The saying “good things come in small packages” might pertain to duck hunting. I like to hunt extensive, expansive marshes for puddle ducks or brave the big water for divers from a layout boat or boat blind, but there’s something to be said for finding secluded honey holes, too.
Hunting potholes, small streams, and creeks may be waterfowling at its simplest. You don’t need a whole bunch of gear. You’re pretty much set if you’ve got a half dozen decoys, some hip boots or waders, a pair of binoculars, a shotgun, and a sense of adventure.
The key to successfully hunting on small, secluded water is scouting. These off–the–beaten–path hotspots are often temporary duck nirvana created by beaver, heavy rains, or unique weather patterns, and they change from year to year, if not week to week.
Off–season is an excellent time to do some essential scouting, and during early grouse, archery deer, or pheasant hunting excursions is perfect for finding the waters ducks are using.
Keep a log of likely locations. Note whether you saw waterfowl there or the location just looked “ducky.” Note nuances in the terrain, likely blind locations, specie of ducks, places where birds were setting, and, if possible, GPS coordinates so you can find the spot again.
Doing this allows you to develop a cache of spots you can fall back on because you don’t want to hunt one particular spot too much. Ducks are using these little hideaways because they feel safe there. Violate this comfort zone too frequently and the ducks will move to where they feel more comfortable and less threatened.
Topographical and aerial maps can be used to find small ponds, potholes, and secluded creeks and can cut down on scouting time. Maps can be purchased for any location, are GPS–and compass–ready, and are waterproof. There are online sources too. For more information, go to www.mytopo.com or phone 877–857–9004.
Foresters, biologists, and conservation officers are good sources of information for potential small–water duck hunting locations. Foresters have a good feel for the terrain in their area and can steer you towards ponds, potholes or creeks that might attract waterfowl. Biologists have a good idea of beaver activity in the area, and finding a series of beaver ponds can be vital in discovering a waterfowl hideaway. Conservation officers spend a lot of time in the field and have an intimate knowledge of their territory. A courteous request could result in valuable information and a start in the right direction.
A pothole or small pond may have been created naturally or excavated to water livestock. The ideal pothole has lots of cover around the edges, is relatively shallow with plenty of aquatic vegetation to attract ducks and is located close to other ponds or a larger body of water that trading waterfowl use.
While potholes are usually individual bodies of water, they can also be found in large expanses of marsh. Small, isolated openings in the cattails in otherwise monotonous expenses of marsh make for perfect resting and feeding spots for waterfowl. These potholes are usually found in out–of–the–way locations other hunters avoid or don’t realize are there. Industrious muskrats may create openings in the marsh that weren’t there last year.
Another “pothole” is created during wet, rainy fall weather. Heavy rains often flood fields and low-lying locations, creating temporary potholes attracting ducks. This type of sheet water pond can be in the middle of a cornfield, flooded timber, or a temporary pond in an otherwise dry field.
Hunters need to watch for flocks of ducks pitching into an unlikely location and then check them out. Recently, I saw a single duck pitch down into a seemingly dry grass field. A closer inspection revealed a series of ponds created by a tiny stream. The first pond was loaded with blue-winged teal, providing great shooting during the early season.
Ducks love gorging on waste grain while getting their feet wet, tipping up for acorns, or sifting invertebrates from shallow sheet water ponds. Do your homework, and you might discover a waterfowl bonanza. It’s often a short-lived bounty, but it can be fun while it lasts.
The best time to hunt potholes is usually early in the season. Locally raised puddle ducks like teal, mallards, black ducks, and wood ducks are the most common species encountered when hunting potholes. Occasionally, small–water divers like buffleheads or ringnecks will add variety to the bag.
Teal and wood ducks are early migrants, and at the first hint of cold weather, they will be headed south. Hardier species, like mallards and blacks, will use the potholes until they freeze over, and the birds have to seek other locations that afford open water.
Most potholes and ponds began to ice up in early November, but find one that’s spring–fed or has a stream or creek emptying into it, and you might have great shooting right up until season’s end.
To hunt potholes, you can put a sneak on unsuspecting ducks and enjoy some exciting jump–shooting action. Or you can flush the birds off, throw out some decoys, and wait for the birds to return. Both tactics work. It’s best to check the pond from a distance with binoculars to determine if any ducks are on the pond and where they’re located. Then, you can use the available cover and terrain to sneak into shooting range.
Usually, if you spy a half-dozen ducks on the water, there will be a bunch more tucked into the weeds that you didn’t see. If you’re in an area with several potholes, multiple hunters can post at the others, and you can keep the birds moving between potholes.
When hunting potholes, you’re likely only to need a few decoys, so put them out in the open where incoming birds can see them. A float tube can help retrieve decoys and birds if the bottom is muddy or the water is too deep, and you don’t own a retriever. Calling can help attract attention to your decoys. If you’ve done your homework and are on a pothole that ducks have been using, they usually pitch right in with little coaxing.
A retriever can be a godsend for finding birds that land in thick cover or in the middle of the pond where they can’t be reached. The dog must be under control at all times. A dog that blasts through the cattails and spooks the birds before everyone is ready is worse than having no dog.
Modest streams and creeks are other small-water places that most hunters don’t associate with great waterfowling. Many of these produced plenty of ducks during the nesting season, and ducks see them as natural oases. Unlike potholes, which are best during the first half of the season, creeks and streams can produce excellent hunting throughout the season. Early in the season, hunters will find plenty of local birds using flowing water. Hunting pressure that flushes birds off area lakes and marshes will send ducks looking for seclusion that they often find on creeks and streams.
Float-hunting is one of the best ways to hunt creeks and small streams. Drifting quietly down a meandering stream is mesmerizing and therapeutic. The routine is simple. Hunters spot one vehicle at the take-out location, launch upstream, and float down to the take-out. Hunters take turns in the bow of the canoe. For safety reasons, only the hunter in front of the canoe does the shooting. Plan for about a three or four hour float. That’s about all the time you want to spend cramped in front of a canoe. If you have floated the stream before, you may know about sloughs or bayous where you might throw out some decoys or try jump-shooting. Be sure to check your state’s regulations with regard to floating streams and get the permission of the landowner if necessary.
Later in the year, when area marshes and lakes are frozen solid, the resident waterfowl will gravitate to the remaining open water. Creeks and streams can become bonanzas then. Hardy species, like mallards and black ducks, will be the most common, and Canada geese can be a bonus during the waning days of the waterfowl season.