Secrets of Classic Duck Habitats
Make the most of your season by unlocking the secrets of classic duck habitats. If you live anywhere in the U.S., there is a good possibility duck hunting opportunities are available in your area. Habitat variety is among the greatest aspects of duck hunting, and each type holds its own secrets for success. Whether you hunt lakes, marshes, potholes, rivers, flooded timber, or flooded fields, the following advice can help you unlock those secrets to improve your duck season.
When you think about hunting ducks, it is hard to picture a more classic location than a marsh. Hunting a marsh can be a full-throttle experience or completely devoid of waterfowl, but when the hunting is hot, it can provide in-your-face, fast action. Marshes are prime resting areas for ducks, but if there are aquatic invertebrates and vegetation present, they can become prime feeding locations as well. In many cases, marsh hunters set a small spread of decoys, but do not be afraid to go big and adjust your decoys for different weather conditions. If the weather conditions are not ideal for hunting puddle ducks, do not hesitate to throw out 8-10 dozen mallard, widgeon, and pintail decoys. In poor weather conditions, a large spread will stand out and be more attractive to the few ducks you may see.
In many instances, marsh hunting is at its best from 9am until 2pm. After the ducks have finished with their morning feeding area, they will look to the marsh for sanctuary as they rest. Since the ducks want to be in the marsh already, they will generally decoy better than on a big lake. The ducks are accustomed to the security and safety of the marsh and are typically more receptive to decoys.
When you are scouting the marsh, note the birds you see and their locations. When you return to hunt, lay out your decoys to imitate those birds. If you observe numerous ducks, be prepared to set out a large number of mallard decoys, as well as decoys of other species. Try not to arrange your decoys in a specific pattern. Instead, lay them out in small groups and pairs. It is a good idea to place a pair of decoys in the center of your landing zone to simulate a pair of ducks that just landed. This will give added confidence to decoying birds.
Due to the dense cattails, sawgrass, and water lilies that are present in the marsh, a well-trained retriever is a necessity. Carefully choose your duck retriever. You need a duck dog that is comfortable, quiet, and at home in the blind. You also want a retriever with a great nose, excellent marking skills, and the training to deal with crippled birds. If your retriever has to search for a crippled bird, the dog needs to keep hunting for the duck until it finds the bird or you call it off.
Hunting Lakes and Rivers
There are few aspects of duck hunting that are as demanding as lakes and major rivers. Open-water duck hunters accept the hard work and the rewards these areas offer. The vast numbers of ducks on lakes and big rivers can be overwhelming, and the large variety of ducks, from gadwalls to goldeneyes, can fill a mixed bag.
When scouting on lakes and large rivers, look for ducks sitting on the water, as well as watching for their flight paths. Scouting large bodies of water require a good pair of binoculars. You need to look for ducks in the air and watch their specific flight paths. It is hard to stay on the “X” on large water. It is crucial to learn the natural flight routes. It is also helpful to scout at various times throughout the day. At times, the middle of the day will offer a good flight.
On big rivers, ducks like to raft up in the middle of the channel. To compete with the real deal, you need a large and attractive decoy spread. This requires the use of no less than 5 dozen decoys, preferably 8 to 10 dozen magnum-sized mallard and pintail decoys. These big water decoy rigs need at least 8 ounce weights to hold them in place.
Ducks often land alongside geese. On large waters, give the ducks the ultimate magnum decoy and set out an all goose decoy spread. In many cases, ten to twelve dozen goose decoys, along with half a dozen duck decoys, is the best option for enticing big water ducks. To maximize this spread, it is important to set an open spread. The open decoy placement prevents decoying birds from focusing on one specific area.
Hunting Flooded Fields
All duck hunters need to experience the commotion a thousand ducks make when they flush from a flooded field before daylight. What makes this even better is knowing those ducks will return to that same field shortly after sunrise. From one coast to the other, flooded field duck hunting exists in one form or another.
As with any duck calling, you need to read the birds and adjust your calling to fit their needs. Most times, loud calling is a necessity for wide open flooded fields. However, there are times when soft calling and even no calling can be just as effective. In some instances, a widgeon or pintail whistle may give better success.
One of the difficulties with hunting flooded fields is judging the distance of ducks. It is easy to misjudge approaching birds without some kind of reference. A good rule of thumb to follow is to watch for the eyes of the ducks. When you can see their eyes, the birds are well within shooting range.
As the popularity of spinning wing decoys increases, ducks can become leery of them. If everyone around you is using spinners, forget the spinning wings and switch to quiver magnets and jerk strings. Cut a flap in the back of a decoy and slip a quiver magnet inside. To simulate ducks that just landed, stretch your jerk strings right in front of your blind. The motion on the water will appear more natural and stand out in the sea of spinning wings.
Hunting Flooded Timber
When you think of flooded green timber duck hunting, Arkansas is the first place that comes to mind. When the backwaters are rising, green timber hunting is hard to beat. Just because the ducks love the flooded timber, do not think they are easy to hunt. It requires a lot of effort and knowledge to hunt the timber. Competition can be heavy, but the payoff can be fat greenheads at 10 yards, if you hunt it right.
When scouting for flooded timber ducks, you can locate concentrations of birds by watching for flying groups as you run the river. Once you find a group of ducks, stop the boat, kill the motor, and wait. If you see a second group pass by, follow them through the timber. When you think you are getting close to them, kill the motor and listen. Once you are close, try to find an opening to set up in to hunt. To be able to relocate the spot, choose some kind of landmark and set a GPS waypoint. Most flooded timber holes do not have a trail leading into them, and GPS coordinates will help you get back there.
Flooded green timber is full of food sources, such as acorns and certain grasses. Many hunters miss out on the green timber experience by hunting water that is too deep to allow ducks to forage. Your best opportunities will come from following the rising water level and hunting the shallow edges. If you stay on the shallow edges, you can stay on the birds even as the water recedes.
The tall trees of flooded green timber block out the wind and hinder water movement. To make your decoys more appealing and lifelike, you have to add in some motion. A jerk string, quiver magnets, or simply kicking the water is enough to give life to your decoys. Especially during the late season, if the birds do not see movement in your decoys, they will not come in.
Hunting Potholes and Ponds
Many duck hunters had their first duck hunting experience on small potholes and ponds. Even today, these often overlooked areas can still offer epic hunts. In many instances, these small potholes are remote and require a bit of a hike to get to them. A minimalist hunting style can keep you mobile and successful.
With the vast expanse of cattails and reeds, potholes can be hard to locate under the cover of darkness. A GPS is a must have tool for locating your three acre pothole in 1,000 acres of prairie grasses. Once you trek into the reeds and cattails, it all looks the same.
Unlike the wide-open, sound-deadening characteristics of flooded field hunting, potholes and ponds can have an amplifier effect on your calling. You calls will bounce off of the water, hit the walls of cattails and reeds, and project straight up and out towards the approaching ducks. In most cases, a softer timber call will give the best volume. Calling towards the cattails and reeds can help control your volume, instead of calling down towards the water. To enhance the effectiveness of your calling, use a jerk string to give your decoys lifelike movement.
When hunting potholes or ponds, you have to think about your retriever. Hunting around potholes and ponds can be just as wet and miserable for your dog as hunting in flooded timber. Consider the well-being of your hunting buddy and bring a dog stand to keep him comfortable.