Daybreak arrives over a small water puddler setup facing a fickle north wind, conditions cloudy with a little sheet ice and light snow falling. Perfect. The Super Swimmer HD worked wonders when the wind lulled, providing water movement and ripples in the spread.
Ricky Hart and I scored dream limits of six drakes each by 8:40, five greenheads and a bull spring, on a killer waterhole created by Ed Markel 10 years ago, a case study in one man's vision for waterfowl property.
It was originally just pasture and his friends thought him nuts for trying to create a duck hole, but Ed the engineer had ideas. Peace Creek runs through the ranch, and Ed put a dam in to create one of the hottest holes in the area. "Now we are killing big whitetails and turkeys on the place as well, and divers on the deeper north side and puddlers on the other."
Ed's friend Mike Pierce said, "I asked him when he finished the property, 'Ed what did that first duck you shot on the new pond just cost you?'"
Ed said, "about a hundred grand€¦ then I shot another and told him 'I feel better I just cut my price in half.' " The best part of the hunt was seeing Ed's dog, Cade, just 7 months old, absolutely killing it on the retrieves.
Enough pintails were flying around that once we shot our five greenheads, we decided to try for that ultimate drake limit. I had first chance at a big pintail drake and got overexcited, shot it in the butt, only to watch Ricky smack him for his ultimate limit.
My next chance came and a corn stalk stuck me in the my eye as I swung the gun. The bird was at 30 yards but I couldn't see to shoot until it was at 50 plus, but down he went. Thank you, Federal Premium high velocity 2s...
SK: People know motion kills in the field. So how do you make it work in the water? What did we do so right that first day?
Hart: We had the Super Swimmer out right away, and the wind was coming and going, but we had certain birds wanting to finish on our end of the blind. It's important to incorporate motion in the spread because it's drawing attention away from you and the blind. It creates the realism so it's not a stale simple spread. If you create movement and get it right and it's a spot that ducks want to be, you can't go wrong. We ran a split spread with decoys along that front edge in a U shape. The swimmer was upwind at the point of the spread mixed in with a few decoys to get them moving.
Generally speaking, I want to run the motion within a good visual distance of the spread and the blind, just on the inside of a point, for example, so the birds can see the movement. Spinners are placed off to the left and right. The birds that day were wanting to slide on the outside edge of the spread, so it really worked€¦hunting from a pit the wind was coming over our left shoulder and to the right a bit, they wanted to sit on the outside edge.
Always face your spinning wings into the wind. It not only makes them run better but looks more realistic. Water sets, I run two to four spinners directly in front of me or off to the sides€¦if birds are wanting to sweep and are falling short of where it's at, I'll pull the ones in front and get them to sweep in front for good side shots at 15 to 25 yards.
I'm placing my duck decoys where I don't want the birds to land. It's like putting up a wall, even Jim Ronquest and the Hudnalls say that, "don't put the decoys in front of you because they aren't going to land right there, you want them to land to the inside edge of the decoys."
So first determine if the birds are sweeping past the spinners or coming in directly and landing near it, and work from there.
A bitter cold but bluebird day with no wind and the sun at our back meant decent conditions for a small-water hunt, but this time, things were not going our way. We seemed to have picked the wrong spot on one of Hooray Ranch's top holes, the catfish ponds.
Normally a home run spot, but there were other adjacent ponds where it was clear the ducks were happier hanging out that day. Ducks would circle us too high and leave most of the time, but we still nailed a dozen or so.
I whiffed on a speeding canvasback I shouldn't have shot at, and caught a huge ration of 'it' from the guys. Revenge was sweet: I sat out the next volley and enjoyed watching the entire blind take it to the plug on a lone mallard floating slowly past at 20 yards, and nobody cut a feather.
They all just sat stared at each other in disbelief; Lucky Duck, indeed!
A fine moment. I was disappointed to see Randy Hill redeem himself soon after with an impossible double on a pair of screaming overhead ringnecks, one of those leaning-out-of-the-blind shots, both ducks falling stone dead on the dike behind the blind.
But it was overall tough hunting at this spot, and even our Lucky Duck Super Swimmer HD (available starting this summer) seemed to surrender under a burden of ice.
SK: Day 2 was tough. Where do most people blow it on water sets with motion?
Hart: We weren't where the birds wanted to be and the sun was right at our back (good), with no wind (terrible). And, if you remember, we were standing around waiting on a few people before we started hunting, and unfortunately that's when the most bird activity occurred on that spot, right at dawn.
So motion or decoys aside, there is no substitute for getting after it early and being in the right spot. Even so, we are not going to be successful every time, all you can do is analyze and ask yourself, is it the spread, lack of wind, overcalling, who knows? That's why it's called hunting.
Everybody blows it. Everybody struggles.
SK: What's the smart way to use motion on the water when it's like that?
Hart: You have to consider, are you working stale birds? What's it like in the overall area? Sometimes you gotta change it up, maybe dull up the spinning wings a bit, or use an intermittent timer, and you generally should plan to turn motion off when birds are breaking down and committing. Whether it's pulling a spinner or putting one out at that point in time, when it comes to stale birds you have to tinker.
The great thing about waterfowling is you never know when a fresh group of new birds will arrive, and the cool thing is quite often the stale birds will tend to break down and be triggered and start to act like the new birds, probably in competition for food. This is true for ducks, not honkers.
It was one of those days you still can't believe happened. An outrageous party goose shoot from an Avian-X A-frame blind after Randy Hill showed up and helped set up on a winter wheat field big flocks of lessers had jammed the evening before.
Brush and grass from the hunt site hid the blinds perfectly for 10 guys crouching from a dry ditch, with three more hidden on the side in Tanglefree layouts. We finished five flocks for limits of six each, cutting a record 34 birds from one flock. That is not a typo. I had never seen so many lessers finish in big flocks. A nice birthday present for ranch manager Chad Pore.
We quit by 9 a.m. after the second flock of some 1,500 birds finished to 20 yards over the 600 or more Hard Core full bodies. That afternoon we shot close to five-dozen pheasants for a perfect day.
I told Hill I'd never seen little geese finish like that, and he pointed out "Everyone thinks they are so smart, when they are actually a lot dumber than honkers, it's just that lessers need to see big numbers of decoys and nobody does that except for on snow geese," he said. "Only reason we slaughtered those geese is because we had the right spot and put out 600 full bodies."
SK: Your two Lucky Duck goose flappers worked like a charm, and we did no flagging with the wind at our back. It was clear the last group keyed right on the flappers. And finished to the right, even though the wind should have put them in the middle. How do you set up flappers for geese? Are many people buying them?
HART: Yes, that was pretty typical. For geese I use one or two goose flappers and seem to choose my right side, 10 to 20 yards off to the right, and let them run while birds work because any time you stop motion it draws attention. If they are liking it why change anything?
We just let them run. And yes, we are selling the hell out of them in Cabela's, now in their third year. It works on a 12-volt battery with a remote and on-off button and timer, and has a rheostat to adjust speed. The cool thing is ducks work very effectively over it as well.
Most of the effectiveness is because when used properly it keeps incoming birds' attention off the spread and away from your blind.
SK: Why do so many people think geese, Canadas at least, hate any kind of motion?
Hart: Hard to say. Many people don't seem to think that geese like any motion beyond a little flagging, it's true, but we are helping change that. I believe perhaps it's because geese seem to have figured out the duck spinners in a hurry, and don't often seem to like them.