Public Land Pursuit
By Darren Digby
The idea of public hunting land, for many hunters, is both a windfall and a thorn in the side. Sure it’s a place to go for a few birds, but all too often a few birds in the bag come at the cost of a huge headache from overcrowded acreage. After all, it’s a free place to hunt, and that means free to everyone and often their brother too. Throw in a location in close proximity to a major metropolitan area home to a plethora of passionate waterfowlers and you’ve got a recipe for one chaotic gumbo.
If you’re one of those who rely nearly exclusively on these sorts of areas to pursue our favorite feathered quarry, I feel for you, for I too am what you could call a public land warrior. Each available morning of the season I can be found battling it out with my brethren in attempt to find that sweet spot far from the reaches of the average Joe hunter. We’re always looking for that one place where the nearest gunfire is but a distant roll of thunder on the horizon, rather than a stick of dynamite in your backyard. That pond where the birds are pouring in and you can do no wrong with call nor decoy placement to keep them out. For most of us, this is merely an opening day dream. However, with some forethought to the season, you can up your odds of finding such a honey hole all of your own.
Now I know most of you are fired up when the season comes along, when those leaves start turning you start to get the itch to get out the gear and begin scouting missions. However, I’d tell you that you’re already handicapping yourself right off the bat. Sure you’re out there on the water in October and November but where were you in July, August or September?
I’ll tell you one thing, as sick as I am with the waterfowl illness, I’m out in my nearby marshes during these pre-season months. Sure it’s hot and the air feels anything but “ducky” but the habitat is in place after thriving during the growing season. In my particular area I can visit the marsh and take a paddle around the area, binoculars, GPS, and satellite map in hand. This is the time to take an afternoon to really get to know your local public land. In just a few afternoon sessions afield, you can greatly expand your knowledge of the ins and outs of the area and get a leg up on which areas are holding the most abundant feed for arriving birds.
Maybe that small creek you noticed leads back to a wooded slough? Maybe that small pond is just a tributary to a much larger one that remains out of sight? In my experiences from just spending time looking around, often there is much more to an area that immediately meets the eye. Maybe by paddling just a little bit further, just around that corner, you may just stumble upon your own duck haven.
For those of you who have found one of these places, I’d bet that you’ve made more than a few memories by reaping the rewards of a well scouted locale. Nothing is more rewarding than hard work paying off in dividends. In this case, sweat poured into getting to know the prime habitat in your area could pay off with hefty straps and bragging rights at the boat ramp.
In my small circle of waterfowling friends, we’ve committed to employing these strategies and in turn have enjoyed some hunts for the ages. One such example comes to mind in particular where a buddy and I found a pond with above average amounts of feed during the summer, which we promptly marked with our GPS units. In the heat of the summer, the resident mottled ducks and wood ducks had the whole area to themselves. This of course is one of our keys to identifying what areas the fall flight will use as they will tend to join up with the resident birds where feed abounds.
Upon return to this area in late October, we weren’t surprised to find it loaded with ducks, mainly early arriving gadwall, widgeon, and teal. As we glassed them from afar, we knew the area would be a fail-safe opening day spot. However, when the opener rolled around, low water conditions prevented us from reaching the area so we had to settle for coming up short and hunting some decent areas 300 to 400 yards away. All morning long we watched birds pour into that honey hole knowing full well we (nor anyone else) could get to them.
This all changed during a Thursday morning hunt the following week. We had initially set up in an adjacent area with only two birds to show for our effort two hours into the hunt. As the morning wore on the birds continued to pour into that elusive pond however we noticed the water levels beginning to rebound as a result of a wind shift to a more southerly breeze. Right then and there the decision was made to pack up our dekes and find a way back to that pond one way or another.
Though it took some hard work with exhaustive poling and paddling, we found our way into the pond as the masses erupted from the water. We made our way to a small island for a quick setup, tossing a handful of dekes haphazardly at best. Some were left upside down, side by side, strings wrapped around, but it did not matter as the birds were pouring back in right where they left. We filled our limits within ten minutes and took the time to take pictures basking in our glory of hard work paying off beyond our expectations. And this pond was not done paying us back.
Our refuge is closed on Fridays so I put a call into my cousin to drive up and meet me at home for a Saturday hunt which I was confident to be a good one. The winds were remaining southerly so I knew we would easily make our way to the honey hole with sufficient water levels, but I prayed that we had not spooked the birds out with our Thursday onslaught.
Fifteen minutes before shooting time, no sign of the masses. But that soon changed as the air around us began to whistle and quack, miraculously on cue right before shooting time. My cousin and I took turns taking our birds, picking out as many drake widgeon and gadwall as possible. It was over in an hour and a half but could have just as easily been twenty minutes had we not prolonged the hunt for maximum enjoyment. Again we were sure to fully document the day with plenty of pictures. As we picked up our decoys, the birds continued piling in.
That evening I was tired but the thought of another incredible hunt kept tugging at me; I couldn’t help but plan to hit it again in the morning. “Surely those birds have wised up on us,” I thought to myself, but you’ve got to go to know. I convinced my cousin to stay the night and join me again in the morning though no promises were made to match the success of the previous hunt. After all, the odds were catching up to us. I also put in a call for another buddy to join us. If for some reason the birds were there, we may as well hit them for as many as we can right?
The next morning we were there on time, again with empty skies shortly before shooting time. However right as the legal shooting hour struck, it was déjà vu. We enjoyed non-stop action until we had our 18 birds on the strap in just over one hour’s time. Again, mainly widgeon and gadwall filled the strap. We could do no wrong with calling or decoy placement or the sounds of whooping, hollering and high fives celebrating the seemingly miraculous action. When it was all over, we took plenty of pictures to document what was likely to be the best hunting we’d see for a long time thereafter.
Since that weekend in early December of the 2005-2006 season, that pond has produced memorable hunts but not on the scale of that fateful weekend. Most notably, the lesson taken from the experience was that scouting for a hard to reach location could be worth the trouble. Less hunting pressure, less human interaction and plenty of feed usually make for ideal refuges for ducks particularly when adjacent to highly pressured public grounds. It’s up to you to make the decision of whether or not you’re willing to put in the work to find these places. The way I see it, I’m more than willing to invest in the form of effort to making public land work for me as opposed to denting my bank account on a private lease which may or may not even produce.
With that in mind, every summer and early fall we are out there long before the season starts. We’re searching for the next overachieving pond far from the chaos of those ponds most easily reached. After all, never let anyone tell you its too early in the year to start scouting. And although the calendar just turned to July, I think I’m about ready to load up the boat and head out there to have a look around.