Duck hunting seems to be an all-or-nothing type of pursuit. As someone who generally relies on sweat equity to out-compete other hunters on public land, chasing waterfowl seems to be the outlier. Duck hunters will literally do anything to get themselves to the “X.” And, if you’re wondering, “They wouldn’t do that, would they?” Yes. They would.
In all honesty, this facet of the sport has kept my enthusiasm at bay. I can wake up at a normal hunting time, march into the woods, and hunt from my saddle for whitetails on public land, knowing that I can always find some solitude and even a few deer. But, when it comes to duck hunting, I know that a cold front is going to fill the parking lots with hunters the day before and I’ll be battling my way through the gold rush to get to where I need to go. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth the effort.
But, instead of throwing my duck calls and decoys in the trash, I’ve decided to hunt to a different tune—a run-and-gun style. While this isn’t a new strategy by any means, it does seem to be going out of vogue these days, which happens to be right up my alley. Other hunters can go to war for waterfowl with their $70,000 boats, 150-decoy spreads, and sleepless nights, and I’ll be out-maneuvering them on foot, happily shooting my way to a limit one at a time.
So, what exactly does “run-and-gun” mean? The duck hunting world seems to be in an arms race to accumulate the most gear possible to try and outsmart their prey. Instead, I’ve decided that lightening the load has been the best way to go. I prefer to hunt small water, carry a small spread of decoys, and cover ground to find birds.
I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a reason that boats, massive decoy spreads, and heavy competition are the name of the game these days. When it works, it works. But it’s also true that when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t. I’d venture to guess that going fast and light means that a quick limit is rare, or even getting a limit at all. But, I consistently come away with a bag of four to five birds because it isn’t hard to pivot when the skies are empty.
Instead of scouting for the mass of birds, I spend more time on onX looking for small ponds, sloughs, or flooded backwaters that I think will hold birds, preferably those that are miles away from popular hunting areas. If nothing shows up, I move. And yes, maybe I’ll even ambush a few birds along the way.
The point is that ducks love any water, not just the big reservoirs and rivers that hunters seek out. If there’s blue on the map, or an area that happens to be blue after a heavy rain (my favorite), then there’s a solid chance you’ll be able to track down some birds. Another strategy is to hunt “traffic” and try to catch birds as they move between feeding areas or toward their roosting areas. Look at those obvious hunting areas and do your best to find water leading away from those areas. It’s also a nice way to take advantage of an evening hunt. But you’ll also need to be on your toes because those birds are probably going to be moving fast and will also tend to be much harder to decoy, although it’s still entirely possible.
It’s just a matter of changing your perspective, which is a theme that’s going to pop up throughout this article. Everyone wants 100+ birds to cup their wings and dive bomb into their spread, but there’s something to be said for scratching a limit bird-by-bird over the course of several hours. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also the fun kind of work.
Now, let’s talk about gear for a minute. As you may have guessed, it’s going to be pretty simple, but it’s definitely worth talking about.
Transport: First and foremost, you’ll want to take a comfortable decoy bag. I prefer a decoy backpack that allows me to cover miles over any type of terrain, but some hunters also like a decoy sled, particularly if you’re moving across lots of shallow water. Lastly, you can use a boat, canoe, or kayak to get across some larger water and towards more out-of-reach, shallow options.
Decoys: This one is tough to answer because it totally depends on the type of water you’ll be hunting. Due to the nature of this strategy, it could look like any number of places, but I generally like to pack a mixed bag of 6 to 18 floating decoys, along with one motion decoy. My preference is a pulsator-style decoy because it creates motion among the entire spread, unlike a spinner, which I find tends to spook late-season birds.
Clothing: Unlike some other hunting pursuits, quality clothing is extremely important when using a strategy like this. You’re going to be covering miles in tough terrain while doing so in cold and wet weather conditions, so you’ll want to hike in lighter clothing and be able to layer up as you find your location. First Lite has a number of great options to choose from. A few of my favorites include the LZ Jacket, Origin Hoody, Straightline Field Vest, and the Tundra Cold Weather Neck Gaiter. The new Cache pattern is ideal for my environment, but it totally depends on where you’ll be hunting.
Lastly, I love my LaCrosse Boots for covering ground in wet conditions, but sometimes waders are necessary. And, while insulated waders are the warmest option, they’re not always the right choice for hiking, so I tend to prefer uninsulated fishing waders (in earth tones) unless I’m hunting on extremely cold/wet/windy days.
Blind: Where I hunt, I prefer nothing. In most cases, I can find natural blind materials or just tuck myself away in the timber instead of lugging in a blind, but you may find a panel blind to be helpful, particularly if you’re hunting in open fields or sloughs. I also pack in a light chair. First, I like to be comfortable, and second, being comfortable means you’ll be more apt to sit longer and sit more still, thus not flaring birds at your spread.
More than the nuts and bolts, I’d love for you to take this away: Your enjoyment of a hunt is entirely up to you. I spent far too long trying to outcompete other hunters and join the aforementioned “arms race” to put more birds in the bag. It got to a point where I was burned out. Instead of quitting, I decided to reframe how I hunted for ducks and what success truly meant to me. To be frank, a three-bird day is a great day for me. Depending on the day, even a one-bird day is a success. And yes, I’ve gotten limits as well.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re hunting on your terms, not the terms that other hunters have established for you. I’ve gotten comments from other duck hunters who’ve said, “You’ll get there,” or “I remember doing that when I first started,” not realizing that I’ve been doing this for years and it’s how I choose to hunt. It may not be flashy, but I’m happy taking the road less traveled, one bird at a time.
Feature image via Captured Creative.