WIDE-OPEN Waterfowling

With ducks and geese increasingly drawn to sprawling grainfields and big lakes, smart hunters have found some creative ways to vanish into thin cover.

By Wade L. Bourne

Have you ever had a wild mallard land on your nose? Neither have I, but I had a very close call five years ago in a rice field near Stuttgart, Arkansas.

I was flat on my back in a layout boat, looking up into a bright winter sky. The coffinlike craft and I were buried in rice straw, all except for my face, which was encased in a camo headnet. A dozen decoys bobbed in the thin water on my downwind side.

My being there was an experiment, and it had proved successful beyond my highest expectations. The season was in its last week. Ducks were used to being hammered, and they were all too wary of unnatural clumps of cane or oak branches sprouting in the flat, flooded fields. These blinds may as well have borne flashing signs advertising, "Hunters here." That's how the birds were responding.

Thus, my idea to try the layout boat. I simply dragged it to the side of the field opposite the blind where a couple of hundred mallards were rafted. They flushed away at my approach, and I set up exactly where they had been dabbling for grain. By the time I had tossed out my decoys and hidden the boat, the ducks were filtering back in. Fifteen minutes later, I'd bagged two greenheads and a gadwall, then I settled back to enjoy the show.

That's when the drake nearly made a landing pad out of my face. As I watched a small flight circle to land, a sudden rush of wind, sound, and gray motion swooped directly through my line of sight. I blinked and ducked involuntarily, and a greenhead plopped into the water no more than three feet from my right ear. Immediately he sensed something was awry, and he sprang back into the air, joined the ducks circling my spread, and eventually settled back in for a breakfast of grain.

The "Big Wide": These days it's the place to be for ducks and geese. Modern farming methods and heavy gunning pressure have combined to change the habits of these birds. Sure, you can still find waterfowl in small potholes, beaver swamps, and flooded timber. But more and more, the birds are shifting to wide-open spaces where food is plentiful and hunter-concealing cover is sparse. Grainfields (flooded and dry), big lakes, mud flats, and other expanses have become favorite feeding and loafing locales for these birds.

This presents hunters with an obvious problem. How do you get at ducks and geese that are using these open plains and bays? How can you not be obvious in such spots, especially when cover is sparse?

The answer: While it's difficult to disappear completely in the Big Wide, you can come close enough to lure waterfowl into range consistently. Hunters who have a mix of imagination and hustle can indeed blend into the Big Wide and enjoy high quality wildfowling as a result. Following are methods and illustrations for doing exactly this.

Laying Out

My experience in Arkansas illustrates two cardinal rules in pursuing ducks and geese in the Big Wide. One, go to the birds; don't try to force them to come to you. If they're hitting slash water in the middle of a grainfield, that's your ticket. Don't waste time setting up at the edge of the field, then trying to lure the birds away from where they want to work naturally.

And the second rule: Find some way to fade into the scenery. Rare is the setting that is totally void of cover. Grain stubble, Johnson grass, scattered brush, and driftwood are a few of many natural camo sources that can help a hunter evade the scrutiny of airborne eyes.

As I learned on that rice field hunt, a layout rig is a way to abide by these two principles. Laying out has been practiced by waterfowlers in scattered locales for years, yet it's never caught on among duck and goose hunters at large. Tradition, or the lack of it, plays a major role in the disregard.

Still, take this to the bank: Assuming a prone position is an extremely efficient means for killing ducks and geese in open country. From overhead, a flat profile blends in effectively with tabletop terrain. Add a layer of natural camo, keep graveyard still, and the birds will sail in with no suspicion whatever that danger lurks below.

Over the years, I've tried several means of laying out. One early attempt was Iying on a snow-covered ice floe next to a hole of open water on Tennessee's Lake Barkley. A white bed sheet covered me up to my eyeballs; a pillow slip concealed my cap and ears.

This was when I was younger, and who cared about comfort? I once swam naked in a creek for a downed greenhead when the temperature was in the teens. A bed of snow and ice was a piece of cake! I never moved or called, I just lay there and watched for air traffic over the hole. My perseverance was rewarded with a limit of mixed ducks and one stray honker. (I retrieved the birds and, at hunt's end, my decoys with a casting rod and a large topwater plug.)

Another time, continuous flights of mallards were feeding in dry barley fields near The Pas, Manitoba. The grain had been mowed down, and the stalks and ripe heads had been raked into long rows for drying. The birds were landing and feeding along these rows like locusts.

This one was easy. My partners and I hiked to the area where the ducks were working, set up three dozen field decoys, then burrowed under the barley just upwind to await the next flight. When it arrived, we let the ducks almost touch down, then sat up and took them at waist level.

However, no longer do I lie on the ground or on ice, not since discovering the Poke Boat®. This kayak-looking craft is designed for paddling, but it doubles as an ideal layout boat. It's built from tough aircraft fiberglass and nylon, and it weighs only 28 pounds. It's roomy enough to nestle into comfortably, and it sure beats lying on ice or mud. Because of its toughness and light weight, the Poke Boat® may be dragged across dry fields as well as towed or paddled on skim water. When ducks are located in the Big Wide, decoys can be positioned, then the Poke Boat® can quickly be stashed upwind or crosswind and covered with stubble, brush, and even mud. The hunter crawls inside, pulls up a face mask, and lies still. (The main problem is dozing off when the action is slow.)

Duck Poke Boat

My Arkansas rice field hunt was my first test for the Poke Boat® ; since then I've used it in a variety of other settings. I've hunted it on bay flats, smearing it with mud and dragging up driftwood for extra concealment. I've dug it into river sandbars. I've hidden it between rows of corn and soybean stubble. Each time I use it, I become even more convinced that layout rigs may be the best and easiest way to hunt waterfowl in exposed areas. (Hunters interested in learning more about the Poke Boat® should contact the manufacturer: Phoenix Poke Boats, Inc.®, P.O. Box 109, Dept. AH, Berea, KY 40403.)

Pitting In

Another means of hunting the Big Wide, albeit one requiring more work, is digging pits. This is nothing new. Hunters have hidden in holes in the ground since the Stone Age. Today, though, few waterfowlers expend the effort required to pit in for a morning's shoot. The work is considerable, and the hunt is often muddy and cold.

Still, for those who feel the effort is justified, a temporary pit is a highly effective means of disappearing in the Big Wide. Nothing obscures a hunter like going underground.

I've spent pleasurable days in large permanent pits that handled a dozen or more guns and included such amenities as theater seats, heaters, cook stoves, and toilets. The freelance hunter's temporary pit, however, is generally nothing more than a shallow, wet hole that results in a sore back from bending over while the birds are working.

I learned this firsthand back in the mid-1980s on another Canadian waterfowl foray, this one to Wadena, Saskatchewan. Canada geese were feeding in surrounding grainfields, and the locals informed us the way to hunt them was to scout in the afternoon for a feeding concentration, then return the next morning before dawn to set decoys, dig pits, and wait for the honkers to come back for breakfast.

We had no trouble locating a field with birds, and the landowner generously granted permission. He also loaned us shovels, and we made plans to return to our hunting site an hour before dawn the following morning.

We should have allowed three hours for digging. When dawn broke, my two partners and I had scooped out three shallow holes just wide and deep enough to sit cross-legged in up to our waists. However, by bending over, we could parallel ground level and blend in with the stubble with which we had lined our holes.

When geese started arriving, we learned the error of our ways. We had to stay bent over to avoid being seen, but in doing so, we couldn't watch the birds work. The next two hours were spent trying to relieve aching back muscles and keep our faces hidden while still keeping up with continual incoming flights of Canadas. The big birds were wary of the not-so-well-hidden lumps in their feeding area, and they wouldn't come in. All our digging and pain yielded but one bird, although that was a giant Canada that weighed nearly 18 pounds.

The point is, if you decide to pit in, make the commitment and take the time to do it right. Dig deep enough to hide well below ground level, then rim the hole or cover it with natural camouflage. Also, when you're finished hunting from it, refill the pit so the landowner won't have to dodge the hole the following spring when he breaks his field for planting. This way, he's likely to say yes when somebody else asks permission to hunt on his land.

Stump Blinds

A third way to disappear in the Big Wide is by utilizing panels that fit together to resemble a stump. Old snags frequently line ditches through fields and dot islands and mud flats on lakes. Stump blinds have a natural look and offer full concealment for a hunter nestled inside. In essence, they function as pits that are above ground.

I bagged my first Canada goose while hunting from a stump blind on a sand bar on Kentucky Lake in western, Kentucky. That blind was a homemade, hand-painted sheet metal affair that fastened together with bolts and wing nuts. My "stump's" crudeness didn't matter to the solitary honker that came winging down the lake on the trailing edge of an arctic blast.

I was cold and huddled under the rim of the blind to shield my face from the wind. Suddenly I heard a lone call from the wayward bird. When I peeped out, it was landing in my decoys a mere 25 yards out. The bird flared as I rose to shoot, but it fell back to the water in a hail of No. 4s.

Today, factory-molded ABF plastic stump blinds are available through API Industries (''Huntin' Stump''), 602 Kimbrough Dr., Dept. AH, Tallulah, LA 71282, and also through G&H Decoys ("Buck Stumper''), P.O. Box 1208, Dept. AH, Henryetta, OK 74437. Both these blinds are extremely realistic in appearance. Also, both can be enhanced with natural camo to blend in even better with natural surroundings.

The main drawback to these blinds is their lack of portability. Their weight isn't excessive, but they are too bulky for long hikes. They are more appropriate when a hunter can boat or drive close to his hunting site, then carry the blinds only a short distance.

Temporary Field/Open Water Blinds

A fourth alternative for hunting in open country is a temporary, natural blind above the ground or water. This could include a circle of brush or cane jammed into mud, a camouflage net draped over a boat, a roll of wire interwoven with cornstalks or natural grasses, or similar alternatives.

I've probably shot more waterfowl trom this type of blind than all the others described above. At the same time, however, I feel this is the least desirable solution to hunting in the Big Wide.

My main problem with temporary blinds is that they stick out like sore thumbs. Ducks and geese can spot them a mile away, literally. If these birds have had their tailfeathers singed in other, similar setups, chances are they won't work it, or they might circle and land just out of range, a maddening circumstance for hunters.

Still, when conditions are right--new birds are in the area, backwaters are out, the weather is cold and bright, etc.--a temporary blind can fill the bill nicely.

When heavy rains inundated western Tennessee three seasons ago, a partner and I had scouted up a cornfield where slash water ran along one edge and out into the center. Mallards were working the middle (of course), but we decided to hunt from a bulldozer pile at the edge of the field because of the cover it provided.

After two hours of watching ducks work the Big Wide, we realized our mistake in not following rule one (go to the ducks), so we began hacking.

We always pack a hatchet on such freelance outings, and we began hacking branches off nearby scrub oak trees and dragging them to the center of the field where the mallards had been piling in. Plodding back and forth in that muddy field was a sweaty, time-consuming process. Finally, though, we had plenty of cover to make a tepeelike brush blind that completely shielded us from circling birds. By staying down in the shadows and keeping still while flights circled, we allowed the ducks to gain confidence that everything was safe. Then they would pitch to the edge of our decoys, and we'd come up shooting.

There are three keys to success with this type of setup. First, use plenty of cover, especially overhead. In the Big Wide, hunters must be totally concealed. Sometimes, when cover is hard to get or the work its tiring, the tendency is to scrimp, but this mistake normally dooms your chances.

Second, do not move when waterfowl are in close and scrutinizing the setup. The only person who should even consider moving is the caller, and he should be a veteran hunter who knows when he can observe the birds without scaring them. (Successful calling depends on blowing the right message at the proper time. This magic combination can only be achieved if the caller watches his quarry and times his calls according to their actions/reactions.)

And finally, set decoys close to a temporary blind. The outermost decoys should be well within gun range. This way, even if ducks or geese are predisposed to land outside the spread, they may do so within lethal range. Conversely, if the decoys extend to 40 yards, there's no way birds can set up wide of the spread and still be in range.

It must have been a duck or goose hunter who coined the phrase, "Necessity is the mother of invention." By nature, wildfowlers are an innovative, energetic lot who will go to all means necessary to bag their birds. They will toil like slaves and endure extreme discomfort to experience that magical moment when the birds commit and come in.

Hunting in the Big Wide requires ultimate measures of this innovation and energy, toil and discomfort. Still, in the end, when a hunt is successfully concluded, when the decoys are bagged up and it's time to go, somehow it's all worth it. How many times have I stopped and looked back, savoring the events of the day? On most folks' balance sheet, the rewards would hardly justifv the effort, but they do in the heart of a hunter.

Article originally appeared in American Hunter, December 1993

Reprinted with permission

Phoenix Poke Boats, Inc.®
P.O. Box 109
Berea, KY 40403


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