Beaver-pond ducks are right there, over-head and in your face. Whether it's a sedge-rimmed Alberta pond or a Georgia slough choked with catbrier, pocket water that has been created by beaver, nature's most impressive engineers, provides intimate, up-close-and-personal duck hunting.
Or not. Just as often, beaver-pond birds are as skittish as day-old goats, ignoring your finest decoys and settling just out of range or across the swamp. The bottom line: Killing ducks in beaver ponds and swamps can come very, very easily. Or be pretty close to impossible.
The good thing is you don't have to have a boat, a dog, or a pickup truck's worth of decoys to give it a shot. But you might need to change a few of your tactics to make the adjustment from hunting ducks over open water. Here's how.
You'll have to navigate creek channels, beaver dams, and boot-sucking mud, so give yourself plenty of time for the often difficult hump in to a beaver pond. If there's any chance at all for ice-up, add a half hour, minimum, and bring a portable spotlight. You may need to find open water. If your pond is part of a chain of beaver impoundments along a long creek or watershed (and most of them are), you may be faced with too much of a good thing. In these situations the ducks frequently have plenty of options, so you must scout carefully to pin down the exact pocket where they want to be. If you haven't scouted, find a point or a clump of shrubs near both open water and more heavily vegetated pocket water. Place a spread of decoys in each spot.
Concealment is critical. Hide your blinds well with deadfall. Hunters without them should try to disappear in the brush and weeds. Carry small pruning shears to trim away overhanging limbs or briers that will snag your coat sleeve as you turn to fire a highball at a cruising flock. Finding firm footing in beaver ponds is difficult, so stomp around and get your feet in good shooting position now. Before dawn breaks, decide on who calls the shots and who takes the low bird.
[THE MAGIC HOUR]
Beaver-pond birds can come very early, especially if you're targeting wood ducks. Know precisely when legal hours begin. If ducks land in the decoys too early, stay still. If they stick around for a few minutes, you'll double your setup's drawing power. In low-light conditions, beaver ponds toss up tricky shooting challenges. A maze of overhanging branches and tree trunks creates distracting backgrounds. The ducks seem to come from everywhere—or out of nowhere. It's back to Wingshooting 101: Pick one bird. Get the gun barrel moving. Kill it. Find another.
[WAITING IT OUT]
Some of my favorite beaver ponds are resting sites that don't come alive until long past dawn. Plan ahead to hang around for the mid-morning, or even noon, mallard flights. This is when patience and discipline are virtues. Try not to horse around during the slow periods. If you're hunting with a buddy, sit at angles and watch each other's backs for ducks slipping in quietly. Adding movement to your decoys can pay big dividends during the waiting hours. Use jerk cords to impart eye-catching ripples to the water.
It's inevitable that some birds will land on the other side of the pond or swamp. Jump-shooting such finicky fowl can be very productive, but leave one person in the blind to cover the decoys or work on the birds that flare as you stalk. And don't pass up good shots. This is one of the most frequent mistakes I make. It's true that most beaver-pond shots will be close, but late in the season ducks are overly cautious even about the seemingly safe environs of pocket water. You don't have to wait for them to get in your face. Know your range and be honest about your shooting ability, but don't hesitate to shoot birds that come within those parameters.
One really dirty trick: Beaver-pond ducks are notorious for always landing where you and your decoys aren't. Vent your frustration by hanging a few aluminum pie pans on trees located in the pond's far corners, away from your setup. They might be just enough of a deterrent to steer birds to your blind. Make sure to remove these sneaky scarecrows on your way out.
Hunting a beaver pond starts with finding the right one. Young ponds and flooded swamps are a hunter's best bet, because rich, flooded soils produce a flush of edible plants, from duckweed to wild rice. If your favorite pond seems to be drawing fewer ducks, look up and down the watershed for places where beavers have recently migrated.
Even older ponds, however, can produce a fine duck shoot. The surrounding trees produce more and more mast as they grow, a wood duck bonanza. As a beaver pond ages, it also tends to expand as the beavers add to the dam. The deeper waters stay ice-free longer and can be a late-winter magnet when surrounding spots freeze up.
Always scout in the morning, not the evening. An older beaver pond or swamp that fills with ducks roosting at sunset might be empty of birds just a few minutes past legal shooting light as they depart for distant feeding grounds.
THE USUAL SUSPECTS:
These five ducks love beaver ponds. Here's how to bring them home.
WOOD DUCK Woodies react unpredictably to decoys. Sometimes dekes pull them in; other times the birds ignore them. At first light, be posted along the pond's creek channel, the most common route for these early fliers to take.
MALLARD Greenheads go where other greenheads went. If more than two flights of mallards snub your set for some other corner of the swamp, move your decoys swiftly.
BLACK DUCK These will circle a beaver pond endlessly, then turn away for no apparent reason. If the birds are slow to commit, wait until they drop below 35 yards, and take them as they pass overhead with wings spread and vitals showing.
GADWALL Population numbers are up, so toss three to five gadwall decoys—or mallard hens—in a cluster near the shore side of your decoy spread to convince "gray ducks" to pitch in.
TEAL Often flying in dense, erratically moving flocks, teal are notoriously difficult to hit. Shoot them like doves: Move that gun barrel fast, pull the trigger as you block out the bird, and keep swinging.
GEAR FOR THE POND HUNTER
IT TAKES GOOD STUFF TO GET YOU THROUGH A MORNING OF MUD AND SWAMP GOO, NOT TO MENTION THE HALF-MILE BRAMBLE HIKE TO THE OPEN WATER
HAT TRICK The only animal that likes beaver water better than ducks is the mosquito. Protect yourself with this nifty Face Mask Hat with an integral full-coverage facemask made from Buzz Off material. $25; 800-785-8268; llbean.com
MUCK CHAIR The Surf n' Swamp Seat has a 14-inch seat top that's stable and comfy, and the telescoping leg adjusts from 36 to 56 inches long. You'll never sit in mud again. $50; 310-617-3577; surfnswamp.com
SMART BAG Stowing decoys while standing in waist-deep muck and weeds is no fun. The Drake Stand-Up Decoy Bag takes some of the grunt out of the chore. Its inner coil spring holds the back upright and open, and it fits more than two dozen standard decoys—plenty for beaver-pond gunning. $40; 866-521-5012; drakewaterfowl.com
ROUGH, TOUGH WADERS For my money, the old-school three-ply canvas and rubber waders offer the best balance of toughness, relative light weight, and comfort. The ones from LaCrosse are just right for long slogs to distant swamps mined with dagger-sharp beaver sticks. $110; 800-323-2668; lacrossefootwear.com
FIELD DECOYS Place a few feeding and preening decoys on a beaver dam or mudflat to boost your spread's drawing power. G&H Decoys' field mallards are stackable shells with adjustable, removable heads for maximum realism that takes up minimum space. $100 for six; 800-443-3269; ghdecoys.com
SMALL-WATER CALL Since beaver-pond hunters need their birds close and closer, they should learn to blow a really nice swamp call. The Rich-N-Tone Quackhead Timber produces a softer, nasal call that won't blast birds out of smaller waters. $25; 888-768-2255; rntcalls.com
Negotiating beaver ponds means wading waters up to your suspender clips. To keep gear dry, I use portage sacks made for canoe campers. They come with shoulder straps and are large enough to swallow four decoys, a bucket seat, and a separate dry bag for spare clothing. Look for them at paddling stores or seallinegear.com.