It all started for me with a major hail storm that hit my home in the Black Hills of South Dakota at about the start of the 2007 early goose season. My truck was a mess, and would require several weeks of time in the body shop. Now saddled with a sub-compact rental car, my waterfowl hunting was about to see some major changes in regard to field gear.
We all know that duck and goose hunting demands gear; piles of the stuff. Boats, blinds, camo clothing, decoys and all the rest tend to fill up a big rig, even more so in a small compact car designed for a couple of passengers and a suitcase or two.
The whole mess got me thinking about how I was going to get around my situation. As a hunter, guide and writer, I had taken part in just about every known hunt save for a few American major big game critters over the years. The most productive hunts always seemed to be those that involved light gear, stalking to some degree, and many times the use of the tried and true Ghillie suit, which was developed and used by Scottish game keepers that were employed to watch over the King’s deer, or work at culling off animals in the precious royal herds.
That was it; I would down size, lighten up my gear selection and turn to the western coyote hunter’s secret weapon; the Ghillie suit. As a dedicated coyote and turkey hunter, I had often turned to the “rag suit” when calling coyotes or turkeys on wide-open prairie grass. The success of these calling stands clearly illustrated that the camouflage system almost always paid off, because the hunter would turn into nothing more then a pile of tangled brush regardless of where he or she was positioned.
Adding the element of coyote tactics, I was eager to give the system a try. Actually, coyote and waterfowl hunting do have a great deal in common. Both ventures demand the use of calls, both species locate their target location areas in advance (most of the time), and proper camouflage and “playing” the wind play huge roles when measuring success afield.
Decoys were no problem. I had a high quality set of silhouettes and an easy carry shoulder bag to pack them into field. I had also recently obtained a dozen mallard decoys, which fold flat and pack nicely in an easy-carry bag and can be used on land or water (total weight approximately five pounds). When you start to look, you find that a number of companies offer ultra-light decoys systems that are easy to pack and tend to get the job done.
Shake Down Run
It have to admit that it took some guts, but when my pals turned up on the first day of the early goose season with their layout blinds and piles of decoys that required humping in about three-quarter mile up and down hill, I piled out of my compact car with a backpack, decoy bag and shotgun. This was a test. Yes, I would fort up with these layout blind hunters and hope that I would not turn birds away as a result of employting a very different camouflage system . About the only thing I had not considered on this shake-down hunt was the use of waders. With five of six hunters using them, I had decided to go light and stay with my knee high boots and hoped the water wouldn’t undo me.
While that early hunt didn’t turn out to be a real kick-tail event, the single goose that did commit to the decoys decided to land on my head as it came dropping in at full lock down, then pulled up and folded only feet from me. Clearly the use of the Ghillie gear had not deterred that bird. A sharp crack from the 12 bore coupled with a cup full of BB iron shot, and the deal was signed.
The second day I hunted with the newfound light gear system was a solo event up on the big reservoir near Belle Fouche, South Dakota. Orman Dam is a big section of water, and I had decided to set up on a stretch of sandbar that allowed me to place my silhouette decoys well out on a point of sand, then make use of a stunted solitary cotton wood tree as paired with my rag gear camo once again. This time I did haul out my waders however, as the shallow water on each side of the bar would allow an easy retrieve. While I don’t want to sound like a soap opera here with the truck trashed and all, I had also just lost my best darn duck hunting buddy, Lakota the wonder. Time had caught up to the old rust colored lady, and I was now without my best pal and duck-chasing friend.
With our early goose season questionable (at best), the day turned out to be less then productive. I did pull in just about everything off the reservoir that had wings and could fly over my spread, but the morning didn’t turn out to be much in the way of a shooting event.
One nice element to the hunt was that even though it was a bust, the act of pulling decoys and hauling out for new country only took a matter of a few minutes, and a one-trip walk to my vehicle. This could allow for additional setups as birds were located, which offers the hunter several chances a day on the birds, versus one or two shots with full field setups to set and break down and transport to other points on the compass.
Another element to consider when thinking about going light on gear in the field is the savings of going to smaller rigs. The cost of fuel is cut, and at nearly $4 a gallon, it is something to think about. While I am not saying that all waterfowl hunting need be reduced to a mini, scaled-down event, by adding this new arrow to your quiver when it is appropriate, the stripped down duck or goose hunt could be just the ticket. Leaving home without the trappings of full scale militia tests my ability to improvise.
Rag Rigs & Lightweight Gear
Obtaining a lightweight setup and rag camo is not a problem nowadays. In terms of the basic Ghillie suit, these can be found in most war surplus stores, or through outfits like Cabela’s, Bass Pro, or Scheels sporting good stores. I have turned to the military Ghillie as my general go-to outfit because it is well made, uses rot-free materials, and I can add material to it if I care to custom design the system at any time. Cost regarding these basic two-piece factories made system will
run about $90. These suits can else be obtained in a kit form, and you will save about half the cost of a factory made outfit.
I have a second suit that I handmade by way of an old WW II tanker jacket and strips of raw burlap material. With the hood in place, the strips of material are cut about two feet long and an inch wide. When tacked to the coat, the effect is outstanding and this system has seen a pile of work on both coyotes and turkeys over the past several years.
My third suit is a commercial rig that is made up for dried grass strips woven into a mesh net cape. This is a deadly system when hunting from a dry grass marsh late in the season. Just pull the cape over my winter gear, add the hooded headpiece, and I turn into a clump of grass in a couple of minutes flat. My outfit was purchased a number of years ago, and I am not at all sure it is still available, but there are many offerings of shaggie suits out there..
Getting Into Ducks
Lacking any major early season waterfowl shoots with the ultra light systems, I held off for the first major duck hunt of the year in western South Dakota. With the first weeks of October, the wood ducks started piling into our local switch-back river pools and stock tank dams early each evening. Now with the aid of both my Ghillie grass outfit, and, at times, just standard fabric camo patterns, a number of quick hunts were possible by way of a handful of decoys, one good dog (provided by my hunting partner, Lance Lalonde), calls, and a box of shot shells matched to my old Remington 870. A simple hunt with first class results over the course of the first four days of gunning is about the best way I can explain the outcome of the event.
In terms of camo, we used standing grass along the stock tanks, and never even thought to erect a blind or set up a commercially designed product. The summer had been wet and that made for a good grass crop along these gunning hot spots.
On the first evening afield, we pulled down four limits. The hunt started close to the last half hour of shooting time, and ended 25 minutes later. Game over, bag filled. All this was accomplished with almost no high tech gear whatsoever by any of the four hunters that were involved.
If there is a special event that puts ultra light hunting waterfowl into perspective, it centers around a hunt that took place this past fall which involved a single bag of decoys, guns packed in floating cases, ammo not exceeding a box, and a good pair of waders. Scouting the Belle Fourche river we found a location that held about a thousand mallards in a deep canyon that was flat out inaccessible by any direct route. The only way it could be approached was to wade the river by moon light well ahead of shooting time, set a few mallard blocks just to center up the targets and hope for the best.
In pre dawn light a day after locating the kill zone, four hunters plodded along the steep bank of the Belle using the rock bottom as footing in water that was, for the most part, knee deep.
Two good Chesapeake retrievers sloshed alongside Lance and I, and as the dogs would start to swim in the reflective light of our headlamps, we would start getting ready for deeper water ahead. We were an ultra light-hunting unit on a mission.
Now with the steep bluffs rising straight up out of the river’s banks there was no place to go except ahead or backward. It was a solid half mile to the river’s sharp bend– the first point we would be able to set our floating decoys while trying to pull some of those resting mallards down river over our established kill zone.
After a half-hour we had reached the shallow banks and found some Russian olive tress that proved to be an excellent source of natural cover. In a few moments the small raft of blocks were set in place, gunning nests cleared by each shooter, and as the first light of day descended over the river bottom, a group of five mallards (with two drakes in the lead) came rolling in. With guns spitting fire, the pair cartwheeled into the small decoy spread as the first kills of the morning.
By 9 a.m. we had dusted a Canada goose and 12 fat mallard ducks. Not a limit, but not bad action for the dead beat middle days after the locals had been shot off easy access pot holes, and the northern ducks out of Montana and North Dakota had not yet begun their annual migration.
Requirements for ultra light hunting are as follows: A good pair of waders, ghillie camo or other workable system, one-dozen bagged decoys (mallards), gun, ammo and calls. Using a dog is always a good idea, but on two occasions during the writing of this story that was not a part of the equation.
For as long as I can remember hunters have complained about the fact that waterfowl hunting demands too much gear and as such it is easier to just take up upland hunting, or other sports.
Not so my friends, as ducks and even geese can be hunted on a tight budget, or with much less then a truckload of decoys, blinds, and other related gear.
What I did notice was the reduction in my fuel bill during that month my truck was in the shop. Don’t get me wrong; I missed that big green machine a whole lot, but I also learned that I could live without it if need be.
That’s a comfort when we need to consider that at some point the big bad pickup truck could become as obsolete as the 1800’s prairie schooner of old is today.