November 03, 2010
By Art Isberg
Pintails by the thousands await Pacific Flyway hunters.
By Art Isberg
In the second-floor classroom of Mr. Patchin's science class at Armijo Union High School in northern California, I always chose a seat right next to the window. The reason wasn't because I had a clear view of the blackboard, or because I had a clear view of Mr. Patchin, either. If I had paid more attention to either one, I would have gotten far better grades.
What I did have was an excellent view of the great marsh that began a mile from town. It held my attention endlessly. I could make out the low, waving brown tulle line and cattails, plus the diamond sparkle of water, all backdropped by the Protrero Hills. The 54,000-acre Suisun Marsh spread from the edge of town all the way to rough, open waters of Suisun and Grizzly Bays, miles away. It was, and still is, the largest estuary marsh of its kind in the western Untied States. I haunted it first with a single-shot, 12-gauge shotgun strapped over the handlebars of my American Flyer, and later when I grew old enough to actually own a car and more sophisticated weaponry.
My crow's nest view also gave me one other thing even more priceless, the opportunity to watch the first high, waving vees of migrating ducks and geese making their fall journey's into the marsh by the hundreds of thousands. The largest numbers of birds were graceful pintails, for this estuary marsh had been their ancient wintering grounds for as long as water birds made epic journeys south each fall.
I could distinguish the 'pins' instantly from all other ducks. They did not have the dark, blocky bodies of mallards or the twisting flight of teal and wigeon. Instead, these graceful birds came in big flocks flying in perfect formation to glide round and round over open water until convinced it was safe before finally settling in. I never tired of watching them, although Mr. Patchin thought it a major distraction. My grades showed his displeasure.
Now here's the odd thing about pintails: Although they are classified as puddle ducks, right along with mallards, gadwalls, teal and wigeon, I contest they are nothing of the sort. You can float a half a dozen mallard or wigeon decoys in some tiny splash or pothole and experience great gunning. And you might also pull in teal or gadwalls. But you won't get any kind of action from pintails. They can call pintails puddle ducks if they like, but I've never seen one sitting in a puddle of any kind, nor do I ever expect to.
Unlike most other puddle ducks, pintails prefer open water over sloughs and other small bodies of water.
Why? Because pintails are open-water birds, and always have been. The open water is where you can get your licks in at them if you have done your homework. I began mine in that second-story classroom.
The smartest move any would-be pintail hunter can make is to keep his eyes and mind open to exactly where the swordtail bird is working. It's the very first order of business.
Open water might all look the same to you and me, but that clearly is not the case to these shy, careful birds. What was a great gathering place for them yesterday can be completely abandoned today. They can be fickle to a fault. Pintails are often drawn to one spot, in great numbers, simply by seeing their brethren who have chosen it first. Therefore if behooves the day hunter to pause a few minutes when he reaches likely water and pay attention to exactly where the birds are curving down before floating a single decoy.
Pintails often choose very unusual water for a puddle duck. I've had excellent gunning success hunting them on open sheet water flooded by nothing more than recent, heavy rains just inches deep. What was rice stubble and cattle grazing pastures one day becomes a real hotspot for birds feeding the next because insect and plant seeds suddenly floated to the surface. In such cases, feeding opportunities become the main draw.
On the obverse, I've also hunted pins on open, bay waters where bluebills and canvasbacks came streaking by low on breaking, choppy waves. Why were the pins out there? Because they came to rest far off shore where they felt safe and unapproachable during midday hours. When winter storms sweep in and turn the bay into muddy, brown rollers, they pick up and fly inland, in numbers, to ride out the storm in the protection smaller waters afford them. Knowing these behaviors and timing is tantamount to success. Choosing the right water at the right time of day or during changing weather is the key to intercepting pintails.
Silhouette decoys can boost the size of a decoy spread without as much bulk as additional floating decoys.
On my fireplace mantel sits the most lovely old pintail decoy I have ever seen, and I have seen quite a few. I found it purely by accident in a long abandoned duck pond by stubbing my toe on it as I walked through weedy cover. Just the top of the head was sticking out when I stooped to begin digging it up. When I finally freed it from its earthly coil, I stopped and marveled at its beauty, design and faded paint job. Ethically, it cannot be faulted. It will never feel the slap of water or waves again.
Decoying pins into shotgun range repeatedly does not require folk art decoys like my prize. Drawing pintails requires numbers — generally more than any other so-called puddle duck. I've gunned over private duck ponds where hunters regularly floated between 80 and 100 decoys per blind, all pintails. The drawing power of a large spread was beyond question. For many years, I was one of the founding members of a marsh duck club and set my pintail layouts exclusively to entice the swordtail birds. I ran 50 to 65 pintail floaters per blind.
Day shooters in public shooting grounds, open marsh, estuary, rivers or lakes are not as likely to have high numbers of decoys, but don't worry. If you've chosen a productive piece of water, two men can easily carry three dozens decoys and do nicely with them.
To spice up your floaters and add appeal, I suggest you back them with another dozen or so silhouette decoys. Set them on the bank or at the water's edge, with a few actually two or three feet into the water. They add a stunning, lifelike look to blocks bobbing up and down father out. A stack of silhouettes is easy to carry an
d well worth the effort. You can either buy them or make your own. I cut them out of 3„8-inch exterior plywood using a single pattern. Remember to turn each one slightly as a different angle as you stake them down so approaching birds can see some of them regardless of what direction they come in.
Whistles and Quacks
Pintails, like wigeon, often vocalize using high, piercing whistles. When a flock of pins circles in, they make a most lovely sound. Many commercial pintail whistles on the market match the sound.
I have a different theory about calling. While pintails whistle a lot, they also quack, just as other ducks do. Some people say the hens quack, but I believe the bulls can too, although not with as much frequency. I'm also convinced that whistling calls cannot be heard at long distances by passing birds and especially on windy or rainy days, but reed calls can get their attention. Therefore, I start out using a regular duck call, but one with a higher, more shrill pitch than a standard mallard call on passing birds to get their attention. If they break my way and close in, I then go to the whistle when I'm certain they can actually hear it.
If you are hunting with a friend, he can continue with an occasional quack, or even better, a low chatter mixed in with your whistling. It makes a very convincing delivery.
Pacific Flyway hunters relish a fully-plumed sprig. The bag limit has increased to two.
I also believe pintails are the easiest birds to overcall and turn away. When they get close, I tone down and space out my whistles and reed calling. I have also used nothing more than a regular metal-barreled police whistle to call by fluttering it in short, single bursts. It has a very high pitch and can be heard farther away than commercial whistles. That makes it very important choice for far-off flocks moving fast. Try one and see what I mean.
Hiding From Wary Eyes
Before you ever float a decoy or lift a call to your mouth, you have to know you have sufficient material to build a convincing blind unless you have some sort of permanent setup to conceal yourself. Pintails are wary, cautious and suspicious of anything unnatural looking or poorly made and will not come close. You can edge into tulles or drop down in low, weedy cover and bring in mallards and teal, but you will not with pins. Even if you find a current hotspot birds are funneling into by natural choice, if you cannot make a natural looking hide, it's all for naught.
Surrounding natural cover gives you the material to fashion a blind. Even if it is a small one, you must sit down or kneel in to hide yourself completely. One of the most difficult situations is open water where no cover of any kind is available. I've used two different setups to solve this dilemma. First, if water is shallow enough, I've built boat blinds — a light wooden frame covered with chicken wire just high and long enough to slide my 14-foot boat under after covering it with brush or tulles from the shore. These can be used all season and become semi-permanent. The following year, you simply refurbish it with new cover. The blind is low, inconspicuous and looks like nothing more than a hummock or small island. The shooter kneels or lays flat on the floorboards on boat cushions, then rises up to shoot through a hole framed in the center.
For hunting deeper water, I purchased a large cotton tarp and dyed it dull grey, then used flat spray paint crisscrossing it with wavy bands of black and brown. I cut a flap in the center to rise and shoot through. The entire tarp covers my boat and motor. I like to anchor the rig just off the downwind side of my decoys so birds must pass over or in front of me when swinging into the blocks. I can move from day to day wherever birds are working. The low profile of the boat on open, moving water works well as I stay down and do not rise up to shoot until the birds are close in. I've enjoyed many hunts with this simple setup.
Revered By Many
Pintails — especially in the Pacific Flyway — are held in high esteem. By their very nature, they are intelligent, wise and selective. Any hunter who can take the beautiful, chocolate-headed bulls with regularity has accomplished a special feat. It's a goal I still strive to attain every season.
Art Isberg is a long-time waterfowler from Redding, Calif.