As a teenager, I discovered duck hunting almost by accident. Growing up as more of a deer and small-game hunter, it was on a solo jaunt for late-season squirrels that I happened upon a millpond deep in the woods. I could hear quite a bit of quacking and feeding chatter through the brush and, easing up to the bank, was amazed at the gathering of mallards littered across the pond. Flight after flight of ducks soared in along a creek feeding the pond. I didn’t know a thing about calling or decoying, but it didn’t take long to realize I could set up on a high bank along that creek and pass shoot birds as they whistled by. Visits to that bank over the next couple of years with my brother and friends often produced a handful of ducks for our novice and, quite honestly, pathetic wingshooting efforts.
It was only after meeting an ardent waterfowler in college who offered his help that I began attacking the millpond, and others on nearby properties with the thoughtful strategizing really necessary for the game. Now, many years later, those small hidden holes of water still provide some of the most enjoyable shooting of the year. Gunsmith Kurt Derwort is another dedicated waterfowler who has enjoyed years of shooting over large and small bodies of water and has found ample success on both. To do small water right, he says, you have to approach it much differently than big water.
Scout Like a Deer Hunter
“One of the biggest things about hunting a small body of water is you have to be sure it is where the ducks are going,” said Derwort. “You can’t pull them in from a mile away with a lot of loud calling like you might be able to do on big water. The visibility and proximity of the birds aren’t there.” That means hunters need to scout isolated farm ponds and millponds, swamps, creeks, potholes and other small waterways where ducks will feed during the day and roost in the evening. If you only have one or two spots, this is an easy task. Check them out and if the ducks aren’t there, make friends with someone who has another spot or hit larger public waterways.
Ideally, you want a selection of areas to hit and check out—both in the morning and the evening—to see when and if ducks are using them. If another season is in, such as deer hunting, keep tabs on when the ducks are coming in by setting up nearby while you hunt other game. Just be careful not to set up too tight on a pond loaded with ducks if you will be shooting a firearm at other game. The fear factor will be real no matter what and the waterfowl will vacate the area.
Build a Precision Setup
Small water hunts typically don’t require as much gear as big water—primarily in the way of a good, sturdy boat. Hunting can often be done right from a bank or by wading in the shallows. Ducks can be retrieved by hand or with a good dog if you have one, and something as light and maneuverable as a kayak if you don’t. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to consider your setup.
“Your shot window is usually very narrow,” said Derwort. “You have to pull ducks and geese into a much tighter area.” To maximize space, if the pond or waterway is elongated like in an oval—which most ponds are—set up at whichever end puts the wind to your back since waterfowl prefer landing into the wind. This is the best-case scenario as it gives ducks more room to drop into your setup. If you have a crosswind, play it more than the configuration of the pond. Keep the sun at your back when possible, since as soon as it breaks above the trees, you’ll be blinded if you’re facing it, making it impossible to shoot. If the wind is blowing toward the end of a pond, but the sun isn’t right, shift to the side of the water that will put you closer to where ducks are apt to land.
There is no need to build actual blinds unless you expect to be returning year in and year out. Slip in before your hunt and cut open holes in brush along the bank to provide room to swing a barrel. If the bank is bare, cut limbs and shove them in the ground to build a makeshift blind. Consider how you will access these areas, as well, in order to make hauling decoys and gear easier, as well as reducing the disturbance of waterfowl that may already be dumping into the area. Cut or clear trails ahead of time to make access simple.
On small water, a dozen or fewer decoys is often all you need.
“I usually just use six or eight decoys when hunting ponds,” said Derwort. “You don’t want to overcrowd the water in front of you. You want to give them plenty of room to land.” Set decoys in the same fashion as a large water spread, meaning leave a nice hole in the center for birds to set down, generally 25 to 40 yards from where you will be sitting.
“Ideally, the ducks should flare to land 35 to 40 yards out and you should start shooting at them when they are 25 to 30 yards out,” said Derwort. “Shoot until you are out of ducks or the ducks are out of range.”
When it comes to calling, keep it to a minimum compared to big water hunts.
“Calling on little water is less important. The birds know where they want to go,” he said. “Just do a little calling to set them up and make things look and sound more natural.” If birds look like they’re going to pass, go ahead and throw out a hail call, and as they approach, don’t be shy about giving some feeding calls and quacks. Just use a call that keeps volume down and merely adds to the realism of the setup. A jerk string attached to a decoy and given an occasional tug, or if you’re wading in water not far from the decoys, rocking your leg back and forth to put ripples in the water, will all add to the deception that real ducks are already there.
Try to keep your shooting to small groups of ducks hitting the water instead of big flights, as it can serve to educate the birds and keep them from revisiting your hot spot.
“If you are hunting the spot in the morning, shoot several passes of ducks and then get out,” said Derwort. “Don’t hunt the same spot in the afternoon. Let the ducks come in and hang out so they will come back.” If there are a series of ponds in close proximity on the property you hunt, it’s also a good idea to leave one as a sanctuary that is never hunted. This will keep birds in the area, and feed a continuous supply of ducks and geese to the ponds you’re hunting throughout the season.