The 10 Rules of Duck Scouting
Freelance waterfowling is one of the best ways to consistently kill birds, but doing it right depends on solid reconnaissance.
It wasn’t smart, driving the rental car across the cut pea field, but we needed to split our efforts. Alex and Bill had taken the truck to look one way, and I could either drive the economy rental—I believe it was a Kia—or not scout at all. We had just 45 minutes of light left, with no solid plans for the next morning, and so I decided to check out a 3-acre prairie lake where we’d had a good midday hunt earlier in the week. I figured if more ducks were roosting there, we could slip in again after daybreak and get a crack at the singles and pairs returning to loaf at midday.
The lake was betrayed in the miles of golden stubble by a few lone cottonwood trees, and it had sheer banks surrounding the side we were allowed to hunt. In order to get close enough so that I could see down into the water, I drove the Kia along a high ridge, where the black field dirt was good and dry. I was within a few hundred yards, moving slowly, when a small flock of mallards passed overhead. I stopped, expecting them to pitch into the lake, but instead they cupped hard and dropped into a depression hidden by the rolling field, just 300 yards to my left. Another flock followed the same course a minute later. The lake was worth forgetting for a moment.
I stepped out of the car, crouched low and then belly-crawled to the lip of a hill, where I could see a writhing black mass in the depression below. Glassing it revealed that the black was actually a low-light illusion. I was looking at thousands of greenheads crammed into an acre-sized puddle.
They lifted at full dark, and so I drove the Kia as close as I dared to illuminate the pothole with headlights. It was maybe 4 inches deep, and it smelled just exactly as you’d think an acre of duck crap would. I dropped an onX pin and hauled it back to camp. We returned an hour later to brush in layout blinds, and we set decoys in the predawn of the next day. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a better duck hunt, and it was because of a lucky scouting break.
Waterfowling can be a great equalizer between the haves and have-nots. I live in the southern Mississippi Flyway, where a good portion of the hunting is done from big, comfortable blinds—pits, floaters, stilt blinds, you name it—overlooking massive decoy spreads in artificially flooded crop fields or historically productive wetlands. I’ve had good hunts in blinds like that, but I have seen many more slow sunrises from such places. For day-to-day duck-killing odds, I’ll take a gritty, mobile approach every time. If you can find the right ducks today, chances are high for a good hunt tomorrow. Here’s how to do it.
Bring Good Glass That Can Take a Beating
Whether you’re hunting Dakota prairies or Mississippi River sandbars, you’re often dealing with wide-open spaces when scouting for ducks. It’s almost impossible to look that stuff over effectively without binoculars. Top-end glass never hurts, but duck hunting is wet, muddy business, and that mud has a way of ruining optics by sneaking into eyecups and scratching lenses. Plus, duck glassing is done in the daylight, with quick checks of multiple areas. I like good budget binoculars for my scouting. This year I’ve been using Bushnell’s Engage 10×42, and they’ll do everything you need and more for less than $150.
I’ve also come to appreciate a spotting scope, once I find ducks, to help me assess the situation a little more carefully. Mine is a Leupold SX-5 Santiam HD, and it’s a pricey scope—I keep it covered and protected until I need it—but you can certainly get by with a less-expensive spotting scope for duck scouting.
Don’t Be Afraid to Travel to Find Ducks
Ducks aren’t everywhere, even in a place like North Dakota during a peak migration. The best freelance duck hunters have a “don’t quit” mindset, and they know that finding ducks might call for a 10-mile boat ride, a 2-mile hike, or a 75-mile drive in a rental Kia. That’s even more true during the stale days of the season, when it’s warm and there doesn’t seem to be a push of fresh birds in sight.
Don’t sit in the same old spot, hoping for things to get better. If you can find a few feeding ducks sitting somewhere else, you can get some shooting in the next morning—and if you happen to time that morning with a new push of birds, you might well stumble onto a new favorite spot.
Recognize and Adapt to Changes in the Ecology
Mallards love flooded corn, right? Sure, except for during the early season, when they’ll fly right past it to dig for invertebrates on mudflats alongside the shovelers. Duck diets change throughout the season depending on weather and water conditions, and you need to educate yourself on what the species in your area prefer. They may not be in the places you expect.
Teal love skinny-water mudflats, for example, where it’s sometimes too shallow to set keeled decoys. Gadwalls and wigeon will mix right in with coots and canvasbacks in deeper water, so long as there’s aquatic vegetation just below the surface. You might shoot a limit of ringnecks in a beaver pond, but you’re not likely to kill bluebills there—even though they’re both diving ducks, and they look a lot alike. The best goldeneye shoots I’ve seen have been over shad kills off rocky points in 20 feet of water, which is a far cry from flooded green timber. Keeping an open mind toward both the species you’re hunting and how you’re willing to hunt them means more success—and more fun, too.
Look For Feeding Ducks
You’ve been running the boat for two hours and finally, there’s a pocket full of ducks. It’s easy from here, right? Just show up the next day with decoys, find a place to hide, and shoot your limit.
Not so fast. Once I find ducks, I like to settle in, switch to my spotting scope, and watch them awhile. You can kill birds along good flight paths and in loafing areas—but feeding areas are best.
Ducks that are scattered and sitting mostly still on open water are usually resting and loafing. Feeding ducks, be they divers or puddle ducks, will be busy. Puddlers feed by tipping up or seining the shallows with their bills. They’ll jostle for space, and might pile wing-butt-to-wing-butt on the best food. Divers will be, well, diving. Though they frequently amass in huge flocks, various groups within the flock will move in toward the shoreline or offshore bars to feed. It’ll look something like a model train village, with multiple groups continuously moving in and out to hit the underwater feed.
Find activity like that, and you’ve found the X for the following morning.
Watch the Ducks’ Approach the Surroundings
As you’re watching feeding ducks, take note of the wind direction, and of additional birds dropping in. Do they seem to be swinging over one side of the bay vs. the other? Are they avoiding a treeline or a fencerow? It’s best to have circling ducks looking down at your decoys, rather than at your blind, and watching flight paths will give you some clues on how approaching ducks are likely to work the spread on game day.
Don’t Flush The Ducks That You’re Watching
Can you see the ducks clearly enough to identify them? Confirm that they’re feeding and happy and likely to return? Then why the hell would you sneak in closer and flush them? I don’t know, either, but duck hunters do it all the time.
We all like to see birds in the air, but there’s not a single good reason to flush ducks that you’re hoping to hunt the next day. If you must get close to see them—say you’re scouting a beaver pond deep in the timber—then camo up and treat it like a spot-and-stalk hunt. If you’re scouting open areas, use your optics to keep a safe distance. Sometimes you need a closer look at a spot to make a plan—more on that in a bit—but sit and hide and wait for the birds to leave on their own before you move in. I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve seen feeding, undisturbed ducks not return the next day. But ducks that have been flushed are much more unpredictable.
Scout the Hide for Natural Camouflage
Just the other day, my buddy and I hauled in layout blinds to target several hundred gadwalls we’d found feeding on a wide-open mudflat. The situation forced us to set up 70 yards or more from the shoreline, and we felt wide open and exposed on that flat. So, we cut a bunch of oak brush and used it to break up our outline.
Trouble was, those gadwalls had gotten used to the security of that desert-esque flat, and they knew that brush wasn’t there the day before. As soon as the sun came up, they quit buying what we were selling with our decoy spread, and we only shot a few birds.
You have to be hidden from ducks to kill them. We frequently use layout blinds, but even those work best in conjunction with shoreline depressions or vegetation. Once I find ducks and confirm that they’ve left for the roost, I’ll often motor my boat (or drive my rental Kia) in for a closer look, since there are some details you just can’t see without walking around. You frequently need to haul in brush to conceal your blind, be it a layout, A-frame, or boat blind—but you might need to get more creative than that. I’ve carried shovels in my boat to dig depressions into sandbars and lower the profiles of layout blinds, and looking back, that’s exactly what we should’ve done while hunting those gadwalls the other day.
Drop GPS Pins So You Can Find Your Way in the Dark
A handheld GPS is a great tool, but they’re expensive. Meanwhile, almost everyone has a smartphone and the ability to use apps like onX Hunt (which I believe is about the most influential scouting tool ever made, next to the trail camera). You can save maps offline so that you can still access them in areas with little service—which are frequently the areas ducks like best. Many spots—like that pothole Alex, Bill, and I hunted in North Dakota—are a lot easier to find in the dark if you have a pinned waypoint to guide you to them.
Keep Tabs on Multiple Hot Spots for Ducks
Ten years ago, had someone asked, “What do you do if other hunters beat you to the spot?” I would’ve said, “Get up earlier, and don’t let that happen, you lazy somebitch.”
But 10 years ago my perspective was a little different. I was in my 20s, for example, and didn’t have a kid. These days, I still don’t like to be beaten to the birds, and I won’t rule out a 2:30 a.m. wake-up call if I think it’s required to secure a public-water hotspot. But I’m not “mad enough” at the ducks to do that three days a week anymore, either. Finding one killer spot to hunt is good, but two is better. That’s another advantage of covering water and miles. I always like to see big numbers of birds, but I’ve had some quick-limit hunts in places where I’ve scouted out just a few dozen ducks.
Scout for Ducks While You Hunt
It’s easy for a self-employed outdoor writer to skip work to go and look for ducks. I can, after all, call it “work.” But most of my hunting buddies have jobs that aren’t that flexible, and so when they have time off, they’d rather hunt than look. On a day with good weather, we’ve taken to loading the boat with our guns and a bunch of decoys—plus our optics and a full tank of gas—and launching at daybreak. Then we run the river, and glass until we see ducks. At that point, we make an exception to our “never flush ‘em” rule, because we aren’t planning a next-day hunt. We’re planning a right-now hunt. We gently kick the birds out by easing the boat toward them, and soon as they flush, we make a mad dash to set decoys and get ready. Seldom do they all come back but some of them usually do, and sometimes they do it quickly. We might shoot a few, pick up, and then make a run to do it again. It’s hard work. But it beats sitting in the same old blind for 60 straight sunrises.