Every die-hard waterfowler knows the satisfaction of finding a brand new honey hole. Hidden from plain view these hotspots can hold plenty of ducks and lots of excitement. Now that most duck hunters are somewhat tech savvy—scouting for new hunting areas has never been easier.
Maps and Photos
Topo maps and aerial or satellite imagery can be a valuable addition to your gear list, particularly if your goal is finding out-of-the-way waterfowling hotspots. And you can usually find what you need right on the internet.
Sites like Google Earth provide detailed imagery and you can download free topo maps at usgs.gov. You can also purchase additional maps and imagery from several sources, like Garmin, that you can load right into your handheld GPS for subsequent field recon. Both imagery and maps are useful in and of themselves but when paired, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.
Signs and Symbols
So what should you look for? As we’re hunting waterfowl, the short answer is: water. On a topo map, blue tint is used for water bodies and large waterways, blue lines for streams. But not all water holds ducks. A blue line with broken dots means an intermittent stream that probably won’t be productive. Solid blue lines mean year-round flow and the thicker the line, the better the odds of holding birds.
You also need to look at terrain and habitat. Green indicates vegetation (forest, shrubs), while white represents open areas such as fields and croplands. Wetlands are identified by a blue wetland symbol. Swamps (wooded wetlands) are represented by a blue symbol over green background, which could indicate flooded timber, particularly if adjacent to a river or lake.
Marshes (emergent grasses) appear as a blue symbol over a white background. It could be anything from a wet meadow to a cattail marsh, which is why you need to look for subtle signs, like the presence of scattered potholes or ponds (small, solid blue spots).
You can also refine potential hotspots by looking at topography. Waterways in steep terrain, indicated by brown contour lines close together, are fast-running with little in-stream vegetation. Those in flat terrain tend to be slower moving, have more vegetation and potentially more ducks.
Consider adjacent habitat too. Farmland might be better as it puts feeding areas in close proximity to water roosts. And in forested areas, imagery can help you distinguish softwoods from hardwoods, the latter of which might hold more potential.
Size matters, sometimes. Small ponds and potholes might be more productive for puddlers while big water is better for divers. Whereas, a marshy margin on a big lake could produce a mixed bag. You might also want a depth map to help identify shallow coves, bays and inlets, which are more likely to hold birds.
Compare maps and imagery for differences. A narrow stream may not look attractive until a recent photo shows that the stream was dammed by beavers, creating a pond and surrounding wetland edges. A wooded wetland might not appear ducky on the map; but the photo may show it as flooded timber. A wet meadow offers little gunning, but raise the water level a foot or two and you’ve got a mosaic of marsh grass and open water that’s only recognizable from the air.
Maps and photos also show the nearest road or access point. Federal law, and most states allow public access to all navigable waters if you can reach them from a public road (check your state’s laws for confirmation). This includes adjacent floodplain wetlands if they’re under water. Public access also extends to the mean high water line in tidal waters.
Studying maps and images will save considerable time up front but eventually you’ve got to do some ground sleuthing. Still, if you’ve done your homework, that task will be much more efficient. And you just might find a hotspot that nobody else knows about.