Fooling pressured birds requires a lot of scouting effort, hunting skill, expense and savvy…
I can think of nothing more exciting than laying on my back, while peering out from a layout blind as a flock of mallards, wood ducks or Canada geese lock onto the decoy spread. For me the moment of truth and the adrenaline rush comes when I see the birds are both fooled and committed. At that precise instant I find myself reaching for the pistol grip of my shotgun and acknowledging silently to myself that waterfowl hunting has a relentless grip on my life!
I was 12 years old when I shot my first mallard and ever since I have been in constant pursuit of all things with web feet. I’ve hunted waterfowl in over a dozen states, most of the Canadian provinces and even traveled twice to Argentina to sample duck hunting in the Southern Hemisphere. Of all these hunting experiences, the ones I cherish the most are the field hunts enjoyed close to home in Michigan.
Part of what appeals to me about hunting close to home is the fact that waterfowl in these parts are subjected to an amazing amount of hunting pressure. To fool these birds a hunter has to be in the right place, at the right time and also has to hunt with an anatomically correct decoy spread and perfect hide. In short, fooling pressured birds requires a lot of scouting effort, hunting skill, expense and savvy.
When all these variables come together and the birds reward us with “in your face” shooting opportunities the feeling of satisfaction is nothing short of amazing. As hunters, it’s not so much the taking of game that motivates us, but rather the opportunity to mix it up at close range. It’s these close encounters that keeps the game exciting, the heart pumping and leaves us begging for more.
They say that variety is the spice of life and in the world of waterfowl hunting my most rewarding adventures are those days seasoned with a mixed bag. The desire to harvest lots of different species is one of the major reasons that field hunting is so appealing.
My most memorable field hunts are the ones that start out early with a few flocks of wood ducks that show up right at shooting time. Typically these birds come in hard and fast. At 30 minutes until sunrise, shooting light is legal, but gloomy enough that making out individual targets against tree lines and the horizon is tricky.
I can’t tell you how often in this situation I have popped up to shoot a bird only to have it disappear into the gloom of pre-dawn. That’s perfectly okay because wood ducks at first light are probably going to make two, three or more passes before they finally make a commitment to land or head for other latitudes.
Not long after those “shooting time” wood ducks make their appearance, mallards leave the roost and start making their way to the feeding fields. Like their cousins the wood duck, early in the day mallards are going to show up out of nowhere and rocket over the decoys. The hunters are usually caught flat footed on the first pass and have no recourse but to wait them out and hope the next pass is more predictable.
By about the time the sun hits the horizon, mallards are filling the sky and making skyward approaches to the decoys. Because these birds are approaching from much higher altitudes, they take more time to settle into a landing mood.
Two, three, four or more passes are often required to satisfy these birds that all is well and a hearty meal awaits them. If anyone in the hunting party (including Rover) moves at the wrong instant or blows a sour note on the duck call, the jig is up and those birds are heading elsewhere.
Mallards are entertaining, but not the big show. Later in the morning, late rising Canada geese will start to stir from the roost and make their way to the feeding fields. The B-52 bombers of the waterfowl world, geese magnify the excitement of waterfowl hunting 10 fold.
Because of their larger size and slower wing beats these birds appear to be on final descent for what seems like an eternity. You can cut the tension with a knife when a flock of geese is closing the distance and about to start back peddling those oversized wings.
Most days the show is over long before lunch time. On those rare days when weather keeps the birds moving all day, a steady stream of birds works wonders for keeping the heart pumping and those fingers and toes from getting numb.
Here in Michigan mallards, wood ducks and Canada geese make up the majority of the waterfowl harvested annually. Other birds that show up on field hunts often enough to be considered regulars include pintails, gadwalls and widgeon. All three of these duck species are more at home in wetlands, but they also can’t turn down the lure of an easy meal of waste grain.
Corn is king
When it comes to scouting for field waterfowl hunts corn is king. The problem is all corn fields are not equally attractive to waterfowl. Across Michigan corn fields are harvested two different ways and for different purposes. A lot of farmers chop their corn into silage that is in turn fed to dairy cattle. Chopping a corn field leaves very little waste grain on the ground and little for foraging waterfowl to focus on.
Other farmers pick their corn using a combine that strips the ears from the stalk and removes the individual kernels from the cob. This process generates a lot more “spilled” grain and not surprisingly attracts the most waterfowl.
Chopping a corn field also leaves very little chaff behind to help hide layout blinds. A picked corn field is littered with stalks and corn leaves making it very easy to hide hunters and dogs in layout blinds thatched to blend in perfectly.
One of the great mysteries associated with waterfowl hunting is why do birds seemingly fly over dozens of potentially productive harvested grain fields in favor of landing in one specific field? Even more interesting, once these birds identify a particular field they are interested in, normally just one specific spot in the field attracts all the attention.
Seasoned waterfowl hunters call these bird selected choice landing zones the “X”. The fast track to successful field hunts requires setting up a decoy spread as close as possible to the “X”.
There are lots of reasons why hunters don’t set up on the “X”. Maybe the “X” is in a part of the field that’s low, muddy and hard to navigate? Perhaps the “X” is on property you don’t have permission to hunt? What if another hunting party beats you to the spot and you’re forced to hunt nearby? At times the “X” is located in a part of the field that has little or no natural cover?
All of these are legitimate reasons why hunters would consider not hunting the exact location in a field the birds have been feeding in. Unfortunately, setting up elsewhere, even nearby rarely plays out well for the hunter. When scouting for waterfowl it is critically important to identify the exact location within a field the birds are favoring and concentrate on setting up in that area.
Marking the spot
A trick I’ve used for years to zero in on the best field hunting spots requires physically marking the spot. If I’m scouting a field in the morning and find birds working a particular field, I’ll wait until the birds leave the field in late morning to return to the roost. When scouting in the afternoon I wait for darkness to fall and the birds to head back to the roost.
Once the birds have left the field on their own, I’ll drive or walk in and mark the exact location the birds were feeding using a stake and some flagging tape. Feathers and fresh droppings on the ground help to confirm the precise location the birds were feeding.
I also incorporate the help of a GPS unit to create a plot trail identifying the best route to access the spot and also to save a latitude/longitude coordinate confirming the center of the area the birds were feeding in. Before I leave the field I also take time to name the GPS coordinate so in future years I can remember the significance of the spot.
Marking the spot with a stake and flagging tape may seem old school and unnecessary considering GPS technology. Actually that stake is amazingly handy when accessing the field using headlights or flash lights in the pre-dawn darkness. The stake is also a fail-safe should the batteries in the GPS die or the hard drive in the unit crash.
Another fact about GPS tracking that many hunters don’t understand is these units are essentially mini-computers. It takes a few seconds for the curser on the plot trail to update your exact location. This occurs because the processor in the GPS takes a little time to confirm and display changing information.
Driving in a vehicle these updates occur quickly enough that it’s fairly easy to follow a plot trail closely. At walking speed it is surprisingly easy to walk in the wrong direction based on what direction the curser is suggesting only to have the GPS update a few seconds later and the curser points in a completely different direction!
The GPS gets you in the right area quickly, but a simple stake and flagging tape can save a lot of time wandering around in the dark trying to find the spot on the spot.
Entire books have been written on how best to set waterfowl decoys for field hunts. Honestly I don’t think it’s all that complicated or critical as to how the decoys are positioned. Wild birds feeding in a field are going to be positioned randomly.
For field hunting I like to set up using a crossing wind so that approaching birds are looking into the decoy spread and not directly at the hunters hiding in layout blinds. In relationship to the blinds, most of my decoys are going to be upwind and fashioned roughly into a “V” shape that naturally funnels the birds into an enticing opening at the downwind edge of the spread.
I hunt with a collection of full body goose decoys, some shell goose decoys and a few motion wobbling half shells. The majority of the goose shells are placed on the upwind edge of the spread the farthest from the blinds. The ultra-realistic full body decoys make up the majority of the spread and are also used to help break up the outlines of the blinds. The shell wobblers are spread evenly throughout the spread to provide some motion and eliminate that “stale” lifeless look of many decoy spreads.
A couple dozen full body duck decoys are sprinkled into the opening of the “V” roughly in front of the blinds. The rig is completed by placing a couple spinning wing decoys just upwind of the duck decoys.
SPINNERS OR NO SPINNERS?
An ongoing argument about using or not using spinning wing decoys for waterfowl hunting rages on in Michigan and other heavily hunted states. I find that spinners do a good job of attracting ducks and even geese in low light conditions and when birds are passing by at a distance. Once these birds turn and start heading my direction, I turn off the spinners using a remote control.
At this point the birds have spotted the decoys and are headed in the right direction. In my experience, a little skillful calling and some flagging does more to encourage and finish these birds than a spinning wing decoy.
Perhaps the biggest mistake I see field hunters making is not taking the time to adequately thatch their layout blinds. To effectively blend into the background a layout blind needs to be completely covered in natural thatch. This is true regardless of what camo pattern is printed onto the layout blinds.
To speed up the thatching process I use small bundles of various colored raffia grass knotted to the stubble straps on my layout blinds. This base coat of cover is completed at home before hunting season begins. In the field I top dress the blinds by adding natural stubble to the blinds as needed to match the exact color and texture of the terrain.
Besides thatching the blinds completely it’s vitally important that no hunting gear is left outside the blinds. Lots of guys like to set their gunning bags or thermos bottle next to the layout blind and simply try to cover them when birds appear with a little chaff. This process creates more unnatural movement and conspicuous mounds in the field and expands the hunter foot print.
Every hunter should also be wearing a face mask or using camo makeup when field hunting. Not adhering to this simple rule just about guarantees that birds passing overhead will spot the hunters below and start to get nervous.
The “sleeping bag” style layout blinds have a nice low profile that is easier to hide, but they also require the hunter to keep his firearm outside of the blind. In this case that gun needs to feature a camo or flat black finish. A shiny blued shotgun is fine if used inside a layout blind, but the kiss of death when hunting from sleeping bag style blinds.
Successful field hunting for ducks and geese is about paying attention to all the details. Scouting to locate birds and then taking the time to pinpoint the exact location in the field the birds are favoring is critical.
Marking the “spot on the spot” in the field using both a stake and GPS coordinates insures that when hunters arrive in the pre-dawn darkness the process of setting up will go smoothly. Decoy spreads don’t need to be overly large or elaborate. Decoy spreads however do work best on a crossing wind that forces approaching birds to approach without looking directly at the hunters and blinds.
The blinds must be virtually invisible and the best way to accomplish that task is to thatch every blind and every dog hut completely with natural thatch from the field you’re hunting in. Every hunter should be wearing a face mask or camo makeup and when the birds turn your direction it’s time to shut off the spinning wing decoys.
Hunters that follow this regiment are going to find that even heavily hunted waterfowl can be fooled. Fooling birds that other hunters couldn’t is a very satisfying feeling and a big reason why the mixed bag field hunts of October are more than worth all the work and preparation.