By Mark Fike
For the past five or six years the duck hunting in my area of the mid Atlantic Flyway really dwindled down to being poor. If you live in this area, you know what I am talking about.
To keep the dog happily retrieving ducks, I had to make a few serious changes to my waterfowling strategy and have noticed a bit of a difference in my success rate when I am able to get out hunting.
Many duck hunters think you have to own and use a few dozen decoys, a motion decoy, a boat, a blind and a large selection of calls in order to be successful. Imagine being able to successfully take a few ducks with minimal gear investment.
Believe it or not, this scenario is well within the reach of any shotgunner regardless of their financial situation. One only needs a place to hunt, a decent shotgun and shells, a pair of waders, one or two calls and some camouflage. Two or three decoys (not dozens) is a bonus.
My partner and I used to exclusively hunt bigger waters. We live on the Atlantic Flyway; everyone uses big spreads, hunts the tidal rivers and they were enjoying good shooting. When the shooting became poor on the big waters in our region, we changed things up and began exploring smaller waters.
Our discovery happened quite by accident and we stumbled upon a gold mine in the form of small water ducking. While doing some deer hunting and scouting one day we observed over a dozen woodies in a swamp my buddy owns. When they took off, a pair of mallards went with them. We also heard geese in the distance.
Rather than hook up the boat, drag a bunch of decoys down the road and spend over an hour before the sun came up readying our setup, we decided to sleep a little the next day and bring a pair of waders with us and one call to try the swamp.
We did well and here is why we feel that hunting smaller waters may be the better way to hunt these days. First, we have had ample rain for the most part and until we get a hard freeze, the ducks can be spread out all over the place with little pressure on small, nearly impenetrable backwaters.
First of all, many hunters feel that wood ducks are only an early season bag. Depending on the winter temperatures the wood ducks may stick around all winter long. See our article last week about wood ducks.
We hunt primarily in Virginia, but know hunters from Pennsylvania and Maryland that also experience the same kind of action that we have in our area.
Our season typically ends in late January and we have taken birds on the last day of the season. Each area is different but if there is open water, the wood ducks are certainly able and willing to stick around.
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) Waterfowl Biologist, Gary Costanzo, explained to me that the ducks do move south with the changing temperatures. However, wood ducks that are farther north often fill in southern areas that were recently vacated.
Basically the ducks move in a leapfrog effect. One flock of ducks in southern Virginia may fly to North Carolina and a flock from Maryland or northern Virginia may fly to southern Virginia. This often provides hunters with consistent hunting throughout the season. Teal can be the same way.
The only exception to this would be when the whole area experiences a long and hard freeze that sends all ducks south to find food. Otherwise, this is the time to really hit the swamps, beaver ponds, farm ponds or marshes. Even during a freeze you should see if your local small water is frozen. Sometimes the moving waters won’t freeze and the ducks will pile into that area!
Hunting a swamp is fairly straightforward. A set of waders is a good idea even if you have a dog. Hunters can stand on the main bank and hunt some swamps, but most swamps will be expansive and ducks like to land in a pocket just out of range of the shoreline.
Scout the swamp and get there before daylight and watch how the birds come and go.
I love to find a logjam where there is a standing tree of some sort. When I get tired, I lean back on the tree. You can even nail a 2×4 to the tree and make a seat with an old piece of plywood to have a little comfort while waiting. Take a pair of trimmers to snip away the brush for your shooting lanes too. My buddy found a hump in the swamp that stays dry and he put an old chair on that spot which is conveniently surrounded by briars that break up his outline. Using the snips he cut away shooting holes and has the best spot in the whole swamp.
You won’t need a dozen decoys for swamp hunting. In fact you don’t really have to have any for wood ducks but if you want to use a trio of decoys spread out in a pocket of water it can help with passing birds not really sure about committing. Using mallard dekes or woodie dekes is fine.
Finally, if your small water happens to be in the flight path of Canada you might consider having a goose call on hand as well. I keep one handy to pull the birds our way if we hear them in the area. Taking a goose back to the house is always a welcome bonus when hunting wood ducks and mallards or black ducks in small waters.
The shots that will come while hunting small swamps or ponds will almost always be very close and fast. Using an improved choke or a modified choke is ideal. One last consideration for the hunter wishing to try small waters is jump shooting.
Jump shooting is quite a bit of fun and the action can be had all day long vs. hunting the morning flight and then going home.
You can actually use the midday hours to scout and jump shoot new territory. Examine a topo map of the area you plan on scouting or hunting and plan to walk along the edges of the water moving slowly as one might stalk deer. Use trees and brush to conceal your movement and carry a small pair of binoculars.
Be particularly aware of bends in the waterway. These are great holding places for ducks and excellent places to cut across country to get close to ducks before popping out to flush them. Creep up on the water very slowly and pay careful attention to the water’s surface. Tell-tale ripples may indicate birds swimming. Look in sunlit areas first as that is where most ducks will be on a cold day.
Having a well-trained retriever is invaluable in this circumstance, as you won’t have to carry waders with you. Almost no one jump shoots and stalks ducks so the birds are often less wary and the shooting can be fast and furious!
This season when your buddies are all hitting the big water and working hard to set up their spreads and getting nearly nothing for their efforts, take a break and hit the local small waters. You might be very surprised at the quality of wingshooting you will encounter if you do your part and shoot well! Good hunting during this last week of the season!