It seems as if these days, you’d better not show your face in duck hunting circles unless you’ve got your named signed to at least three leases, own no fewer than two boats dedicated to ducks, and have the cost of a four-year degree sunk into decoys. Waterfowling can be an expensive proposition, but it doesn’t have to be.
Cash-strapped hunters who want to partake, or new hunters interested in the idea of talking a few mallards down into a public-land pond, have options available to them that may not seem evident at first. If you dig into outdoor media or social media created by - and supposedly for - duck hunters, you’ll see just as many king eider grip and grins as you’ll see blue-winged teal. But the reality is that there are a lot of hunters out there who simply want to load up their Lab and see what the skies will offer them.
To that end, the process starts with finding a hunting spot.
Find Water, Find Waterfowl (Probably)
Access is the number-one issue facing hunters these days, and while there are some good movements afoot to preserve public lands and hopefully add some more acres to the roster, the reality is more and more hunters are being pushed onto the only place left where they are still welcome. This is a big game problem, of course, but also something with which duck hunters will contend.
The good news is, modern mapping services and apps allow you to dig into public land and find puddles, ponds, stream bends and other small-water spots that might be too much work for most. Or they might promise, at best, a few shots at wood ducks or other early-season fowl and not the darkening skies of huge flocks of migrators on big water later in the season.
Whatever the case, figure out where the water is and start marking up your aerial photography with some waypoints. Then you’ll want to slip in and take a look.
Good Water Is Open, But Not Too Open
If you’re limited in decoys, calling experience, or overall hunting opportunities, small water is a good thing. If you can shoot across its entirety while sticking to your ethical range, you’re doing well. Look for water that is small, but offers some open surface area.
For some reason, even wood ducks and teal seem to prefer small water with lots of features, but still some open water. Perhaps it’s a safety thing or just a nice clear runway to land on that they like, but there is a style of small water they prefer.
My favorite spots all fit this description, and they all have some laydown timber in them. This goes for small streams and my personal favorite - beaver ponds. These are pretty easy to identify on aerial photography because they’ll be tied together by a ribbon of moving water. That usually means that even in drought years, the ponds will be filled up and better yet, ducks like flying along waterways. For the best variety on early-season birds, it’s tough to beat a good beaver pond tucked into some public ground.
Scout, Scout, Scout
I haven’t done this yet, but I’ve thought about putting a trail camera on the edge of a pond for a few weeks before the season. While they are a great deer scouting tool, it somehow feels wrong for duck hunting, so I haven’t done it. I do glass ponds a lot and walk into them to see how they set up, as opposed to finding them on aerial photography and slipping in an hour before first light to see what they offer.
The last time I did this, I found a special looking pond in northern Wisconsin. It was a hike to get in there, and I figured some of the pressure on a nearby river would send the ducks to my little cattail-ringed sanctuary. I heard plenty of shooting but only saw a few wood ducks tearing through the sky in the distance.
Some water draws ducks, some doesn’t. I don’t know why, and maybe they don’t really either, but that doesn’t matter. I’ve found plenty of other waterfowl spots that do draw ducks, to the point where they are always good for a few high-odds shot opportunities. The upshot here is don’t waste time on a dud.
Keep Your Secrets
If you find a good pond or stream bend, do yourself a favor and stay tight-lipped about it. Competition for duck spots can be fierce, and if you’re working with public land the potential to blow up a good thing is real. Maybe I’m just cagey from years of hunting public land for whitetails, but I’m more comfortable sharing my best spots with a few trusted hunting buddies and my Lab – that’s it.
This is due simply to the fact that most of these spots are good for one hunter or one small group at a time, and you can do a lot of damage to a small pond by overhunting it. This is true all season but especially crucial during the earliest days when you might be targeting resident ducks.
You don’t have to go broke, or go big, to have fun as a waterfowler. You’ll just have to rethink what makes a good spot and then spend some time finding them. The good news is you’ve got the technology to do this from your couch first, and after that it’s a matter of ground-truthing your findings to know if you’re on to a hidden duck gem or if you need to keep searching.