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5 Reasons Why You're A Terrible Waterfowl Hunter

If your game strap has lacked ducks lately, consider these tips to help you add more weight.

5 Reasons Why You're A Terrible Waterfowl Hunter

Really think about what’s happening and try to analyze why the birds are doing what, and how you can change to be more successful. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

Success can be measured in a variety of different ways when it comes to hunting. For many, just being out in the duck blind enjoying a sunrise with family and friends is what it’s all about. For a significant portion, it sure is nice to see a few ducks, and even better for some of those birds to end up on your game strap. I’m guilty as charged. If

I didn’t want to pull the trigger, then I would leave my gun at home and take up bird watching or knitting.

There are a few mistakes you almost never see being made by expert waterfowlers, and we’re going to break down why you might be going home empty handed. All of these principles can be used separately, but they build off of each other as well, and can help you be more successful in the field. Here are five reasons why your Instagram account is full of #sunrise pictures and not fists filled of greenheads.

limit of mallard ducks with Labrador retriever
Take an honest assessment of your duck hunting doctrine to remedy any flaws that may help you bag more birds this season. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

Pshh…I Don’t Need to Scout!  

Being successful day in and day out comes down to scouting. It doesn’t matter if you only have a dozen hot buy mallard decoys, or that you can whistle Dixie on your $200 call. Freelance hunting is all about finding not just birds, but birds in an area where you can successfully decoy and shoot them.

I took a group of friends up to my college stomping grounds in North Dakota and they were gung-ho to get out and experience a cornfield tornado mallard shoot. We arrived at our area after the sun had settled below the horizon and didn’t have the chance to drive around and locate a field or pothole for the morning. After a good dinner and a few beers, the question I was waiting for was finally asked, “So where are we hunting in the morning?” I’m sure the answer was quite snide and sounded something like “I don’t know, I haven’t hunted here in five years, and unless you saw something that looked good between here and Mississippi, then we’re scouting.” That didn’t sit quite right with this friend of a friend acquaintance. When it was all said and done, I dropped him a pin to a memory spot, don’t worry we’ll cover that later, and said have at it. Sure, he went out there and shot a couple ducks, but if I hadn’t been out burning up the gravel, then they would have missed out on the next morning’s banger of a cornfield greenhead hunt.

Snow geese flying
A lot of prep work and scouting is a good formula to get on big flocks of waterfowl. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

Trust me, I know the feeling when you’ve taken off work to go hunt and want to maximize every minute of hunting time. It’s hard to pick the truck over the blind. My rule of thumb is I always scout either the morning or the afternoon, and unless it’s the last day, I’ll rarely hunt both. By locating birds prior to the hunt, you have the ability to get on great shoots almost daily.

Let’s Go Back to That Spot We Hunted in ‘96

A trap that is easy to fall in to is memories of epic hunts. We’ve all had those hunts where it seemed like every bird wanted nothing more than to dive bomb directly into your decoy spread.

Just because the birds were there five years ago on a random October morning surely doesn’t mean they’ll still be in the same location. There is definitely a correlation between hunting memories and not scouting. Weather patterns, time of year, water levels, crops in the field, and hundreds of other factors can make hunting old spots futile. In saying that, there are those spots that always seem to produce.

Early goose season in North Dakota is all about putting on miles and finding the right field with huntable numbers of birds. For three years straight, we found 200 plus birds in the same field which was planted in wheat the whole time. It sure would have been easy to say, “Let’s just go back to the opener field.” For the next three years, we never saw a flock of birds in that spot. Heck, we didn’t see a feed of over 20 birds, much less a huntable population within 30 miles. Years later, I moved to Mississippi and was able to see how they do it in Dixie. Many southerners definitely have a love affair with history, and this doesn’t end at duck hunting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been sent to a duck hole because it’s “normally really good.” If you hear somebody say this, feel free to be skeptical.

duck hunter with black Labrador retriever
There is definitely a correlation between hunting memories and not scouting. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

The flooded timber, public land duck hunters of Arkansas have struck a good balance between remembering details and scouting. The difference in a rising river and a falling one makes a huge difference when trying to find birds. They spend a significant amount of time cruising around, looking for where the birds are going to be the next day. This is where they put a spin on hunting memories. A good hole surrounded by willow or pin oaks will tend to produce at some point in time during the season, and it’s great to keep a log of all those spots, making you much more efficient.

Paying attention and remembering these little details, is not hunting memories—quite the opposite! So, the next time you get the urge to hunt that marsh you banged on them back in '96, it might be worth a scouting trip first.

Hide and Seek  

Imagine playing hide and seek with a toddler, walking around the room feigning ignorance, knowing full well their feet are sticking out underneath the living room blinds. Are you that kid? Are the birds snickering as flock after flock flares on your spread? The hide is one of the, if not the most important, aspect when it comes to decoying birds. There have been many fields loaded with birds that I’ve had to pass up because there is no way you could hide. I’ve taken drones up after a hunt and seen exactly why they didn’t finish and felt like a complete idiot as a shining face of your hunting buddy looks skyward.

If you’re hunting over water, it’s your goal to blend in both matching the color, pattern, and height of the surroundings. Unless you’re going to set-up a permanent blind and brush it in beforehand, it makes for a challenge sometimes. If I’m in a marsh, I try not to hunt out of a boat even with a blind, as it’s so difficult to brush in such a large object and make it disappear. More often than not, I’ll step back 10 feet off the edge of the grass line and try to sit as low as possible. Overhead cover is critical in this situation, as birds are passing over you. The best trick I’ve found is to break cattails or other vegetation over your head to provide better protection from ducks on their final pass. Sunshine is also going to be your friend and the highlights and shadows are going to help make you disappear. I’ve watched ducks circle countless times on cloudy days, and they are able to pick you off much more easily.

German Wirehaired Pointer hiding in a dog blind
Pay close attention to your hide and make sure your gun dog is properly concealed as well. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

If you’re hunting in a field, look at the stubble height, especially with wheat and beans. Corn is much easier to hide in and shouldn’t be a problem unless it has been cut for silage. Taller grass or weedy areas close to where the birds are located is going to be a no brainer spot to set-up. The other thing many hunters are too lazy to do, or they just don’t think about it, is replacing your stubble after every field. Every wheat field isn’t the same color, and if you stubbled your blind from yesterday’s field, that had been cut a month ago, and you go to a fresh golden wheat field today, those birds are going to pick you off. Don’t skimp on stubble either, if I see blind fabric showing, I’m adding more. A mistake I see time and time again is pulling stubble directly around your layout blinds. Think about what that looks like from the air? Four layout blinds surrounded by a ring of dirt, while the rest of the field is pristine. It’s details like this we’ll talk about in the next section.

The Devil’s in the Details  

From scouting and prep, to decoy placement and calling, a hunt lives and dies in the details. You probably don’t spend enough time on the little things, and that’s where your hunts go awry. I’ve always prided myself on being a detail-oriented hunter, but in recent years I’ve hunted with a few folks who are next level. Every aspect of the hunt is scrutinized at the smallest level, and frankly it’s exhausting. But those are the guys taking your lunch money every day. They’re damn good at killing birds.

Scouting is one of the biggest areas I see people skimp. Saying “yep—there are birds in that field” doesn’t cut it. Knowing the exact spot those birds are sitting, what’s their distribution, is there a good place to set-up, what’s the weather going to be tomorrow, what type of field is it, is there any topography to worry about, are they local birds or migrators? These are just a few of the things that should be going through your mind when you locate a potential field or piece of water.

duck hunter tossing out duck decoys on a pond
Making a spread as realistic as possible is often the difference between flaring ducks and reaching a day's bag limit. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

Decoy set up is another area that can make or break a hunt. I don’t believe the brand of decoy makes a huge difference. Remember the ridiculous super magnum goose shell chair? There’s been a lot of birds killed over them. Last season, I was hunkered down in a grass strip in the middle of a wheat field and flock after flock of honkers would get to 75 yards, and not flare but skirt the spread to the right. The ones that did commit landed outside of our spread and out of gun range. We checked our hide, as earlier discussed, and then pulled five decoys out of one side of the spread and used them as blockers to prevent the birds from landing on the edge. Just like that, almost every single bird finished right in the hole. Unfortunately, learning this skill is best done by trial and error or by hunting with really experienced hunters. You might not get it the first time, but by gaining the experience, you’ll continue to have better hunts, and be more prepared.

Waterfowling in the Mojave  

Sorry, but some of you live in terrible waterfowling spots, and you’ll never see or shoot a lot of birds. I could start calling out areas, but then I’m sure there would be a handful of letters sent into the editor, saying “so and so area doesn’t suck, we one-time killed a teal and a woodie in the same day! Take that!”

But here it goes anyways: A guy who lives and hunts in Arkansas is going to have an easier time finding ducks than somebody in West Virginia. It is what it is, and many folks, including myself, don’t have the luxury to uproot their lives and move to a better hunting area. “Are you #*^%ing kidding me” is what my wife would say if I told her we’re moving to rural North Dakota—although, you could definitely count me in.

I’ve had the opportunity to hunt around the country and have found you’re never too far from a good place to chase fowl. With all of the tools available, freelance waterfowling is easier than ever. A whole book could be written on it, and there are numerous articles and YouTube videos available to plan and execute a destination trip. These trips don’t have to consist of 20+ hours to the highest profile states—even the worst areas aren’t that far from good hunting.

duck decoy spread on a pond
Some states are better for waterfowl hunting than others. If your state is lacking, consider planning a destination trip to scratch your itch for an epic hunt. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)
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