Plump January greenheads poured from the sky in swarms unlike any I had seen in 20 years of waterfowling. Big groups, small groups, pairs, singles; all with an insatiable appetite for the marsh grasses surrounding the narrow, unassuming Pennsylvania creek. We had shot about half our limit when I simply set my gun down to soak it all in. In total awe, I looked to my left and saw two others in the group quietly doing the same.
We ended our day with 20 gorgeous mallards and six geese, an unlikely sum in our region. Even more surprising in this day and age, our banner hunt wasnât achieved through a guide service or lease. We had hunted private landâfor freeâthanks only to a knock on a farmerâs door and a handshake.
Sure, it seems next to impossible in these times of high-dollar leases and âNO HUNTINGâ signs. Thatâs what I thought, too, until about a year ago, when I was invited to hunt with several Penn State students who are among the most impressive, dedicated bunch of waterfowlers Iâve met. Simply by introducing themselves to landowners and being polite, theyâve gained access to enough private land to make any mallard hunter green with envy.
Hereâs what we can learn from these young men about scouting, dedication and good old fashioned schmoozing.
When childhood friends Tyler Coleman, Nick Barry, Jacob Kraybill, Mike Simpson, Eric Klopp and Ben Arnold first arrived in State College, Pa., they had two goals: Find an apartment large enough for their guns, gear and the trappings of college life, and start scouting ducks.
âWe sort of got after it that first semester, thatâs how we scout,â says Barry, as we sipped cold Yuengling Lagers on a pair of futons in their apartment. It was a pretty typical college pad, save the duck mounts lining the walls, which include a mallard, wigeon and oldsquaw. A neck-banded snow goose stood on a coffee table. âIf you put the time in, we feel like you can find ducks just about anywhere in the country.â
Thereâs nothing fancy about the tactics employed by the young men: They print out a Google map, circle all the water on it, and drive their tails off checking each location.
âWe put 1,000 miles on my truck in one semester and never traveled more than 25 miles from town,â Barry recalls. âAnother time we put what little money we had into Tylerâs tank. It was supposed to be our âscouting gasâ for the next few weeks. We burned it in one day, barely made it home.â
âIt may sound like a pain, but to me itâs part of the fun,â says Coleman. âYou never know what youâre going to see, and thereâs nothing better than finding ducks, setting up on them in the morning and having it all come together.â
Thereâs no real secret to this strategyâitâs about covering as much ground as possibleâwhich doesnât come without sacrifices, like going to bed at 6 p.m. and waking up early to do homework before heading out.
âGuys would show up at our apartment to drink beer and we would all be asleep,â said Coleman. âFrom September to February, if we arenât hunting, weâre scouting. Our girlfriends are always on the brink of dumping us.â
In addition to the studentsâ hands-on reconnaissance missions, they ask fellow hunters on campus what theyâre seeing. Obviously, most hunters are tight-lipped. An unlikely ally helped the boys out.
âWeâve made friends with the birdwatchers,â Coleman says with a chuckle. âThey have a club on campus, and theyâll tell you flat out what theyâre seeing.â
In November a birder divulged he had seen a few brant on a large pond near town. Coleman received permission to hunt it, and to this day heâs the only hunter I know whoâs shot a brant in central Pennsylvania.
âI posted the photo to my Facebook page, and the birder âlikedâ it,â Coleman says. âYouâd think birders would care that we shoot the birds, but weâve stressed our passion for conservationâthey really relate to that. I definitely wouldnât hesitate to introduce yourself to a birder or two. Youâd be surprised how much you may learn.â
So, you ran your truck into the ground and found a pile of ducks on a sweet-looking marshy field, but to your chagrin it is postedânow what? Many waterfowlers throw up their hands, grumble that the days of knocking onÂ doors are long gone, and drive off. Iâve certainly done so. My new student friends (a phrase that terrifies my wife) prove that the good old days are truly alive and well.
âWeâve knocked on doors and shot mallards the next day,â says Klopp. âIâd say we only get turned down about 60 percent of the time, and we talk to a lot of landowners.â
Granted, these guys are not talking about a prime flooded timber hole in Arkansas or a Missouri peanut field. In areas loaded with guides and outfitters where duck property is a major cash cow, manners only go so far. But across 80 percent of the U.S., country-boy charm can still go a long way.
âHeck, Iâd say itâs more like we get permission 60 percent of the time,â Coleman interjected. âAnd actually this season I donât recall getting turned away a single time. We have about 15 private properties to choose from scattered across the state.â
The kids are likable and have a knack for developing a quick rapport with landowners. However, I believe their biggest strength is their total lack of fear in approaching strangersâ homes. Why are so many of us apprehensive about it? Is it the possibility weâll anger the farmer or suffer the embarrassment of rejection?
âWe just donât care about that,â Coleman says. âItâs not like the farmer is going to chase you off the property with a shotgun. The worst that will happen is heâll say no. If we see ducks, we chat with the farmer, even if weâve heard the land is leased or spoken for by other huntersâoften that turns out to be bunk.â
âWell there was that one time we turned around,â Klopp says.
âOh, right. There were two dead cats in the driveway. We took that as a bad sign.â
Once youâve found ducks and knocked on the door, youâve cleared two major hurdles. Next, just be yourself.
âIf youâre polite, youâre an ethical hunter and a true believer in conservation, you have such an advantage talking to farmers,â says Coleman. âThey know a genuine person when they meet one. Just tell them what youâre about, and remember sir and maâam still go a long way these days.â
The mallard hole that opened this story is a perfect example of the boysâ access strategy in action.
âWe actually know of a few people who were turned away multiple times from hunting there,â says Barry. âI think they were too forward. When we first knocked on the farmerâs door, we didnât even mention hunting. We just introduced ourselves, extended a firm handshake and showed him that we were respectful. I told him about my familyâs farm and he told me about his. Then after he got to know us a little we casually mentioned we had seen a few ducks on the creek.â
But the birds were located near the farmerâs barn and silos. He wasnât so sure it was a good idea to allow hunters.
âWe told him we recognized those safety concerns and that they were our first priority,â says Barry. âI really think that attitude is what got us permission. It also didnât hurt that we explained we would only hunt the spot once per week to rest the ducks. The landowner respected our restraint, and he knew he wouldnât have to hear shots every morning.â
Through a little care, common sense and strong people skills, the young men secured arguably as good a mallard hole as can be found in the Atlantic Flywayâlease or no lease. However, things donât always go as planned.
âOur first year in State College, we received permission to hunt this great pond for opening day where we had seen tons of mallards and wood ducks,â Barry recalls. âWe were all excited, of course, but as we pulled in other hunters were already setting up. We both claimed we had permission to hunt. And it was just about to get heated, but they had kids with them so we let them do their thing.â
As it turns out, the person who gave the students permission to hunt, unbeknownst to them, merely rented the building on the property. They had no leg to stand on.
âBut the other hunters really appreciated that we didnât cause a scene in front of their kids, so they said, âHey, why donât you hunt the small pond on the other end of the property?ââ Barry says. âWe shot three ducks while they shot limits, but afterward they gave us the real landownerâs contact info. Can you imagine helping someone else get permission to hunt your spot? They were that impressed, I guess.â
The students hunted the property on the first day of the second split. They shot 15 mallards and three wood ducks, and were back on campus in time for 8 a.m. classes.
âSome people will definitely turn you down,â says Klopp. âBut we always go back next year and ask again, unless they ask us not to. Thereâs luck involved here. Maybe this time youâll catch them in a good mood and get access.â
âAnd always remember to thank the landowner for the opportunity to chat, even if youâre turned away,â Barry says.
âI agree, thatâs huge,â Kraybill says. âIf they remember how respectful you were last year, they may give you a chance. We certainly donât always get permission the first try.â
It also doesnât hurt if your hunting group has at least one individual who thinks quickly on his feet. One day Kraybill and Barry were on a scouting mission and saw a pile of ducks drop over a ridge. They knocked on the farmerâs door, but were informed other hunters already had permission. So Barry proffered that he and Kraybill hunt the property just one day per season, provided they give the landowner advanced notice. He agreed. Two weeks later they shot three drake mallards and hustled to campus.
Then there was the time Coleman was told by a farmer that âonly familyâ was allowed to hunt his land. Coleman suspected the farmer had merely jumpshot waterfowl, so he offered to let the man experience the thrill of shooting over his decoys.
âI donât know if he appreciated the gesture or what, but all of a sudden he offered to let me hunt,â Coleman says.
After our big mallard shoot, I accompanied the students to the farmhouse to thank the owner for the opportunity. He seemed genuinely happy his land had provided such good fortune.
âThanking the landowner when you see him is a no-brainer, but little gestures before and after the season go such a long way, too,â Barry says. âEvery spring I send each landowner a gift and a handwritten letter expressing how much we appreciate the chance to hunt and get a break from our schoolwork. We offer to lend a hand on the properties, build wood duck boxes, anything we can to return the favor. And we visit occasionally, certainly at least once or twice before the season. We never just show up on opening day expecting to still have permission.â
Quite a grown-up attitude for a college senior. When I met Barry and his buddies, and hunted a few of their honey holes, I was determined to discover their secret. How is it possible they moved to town and secured more private land hotspots than most lifelong residents (including myself)?
Pretty simple actually: They scout harder, knock on more doors and have more fun doing it. Well, maybe there is one secret: âWe like people,â Coleman says. âAnd we make sure they know it.â