November 13, 2022
By Joe Weimer
Waterfowl hunting has seen more innovation in the past few decades than wingshooters of yesteryear would have ever dreamed possible. From the ultra-realism of today’s floating and full-body decoys to the eye-catching nature of motorized spinning wings, to scientifically formulated camouflage patterns and next level concealment solutions, the game has truly changed in many facets for those chasing ducks and geese. One of the constants, however, is a part of the process that simply has no substitute. SCOUTING!
If you own a world-class hunting property, then congrats, you did your scouting with a realtor. If you’re a freelancer like most, the newest gear, the biggest trailer, the fastest semi-automatic shotgun, or the best dog in the world, won’t make up for a lack of scouting. Finding birds and observing their patterns is the #1 ingredient to sustained success. The guys and gals you see piling up mega wads of lessers. They place a huge emphasis on scouting. The fellas finding mallards on big water. They’re religious about scouting. As important as this aspect of the hunt is, many avid waterfowlers struggle with it, and here’s why.
Your Timing is Wrong
Listen to enough hunters for long enough and you’ll hear a pattern develop. The minority of the hunters will kill the majority of the birds, and that same minority won’t be the ones you hear complaining about not being able to find them. I’ve heard it a million times. “We rolled through the bottoms earlier but didn’t see much, we need a migration!” While new players are always nice, chances are you need a watch more than a cold front! In scouting, location is everything, but timing is a close second.
Travel the right roads at the wrong time and you’ll feel like there isn’t a duck or goose in the universe. Time it right and you might feel like you’ve been dropped into a waterfowl mecca. Focusing scouting efforts around times with higher activity probability is the name of the game. Looking for ducks coming back to a mid-morning loaf pond? Better hit the road from 8-10 in the morning. Searching for a feed field full of honkers? The truck needs to be rolling late afternoon when the birds start flying. After a big spin of white geese? Set the alarm before sunrise and bring binoculars.
As a highschooler, I vividly remember frequenting the right areas at the wrong time. I remember checking out a field and securing permission but not seeing much activity so electing to hunt elsewhere, while another group of hunters had a great hunt there. A large part of the reason is because I was at football practice while they were scouting. I was deer hunting in the evening when the birds were going to feed. I was driving around in the wrong areas at prime time because I didn’t understand timing in the context of locating birds to hunt.
There’s nothing more depressing than a failed scouting trip, and those failures are much more common when you’re not taking time into consideration. Driving around scouting dry corn fields isn’t usually too productive at noon. Looking at bodies of water trying to identify roosts can be pretty uneventful when all the birds are out feeding.
You Don’t Know the Map
I touched on innovation and advancement earlier, and in today’s world with mobile mapping apps there’s no excuse for not knowing the lay of the land. Aside from being aware of natural features that define an area and dictate the way migrating waterfowl will use it, knowing which parcels are public is a HUGE advantage and can be a great place to focus in on. If you’re looking to secure private land access, you darn sure need to know who to ask and which farmhouse to stop at. One of the most frustrating parts of scouting is running down the road and locating a field or body of water full of birds but being unsure if you’ve got access, or how obtain it.
Scouting can turn from locating birds into aimlessly burning fuel very quickly if you aren’t knowledgeable of the landscape. For instance, if the geese in your area are all packed onto a large lake due to freezing temps and ice cover, start there when you aim to locate a feed. If there’s a giant managed public tract in close proximity to where you hunt, the location of the refuge pools can HUGELY impact which direction the birds might travel regularly. If ducks are roosting on the river and you’re looking for a feed, being aware of which side of the bottoms or bluffs have the most grain and ag fields can make all the difference in the world.
The moment of realization for me on the importance of the map was in the case of an evening field honker hunt. A neighbor let me know birds were feeding in his south corn field and had been for two days. I headed out after school. The hide looked good, the weather was great, and the wind was perfect. As the birds began pouring off the local roost, I quickly realized this was NOT his south field. He owned a field down the road that I was unaware of. Not a shot was fired that hunt, but a light bulb was lit in my mind!
Feel like you’re putting a ton of miles on? Good. Even the best scouts cover a million miles in search of a good feed or traffic setup, but the most successful hunters know which areas to focus on. They know which landowners allow hunting, which might, and which definitely won’t. They know where birds are likely to feed based on local farming practices. They have a good idea on the probable location of the larger concentrations of birds in the region based on where the biggest bodies of water are and when each typically sees the most action.
You Aren’t Reading the Fine Print
Most generally, scouting is associated with finding the birds. But once you do, the scouting is only half done. The life of many a migrant has been saved by not following through with taking note of the details of the situation. An incredibly effective way to ruin a hunt is to locate a field and head back to camp without finding necessary answers. Which direction are they coming from? Where do they want to be in the field? Are they content? WHY DOES THIS MATTER??
The HOW can be just as important as the WHERE in setting up, and if you don’t believe it, then whoever scouts for your group has done a darn good job. The direction the birds are coming from can make a big difference in your hide type, how much cover you need where, and the location you need to set your decoys.
One morning hunt spelled this out for me. I had assumed the birds were entering the area from the west. With a good east wind, I felt confident that they would approach my setup and fall in without circling. Unfortunately, due to lack of awareness on my part, they were coming from a lake to the East. Putting them directly overtop my setup. The late season birds knew something wasn’t right gliding over our row of layout blinds, they pulled up and landed in the next field over. Had I taken care to note where the birds were coming from, several limits would have been coming home with us in the bed of the truck.
The importance of location within the field speaks for itself, and the level of contentment is just as important. Are the birds acting restless? Are they racing and covering a ton of ground? Do you notice frequent repositioning throughout the field? This sort of activity can signal important details about the field. Perhaps the birds are struggling to find grain, maybe they have about fed the field out, and maybe they’re done using the field all together from here on out. If you go on a “sure thing” hunt and the birds don’t show … your scout might have been right about the field and wrong about how good a field it actually was. If they’re on a string to the farm you’re hunting but land 200 acres away in the bottom … your scout may not have watched closely which areas they were keying on the night before.