Dirt-Cheap Ducks

Hunting waterfowl on public land might be better—much better—than you ever imagined.

Ok, I admit it: I was feeling a bit smug. I took the limit of mallards I’d slung over my shoulder and casually laid them on the hood of the game warden’s truck. He grinned because my limit was the only one he’d seen that morning. In the distance, shotguns boomed, and my springer pricked his ears. He wasn’t ready to quit.

“Good day, eh?” the warden asked.

I nodded. It had been more than that. I’d arrived an hour before daylight, forded a canal at the only spot within miles where it was shallow enough to wade, then stumbled through mud and undergrowth a half-mile back to the remnants of a flooded weed patch I’d found on a pre-season scouting trip.

The place had been loaded with mallards, pintails and teal, but now, to my huge disappointment, most of the flood waters had receded. My circuitous route in—I’d managed to become lost in the moonless dark—had looped back in a semicircle until I was just a stone’s throw from the canal I’d crossed earlier. While I hastily threw out 10 inflatable dekes in a puddle (all that was left of the 1 acre or so of flooded weeds I’d found earlier) guns began going off near the property edges. It made little difference to the birds. Within minutes, mallards were riding a wire into my spread. Whining, my springer watched them come from within the camouflage cape I’d draped around him, bursting out of the blind at each shot. I finally took off the cape and left it lying on the ground because it didn’t seem to matter to the birds one way or another. I’d found their honey-hole.

Luck had something to do with my success that day. I’ve never claimed to be the world’s best duck hunter, and it’s rare for me to shoot a limit. But on this day I’d beat a handful of other blue-collar guys on a heavily used public hunting area within 2 hours of Denver, Colorado, a place that probably saw hundreds, if not thousands, of duck hunters every season. And before I left Colorado for greener pastures 5 years later, I did the same thing several more times.

I’m not here to tell you that hunting on waterfowl refuges, state-owned public hunting areas and federal land is going to be that good every time or even most of the time. But I will outline a few steps that, as often as not, will help you beat the crowds.

Pros Of Going Public

Truth is, there are advantages to hunting on refuges and other public lands. First, they’re managed for wildlife. When I lived in Colorado, most of the northeastern corner of the state was overgrazed, over-farmed and plowed under. The wildlife management areas (WMAs) that dotted the South Platte River from Denver to Nebraska were like a string of green pearls in a sea of black dirt. Cover was thick, and at least prior to the hunting season, those WMAs were loaded with ducks, geese, White-Tailed Deer and even quail. The river, which meandered through most of the WMAs, kept the warm-water sloughs flowing, and later in the season, when the thermometer bottomed out, the sloughs pulled in ducks by the thousands. Most of my waterfowl hunting has been confined to the West and upper Midwest, but I’ve yet to visit a federal waterfowl refuge or WMA anywhere in the country that didn’t have excellent cover. And that kind of cover means waterfowl.

The second advantage to hunting public land is it’s free. In this day of pay-to-play hunting access, refuges and WMAs offer an alternative for hunters on a budget. Sure, some limit access and some even charge minimal fees, but compared to what you’d have to pony-up to hunt on private land just about anywhere else, refuges and WMAs are a bargain. Here’s the kicker, though: If you want birds, you’ll have to work for them.

That seems to strike a sour chord with some. It’s tempting to say the Generation Xers, who have spent half their dazed lives gazing into computer monitors, are the biggest couch potatoes, but the truth is that baby boomers like me are just as lazy. And from what I’ve seen of the generation before mine, the really old guys, they weren’t much more energetic. Now as always, there have always been birds for hunters who aren’t afraid of a little legwork. But you don’t have to kill yourself at it, either.

That might come as news to one of my friends. Bill is as hardcore of a duck hunter as they come, and a few years ago he and I hunted a nearby reservoir that he’d been scouting all fall, most of which was open to public hunting—no sign-in sheets, no check stations, no access fee. That was the good part.

The bad part was it was cold. Even before we’d set out a single decoy, I’d lost the feeling in my hands and had shipped a few cups of frigid water over the tops of my waders. The bay we were hunting had frozen from the bank out 30-40 feet, so Bill’s solution, which he explained to my disbelief, was to break through the skim ice and squat behind tree stumps near the open water. We spooked a moose on the walk in, which lumbered up the bank, leaving platter-sized tracks in the new snow.

Two hours later, we’d yet to kill a bird. The ducks were there—we watched several flocks in the distance—but none of them gave our decoys a second look. Finally, a lone gadwall winged over, and apparently overcome with melancholy, made a feeble half circle and glided into our spread. Bill dropped it.

That was enough fun for me. I was half frozen, cramped from sitting on a log in 33-degree water and had lost most of the feeling in my toes shortly after sunrise. I stood up, wobbling, and announced I was heading back to the truck, with or without him. Bill shot me a disgusted look and handed me the keys. A few minutes later, I sat rubbing my frozen hands under the hot blast from the truck’s heater, listening to Bill’s futile calling in the distance. He stayed out for another 45 minutes before reluctantly packing it in. The moral of this story is that even when you do things right the ducks won’t always cooperate.

But sometimes they do. Knowing the seasonal movements of other hunters, as well as the ducks, is a big help.

Beating The Crowds

Most waterfowlers, out of necessity, are weekend warriors, and for that reason weekdays are almost always less crowded on refuges than weekends, particularly during the middle part of the week. Holidays are even worse than weekends, although Christmas Day, I’ve found, can be deserted. But there’s a better way to avoid the rush: hunt during the late afternoon.

Ducks fly throughout the day, but flights are heaviest in the morning (right after sunrise) and in the evening (just before dusk). For some reason, many hunters completely ignore the late-afternoon flights. I know a man who doesn’t back his 16-foot johnboat into the water until after 1 p.m., when nearly every other duck hunter on the southern Iowa reservoir he hunts is heading back in. He stays until dark, and more often than not has a federal waterfowl refuge pretty much to himself. Closer to my Montana home, I’ve spent a number of late afternoons hunting a local spring creek that runs through a WMA on the Missouri River. There is nearly always somebody there in the morning, but in the afternoons I might not see a soul. I believe, although I can’t prove it, that at least some of the local ducks use that spring creek only at dusk, when they know they won’t get shot at. Wouldn’t you?

If you’re dealing with birds that are getting hammered, technique and equipment will get you only so far. Sure, it helps to be a great caller (I’m not), but even great calling won’t pull ducks into someplace they don’t want to be. Rather, finding where they want to go is the answer, and that means scouting.

In my Colorado days, I’d make pre-season scouting trips prior to the start of each three-part opener of the state waterfowl season. Since I typically hunted just two or three WMAs, I got to know them like the back of my hand, and after a couple seasons, I didn’t need to constantly monitor them; I’d been there, done that and had a pretty good idea where the birds would be and when.

But that early legwork was crucial. I’d drive the roads around the perimeter of each area, looking for circling ducks, and if I found them I’d watch for a while to see if other birds were using the same location. If they were, I’d stash my binoculars in a backpack and hike in for a closer look. That’s how I found the flooded weed patch described at the beginning of this article.

Through scouting I discovered that things changed when the weather got cold. The South Platte is broad and flat, and when the temperature dropped into the teens it would float rafts of slush ice, which kept birds on the move. Many of them relocated to the warm-water sloughs, which rarely froze no matter how cold it got.

I’ve found that small sloughs, spring creeks and ponds hidden from view can be worth their weight in mallard feathers. Sure, the big bodies of water attract the most ducks, but they attract the most hunters, too, and the whole point of this exercise is to avoid all those other guys. Sometimes a wet spot hidden in the trees or grass will pull ducks like a magnet, especially if they’re getting pushed off the main reservoir by hunting pressure. I’ve had some great shoots on beaver ponds, including one episode when a friend and I were invaded by flock after flock of blue- and green-winged teal. We shot our limits that day, too, within a few hundred yards of the WMA parking lot. No one else, apparently, knew the pond was there.

Staying mobile means traveling light. There’s no lack of gear these days, but most of it just weighs you down. Twelve or 15 decoys and a length of camo netting stuffed into a backpack will open up all kinds of backwoods hotspots that the guys in expensive 18-foot duck boats, mobile blinds and kick-butt outboards will never be able to reach. Pack your gear into a refuge a half-mile and you’ll leave at least 50 percent of the other hunters behind. Walk in another half-mile and you’ll get past the rest of them.

It’s amazing how quickly the unwashed masses fall by the wayside. A few years ago, Bill, another friend, and I found ourselves on the southern end of a local reservoir, an area managed for waterfowl. We knew what we were up against. The place is one of the more popular hunting areas in southern Montana, and we figured we’d have to hump in a ways to get away from the crowds. But the banks along that reservoir are also laced with access roads, and the walking was easy. Presently, we came to a shallow bay dotted with muskrat lodges. After putting out a couple dozen decoys, we waited. And waited.

As it turned out, the forecast, which had called for a front, came in warm and calm instead. Most of the ducks were still rafted up on the main body of the lake, and the only bird that came over was a lone mallard Drake that Bill and I sandwiched with steel No. 4s. But that day did prove, at least, that we were on the right track: Despite the dozens of other hunters who typically used the place, we saw only one other man, a lone hunter in a duck boat who anchored his rig several hundred yards away. Near as we could tell, he wasn’t getting any shooting, either.

And so it goes. Nothing you can do will guarantee you won’t have slow days. But putting in the time to get a feel for the lay of the land will, over the course of the season, pay off in ducks. So what if the morning’s bag is only two or three birds? Chances are that’s two or three more ducks than those other guys got. And when that front finally pushes in new flocks from the north, you’ll know right where to go.

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