BEAVER-POND BIRDS AREN'T EASY TO HUNT
Beaver swamp mallards don't make it easy. Birds that skulk the day away in tangled hells of waist-deep muck and eye-high brier, latticed with blowdowns and mined with beaver-sheared saplings sharp as stakes—well, you can't expect such creatures to behave with decorum. Nor can you expect them to obey the rules. Ducks always light into the wind. Ducks won't land over decoys. Don't set up your back to tall timber. Beaver swamp birds have minds of their own, and they aren't easy to decipher.
But I've spent years trying. Long before I had a duck boat, a duck dog, or a duck lease, I had strong legs, strong lungs, and a love of swamps. So I cut my DIY duck-hunting teeth on beaver swamps and ponds, and I'd still just as soon gun over a foggy beaver swamp than anywhere else in the world.
This is up-close-and-personal duck hunting, and you'll need to fine-tune your open-water skills to toll in beaver pond birds that are skittish as day-old goats. There are times when killing ducks in beaver ponds and swamps can come very easily. And there are times when it can be pretty close to impossible. Here's how to stack the odds in your favor for those times when nothing seems to go right.
You'll have to navigate creek channels, beaver dams, and boot-sucking mud, so give yourself plenty of time for the often difficult hump into a beaver pond. If there's any chance at all for ice-up, add a half-hour, minimum, and bring a portable spotlight. You may need to find—or create—open water.
If your pond is part of a chain of beaver impoundments along a long creek or watershed—and most of them are—you may be faced with too much of a good thing. In these situations, there's frequently too much water, so you scouted the pond carefully to pin down the exact pocket of open water where the birds want to be. If you haven't scouted, find a point or clump of shrubs near both open water and more heavily vegetated pocket water. Place decoys in each.
Concealment is critical. Carry small pruning shears to trim away overhanging brush or briars that will snag your coat sleeve as you turn to fire a highball at a cruising flock. Before dawn breaks, decide on who calls the shots and who takes the low bird. Finding firm footage in beaver ponds is difficult, so stomp around and get your feet in position now, before you have to shoot.
THE MAGIC HOUR
Beaver pond birds can come very early, especially if you're targeting wood ducks. Know precisely when legal hours begin. If birds land in the decoys too early, stay still. If they stick around for a few minutes, you'll double your decoy spread's drawing power. In low-light situations, beaver ponds toss up tricky shooting situations. A maze of overhanging branches and tree trunks creates distracting backgrounds. The ducks seem to come from everywhere—or out of nowhere. It's back to Wingshooting 101: Pick one bird. Get the gun barrel moving. Kill it. Find another. After the initial sunrise flurry, it's important to find every cripple you can. Know what's in the bag so you'll be clear on what remains of your bag limit.
WAITING IT OUT
Some of my favorite beaver ponds are resting sites, and they don't come alive until long past dawn. Plan ahead to hang around for the midmorning, or even noon, mallard flights. This is when patience and discipline are virtues. Try not to horse around during the slow periods. If you're hunting with a buddy, sit at angles so you can watch each other's backs for ducks slipping in quietly. Adding movement to your decoys can play big dividends during the waiting hours. Use jerk cords to add eye-catching ripples to the water.
It's inevitable that some birds will land on the other side of the pond or swamp. Jumpshooting such finicky fowl can be very productive, but leave one person in the blind to cover the decoys or work on the birds you flare as you stalk. And don't pass up good shots. This is one of the most frequent mistakes I make. It's true that most beaver pond shots will be close, but late in the season ducks are overly cautious even about the seemingly safe havens of pocket water. Know your range and be honest about your shooting ability, but don't hesitate to shoot birds that meet those parameters.
DIALING IN ON DUCKS
Different duck species seem to behave differently in beaver ponds. Wood ducks practically ignore decoys, so post up at first light along the pond's creek channel, the most common route for these early fliers to take in and out of the swamp. Mallards, however, go where other greenheads went. If more than two flights of mallards snub your set for some other corner of the swamp, move your decoys swiftly. Black ducks will circle a beaver pond endlessly, then turn away for no apparent reason. If black ducks are slow to commit, wait until they drop below 35 yards, and take them as they pass overhead with wings spread and vitals showing. We even get the occasional teal flight in our beaver ponds, and we don't wait for them to put the gears down. Shoot 'em like doves: Move that gun barrel fast, pull the trigger as you block out the bird, and keep swinging.
A DIRTY TRICK
Beaver pond ducks are famous for always landing where you and your decoys aren't. Vent your frustration by hanging a few aluminum pie pans in trees located in the far corners of the beaver pond, away from your set-up. They might be just enough of a deterrent to steer birds to your blind. Make sure to remove these sneaky scarecrows on your way out.
ANATOMY OF A BEAVER POND
Young ponds and flooded swamps are a hunter's best bet, because rich, flooded soils produce a flush of edible plants, from duckweed to wild rice. If your favorite pond seems to be drawing fewer ducks, look up and down the watershed for places where beavers have recently migrated.
Even older ponds, however, can produce a fine duck shoot. As pondside trees age, they produce more and more mast, a wood duck bonanza. As a beaver pond ages, it also tends to grow as the beavers add to the dam. Those deeper waters stay ice-free longer and can be a late-winter magnet when surrounding ponds freeze up.
Old beaver ponds still attract ducks, but mostly for roosting. Always scout beaver ponds in the morning, not the evening. An older beaver pond or swamp that fills with ducks at sunset might be empty of birds just a few minutes past legal shooting light as they depart for distant feeding grounds.
BEST JERK-CORD EVER
These days I'm likely to go retro with the best jerk cord you'll ever see in action. It gives up to five decoys a surprising amount of motion, with a minimal amount of movement on your part. The whole rig fits in your pocket and goes up in less than five minutes. It's as deadly as it is simple and works almost anywhere.
- 85 feet of decoy line
- 15 feet of 1/8-inch black bungee cord
- 6 large black snap swivels
Tie five 6- to 8-inch-long loops into the last 20 feet of one end of the decoy line, using overhand knots. The loops should be about 2 to 3 feet apart. (These will serve as dropper lines to give your decoys room to move.) Tie a snap swivel to the end of each loop. Tie one end of the bungee cord to the end of the decoy line near the last loop. Now tie the last snap swivel to the other end of the bungee.
To set the rig up, pass the end of the bungee cord around a tree, heavy brush, or sturdy stake (or a heavily anchored decoy), and hook the line-end snap swivel to the cord. Run the jerk cord to your blind and clip one to five decoys to dropper lines. Pull the slack out, until the bungee cord just begins to stretch. A short, swift pull on the taut line will set the decoys into motion, and the dropper lines will give them room to roam, appearing as if they are splashing and content. And happy to have company.