting is to find the X on the map, right? Finding that exact place where the birds want to be,” Manteufel says. “Hunting on the X means you’ve put yourself in a great position to enjoy a good hunt.”

When Manteufel finds birds, he waits at a distance for them to leave. Then he looks for the freshest droppings and feathers before marking a waypoint on his GPS. Knowing the exact location is especially important for early-season birds that are still in family groups and less likely to react to calling and decoys. Being off the X by even 20 or 30 yards can have a negative impact on the hunt.

And yet there are times, Manteufel says, when the X may not be the best option. “This usually boils down to concealment,” he says. “If being on the X means that I don’t have much of a place to hide, then I’m going to look for another area, hopefully close by, that has some cover or other way to break up the outline of the blind. And there are times when, by shifting off the X, I can make better use of the wind and the sun, keeping them at my back or over my shoulder instead of in my face.”

Don’t Ignore the Little Things

It might be a single Canada goose that is dropping from the sky into an open pocket of marsh, or maybe a flash of white from the wings of a mallard stretching in between naps on a shallow loafing pond, but sometimes good things come from what seem to be insignificant observations while scouting.

“I think duck and goose hunters are just natural observers because we love to watch the birds and see what they do,” says Habitat Flats guide and co-owner Tony Vandemore. “It can pay to put those same curiosities to work when you’re scouting. I’ve seen more than a few hunts come together after finding one tiny piece of the puzzle somewhat by accident. If something catches your attention, follow up on it. You never know where it might lead you.”

This is especially true, Vandemore says, if you’re scouting birds that have received a lot of hunting pressure, or you are out looking around during a time of the day when ducks and geese aren’t known to be on the move. Seeing birds at mid-morning or in the afternoon might lead to a hunt on a loafing area or staging pond, which can be prime spots for productive hunts.

This attention to the little details extends to preparing for the hunt. “It can be something as simple as taking note of how the birds are spaced, and then setting your decoys to reflect exactly what they are doing,” Vandemore explains. “Or ‘putting the birds to bed’ the night before by watching them to make sure they return to their normal roost and follow their normal routine, which is a pretty good indicator that they’ll follow the same routine the next day.”

And it could be something as important as scouting your access point, he adds, making sure that you know where to enter a field or the best place to launch your boat, even if that means getting permission from an adjoining landowner to make the job easier.

Buddy Up

There is a lot that goes into scouting for waterfowl, and there really is no substitute for the time it can take to put a hunt together. What a hunter can do, however, is combine efforts with a friend and split the duties.

“It’s kind of an easy extension of the hunt, really. Hunting partners buy duck boats together, they pool decoys together, they share a lot of what it takes to make a hunt happen,” says Field Hudnall, a champion caller and former host of Ducks Unlimited TV. “Hunting buddies who have consistent success share the scouting duties too.”

The “divide and conquer” approach to scouting is almost a necessity when hunting a new area, Hudnall says, when a group of hunters may need to spend a day or more scouting just to be able to zero in on a huntable number of birds. Having more than one person out looking means more ground covered and better chances to be hunting sooner rather than later.

“And if you’re planning on hunting for several days in a row, you really need to take turns making an early exit from a morning hunt and starting the scouting process again,” Hudnall says. “If you want to hunt the next morning, you need to start gathering recon on where to go, and a great time to scout for a morning hunt is during the morning. That means sacrificing some time in the blind, but it sure pays off for you and your pals.”

And sometimes it means reaching out to folks who are out on the landscape every day—like rural mail carriers, bus drivers, and farmers. “You really can’t have too many people in your corner helping you scout,” Hudnall says. “Finding places to hunt can be hard, and the birds aren’t going to make things any easier. It takes time and a lot of effort, but there is no better feeling than when the pieces fall into place and a hunt comes together just as you planned.”