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M&J Outdoor Communications » Ducks Over Small Water


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Ducks Over Small Water

It all began innocently enough. In fact, it started with just two words, “Peck’s Place.”

Peck’s Place was Eunice Peck’s farm, a wonderful 200-acre patch of goldenrod and switchgrass, red oak and multiflora rose, all of which served as home for hundreds, probably thousands of ringneck pheasants, cottontails, bobwhite quail, whitetail deer, and a countless host of other wild things, big and small.

But Peck’s Place was not just graced with overflowing uplands, for in the back, secreted away behind stands of button brush, spike rushes, and pin oaks, was a swamp. A tiny thing, not more than 40 feet across, and only half of that was open water, clear and devoid of obstacles so as to make it an inviting way-station for a passing mallard or two.

Or so we thought. As I remember it was late, and the morning flights at Wolfe’s Swamp were over. It was my father’s idea, this plan to hike into Peck’s “Back 40″ just on the off chance that a greenhead had decided to forgo his usual trip to the more human-populated marshes and hide, completely unnoticed, among the cockbirds and the wide-racked bucks.

One wood duck, a hen if I recall, was the first to jump. The fact that both of my ill-aimed shots were futile was quickly forgotten as the sky above this tiny damp spot in the corner of the field turned black with ducks. Mallards, black ducks, wood ducks, teal - hundreds, no, thousands of them - each clawing for its own piece of atmosphere. In the confusion, all we could do was watch open-mouthed.

My father was the first to break the silence. “That was a duck or two, wasn’t it, Jake?” He always did have a way with understatements.

Later that day and into the remainder of the season, we returned to Peck’s Place. Not to walk, canvas pants clad, through the blackberry briars, but instead in hip boots and camouflage hunting coats. Over the years, we spent many a wonderful evening watching the sky above this insignificant little patch of water. And few were the afternoons when the slip-sliding mallards and the creaking wood ducks disappointed us.

A pleasant and nostalgic story, perhaps, but there is a moral to these ramblings from hunts past. And the best part is that the bottom line here is most elemental - little water and ducks go together. Period. And from the hunter’s standpoint, these tiny drops of duck-attractant can prove either as easy or as difficult to successfully work as the waterfowler wishes, a definite plus in these days of 100-decoy spreads, elaborate blinds, and $15,000 aluminum duck skiffs.

One of the first questions to be addressed in any discussion about waterfowling these small productive pockets also happens to be the most basic - what are they? Duck hunters from coast to coast each have their own definition of what constitutes a “little bit of water.” To the waterfowler accustomed to gunning brackish bays or seemingly endless tidal flats, small waters might be described as anything a hunter can see across in one look.

A better definition, however, might be this. Little waters are those that a hunter would normally not consider as being huntable simply because they appear far too small. Generally, these potholes are off the beaten path, and can be accessed in most cases only by using those oft-forgotten appendages located at the terminal end of a hunter’s legs. Often, these honey holes, as my father called them, cannot be seen from the road, and instead are discovered accidently or by investigative waterfowlers not shy about asking questions of landowners or by those not hesitant to sit down with a good topographical map or, in today’s modern world, a computer software mapping program.

And while it might be a somewhat lengthy definition, all this analyzing leads to one conclusion. Stated as an equation, this end result might look something like this: Seemingly insignificant mud puddle - plus - no easy access - plus - not readily visible - plus - lacking in waterfowling reputation equals low or non-existent hunting pressure. Often, little waters can be a lonely place; that is, unless a solitary hunter does not mind the company of flock after flock of eager and frequently ungunned birds.

But knowing what these little waters are and what they look like is only one variable in the grand waterfowling scheme. However, the second most-often asked question is just as simplistic as the first - where are they?

At the risk of being vague, hunters should let it suffice to say that these tiny gems are everywhere. From spring holes to hidden oxbows and from seasonal “here today, gone tomorrow” damp spots in the corner of some forgotten field to a 20-by-20 puddle a mile or more from the last public hunting area sign, little waters are truly where one finds them.

Three years ago while doing our pre-season homework, a partner and I learned of the reputation held by a pair of nearby sloughs, two medium-sized bodies of water with ties into the Columbia River. Our first exploratory boat ride proved the stories to be correct. Up and down the length of the sloughs, mallards and pintails loafed on sandy tide-dried bars, while in the smaller “sub-slough,” teal and widgeon along with their larger brethren and a pod of western Canadas grubbed in the black river mud.

Nirvana? We thought so at first; however, the best was yet unseen and seemingly undiscovered. To the east of this second slough and hidden from sight by a thick stand of cottonwoods, maples, and high grasses ran a small creek. Only five or six feet across at its largest, this waterway connected several living room-sized potholes before emptying into the slough at the far north end.

On our first trip, the creek was dry, but we were soon to learn that with the incoming tide, the waters rose and filled the pockets to an accommodating calf-deep level. Pressured by hunters on the main sloughs or driven from the larger waters by wind and waves, ducks poured into this out-of-the-way haven by the dozens. Decoys became almost a redundancy.

Here again, however, the factors of what little waters are and where can they be found are but two variables. Having uncovered the secrets of what and where, most waterfowlers turn their attention toward the third and possibly most important part of the puzzle - how.

Generally, little waters differ only slightly from a traditional standpoint when the topic turns to hunting methods. But they do differ. Fortunately, though, successfully hunting these tiny treasures can be reduced to yet another equation, this time known as the “three and two.”

The three, not surprisingly, consist of a trio of familiar waterfowling methods - decoying, jump shooting, and floating. The two, mobility and improvisation, focus more on attitude than technique.

Decoying little waters can in some cases seem almost too easy. Because the area in question is small, only a handful - six, maybe eight - decoys are usually needed. Often, hunters will offset these small decoy numbers with the use of magnum blocks. Such blocks can still be transported easily into hard-to-reach places, while their larger size makes for increased visibility to distant birds.

Furthermore, out-of-the-way birds are often unpressured birds, and accustomed to the security that these small hiding places provide. The point here is that decoy spreads, especially smaller arrangements during the latter part of the season, do not immediately translate into an avian version of “Danger: Hunter below.”

For the strong of leg and lungs, these little waters can also be successfully worked by jump shooting. Jump shooters should remember, though, that the more familiar a hunter is with a particular topographical layout, the wide, slow-moving side pockets and favored loafing areas for instance, the better the chances of approaching birds in a quiet, stealthy manner instead of the “crash and blunder” method so often employed. Here, time and research can often pay off in feathered dividends.

Floating out-of-the-way locales can also hold exciting promise for the small water hunter. In most cases, such waters can be easily accessed and navigated either with a lightweight car-topper or a favorite canoe. In recent years, belly boats, customized and camouflaged innertubes sporting equipment pouches, back rests, and overhead concealment have become quite popular among the waterfowling crowd, and can in some situations place the hunter dead center in the middle of the action. Regardless of the style of watercraft employed, hunters should use caution and common sense even in small, shallow potholes as low water temperatures and cold November winds can easily and quickly translate into hypothermia.

But while equipment and technique on small waters are certainly important, the maintaining of two attitudes - mobility and the theory of “improvise and adjust” - are equally as vital to success. Essentially, mobility refers to the art of developing a portable set-up, while improvisation means not being hesitant to move should the birds dictate such a maneuver.

In most cases, small spreads and easily transported and erected blinds, such as the use of camouflage netting or burlap, all point toward being portable. Secondly, ducks often gravitate toward a certain spot on a body of water regardless of the welcoming group of fakes sitting not 100 yards away. Too often, hunters are reluctant to pick up and move, assuming that their decoys and calling will convince a handful of this rapidly growing flock to venture near. It does mean a little extra time and effort, but the hunter who puts himself where the birds want to be is most often the one who will have plucking to do at home.

Little waters. Often overlooked and neglected by all but a handful of cagy waterfowlers, these tiny potholes and wide spots in the creek, though small, are often big on productivity. But be warned - these places are not for those who like to hunt their ducks in the company of others.