Rarely capable of innovation, I typically depend on a keen sense for the obvious when a clever concept stares me in the face. I may even be considered "creatively empty," in a world that thrives on the cutting edge. In spite of this shortfall, common sense steers me in the right direction when exposed to useful tactics, especially when they enhance a duck hunt.
I am indebted to friends who share their waterfowling expertise willingly. This sport embraces a gamut of strategies — old, new, borrowed and some downright lethal. The goal is to glean enough knowledge to be worthy of harvesting committed ducks. As our season arrives, keep the wind at your back, liven up your craft and thoroughly enjoy the tradition.
1. Improve small water sets with realistic postures
Are you confident with keeled floaters that mimic every spread of dabbling fakes? Care to avoid membership in the dead-ringer club? Hint: Full-body duck decoys are not just for dry fields anymore. When I scouted my favorite shallow slough last season, only five of the three-dozen birds in attendance were swimming. The rest were doing what puddlers do in an array of postures, from sleeping to standing.
Now this hole is exclusively set with 12 full-bodies and two floaters that imitate the real deal, leaving ample room for company. Mallard, pintail, wigeon and gadwall full-bodies are all available and add distinctly visible postures. Reduce the number of keels and fortify the spread with full-body feeders and actives on the shallows, sand bars and the water's edge. Use a cordless drill to create custom stake holes in decoys for perched resters and sleepers on logs, ice and frozen shorelines.
If you get creative with these life-like molds and their versatile stakes/bases, they can be effective in a variety of small water conditions. We are all striving for the proverbial three: "movement, visibility and realism." This is a simple way to check those boxes and avoid serving up a lukewarm invitation.
2. Convince ducks they are landing on sheet water
There are certain settings that ducks drift toward naturally — the feeding condition they prefer — shallow water. Fool them into thinking any depth is shallow by elevating full-body feeders and actives above the surface with extended lengths of conduit, PVC or steel rod, depending on your brand of decoy. I was first introduced to this ploy in knee-deep flooded millet where a friend unveiled 3-foot steel rods.
He surface-mounted full-bodies and the mallards fell for it. With Greenhead Gear versions, simply cut ½-inch conduit or PVC about a foot longer than your chosen water depth, applying 45-degree cuts to each end. Paint the upper two-thirds drab green for concealment and push the unpainted end in the mud, leaving only a couple inches of pipe exposed on the surface. Drop the motion stake into the top hole and place the block on the stake.
Take this eye-popping system a step farther with full-body wigeon, gadwall and pintails in regal positions on 24- to 36-inch extended stakes. Elevated full-bodies can also simulate birds walking ashore, feeding, preening and drinking, even when the depth of that shoreline is 2 to 3 feet deep. Give that mundane floater spread a realistic face-lift in marsh, flooded timber, rivers and ponds.
3. Create appeal with shell-body mobility
What if you cannot afford the bulk of full-bodies when hiking into remote holes, but want the same convincing look? No problem. Be practical and get comparable allure with "shell-body" field decoys. These lightweight dekes not only stack and pack far better than any floaters, but they give you a couple different postures and ride the breeze. You can also hang legs on your shells by spot gluing 6-inch strips of orange "trail marker" tape inside the cavity.
A common pitfall when hunting cold climates with lead-anchored floaters is the dreaded beaksicle, frozen glare and ice build-up. Solve the ice dilemma by positioning shell bodies just above the surface. If Mr. Mobile Hunter plans to use the elevated technique with shell bodies in deep water, the same PVC method applies, except flat-cut the PVC top end. This will allow the universal motion field stake to sit flush, so the shell is level. These PVC poles are nothing to tote, especially with all the room and weight saved on the lightweight shells.
4. Rig some time-honored motion
Jerkcords have been around since shackled ducks were outlawed, but they seem lost in favor of technology. Let's not mention any names, but I have a frequent visitor each morning in the blind. You know the guy, "Hey just checking to see how you guys are doing today?" I usually play dumb until I drop the phone to deal with the orange feet in my face. When I rejoin the banter, he always asks, "Are you guys using that damned jerkcord again?" Four years later, he still has not made one.
I have two jerkcords (short and long versions), which are often on loan to friends who swear by them, but have not made their own. We even use them from layouts in flooded fields and pastures in as little as 6 inches of water. All you need is a broomstick handle, tied to several feet of decoy cord (depending on the setup), tipped with 5 inches of surgical tubing and finished with a small D-ring that clips to a kayak grapnel anchor. Tie in four large fishing swivels, staggered 4 feet apart at your predetermined distance from the blind, and you are in business. Wrap and store it, starting at the D-ring end, on a 4x12 thin board with half circles cut at each end. Lastly, get four keeled decoys and attach a foot of line to each keel, tie a small loop at the loose ends and join them at the swivels. This allows the decoys to turn, drift and swim, while the cord stays under the surface and out of sight.
5. Attract ducks with honkers for a bonus
Honker decoys increase the visibility of your mallard spread. It is common to see both species frequenting the same X on water or land, so set geese in groups of four to six throughout the spread or just give them one highly visible group. Avoid placement too far off the pocket because it may pull birds out of range. Aside from increasing your dabbler success, this is an easy way to add bonus geese to your hunts, chiefly singles, doubles and small flocks desperate for a party. Our flooded pasture and dry corn hunts for ducks routinely produce geese and we bag them with few decoys. I have eight lessers that always share the spread and they are not a burden to pack.
Hang a short-reed, carry a flag and you are likely to experience a combo hunt.
6. Flag, not just for geese
Most would agree that flagging for geese is a no-brainer. Others flag divers and a few swear by it for hungry red legs, but I was a non-believer. We were in a stalemate on a windy bluebird day in a dry cornfield pit blind watching convoys of mile-high mallards ignore us in favor of a field a mile away. We emptied our lungs hail calling with no effect. With nothing to lose, my pal broke out the goose flag and went to town with it. I thought he had lost his mind.
Suddenly, a flock broke from the chain and bombed like kamikazes toward us. I peeked up to see the second domino falling and within minutes, mallards were swarming. This visual hail call has proven effective in dry fields and flooded pastures. I favor flags on ground blind hunts because you're gunning in close proximity to the decoys. Use them to gain the attention of high flyers and distant flocks (300 yards), but stop flagging immediately once they turn your way. Unlike geese, ducks are flag shy within the working zone, so plan to finish them with a call and blocks. I have since bought a duck-specific flag, but if you already own a goose flag, give it a shake.
7. Assign shooting positions if you are the pit boss
All blindmates seem to have the "shot caller" assignment ingrained. The duly appointed, usually the lead caller, counts down the landing and decisively — with supreme timing — barks the heralded command. Occasionally, this role becomes fluid when the non-appointed has a better vantage point.
Nonetheless, the primary goal is to give everyone a chance at the decoying flock. So, why does a single fat greenhead consistently draw the attention of more than one barrel? Chances are he was the sure bet and no one assigned fields of fire. Outer shooters should work from their edges inward, while the center shooters receive high-low assignments. Considerable work goes into landing waterfowl and your success not only depends on a seasoned shot caller, but also on each hunter shooting their position. The objective is efficient gunning, not concentrated fire on a couple birds. Next time you touch the trigger, your banded drake may still be available without controversy.
8. Use the roost but let them rest
We have all seen a roost with substantial rafts of wildfowl. Shoot it and things will inevitably change in that neighborhood.
The focus should be on nearby grain fields, flooded pastures, sloughs and transition ponds that offer exceptional hunting without changing the fowl landscape prematurely. Within my stomping grounds, I depend on a large roost that begins stacking up by late November every year. Fortunately, the property owner does not allow hunting on these sizeable ponds, so they load to capacity. This hub keeps the area thriving with mallards for a lengthy portion of the season.
Weather dictating, roosted birds depart for food in large numbers daily. Heavy winds, cold fronts, snow and even overcast days trigger these puddlers to move boldly for food. After feeding, they lift in small flocks scattering to nearby rivers, water holes and loafing areas. Scouting their directional flight paths off the roost will lead to myriad opportunities instead of a one-time hunt.
Our season has a limited number of memorable pages once the migrators arrive, so conserve your resources and reap the extended benefits of a roost when you can.