We humped down the levy, almost a mile, three rookie public-land walk-in hunters. The groups behind us unwillingly (or maybe unwittingly) peeled off one by one, stopping short of where the birds wanted to be. Blue-wings strafed our decoys, and at shooting light the first birds of the year were on our straps.
It was early teal season in a hot, mosquito-infested marsh. The sweat still dangled from our hat brims when the first flights rushed us. In all, our trio took six blues, a banner morning we later discovered after running into some conservation officers who must've watched "Zero Dark Thirty" a few too many times, ambushing us on the death march home.
"We've checked a lot of hunters, and you guys are the high total for the day," one of the men in green said.
Were we lucky? Absolutely. But a good amount of research and preparation put us on those birds, too. And here's how you can have walk-in success as well.
The First Hunt
It's best to head out to the walk-ins you want to hunt during teal season (if you have one), or even before, to get a lay of the land. Do at least one trial run in the dark as this is likely when you'll be hunting. Finding a water hole at 4 a.m. can be daunting, believe it or not. These trials and early hunts will have you ready for the real season.
If you're scouting, remember there could be others hunting different game, as the land is public. You wouldn't want some coon hunter blasting away after you set the decoys, so grant other hunters the same courtesy by not meandering through the woods and spooking a monster river bottom whitetail.
Avoid a Butt Chewing
After you find "The Guy," make sure you ask him all about the rules of each site. Here in Illinois, we go by this zany permit system in which you apply for a spot online at multiple sites and hopefully after three different lottery rounds, you get one or two permits. You can also show up on days you don't have a permit and be put on standby. Other states have different rules. For instance, first come, first served (my personal favorite). Whoever gets to the spot first, claims it.
But the rules, both posted and inferred, can be darned complicated. Some places we go allow everyone in the group to draw for a standby spot, which gives you a better chance to hunt. Others ask one standby draw per hunting party, and if you don't abide by that rule, eh, you're going to upset the 30 other guys who didn't draw in. Trust me.
Humping Your Ruck
Walk-ins aren't for the weak. I've been in some marshes with guys who can't hack it, and there's nothing more frustrating than a mope who gives up and decides to sit on his decoy bag and sip coffee short of the duck hole. So come prepared to work your butt off. Since I'm a big guy, the Banded Decoy Backpack
is my favorite gear caddy at this moment. It holds 12 duck floaters, two mojos and poles and my gun, plus you can throw shotshells and other gear in. It is heavy and I do sweat (a ton), but I'm young, so I don't mind.
Older and/or more normal-sized hunters should look at Hard Core's Texas-Rig Decoy Bag
and Cabela's North Flight Floating Decoy Bag
. If you have the cash or time, I would definitely suggest investing or making some kind of decoy cart to throw everything in, and a sled or tub once you get out on the water. Your best bet is to MacGyver a cart that holds a detachable tub. Richard Dean Anderson and I are still working on that patent.
Greenhorns need someone to guide them, and I rely on a local Lucky Duck
and Dakota Decoy
pro-staffer who has long conquered the Illinois public land we chase birds on. Find a vet and ask questions like these: Where will I have the best opportunity to shoot a few birds? What are the rules of each hunting locale? Where the hell do I park my truck?
Fortunately, my pro-staff buddy is willing to share this information with me, and as a result we get on some pretty decent hunts. By that I mean we don't always get skunked.
Early in the season, I am partial to Mojo Mallards
and Lucky Duck Rapid Flyers
. They will put ducks in the kill hole — period. That attractant motion really does pull birds from far away. As the year goes on, I kind of play it by ear, and also look around at what other guys are doing. If all I can see are flashing wings, then I usually pull the motion stakes. If birds are flaring (and I'm hidden well), that also means its time to put the flappers away. It's nothing against the motion.
Deeper in the season, birds have just become conditioned to getting shot over them, so you have to adapt. Just like when birds aren't finishing right, you need to go out and move the decoys. And to that end, if I do notice several hunters with big spreads and multiple motion decoys, I'll go smaller, offering a relaxed, inviting place to land.
Setting the Spread
Everyone has their own philosophy on setting decoys, so I'm not going to say there is one rig proven to kill public-land ducks above all others, because it's just not true. Here are the hard and fast rules I go by. The first thing I avoid is doing what everyone else is doing. Around here, that's a blob of old floaters on the left, another on the right and a motion decoy in the middle.
My advice is to make it look as natural as possible, which means not only watching ducks on the water, but spending some money on realistic decoys. I use Dakota Decoys X-treme Mallards
, with Rig e'm Right Anchors
. My buddies get the stink eye when they want to put their granddad's decoys next to mine. One more hot tip I'll steal from Fred Zink: If you're hunting shallow water, use a bunch of feeders. It mimics birds on a good feed, and the late-season mallards will want in.
Any hunt with a great caller gives you an advantage, there's no doubt about it. I'm definitely not in that category, so when it's just me, I stick to simple quacks, chuckles and a few greeting and come back calls. In my experience, less is more. You don't need to be hitting mallards with high balls to get them in tight. And more often than not, it's the scouting, not the calling that kills more ducks, so figure out the stakes with the best kill numbers.
Sure, callers with skills can turn traffic birds, sucking tiny black dots right in. But the rest of us need to know where the hot duck holes are — simple as that. If you don't believe me, go to a draw for a few days in a row and see if the same blinds aren't chosen first.
If your walk-ins are by draw, make sure you know where you want to go before the lottery. Nothing will tick off a group of seasoned hunters who have done their homework more than a rube who draws first and then says, 'Well, where have they been killing all the ducks? ' 'Where do I park? ' 'Can you load my gun for me? ' You can ask those questions (minus the gun one) before or after the draw, but not during.
If you're going to a first come, first served walk-in, don't be late and making a ruckus, screwing everyone else up. And do not sky bust. You shouldn't do this anytime, but when a bunch of hunters are 100 yards away from one another, you can really muck things up, and if that happens, you can count on several burly, bearded men waiting for you back at the check station.