With a few exceptions, no matter where you live in the U.S., you have a duck-hunting opportunity close by, often closer than you may think. These places take many different shapes and go by different names: stock ponds, prairie potholes, beaver dams, creeks, streams, sloughs, tanks and sheet water. No matter what you call them, most have two things in common-they’re small and they hold ducks.
Finding small waters takes a bit of effort, but the rewards are worth it. Start by sitting at your desk with a good topographical map of the area, paying particular attention to drainages, depressions and flats that may hold water. Township and plat maps that list ownership are also a must. Cross-reference these with aerial maps and satellite images from the Internet. Web sites like Google Earth (earth.google.com) and TerraServer (www.terraserver-usa.com) provide a duck’s-eye view, revealing hidden ponds and pocket water so small conventional maps may not list them.
After doing your homework it’s time to put in some windshield time driving back roads with your master map in hand. Spend most of your time on the roads in the early morning or just before sundown. Park your truck near the most likely looking areas and wait, watching the skies for duck trading between spots. Mid-day is a good time to burn up some boot leather bushwhacking the backcountry. Note access points, pullouts and any other pertinent info, such as landowner names and phone numbers, on your master map.
All this research should result in a well-planned milk route, a collection of puddles, ponds streams and sloughs you can hit in succession. During the peak of the migration or in late season when larger still waters are covered by ice, it’s possible to make two runs on your milk route in one day as birds move from spot to spot due to hunter pressure or bad weather.
Once you’ve found skinny water, it’s time to go hunting, and unlike typical waterfowling, this isn’t an equipment-heavy operation. All you really need to be successful on smaller waters is a good shotgun. The shooting is going to be up-close and personal, so opt for a fast-pointing gun with an open choke. Improved cylinder is a good choice. For ammo, 2 ¾-inch or 3-inch No. 4 steel shot provides a good mix of power and pellet count.
A well-trained retriever always makes a good day of hunting better, with the emphasis on well-trained. Small waters often mean the thick cover of brush, tules and woodlots and a good dog will find downed ducks you may have otherwise lost. But, ol’ Duke should be trained to heel and steady to shot or he’ll bust birds before you get within range. If you don’t have a dog, a collapsible fishing pole with weighted treble hook makes a good duck and decoy retriever.
Depending on the water you’re hunting, you may not even need waders, although it’s smart to have a pair in the truck just in case. Often knees-high rubber boots are all you’ll need to get you where you need to be. Match those with a good set of brush pants and a camo coat and you’re ready.
The primary method for getting big results from small waters is jump shooting. Combining equal parts stealth and savvy, with just enough luck added to make it interesting, jump shooting is not unlike walking up grouse or pheasants. It’s particularly effective at mid-day after birds have come to back to water after their morning feed.
Ideally, the water you’re planning to jump has a distant vantage point where you can glass the water ahead of time. A compact pair of quality binoculars will help you spot birds on small water and plan your attack. Other times, you’ll have to go in blind with the hope the ducks will be sitting tight.
When sneaking ducks, keep whatever cover is available between you and the birds. Tules and tall grass are ideal, as are a ditch or dam. Ducks prefer to loaf on the lea-side of the bank, out of the wind. Keep the wind at your back and don’t be afraid to crawl to close the distance. Stay focused and be ready for the flush at anytime, and remember to keep your dog at heel as you approach. Small-water ducks are warier than we often give them credit for. Shots are typically in the 10- to 30-yard range, so be sure to cover the bird when you pull the trigger.
Picking ducks from these pockets of water can be so easy, it sometimes feels like stealing. In truth, it’s an honest day’s work with only one downside-the long hike back to the truck loaded with a heavy strap of birds strung over your shoulder. That’s a small price to pay and it sure beats humping a full spread of decoys into an overhunted public area. Just do your homework, hike up your hip boots and take pleasure in your pocket-picking ability.
The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us atUSAmembers@unionsportsmen.org.