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Tactics for Taking Texas Ducks
When it comes to bagging Lone Star ducks, these expert waterfowlers have it down to an art!
By Robert Sloan
It was Christmas morning of 2002 when Kyle Rowe and I stepped out of a warm truck and into pre-dawn chill in the lower 20s.
Rowe, whom I regard as one of the best mallard hunters this side of the Canadian border, looked up at the dark, clear, starry sky.
"It's going to be perfect," he predicted while wrestling with a pile of cold-weather gear. "As long as the sky is clear, the mallards will be flying."
We pulled on waders, waterproof gloves and windproof hoods and launched the big War Eagle duck hunting boat amid a skein of ice in the shallows.
We were on one of the many public lakes that so many Houston and Dallas-based duck hunters use throughout the season. Lakes like Richland-Chambers, Whitney, Sam Rayburn, Toledo Bend and Livingston are prime duck-hunting waters at this time of year. The lake we were on had proved itself on more than one occasion to be a great waterfowling lake.
"Man, I came in here the other day on a scouting trip and could hear the mallards in the woods," said Rowe. "I had just put in the boat and was standing at the boat ramp. That's when I noticed all the quacking. I went to all that quacking and found more mallards than you can believe. They were all over the place on the upper end of the lake. Right then I knew I had found a great mallard hole."
"Great"? That might be an understatement! After our Christmas morning hunt, I would say it was the ultimate spot for big greenheads.
As we left the ramp that morning we could see flights of ducks moving in and out of the woods at the far end of the lake.
"That's not where we want to hunt," said Rowe. "All those ducks are gadwalls, widgeon and lots of divers. The mallards are over there, just around that bend," he said, pointing. "There's a whole lot of willows in that area. It's protected from the wind. After the mallards feed out in the fields, they come back here to lay up for the day."
We were running a tad late. The sun was already lighting up this wonderful Christmas morning.
Rowe brought the boat off plane and we idled into the area of flooded willows. We could see feathers floating all over the place. We worked at setting out about seven dozen decoys on the waist-deep flat. The water was bone-chilling cold, but the promise of mallards and pintails floating in over the spread was enough to keep us going.
Before we even had the decoys out, mallards began moving in. One group of eight circled once, then twice, and landed about 20 feet from me. We were standing right in the middle of the spread, our guns hanging on the limbs of a willow 30 yards away.
"Forget the decoys," said Rowe. "Let's get our guns and get ready to shoot."
And shoot we did. As expected, mallards and pintails began arriving off adjacent fields after their early morning feed. It was one of those days a duck hunter never forgets. The sun was shining so that as the mallards came in and banked, the bright green heads of the drakes glowed as if fluorescent. As they landed, their legs were bright as oranges on a tree.
Standing in the shadows of the willows, waist-deep in the water, Rowe and I were invisible. The ducks never knew we were there - until we stepped out to shoot.
The only problem we had that morning was in limiting out too soon. At about 10:30 we called it a day. We had each shot five fat greenheads, and a bull sprig. It was the perfect limit on a perfect day.
Not all Houston- and Dallas-based duck hunters stick to hunting the big public lakes. In fact, a whole lot of hunters tap into small-pond shoots for a smorgasbord of ducks such as gadwalls, teal, widgeon, pintails and mallards.
Denny Copeland, based out of Waco, always keeps open a few small-lake options for ducks.
"At times the pressure on the big public lakes can be too much, and actually run the ducks off," says Copeland. "That's when I'll scale down and hunt on small lakes. Some are just an acre or so in size. Others are upwards of 50 acres.
"Last season was a good example of how pressure can move ducks around. We didn't have nearly the numbers of birds we should have early in the season. The ducks we had were pressured on the public lakes. They moved to smaller lakes. That's where we had some good hunts."
Copeland, who hunts with Rowe, says that they had done some off-season scouting to locate smaller lakes in the vicinity of the big public lakes. They leased one lake of about 50 acres. On another, they simply located the landowner and got permission to hunt for free. You never know until you ask.
Both lakes turned out to be excellent duck-hunting venues. "Throughout the season we kept an eye on those two lakes," says Copeland. "When they loaded up with ducks, we hunted them. What we didn't do was hunt them more than once or twice a week. Too much shooting will run the birds off."
On each lake they carried a couple of dozen decoys and stakes and brush for making shoreline blinds.
"Once you locate a small lake that's holding ducks, you can come in before shooting time, set up and have a great hunt," says Copeland. "Ducks are usually pretty laid back on small lakes, especially if they haven't been shot at. So if you can get in, set up and be waiting for them to come in, you'll usually have a pretty good hunt."
The one thing that both Copeland and Rowe stress is the need for sunlight. "All that stuff about clouds and rain for better duck hunts is way wrong," says Rowe. "I'll take a sunny day over a cloudy one anytime. Clearly, ducks are more skittish on cloudy days. That's because they can usually see the hunters. On a sunny day a smart hunter will stay in the shadows, making him virtually invisible to incoming ducks."
Of course, that applies to hunters that are set up with makeshift blinds. That's all that Rowe and Copeland hunt out of. Having hunted with them for about two decades, I can say that they almost always hunt in the water and lean up against a tree for concealment.
"Ducks see way too many box blinds," says Copeland. "They know to flare from that type of structure because that's what they get shot at from most of the time."
While on a public-lake hunt last season, I watched in amazement as ducks flared from a box blind that wasn't even being hunted. Three of us were set up in a wad of cattails, with mesh cloth over our heads. As a variety of ducks came in on the upper end of the lake, they would flare from the decoys left out around a box blind about 300 yards to our left.
Conversely, once we began calling, they would slide over our way, see the decoys and lock up. They never had a clue as to our whereabouts.
Leaving a spread of decoys out is about the worst thing a hunter can do, and for two very good reasons. One is that the dekes are likely to get stolen; the other is that the birds get used to seeing them and stay away.
"I don't ever leave my decoys out, regardless of where I'm hunting," says Los Patos outfitter Forrest West. "It takes the surprise factor out of the equation. Ducks definitely get used to seeing decoys, and avoid them."
West grew up hunting the river bottoms and backwater sloughs in the Pineywoods, but for the past few decades this veteran hunter has been hunting marsh ponds east of Houston.
"Last season we had plenty of birds," says West. "But most other hunters in that same area didn't have too much to shoot at. I've got several thousand acres that are dotted with big and small ponds. They held ducks all season long. The reason why is because I didn't pressure them. When you're set up on a lake or a pond, or even in the river bottoms, you can't put excess pressure on ducks. They'll leave and won't come back.
"What I do is locate an area that's holding ducks. I'll hunt it one day, and give it a few days of rest. Most hunters can't do that. They find the birds and shoot them up till they're gone."
I've hunted with West for about 20 years. The one thing I've discovered about his success is that he uses very few decoys, does practically no calling and always sets up in makeshift blinds.
"You don't need 24 dozen decoys to bring ducks within shooting range," says West. "I usually use two to four dozen, and they are mixed up. I'll have a half-dozen teal, some gadwalls, a few pintails and mallards."
West is a specialist at duck hunting on small waters. He picked that up while growing up and hunting on the backwaters of East Texas. These days he's best known for hunting marsh ponds. Most of the ponds he hunts range in size from a few acres to 50 or so. The reason he's so successful at hunting on those ponds? Scouting.
"That's a big part of any duck-hunting success," says West. "It doesn't matter if you are hunting on a huge public reservoir or a tiny farm pond. You have got to do some scouting to find out where the birds are feeding and resting during the day."
West has one pond that's usually covered with aquatic vegetation. The ducks love it, when they can find it. Every few days West will drive by the pond and check it out. A couple of years ago I got a call from him in regard to that particular pond.
"You need to come over here and hunt with me tomorrow," he said. "That little pond is loaded up with ducks."
I showed up well before shooting time. As we ambled down the trail leading to the pond, we could hear all sorts of quacking. Ducks were everywhere in the sky. West had brought along two sacks of decoys. As usual they were a mix of the ducks that we were about to shoot - gadwalls, teal, widgeon and pintails. We set the decoys out in individual groups. We hurriedly cut branches and made crude blinds along the levee.
"This is going to be a great hunt," said West, pouring himself a cup of hot coffee. "We can either shoot our limits early and be out before we spook the birds, or we can take our time and pick our shots."
One thing I've learned from West is that he doesn't like to shoot up a concentration of ducks. In fact, he likes to get in and get out if there are lots of birds working a particular pond or lake. The idea is to let the birds move back in and settle down for future hunts.
Calling is usually a critical part of a good duck hunt, especially if you are after mallards, but it's not all that important if you are shooting gadwalls, teal, widgeon and pintails. Mallards are pretty vociferous; other ducks aren't.
Rowe and Copeland are among the best at calling down mallards. Once while hunting on Richland-Chambers I watched them team up on flight after flight of mallards coming in off the local peanut fields.
We were set up on a shallow flat on the upper end of the lake. We had a sizable spread of decoys on the water. Rowe and Copeland like to use mostly mallard decoys, but with a dozen or so pintails mixed in. What they do is mix up lots of magnum-sized decoys with standard-sized models. The bigger decoys tend to get the attention of distant ducks.
As mallards come into view, Copeland and Rowe will do a serious amount of calling to get the birds coming their way. Once the ducks are showing some interest, they will tone down the calling and go into single quacks, imitating a lonesome hen. If pintails are working with the mallards, which is not too unusual, one caller will do the quacking while the other works with a whistle. It's very affective teamwork.
"The worst thing you can do is call too much," says Copeland. "You want to get their attention, work them close with single, lonesome quacks, and then let them dictate what will work best. For example, if you have birds working that aren't quacking, do the same. But if you've got a hen with greenheads and she's quacking like crazy, quack back. In that situation they are looking for company."
Rowe likes to work the birds in close and coax them down with subtle and soft quacks. "If I've got birds circling the decoys, just out of gun range, I'm going to let them show me what they want," says Rowe. "In that situation, one bad quack from your call could send them to the next county. If the birds are almost in, then begin to move out, I'll hit them with the call. It's not unusual to yo-yo decoy-shy birds. The key is to be patient. When the calling is done right, and you've got a good-looking spread of decoys on the water, and you're well concealed, the ducks are going to come on in."
When hunting on public lakes you'll run across all sorts of hunters. Some will be good, while others need to join a circus. There are a few rules that will keep you from getting yelled at.
The main thing is not to set up right on top of other hunters. You want to be at least a couple of hundred yards from others. If hunters move in on you in the dark, shine a flashlight at them. Let them know you're there.
The worst thing you can do is try to call a flight of birds away from nearby hunters. That's plain rude. If you see birds working an adjacent group of hunters, watch and listen. You might learn something.
Bad calling is like kissing your sister. It can ruin the day for nearby hunters by spooking call-shy ducks. If you are calling and notice that the ducks are flaring, give it up. In fact, you might put the call aside and let the birds come in on their own. Believe it or not, that's often a great tactic!
Sky-blasting is a problem regardless of where you hunt. True sportsmen and great duck hunters are well aware of the range of their guns. For the best and quickest kill, you want the birds to be inside 30 yards. Sure, you can kill them at 40 or even 50 yards. But if the bird goes down at that range, it's usually a cripple that ends up being lost.
There's nothing quite as infuriating as having some nearby bozo hunter blast away at ducks in the stratosphere. That's the same type of guy who smashes beer cans on his forehead to impress the ladies. Sky-blasting ruins the day for hunters all over the lake. Don't do it.
Duck hunting on the big open lakes can be a great thing when it's done right. When on the water there are three important things to remember: Let somebody know where you'll be hunting and when you'll likely be home. Always wear your life jacket. And always stay abreast of the weather forecast.
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