Water level changes prompt waterfowl to move.
It seemed like a perfect morning: Bitter cold, a stiff northwesterly breeze and leaden skies. But for the first hour, we saw only an occasional duck winging over the small Chesapeake Bay finger cove we were hunting. My host, a fellow writer who grew up hunting waterfowl on the Eastern Shore, assured me the action would start in a matter of an hour or less.
He was right. What seemed like a vast, lifeless bay for the first part of the morning slowly evolved into a flurry of activity. A few seagulls started swirling over the water, occasionally diving on morsels of food. More gulls appeared. A bald eagle rode the wind toward a distant shoreline and a flock of geese winged across the narrow bay.
Then the ducks came. A line of canvasbacks sped just over the chop, and then banked hard when they spotted our decoys. We knocked down two, a drake and a hen, and soon after, the sky was buzzing with mallards, blacks and more Canada geese. Then flock after flock of bluebills appeared from our left, tiny strings of black dots that grew into identifiable birds as they closed the distance. Some kept pumping for other water, while others circled once, cupped their wings and dropped into the decoys bobbing in the waves in front of us. In a matter of a few hours, we had a pile of birds in the blind: a pair of canvasbacks, a couple of mallards and close to a limit of bluebills.
"So what got the ducks moving?" I wondered aloud.
"Tide's running," my partner noted, pointing to the water.
The mud bank three feet in front of our blind was now under water and the waves lapped at the posts. Broken bits of marsh grass, leaves and other debris floated by as if they were tumbling down an inland river. The tide was rising, all right, and the ducks and other birds knew it.
Teal move into tidal marshes to feed when the water rises.
The pull of the moon has a powerful influence on nature. Most notable is its effect on the oceans and the water directly attached to them. As the moon travels across the sky, its gravitational pull changes the level of the water. As the water moves, so do all the creatures that live in and on that water.
Unlike birds that spend their time on still water and even rivers, tidewater ducks are constantly on the move because their preferred habitat either becomes too dry or too wet as the tides change.
"When I'm hunting a pond or some other still water, I can count on the ducks moving early and then shutting down for the rest of the day, especially if it's a bluebird day," said Mark Hoke, a veteran Chesapeake Bay waterfowl hunter. "That's not the case with tidal waters. Because the water is almost always moving, the birds have to shift around to find their preferred water depth and habitat."
Every duck species that lives in tidal water is affected by the constant up-and-down of the water, acknowledges Eric Peterson, a government contractor from Virginia. He warns, however, that nothing dictates waterfowl activity more than the weather, although tides and weather combined have a profound effect on waterfowl activity. Divers shift locations as food that was out of water becomes submerged again, and puddle ducks relocate as food or loafing areas either become too deep or are left high and dry by a receding tide.
"There is always something going on," Hoke said. "Even if there are no birds flying, you can be pretty sure that something will start flying as soon as the water starts moving. In most cases, it doesn't take long for a low tide to start coming in and a high tide to start moving out."
Peterson hunts numerous blinds on the tidal Potomac River, but one of his favorites sits at the mouth of a large, shallow creek with a vast area of lily pads and other aquatic vegetation growing on mud flats. It is the perfect tidal blind, because as the water falls, the puddle ducks that were far up in the marsh move past his blind as they retreat to deeper water. As the tide moves in, the puddlers move back to the creek and divers that hung out on the main river start to move closer.
When hunting tidal areas, follow the water in and out. That's what the ducks do.
Both hunters have blinds that go dry on a low tide, but a lack of water is not necessarily the kiss of death. Many puddle duck species will simply head out to open water to loaf until the water starts flooding their feeding grounds, but some species -- black ducks and mallards in particular -- will spend a few hours loafing on exposed mud flats. If he can find one the ducks are using, Hoke will try to set up on it using a mix of full-body black duck and mallard shells. He limits his spread to about 20 decoys, mostly because he doesn't want to spend too much time picking them up as the water rises.
"If you want to kill black ducks, go when the water is all the way out. That's when blacks work the mud flats for snails, mussels and other invertebrates," Hoke said. "The hard part is setting up in a spot the birds want to be while staying hidden. A lot of times the birds will get as far away from any cover as they can and they can be almost impossible to decoy. Sometimes however, they will work a mud flat right against some marsh grass, which gives you the perfect situation."
Peterson also hunts in the upper end of a tidal marsh on a low tide. One of his blinds is located over a pothole in the middle of a large, flat marsh that turns into a vast area of open muck on low tide. While the surrounding area goes dry as the tide falls, the pothole holds water throughout the entire low tide, so ducks flock to it. In that situation, the key to success is to avoid overhunting the pothole, especially if it is small.
A flood tide is a great time to target teal in the back of tidal marshes. High water gives the little ducks plenty of places to dabble in shallow, protected backwaters. He simply looks for open pockets and throws out a couple dozen teal and mallard decoys.
"With some experience, you can target certain species based on your location and the tidal stage," Peterson said. "But as a general rule, follow the water in and out. That
's typically what the ducks do."
If tidal duck hunting seems too good to be true, it is, at least in some ways. When Hoke was still learning the ropes of hunting the Bay and its tributaries, he would show up before first light only to find too much water or no water at all on the spots he wanted to hunt. It didn't take him long to figure out that the key to success was in the local tide charts. Although he almost always went as early as he could, Hoke admits he often had to wait for more water or less water or simply moving water before he started seeing birds.
Peterson also heads to the Potomac early in the morning, and like Hoke, he often doesn't start seeing good numbers of birds until the tide is favorable.
"When the water isn't moving, the ducks don't seem to move a whole lot, although if the conditions are favorable, they will move early in the morning," Hoke said. "If the marsh is dry, the birds will often just stage at the outside edge and wait for the water to come up before they move back."
Both guys constantly check the tides to see where they can and can't hunt over the course of the day. Peterson says the rise and fall of the tide not only influences duck movement, it determines where he can and can't hunt.
"I can't get to some of my blinds on a low tide, especially if we get a wind that blows even more water out of the marsh," he said.
That's OK, because if there's no water, ducks are usually scarce. However, the tricky part is to know when that water will leave. Peterson has been hunting the tidal Potomac for more than 30 years. Although the steady in-and-out current has a way of shifting mud bars, the veteran hunter has learned where he can run a boat and where he can't during different stages of the tide. He also knows when he needs to bail out of a blind and head for deeper water. It's knowledge that comes only with experience, and countless beginners have learned that duck boats and tidal mud flats aren't a good mix.
"It's not out of the question to get stuck in the marsh. I hear about that all the time from guys who get stranded on a mud flat after the tide goes out," Hoke said. "You really have to pay attention or know the marsh well enough so you can get in and out on a low tide."
Hoke also learned the hard way that a running tide can sweep decoys away, so he now uses heavier weights than those he uses on still waters. He'll go up to one pound on goose decoys, even heavier with the gang rigs he uses on duck decoys. He also gives each decoy more line to account for strong current and rising water.
"I also tend to use smaller spreads if I know the water is falling and I'm going to have to shift my decoys and even my blind," he said. "I'd rather spend more time hunting and less time moving a big spread."
Hoke likes to add a couple of decoys with a lot of white on them. Pintails, canvasbacks or goldeneyes can shine like a beacon to birds passing in the distance and the bright white can pull them in for a closer look, especially if the water is a little rough.
Decoys for tidal water are perhaps less important than a general understanding of ducks and duck hunting. The calls are the same and the decoy and blind considerations are the same, as well. What matters most is being in the right spot at the right time, something only diligent scouting can reveal.
"Ducks are ducks, whether they are in a lake or a tidal marsh," Peterson said. "It doesn't matter how well you can call or what type of decoys you use if the ducks aren't there. I spend every chance I get looking for birds for the next hunt. Once I find birds, I take the tides and the weather into consideration."
Avid waterfowl hunter David Hart writes from Rice, Va.