November 03, 2010
Any waterfowler can have quality hunting, provided he is willing to work for it
Growing up I always thought waterfowling to be an elitist sport, and there's no doubt other sportsmen share that mindset. Sure, there are fancy duck clubs in Arkansas, California, Maryland and elsewhere that are the playgrounds of those on top of the socioeconomic ladder, but virtually anyone in the United States or Canada can find quality waterfowling without breaking the bank. We "average Joe's" may have to work a little harder, but with a positive attitude and a bit of well-placed effort, we can all enjoy quality gunning for ducks and geese. Honestly, I don't feel comfortable sitting back in a deluxe blind or pit and just pulling the trigger. Finding birds through scouting, working to put out decoys, situating blinds and calling to our web-footed quarry are the things that make lasting memories.
Public places to hunt waterfowl abound for those willing to invest a little time and energy. In addition, private lands can, in many cases, be accessed for nothing more than a smile, handshake and maybe a country ham during the holiday season. Finding such locations takes a bit of research and legwork, but they can be found. Sure, I've hunted from lodges where well managed flooded fields, blocks of timber or prime crop fields provided superb waterfowling, but I feel more at home hunting over a pothole, beaver pond or small river, and the rewards of "do it yourself hunts" are much greater.
Take for instance a trip I went on with a group of grouse hunters to southeastern Manitoba a few years back. The guys I went with had previously been to the area, and they told me that the year before heavy rains had kept them from the grouse woods for several days. They saw a lot of geese using local crop fields and many ducks on the scattered ponds and creeks throughout the region. A few of the hunters jump-shot ducks a couple of days, and that is all the enticement I needed to join them for the trip.
After a 19-hour drive, my brother-in-law and I arrived at the rental cabin that we would call home for the week. The next day, I met a local couple at a diner who sold minnows they caught from the many potholes and beaver ponds close by, and they offered to show me a few of the spots where they regularly saw ducks. All the places they took me were on Crown land and were open to public hunting.
The next two mornings, I decoyed a few mallards and teal over small spreads and spent the remainder of the days scouting and jump shooting. I stopped and asked permission to hunt a few spots where I saw waterfowl and found the locals friendly and willing to allow me access. I had decent shooting and was really enjoying the trip, but then I hit the mother lode.
The author calls to puddle ducks working the limestone quarry he regularly hunts during periods of extended cold.
I had decided to check out a local lake on a mid-morning drive. Before I got to a ramp, I saw a backwater area through a patch of trees that looked to be an acre or two in size. When I pulled over and got out for a closer look, I heard the sound of feeding puddlers just out of site. I drove to the closest farm and asked if the area I had discovered was public. It was!
I drove back, and hastily grabbed my gear. I had only waded 50 yards when the thunder of beating wings filled my ears. I couldn't see the ducks, but I knew I had found "The" spot. I ventured on until I found an opening in the trees and buckbrush littered with duck feathers, and I quickly tossed out my blocks. Just as I settled in, a pair of ducks dive-bombed my hole. I swung my pump gun and crumpled a beautiful drake pintail. Before I could reload, a pair of green-winged teal splashed down within 20 yards, and I dropped one of them as they attempted to depart.
Then the mallards came. I heard them first, and hit my call with a few muffled quacks. A half a dozen birds circled once and committed. I got a double and just leaned back in disbelief. Within five minutes I had taken four birds of three subspecies. More mallards worked me, and with little coaxing, I finished my eight-bird limit with fat grain-fed mallards. I hurriedly packed up and got out of my new found sweet spot and watched from the road as flock after flock piled back in.
At lunch, I persuaded three of the grouse hunters in our group to go back with me that evening. After borrowing some waders and catching a much-needed nap, we headed back to my piece of duck heaven. I did the calling as my companions shot teal, gadwalls and mallards, and within 90 minutes, they had taken their 24 ducks. Of course the next morning, everyone wanted to go back, and we had another phenomenal shoot. At 9:30 a.m., we packed 32 more puddlers back to my truck.
That afternoon, I scouted the lake with a borrowed jon boat, and I found bays full of bluebills. The next two mornings, I hunted alone and shot full limits of teal, goldeneyes and scaup as the temperatures dropped well below freezing. The bluebills came willingly to my mallard and pintail decoys in groups of 20-100. Those two hunts are among the most memorable I have ever been on.
Counting food, lodging, gas and license, the weeklong trip only set me back about $500. I put in a few long days and plenty of windshield time, but the rewards came exponentially.
In my home state of Kentucky, waterfowling is big business near the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the far western parts. I live nearly 300 miles east of there in the rolling Bluegrass Region. We aren't on a major flyway, but friends, Hank Patton, Bush Gess, Jim McCarty, Steve McCullough and I enjoy consistent gunning on small farm ponds and streams that are abundant in our area. None of us lease waterfowl rights, but we simply strive to obtain permission from landowners to hunt their cattle and crop farms. Bush does own some land where we have enjoyed world-class waterfowling.
I have spent literally hundreds of hours studying maps, driving back roads and tracking down landowners in an attempt to secure places to indulge my winter addiction. I figure I am successful one out of 10 times I ask, but you have to play the percentages and keep at it. One never knows what small body of water will turn out to be a goldmine of good hunting.
I had seen ducks and geese using a cornfield and adjoining creek from a rural road on one of my scouting trips, and when I found the landowner and asked permission to hunt, he quickly said, "No, it is too close to my father's house." After politely talking with him for a few minutes, he told me that he had another farm about five miles away that lay inside a wide bend in a small river. He mentioned a cornfield, a cattle pasture and a shallow pond that one of his friends had hunted for years. The other fellow had recently died, and he told me that since I had asked politely, I was welcome to give it a try and I could bring a few friends.
I drove over and scouted the new place. The small pond was about 100 yards long and only 60 yards wide, but the surface was covered with mallards, black ducks, teal, gadwalls, wood ducks and Canada geese. I then cruised around the river and found numerous pockets holding small groups of puddle ducks. The farm looked promising.
The next morning, a few friends and I nestled in our portable blinds next to the small cattle pond. At daylight they came, and they came in earnest. Hank was the first to key in on a small group of mallards that swung from left to right into the decoys. As they hovered over the opening in our decoys, I called the shot, and we took all five birds. Big northern mallards trickled into the small pond in groups of two to eight throughout the morning. The birds worked well to the call, and all shots were less than 25 yards.
The highlight of the hunt was when a pair of black ducks circled us at least 10 times. Hank and I tried everything we could in our bag of tricks to try to coax in the trophy ducks. Finally, Hank's pleading comeback calls with an echo from my call brought the blacks in, and Steve McCullough and RD Hamilton both capitalized with perfect shots.
That little pond produced some outstanding duck hunts over the following weeks, and to this day is one of my favorite places to hunt. There were a few mornings that we also lured in flocks of Canada geese and enjoyed nice mixed bags of puddle ducks and honkers. The added benefit of hunting ponds and potholes in open pastures is that you never know what may drop into your spread.
Public backwaters can provide great duck hunting for ambitious freelancers.
The following September, during our early wood duck and teal season, the new spot once again produced. I shot a few blue-winged teal over the cattle pond, but the best hunting was easing along the banks of the small river that ran the property boundary and jump shooting woodies
I don't want to give the impression that you have to find secluded potholes or flooded timber to be successful on your own. Good duck hunting is where you find it, and it can be found in some odd places. As I mentioned before, small streams and rivers can often hold lots of birds, especially when other duck habitat freezes up. An unlikely place that I discovered years ago that is my favorite place to hunt when the weather turns really cold is an inactive limestone quarry just on the outskirts of my hometown.
Granted, the quarry doesn't look like typical duck habitat with its sheer rock walls, boulder strewn banks and deep turquoise water, but during prolonged "freeze ups" this overlooked gem sure holds waterfowl. It is a real treat to hunt there when conditions are right. On a snowy winter day, it looks more like a moonscape than 50 acres bordering a thoroughbred horse farm. When I learned of the place and obtained permission from the owner, I never imagined that it would be my foul weather ace in the hole. Take for instance a hunt I experienced on New Year's morning in 2000.
Hank Patton and I had planned to hunt a farm pond that had recently flooded into a large area of weeds and was holding lots of ducks. There was one small hitch in our master plan, when we reached our pond; it was frozen solid.
After discussing other options, I suggested that we go to the quarry, and after a slippery ride on the icy roads we reached our Plan B destination. The two large lakes at the quarry were frozen, but the small middle pit was open. The pit receives warm groundwater from two sources and only freezes in extended periods of single digit temperatures.
We quickly put out two-dozen decoys and slipped in behind some large boulders at the water's edge. Before we finished loading our guns, there were ducks in our blocks.
Six ringnecks were swimming and diving contentedly just outside our spread. I called the shot, and Hank and I both scored doubles on the flushing divers. I heard Hank whisper, "ducks flying over," as I reached for more ammunition. I quickly filled my gun, and looked up in time to watch four mallards bank hard left in response to Patton's comeback call. I joined in, and the small flock committed. When the birds were hovering at 15 yards, I called the shot. Again Hank doubled, but I only managed to scratch down one greenhead. It wasn't long before the action picked up again.
Out over one of the frozen ponds, I spotted a group of low flying birds headed in our direction. In the blink of an eye, three drake gadwalls buzzed our spread, and both of us downed a bird. I quickly dispatched a cripple, and Hank yelled, "Shoot!" A single green-winged teal passed by at 30 yards, and I made a lucky right to left shot on the beautiful mature drake.
Again we spotted more birds, and I scrambled to reload. Hank called and urged me to hurry because the ducks had set their wings. I heard the familiar splash, and expected to hear shooting. I pleaded for my partner to wait while I finished filling my magazine, and I must say that he was very patient because I was slow.
Proof positive that small places can equal big success.
Finally I was ready, and we stood to shoot. Eight gadwalls burst into flight, and a plump drake fell to Patton's first shot. My lucky streak ended, and I emptied without ruffling a feather. After my Lab, Teal, made her second round of retrieves, I sat down and poured a cup of coffee.
No more than five minutes had passed, and I saw Teal's ears perk up. A pair of gadwalls passed out of range, and we began calling softly. As gadwalls often do, these two circled a few times getting closer on each pass. Finally the lead bird cupped, and they all dove in. I saw the large white patch on the drake's wing, and I rolled him. I felt a bit redeemed after my previous shooting exhibition and said, "That's a limit."
As we packed all the gear in the back of the truck, we relived our wonderful morning. Another pair of gadwalls and a single mallard circled the small pond. I believe we could have sat there and shot ducks all day.
Whether it be a hidden beaver pond in upstate New York, a creek edge in Indiana, a cattle tank in Texas or a secluded bend of a shallow river in Oregon, there are great places to pursue waterfowl all over North America that can be hunted without taking out a second mortgage. Anyone can do it with a couple dozen decoys, a pair of waders and an inexpensive shotgun. You just have to be willing to search out the places that most waterfowlers overlook or where others haven't put forth the effort to seek permission. Don't be discouraged when a landowner doesn't allow you access to his place, just go to the ne
xt spot on your list and try it again. You will be turned down more often than not, but you never know when you will hit the duck hunting lottery and luck into a place that will make memories that will last a lifetime.