If you were to take a 30,000-foot view of the duck hunting industry, you’d see a lot of big-production hunts. You’d notice plenty of flat-bottom boats loaded with bags of decoys and shaking retrievers, field hunts with spreads that cost more than a semester at a State school, and dreamy timber setups on waterfowl leases with years’ long waiting lists.
What you won’t see much of, is small-water hunts. Yet, puddle ducks are some of the easiest (and tastiest) waterfowl to hunt, and they are available to almost anyone regardless of gear or experience level.
Throughout much of the flyway are tiny streams and ponds that host wood ducks, teal, and other small-water birds. While a couple of woodies or blue-wings isn’t quite as sexy as a limit of Canadian greenheads, overlooking small water hunts can be a big mistake.
This goes for diehard waterfowlers, as well as anyone looking to get into the pursuit. And it all starts with scouting.
E-scouting is crazy popular in the public land, big game hunting world, but also has its place in the duck arena. Fire up your onX and click on the topo layer. This will show you all of the potential water on your chosen hunting grounds. Simple, right?
After that, toggle over to satellite or hybrid mode to take a real-world look at the water. Some of the spots that are shown on topo mode look like they’ll hold water, but it’s entirely dependent on recent conditions. Wetlands dry up, as do small streams and ponds, so take a look at each with actual satellite imagery.
If you can see surface water, drop a pin. If you can’t, make an educated guess on whether there’s likely to be any duck-friendly water there, right now. The goal is to find a few out-of-the-way spots that you can have for yourself. Once you have some waypoints dropped, throw on your boots, grab your binos, and head out.
The closer it is to the actual season, the more valuable your scouting will be. But the good thing about small water ducks is that they are pretty reliable. If you hike into a secluded pond today and see a few woodies loafing away, there’s a good chance that they’ll be there during the early part of the duck season.
Small ponds are the easiest to scout, but don’t overlook streams and smaller interior rivers. Ducks love flying waterways, and if you find a deep bend that has a deadfall in it or a spot with an eddy that is positioned below an oak tree, pay attention. There are stretches of moving water that ducks just won’t use, which concentrates them in the spots they will use.
With these, and any ponds you happen to see ducks on, don’t just confirm usage by your feathered quarry. Figure out where, and how, you’ll hunt each spot.
How one duck approaches a spot, others will, too. If you see some teal strafing low across the treetops and then swing around to land in a stream bend, make note of it. Other ducks will follow the same flight path.
How you set up should be in response to how the birds are using your spot. While it might not matter on really small waterholes because the birds will be in shotgun range no matter how they get there, even ponds of an acre or two present a different story. You don’t want to set up in the wrong spot because you could spend your entire morning watching birds land just out of range.
As you scout potential spots, figure out exactly where you think the ducks will be, and exactly how you’ll hide yourself and your dog. Figure out how you’ll get there in the dark, and if you need to, use the tracker feature on onX to leave an exact route that you can follow to return.
Think about whether you’d need a couple of confidence decoys or maybe a spinner, and where you’d put them. Then, go find more spots.
The cool thing about small-water ducks is they don’t get the same attention as the birds that follow the bigger water from north to south. A half-acre pond tucked into the timber on a big tract of public land isn’t going to attract a ton of hunting pressure. You might not have to worry about any competition, but you should also find other spots, because you might.
A milk run of smaller water duck spots is all you need to get into the world of waterfowling, without the investment of a small fortune. Better yet, most of the legwork necessary to be into birds all season can happen now, weeks before the actual opener.