Tips and Tactics for Hunting Wary Waterfowl

posted on December 4, 2018

It doesn’t matter what species you’re hunting: sometimes whatever you’re doing just isn’t working. The birds won’t decoy, and you don’t know what to try next. Sometimes the solution is an easy in-the-field fix; sometimes your hunt was doomed before the first birds came into view. Or the conditions are so poor that you would have been better off sleeping in.

Then again, maybe you just need a little attitude adjustment. That’s what often separates phenomenal waterfowlers from the rest of us. Whereas most of us tend to get frustrated and throw up our hands anytime birds aren’t decoying right—and our two or three standard fixes fail to turn our fortunes—expert hunters seem to approach each problem as a challenge. And they’re not taking “no can do” for an answer.

Whether it’s puddle ducks, Canadas or snow geese, these hunters seem to come up with tactics that often turn uninspiring hunts into great ones, or at least stack the odds in their favor. It helps that they spend hundreds of hours each season observing birds in the field. But it’s often their out-of-the-box thinking that gets the job done.

Whatever problems you’ve been encountering, one of the following tactics might be your next game-changer. From dealing with stale birds to managing poor hunting conditions and decreasing opportunities, no problem is insurmountable.

Birds Shy From Blinds
We all know how hard it can be to hide from ducks and geese, especially as the season wears on and you’re hunting the same birds for weeks on end. One way to hide effectively is to play the sun and shadows whenever possible.

“Late-season pintails and gadwalls can be especially tough down here,” says Texas-based waterfowl manager and Avery Outdoors pro-staffer Richard Foley. “And when they get flighty all the other ducks pick up on it. While hunters typically like to have the wind at their backs, that means birds will decoy facing them, and if your blind is lit up by the sun, chances are you’ll stick out.” Depending on the wind, Foley tries to hunt out of a blind that falls into shade with the rising sun.

For a south wind it’s possible to hunt effectively facing downwind (since the sun will swing behind you). For a north or west wind, however, that’s hard to do without orienting the blinds toward the sun. In that case Foley sets up facing crosswind, where the ducks are approaching from left to right or right to left, and the blinds are in the shade. For example, in a north wind he would ideally hunt out of a west-facing blind. “The main idea is, while wind direction is a huge factor in where and how to set up,” he says, “shade and sunlight are no less important.”

Honker hunters love to set layout blinds in the decoys, but when cover gets scarce it pays to set up along field edges, where grass and weeds are plentiful. Trouble is, geese don’t often like to land close to heavy cover. Fred Zink, founder of Zink Calls and Avian-X, has come up with an effective tactic.

“During the late season, geese will naturally start hitting field edges, as they’ve exhausted much of the food source in the middle,” he says. “I’ve found there’s a magic line from a field edge of about 15 to 20 yards, inside of which the geese think it’s too dangerous. I’ll set a line of primarily feeders along that line and parallel to the contours of the field’s edge, with some walkers scattered a bit. Remember to spread your decoys along that line, not place them in an unnaturally tight ball.”

The bottom line for wary ducks and geese is to place a higher emphasis on finding a good hiding spot rather than trying to set up on the “X.” Ultimately, if they see you they’re going to shy away, and that likelihood only heightens as the season progresses.

No Wind or Light Switching Breeze
No waterfowler likes calm days or ones with switching breezes. It makes it hard to set the decoys properly and orient the blinds for the birds’ approach. Since birds will almost always land into the wind, even a slight one, Drake Waterfowl Elite Team member and owner of Rolling Thunder Game Calls Spencer Halford cautions hunters not to assume there isn’t any wind and then set up wherever they want.

“Birds can always feel the wind, even if there’s only a hint of it,” he says. “If you can’t determine what it’s doing (wind-detector squeeze bottles are excellent tools), then set up according to the local hourly forecast.”

Call maker and outfitter Sean Mann uses a clever “X”-shaped goose spread with Real Geese silhouettes that works under windy and calm conditions alike. Upon arriving where he’s going to hunt, Mann places a stake with reflective tape at the center of his “X” to mark where the blinds will be lined up, then paces off 40 yards for each arm of the “X” and places another reflective stake in the ground. This establishes the spread’s parameters (the reflective tape shows up well in a headlamp’s beam).

He’ll then run a line of decoys straight from the center stake to the end of each arm and use that line as a reference to set out the remaining decoys, each arm usually three or four rows wide (the rows are staggered to avoid looking unnaturally geometrical) with the decoys facing in all directions. On clear mornings the decoys will be at least four paces apart; with low visibility due to rain or snow, the decoys are set tighter to make them more visible to distant flocks.

Depending on how hard and steady the wind is, he’ll either make his X equally proportioned (in the case of a changing or weak wind) or compress it to open up the landing zone on the downwind side in the case of a strong, steady wind.

“If the wind changes, now all we have to do is turn the blinds around facing downwind and we’re in business,” says Mann. “Why spend time rearranging the spread when the birds are flying?”

Frost Covers Decoys
Calm mornings and sub-freezing temperatures are a bad combination: Put out your decoys too long before first light and they’ll be covered in frost by sunup. And that’s about when the frost will start melting and your decoys will look like so many mirrors. If you’re tired of geese flaring or giving your spread a wide berth, try Fred Zink’s solution.

“To prevent frost building on our decoys,” he says, “we’ll set out our decoy stands first, then take the decoys out of their bags and place them on the stands about 15 minutes before sunrise. At that point they usually won’t frost up. We might flare the first flock or two, but that’s better than spooking the next 20.

“We also downsize the spread so we’re not taking forever setting the decoys out,” he notes. “When frost is likely we’ll use no more than 65 full-bodies and frequently a lot fewer.”

Call maker and outfitter Bill Saunders manages frost by draping decoy bags over the head and back of every decoy until he hears the first honk. Then he and his guides rush out and take them off. Saunders also has whisk brushes available in case, on really cold mornings, the frost starts to build up after the bags come off.

Avid snow goose hunters know more than anyone how devastating frost can be to a setup. North Dakotan Michael Clement, who’s had his share of even distant flocks veering around his spread, avoids the problem altogether by hunting in the afternoons.

“In the evening,” Clement says, “it’s warmer, the geese are more relaxed, they come out in smaller, more-manageable groups, and usually there’s at least some wind by then. Also, in the predawn dark it’s easy to set the spread too tight.”

Not Enough Decoys to Hunt Snows
Most beginners tend to pack their decoys way too tight. If you want to maximize your spread’s drawing power, set them in family groups with 20 to 50 yards in between, which imitates relaxed geese.

My friend Bob Farrell, an expert snow-goose hunter and addict if there ever was one, hunts over anywhere from 150 to 300 SilloSocks decoys, all of which can fit into a couple small plastic tubs in the back of his pickup. He’ll run a spread up to 200 yards downwind and approximately 60 yards wide. Since snows like to land at the upwind side of the spread, that’s where he’ll be, using SilloSocks on taller stakes for cover. The key to getting by with smaller numbers of decoys is increasing your spread’s footprint.

Ducks Ignore Calling
Hunting with call makers Eli and Rod Haydel many years ago was a real education. One morning I watched countless flocks pass within 100 yards without the Haydels even touching their calls. Every now and then they’d let a flock fly 60 yards past and downwind of the blind then call sharply to them. Invariably the ducks would turn on a dime and come right into the decoys.

As Rod Haydel explains, “Not every flock is going to turn. We look for ducks that are craning their necks or flapping their wings erratically. These birds are looking for a place to set down. Birds looking straight ahead with regular wingbeats are heading to a specific place; chances are they’re not going to respond to our calls.

“Also, when you first spot ducks isn’t necessarily when you want to call to them. The only time a duck can react instantly to a call and come directly in is when it’s downwind of the spread. Sure, you often need to call to passing ducks to turn them, and then as often as is necessary to keep them from veering off course. But calling constantly, when it’s not going to get the reaction you want, only diminishes your call’s effectiveness.”

High Flocks Won't Return
Jim Ronquest of RNT has developed an effective technique for high, trading ducks that seem to ignore calling alone, especially over breaks and flooded timber.

“I’m a huge believer in using jerk cords in conjunction with calling,” he says. “I’ve found that if you call sharply to grab their attention, then follow immediately with a good tug or two on a jerk cord, you can turn flocks regularly. Audio and visual communication is a powerful and natural combination. Two to six decoys on a cord can send ripples throughout the spread and create more natural movement even when you have a good wind. I like to have them closest to the main concentration of decoys, however, so the ripples move the most decoys. In calm conditions, ripples are essential to ducks seeing the decoys, since from their perspective flat water simply reflects the sky.”

Upwind Geese Come to Decoys But Won't Commit
Working upwind or crosswind flocks of geese can be a tricky proposition: If you get their attention and keep calling them straight to your decoys, more often than not they’ll come over too high to shoot. Because if they’re not approaching from downwind, they won’t commit.

Bill Saunders solves the problem by “letting them slide,” a tactic that involves grabbing a flock’s attention and turning it toward you, then easing up on calling and flagging so the birds continue to drift downwind of your spread. Calling only if the geese start veering off course, Saunders will wait until the flock is far enough downwind so when he starts to call excitedly, the birds are in line with the spread’s landing zone and can approach straight into the wind.

“The tricky part is judging how high the geese are relative to wind speed,” he says. “Higher geese in a strong wind will require a greater distance to drop altitude and come into the decoys. You don’t want them to reach the downwind edge of the decoys and still be too high to land, because they’ll either land upwind of you or circle around for another look, which gives them one more opportunity to see flaws in your spread or pick out hunters.”

Geese Pass Over Decoys Too High
Avery Pro Staffer Casey Self has a great trick for high-flying Canadas, a frequent problem on days with little wind.

“I’ll place four to six decoys 50 to 60 yards downwind of the main spread,” he says, “or in the direction the geese are approaching, in two groups on either side. Geese will hopefully key in on these decoys and start dropping. Don’t call until they do, and then be prepared to call and flag excitedly so they don’t short-stop you. The whole idea is to make the birds lose altitude enough so you can decoy them into good gun range on the first pass.”

Ducks Short-Stop the Spread
Bill Cooksey of Vanishing Paradise, and formerly of Avery Outdoors, has had lots of experience with stale ducks that short-stop his decoy spread. Hunting Arkansas’ flooded rice fields in the late season can be a real challenge when you’re targeting the same ducks for an extended period, and sometimes you have to think outside the box. If the ducks are short-stopping just out of gun range, Cooksey will move the bulk of his decoys 30 yards upwind and place one or two decoys in the zone where he wants the ducks to land.

“Ever had a decoy come off its cord and drift downwind,” he asks, “then have ducks light next to it? Especially in the late season with mallards starting to pair off, small groups and pairs will often land short of big spreads.”

Then there’s the problem of ducks congregating in other parts of the same flooded field. In what might be termed the “scarecrow” tactic, Cooksey has salvaged more than a few hunts by making those spots unappealing.

“Admittedly,” Cooksey says, “this isn’t your ordinary fix, but we ended up stapling pie plates to a few dozen tomato stakes and stuck them where the ducks had been landing. The fluttering plates made the ducks uncomfortable, and for a few days they ended up working our spread again before the pie plates lost their effectiveness. So then we set out three spinners with tinfoil on their wings. And again, it worked for a couple days. Finally I parked my truck there (you could use a jon boat or whatever), which gave us another few days of birds working our spread. Luckily, another front brought in fresh birds and our pit blind was back in action without taking more severe measures.”

Geese Land Beside the Spread
Ever have geese favor one side of your spread or land just outside of it, making it difficult to center them so everyone can shoot? Championship caller Kelley Powers of Final Fight Outfitters certainly has, which led to his solution that works even before the problem occurs.

Knowing that geese are territorial and do not like to land facing other geese, Powers places four or five sentry decoys to keep inbound birds from landing in the wrong place.

“I’ll go downwind after setting the spread and look at the topography to see which side the geese might skirt,” he says. “Perhaps we’re next to a fence or tree line, something that might make the geese land to the opposite side of the spread. Then I’ll place the sentries on that side, facing downwind. When incomers try to favor that side, the sentries will bump the birds back toward the spread and center them up. You can do this after the hunt begins, once you see the problem develop, but oftentimes it’s easy to spot a potential problem prior to flying time.”

Ducks Aren't Drawn to Decoys
Kelley Powers is also a huge fan of hunting ducks with goose decoys. If you’ve ever felt like your field duck spread just doesn’t have the drawing power you’d like, try hunting over goose decoys. Not only are they far more visible, mallards feed with them all the time. But they also work great on water.

“Around mid-January mallards start pairing up, and the last thing they want is to land in a group and get harassed by other drakes,” says Powers. “We were trying to figure out how to get ducks to decoy then. So we decided to experiment and pull almost every duck decoy and replace them with goose floaters. We clucked like geese, and used duck calls sparingly, on the swing or to their tails, just enough to turn them. And it really worked. If I could take only 20 decoys to kill a limit of ducks, I’d go with 20 goose floaters. Just as with field setups, the goose decoys are so much more visible.”

Richard Foley feels the same way about snow goose decoys for late-season pintails. “These ducks really get wary later on, and they’ll follow the snows off the roost for safety. If you want to kill pintails, hunt over snow goose decoys.”

All the Birds Have Left
Wary birds aren’t the only problem during late season. Sometimes just finding them takes a certain resolve. One year extremely cold weather forced all the birds out of the area I normally hunt, an observation that seemed to be substantiated with every phone call I received from hunting buddies. Assuming we were done for the year, I never gave it another thought until, months after the season, I learned an area close by held 60,000 honkers through the whole winter. Oops.

Fact is, it’s easy to become discouraged when the obvious opportunities disappear before your eyes and your friends start confirming your assumptions—which is the worst mind-set you can fall into, says Spencer Halford.

“My hunting buddies have a saying: ‘Diesel fuel kills birds,’” he says. “When the birds you’re used to seeing become scarce, it’s easy to assume it’s over. But it almost never is. Nobody seems to want to do it, but if you scout more and hunt less—say three days of scouting for every day of hunting—you’re going to find good opportunities. And if you team up with five to 10 other guys who are willing to drive back roads and share information, you’ll end each season on a high note.”

The Action is Discouraging
Bill Cooksey has good advice for all of us who encounter tough conditions and try to find that one tactic that will turn the tide: match your expectations to the conditions. If they’re tough, don’t be disappointed that you didn’t limit out, or that the birds didn’t end up 15 yards away and backpedaling. Instead, be satisfied that you were able to come up with a solution that helped you maximize the opportunities you did get. Ultimately, overcoming adverse conditions is what makes waterfowling challenging and rewarding throughout the season.


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