When I'm not following a black Lab around, I spend an awful lot of my time bowhunting public-land for whitetails and other critters. This, as you can imagine, requires a lot of scouting. Long before I had kids, this meant that I'd slip on a pair of knee-highs and start covering ground.
These days, my time is far more limited. That means it's necessary to use whatever tools are available to find hunting hotspots without having to devote hours to hiking randomly across the landscape. In the deer world, this is no secret and is a popular way to get a good idea of what the woods offers in the form of ambush sites. For waterfowlers, it seems as if high-tech scouting hasn't caught on as much.
Part of this is due to the fact that many of us have our near-and-dear spots, which play into our hunting traditions and preferences. I get that, and I've got a few blinds that feel like home. But I also love to find new places to hunt, especially close-to-home gems I might not have realized existed without a little research. These spots are my back-ups, or simply become the places I'll go to in order to get a wood-duck fix for an hour or two before it's time to get into the office.
Of course, with the right research you might find a new area that will be something truly special. Last fall, a good buddy of mine found one of these spots in north-central Wisconsin. At some point, likely half of a decade or more ago, someone dug out a good-sized, L-shaped pond in their woods. It's a wood duck and mallard magnet, and I have no doubt that for years it was off limits to the public. Today, it's in a tax-advantage program that allows for public hunting.
The pond isn't visible from a road, requires enough of a hike to dissuade most weekend warriors, and looks like an awful lot of the water in the county. But it's got something that the ducks like, and it's a rare day that you can sit there at sunrise and not take the safety off several times.
My buddy located the pond through the same tools we use for bowhunting deer — mainly aerial photography.
Satellite imagery has changed everything for some of us. If you target mule deer, elk or whitetails throughout the year, it's a crutch that is always worth leaning on. If you're a duck hunter, you should probably be scouring the treasure trove of images as well.
While Google Earth was the first truly accessible public program, there are several available now that offer sportsmen more. A personal favorite is onX maps. Their Elite membership allows you to pick five states and peruse high-quality aerial photography at your leisure.
They also offer overlays of landowners, and provide easy identification of public land. This matters — a lot. If you're looking for a way to access a backwater slough, or see an oxbow lake that looks too good to be true, you can figure out who owns it or if there is public access. Keep in mind that on a state-by-state basis, the legality of access into navigable water varies a lot. Know the laws before you start looking for potential hotspots so that you understand at the onset whether your findings are worthy of the next step.
Get In And Look
When I find intriguing waterholes tucked into publicly accessible spots, I mark them on my aerial photography and then get ready to take a hike. There is a disconnect between a beyond-the-clouds satellite view and what you'll actually see in person. Some spots look dreamy on your computer, but in person they are marshy messes that are unapproachable and unhuntable.
Get in and really look. I carry binoculars and biodegradable flagging tape or reflective tacks so I can find my way back in, should I deem the spot worthy of a morning or two. The binoculars are for some long-range observation. Oftentimes, if a waterhole is worth it, there will be ducks or geese there throughout the summer. Plus, with binos I can take a cursory look at a place and decide if it's worth getting in for a closer look.
If you do find a place that gets your spidey senses tingling, make sure you figure out the best way to hunt it. Some of my best spots consist of a point of poplars poking out toward a half-acre cattail swamp in the middle of hundreds of acres of public land. Others are simply wide creek bends, or a patch of higher ground in a slough. Make sure you do more than identify a good location, but also locate the best spot in which to hunt it. That summertime work, complete with the heat and the bugs, will not seem worth it in July. In October or November, it will be invaluable.
Borrow a page from the public-land bowhunter's playbook and use satellite imagery to find your next duck hotspot. It'll take some time perusing the internet on your smartphone to find some potential honey-holes and then some boots-on-the-ground work, but once you get a great spot squared away, it'll all be worth it.