We may call ourselves avid hunters, but we all have arenas within the sport that receive less attention than others. I grew up hunting big game and upland birds, and following the close of those seasons I chased walleyes under the ice. So, it should come as no surprise that waterfowl were seldom on my mind. It was not until I moved away to Iowa for graduate school that I truly became passionate about water fowling, There, in the middle of the corn belt, I met some of the best duck and goose hunters I have yet to know, and I was fortunate to soon call them my friends. Just like any good friends, they took me duck hunting! It wasn’t long until I was purchasing equipment, scouting ducks and geese, and tossing decoys in icy cold, hip high water before sunrise, when I likely should have been preparing for class instead (but don’t worry, I graduated).
Since these first experiences, I have had the opportunity to hunt with some of the best in the sport; guys that, due to their vast experience, I would consider Pros. If my passion could be rated, I would consider myself a Pro; however, my calling capabilities, limited equipment, and limited experience still likely place me nearer to an average Joe. But, having witnessed the Pros do what they do best countless times, I have picked up on some of their techniques and have been able to apply them to my own hunting situation. Although it isn’t much, and it may seem as simple to some, here are a few tips that I have learned and would like to share with the average Joes like myself.
Scout for the X, Hunt on the X
As a rookie duck and goose hunter, I would not have assumed the absolute necessity to scout for waterfowl ahead of time. On one of my first invites from a friend to come help prepare for the next day’s hunt, I thought that I would be helping tie up decoys and load the blinds, but instead we hopped in his truck to take a drive. When I inquired about where we were heading, he replied, “Have to make sure they are still landing on the X”. This mysterious X, I later discovered, was the exact spot in which ducks were landing, which is exactly where we were planning to set up. Upon scouting the field, we discovered the ducks had been bumped from the east field by a local farmer, and had relocated to the neighbor’s field to the west. Had we went in blindly the following morning without a quick scouting trip, we would have been set up one mile away, completely off of the X. I have since applied this knowledge to my own field and water hunts.
Honk, Honk, Hank?
What kind of a waterfowl hunter would you be without a lanyard and a couple of calls dangling around your neck? Well, if you are the type of guy that breaks the calls out the day before the opener, and blows on it for the first time that year while you are on the way to field, your probably aren’t the type of guy your pals want working the birds. My tactic, since my calling skills are subpar, is to learn the simple straightforward calls, and leave the fancy things for practicing at home. I use straight 3 to 5 note quacks for mallards to get their attention, and single quacks when birds are working. Similarly, I use simple honks and moans for geese, but once they are committed to my direction, I completely abandon the call, minus some low moans. This is simply because my calling is poor enough that less sound from me typically leads to more sound from my shotgun. My advice is to swallow your pride, save your breath, and you might save your hunt.
Movement in the Spread
I haven’t hunted with an experienced waterfowler that didn’t believe in creating another element of realism by using movement within a spread of decoys to attract birds. In the most basic form, and especially for average Joe’s, this usually means a spinning Mojo mallard or two in the spread for ducks, and a flagging pole for geese. However, until last year, I didn’t realize that all movement in the spread is not the same. During a field hunt for what was supposed to be mallards, a large group of geese crested the skyline. Soon, two of my friends were sprinting towards the Mojo decoys and quickly shut them off. To my unknowing surprise, this was due to the fact that geese have a sheer hatred for moving mojos in the spread and tend to flare early. Had I known this sooner, maybe I would have had something else to blame when the geese flared at 80 yards during all of my previous hunts! I now place my Mojo near my layout blind, so I can simply reach up and turn it off when geese are on their way.
Keep it Real
My decoy spread is highly limited, so I end up trying to make do with what I can. With only a few dozen goose shells and less than a dozen mallard shells, I quite often find myself using my mallard floaters while in the field to help fill out the spread. I’m not ashamed to use a floater in the field, but some vertical cover or snow on the ground is necessary to keep them upright and not tipped on their keels. When setting my spread, I keep it simple by making the landing zone obvious, bringing the birds directly into the wind. The key here is to remember that a decoy spread is only good if it has some level of reality; quality versus quantity. So, don’t put every 1980’s bargain floater mallard that you own in the field if it brings the quality of the spread down.
A Good Hide = A Good Hunt
Whether you are hunting over water or on a field, blind concealment can make or break a hunt. The best hunters I know will spend as much time brushing in their blinds for ultimate concealment as they do setting up their decoy spread. This only makes sense, because if the birds see you, the decoys won’t matter. It is a good idea to remember to bring a rake and clippers for gathering field vegetation or local brush clippings. Also, if the profile of your blind is quite high, a shovel can come in handy to dig your blind lower into the ground. Finally, if you aren’t able to afford a snow cover for you blind, a white fitted sheet with a slit cut down the middle or several cans of Christmas snow spray can work well in a pinch, to help you blend into the background.
Don’t Get Greedy
Having had the privilege to watch some great hunters work birds with the call, I have had to pass on shots at two or three birds and watch an entire flock of 200 that soon work into shooting range. When that type of action happens, it is truly amazing! However, I have also seen the other side of the coin, where a great duck or goose caller will pass on a great opportunity for a moderate shoot at half a dozen birds, knowing full well they can work the entire flock, but soon come up empty handed. This is why, as a Joe, I always take the opportunity to call a shot at a few birds and never get greedy for the other 200 way over-head. A bird in the hand…
Find a Pro
As I have said, although I have been hunting waterfowl for nearly 5 years, I still consider myself a rookie, or an average Joe. There are many reasons why I haven’t advanced my level in the waterfowl world, and I think there are many hunters out there that can relate. Much like anything in this life, it is your priorities that dictate your level of involvement, and my priorities do not lie solely with ducks and geese. I have a wife and child, two dogs, a full time job, and I am passionate about hunting all forms of game. To pretend that I can commit myself to a decoy trailer, several dozen full body decoys, and nearly every weekend of the season would be foolish. But, what I can commit to is a simple and realistic spread, good scouting, staying hidden from birds and continuing to learn from my friends that are more insane than I about ducks and geese. So, the best advice I can give to the average Joe is to continue to make friends in the hunting world, take time to get out and hunt with them, and you may soon find yourself hunting next to someone you would also consider a Pro. Oh, and don’t forget to take notes!