For waterfowl hunters, scouting often means hours of windshield time scanning skies, fields, and marshes. It also means hard work, devising a plan, and a bit of luck. Without scouting, a waterfowl hunter’s chances for success go down the drain.
But to say that scouting just boils down to driving gravel roads in fall is an oversimplification. That’s like saying deer scouting is just about hanging trail cams, or that you can kill an elk by just looking at topo maps. There’s nuance involved with finding the perfect duck and goose spot and, like anything else, it’s all about being in the spot that’s on the spot.
Here are three tips for scouting better this fall, whether you’re new to the game or a veteran waterfowler.
Patterning ducks and geese mostly boils down to finding the exact locations where birds are resting and feeding. Typically, waterfowl move between these two locations at first light and late in the afternoon or just before sunset. For this reason, the bookends of the day are the perfect time to scout.
You don’t need much for gear. A good pair of binos will help identify flocks from afar, and onX will provide landownership details to help you score permission.
The day-to-day routines of ducks and geese will change in response to hunting pressure, crop status, and weather. Ducks and geese will progress from small grains and grasses early in the season to row crops as harvest progresses. When the mercury drops and birds consider moving further south, waterfowl will focus more on high-energy foods like corn and beans.
You want to scout as close to the day of hunting as possible. If you find birds on a Thursday they’ll probably still be there Saturday, but I wouldn’t want to hunt off information that’s more than a few days old.
Rules of the Roost
There are many opinions on whether ducks and geese should be hunted on the roost, and hunters on each side valid points. The bottom line is this: No one likes to be harassed where they sleep, from deer to turkeys to ducks. When you hunt the roost, you roll the dice on driving those ducks or geese out of a particular area for a long time.
That issue aside, your scouting efforts should still focus on nailing down where birds roost, even if you plan to hunt them on food. If you set up too close to where ducks and geese congregate on water—anything under a mile—you run the risk of spooking the flock with the first shot of the day. (The main exception to this rule is when the wind is blowing hard enough out of the right direction to carry the sound of your shots away from the water.)
But not all water is off limits. Mallards and pintails are notorious for leaving a roost at first light and hitting a small wetland to grab a drink before feeding in an adjacent field. Keep an eye out for one of these staging ponds and get ready for an absolute lights-out hunt. Day roosts, those water holes where birds go after feeding to lounge into late morning, can also provide fantastic action, especially for Canada geese.
Roost hunts are also favorable on migration days. When a cold front and northwest wind bring new birds, dekes on a marsh, lake, or river can be just the ticket for ducks and geese that are looking for a place to rest. You can hunt historical migration routes in these scenarios—waterbodies you’ve noticed migrators use in years past when a big push arrives.
Scout Your Hide
Finding birds is the ultimate goal of a scouting trip. The secondary goal needs to be making sure you can stay hidden from the eyes in the sky.
Setting up on the exact location where you found birds in a field or slough is the best-case scenario, but if there isn’t enough natural cover available, look for an alternative spot within 100 yards that has taller stubble or grass or a slough edge or weedy fence line. A well-concealed setup near “the spot” will almost always produce better results than a poor setup right in the middle of “the spot.”
If the best cover is more than 100 yards away, plan on using a bigger decoy spread that features plenty of motion using flags or motorized decoys, as well as aggressive calling. You may need to use the motion and calling longer than normal. Sometimes that means hammering on a call right up until you pull the trigger.
When there simply is no place to hide, you may want to try hunting different birds in another field. If you don’t have a back-up plan and must hunt an area devoid of cover, set your blind so that the sun is at your back, cover it with as much natural vegetation as possible, place motion decoys to the sides of your blind instead of in front of it, and hope for the best.
A buddy once put together a week of hunts on a small patch of shallow water that he found after seeing a single greenhead drop into a tangle of grass and weeds. He watched this little flooded spot along the edge of a cornfield for a few days before hunting it, never seeing more than 30 mallards on the water at once. But what he did see was that ducks arrived as singles and pairs over the course of an hour. The way the birds arrived at the field allowed him to kill easy limits of greenheads day after day until he just about cleaned them out.
Knowing how ducks or geese come to a spot is one of the most important pieces of the bird-behavior puzzle. Finding 300 Canada geese mowing down a field of wheat stubble is great, but your hunt will be short-lived if they arrive in two bunches. The more birds in a flock, the more eyes scanning for trouble, making them harder to finish in the decoys. Smaller flocks simply respond better to calling, flagging, and decoys.
So, the next time you’re scouting, don’t completely ignore that group of 45 Canada geese with the hopes of finding more. Make plans to watch the field again. If those geese have a routine of strolling in to feed in small flocks, pairs, or singles, be prepared to shake up their schedule the next morning.
Scouting for waterfowl doesn’t need to be hard. With a rudimentary understanding of their pattern, a solid plan for cover, and some cooperative flocks, you’ll be stacking ducks and geese on every hunt.