Timber and Big Water Get the Attention, but Don't Forget Small Stuff
The puddle didn't look promising. It was maybe 50 feet by 150 feet, a rough oval. The water looked like chocolate milk, and it was no deeper than a kiddie pool.
It was at the northern edge of a large harvested soybean field, hard against a flooded, brushy ditch that had backed out into the field to create the pond. Surveying the scene in the glow of the spotlight, I figured the hunt would be a bust.
But I'd driven 150 miles south at the invitation of my old friend Joe to meet me at his family's farm near Stuttgart, Arkansas, where we'd grown up. It had been decades since we'd hunted together. I was glad to be there, but I still found myself wishing we were going to green timber rather than this mudhole on the prairie.
But Joe was insistent.
Our tenant farmer says the ducks have been using this spot hard, he said. Anyway, if we have a water haul, it won't be the first time.
Joe was right. Even around Stuttgart, hunters get skunked. But my misgivings soon disappeared. As we put out our small decoy spread in the first light of dawn, several small bunches of ducks tried to land on us, flaring at the last moment when they picked us out in the gloom.
We didn't have a blind, but the ditch bank was dry and overgrown, and we could hide pretty well in the tall weeds. We hunkered in, arranged our guns, shells and other gear, and waited.
There were already ducks in the decoys when the magic minute came, but rather than jump them, we waited for the next bunch to work. It didn't take long. Five mallards answered our calls and fell in, and we made them pay. Two drakes stayed behind as the others beat a quick retreat.
It was one of the best duck hunts we've ever had. Joe and I quickly decided to stretch the hunt by taking turns with each flight, and only shooting once unless a winged bird needed more killing. Even so, we limited out on greenheads in less than 90 minutes. After that, we just sat in our weed patch and watched bunch after bunch of ducks pour in.
Most hunters think big where ducks are concerned. They concentrate on lakes and rivers, big flooded fields and marshes, and large stretches of flooded timber. Nothing wrong with that; ducks like those places. But here's the thing: Ducks like puddles, too. And puddles get little attention from hunters.
That's why I favor small waters. I still hunt the big places, but give me a half-acre dot of water in good duck territory and I'm happy as a clam. In many cases, large private duck clubs are too difficult or too expensive to hunt, and large public areas are often so crowded the hunt is more aggravation than pleasure. And the overcrowding seems to get worse every year.
On the other hand, small potholes, ponds, sloughs and wide spots along creek channels can provide fabulous duck hunting opportunities. And, as mentioned, you're not likely to encounter competition from other hunters.
An added benefit of seeking these small places is the hunt itself is usually much simpler. Duck hunters are famous for the amount of equipment they carry, but hunting small waters is different. Usually, you don't even need a boat. Often, you don't need waders, either. Nor hip boots, for that matter. And you can carry all the decoys you'll need in a burlap bag. The other necessary equipment is equally minimalist: warm clothing, a gun, a call, some shotgun shells and maybe a length of camo netting for a makeshift blind. Mallards, pintails, teal, gadwalls, wood ducks, black ducks and other species readily use these small waters, and they can be small slices of heaven to a duck hunter seeking simplicity and solitude.
The most effective decoy placement for puddles might sound wrong to the hunter who hasn't tried it, but it works. Because the water is small and often partially obscured by trees or brush, passing birds might overlook your small number of decoys if the fakes are bunched too tightly. Instead, spread the decoys so you have one or two on all sections of the pond, leaving 10 feet or more of open water between blocks.
This accomplishes two things: It makes the spread larger in total area and therefore more likely to be seen, and it opens things enough so ducks can light without feeling crowded. However, if it's windy and part of your pothole or pond isn't sheltered, it's best to follow more conventional decoy placement guidelines and make a smaller spread in the most sheltered area of the hole.
Some puddle hunters swear by confidence decoys — seagulls or great blue herons, for example — in addition to duck decoys. I've tried them, and although they never seemed to scare ducks or make them flare, I've never noticed that they added anything to the success of the hunt. It's a personal call. Use them or don't, but remember that a confidence decoy adds one more degree of complication to the hunt. Because one of the most appealing things about puddle hunting is its simplicity, I've decided that, for me, confidence decoys are counterproductive.
Small Thoughts on Larger Waters
The small-waters mindset can also be useful on bigger lakes and rivers. Just search out places on big water that have small-water characteristics. It's the puddle principle again: Think small. Go back into the arms and bays of a lake or river and look for a narrow, shallow, sheltered place, and then treat it like it was a puddle. That's how the ducks will treat it, too.
The puddle principle can also be used to good advantage on small and large creeks and rivers. Just downstream from a sharp bend in the stream, on the inside of the bend where the current breaks back on itself, you'll often find an eddy of slack water. This is a natural resting place for ducks. Cluster your decoys a little tighter in this situation. Remember, think small and natural. This pocket of quiet water usually won't be very large, and the ducks are aware of that. You'll probably need longer anchor cords and heavier anchors to cope with deeper water and current.
River sandbars are also good places to use the pothole principle. Ducks need grit, and sandbars are good sources. When hunting sandbars, it's usually best to set up toward the downstream end of the bar, because the current is usually slower there. Try setting one or two of your decoys on the sand at the edge of the water for a more realistic look.
Finally, don't overlook those little wet spots in pastures or harvested grain fields. A puddle 3 inches deep and no bigger than a volleyball court can be a magnet for hungry or tired ducks, especially if you toss in a few decoys.
Concealment is crucial when hunting ducks during any conditions, but it's especially important for small waters. Ducks readily and regularly use these little places, but they usually approach with extreme caution because everything is so tight and close together. Often, a group of ducks will circle a puddle a dozen times before committing.
Start with head-to-toe camouflage that matches your surroundings, and don't forget about gun, hands and face. As mentioned, small, portable blinds or layout blinds can sometimes be used to good advantage, especially where natural cover is scarce or absent. Usually, though, it's easier and just as effective to hide using whatever is natural at the site — tree trunks around a river-bottom pothole, a driftwood log on a sandbar, or tall grass or willows along a pond bank. The rule of thumb is simple: If there's any doubt whether you're hidden well enough, you're probably not.
The ability to call is important in this type of hunting. You don't have to be a world champion, but you need some skill. However, don't overdo it. A short hail call to get their attention followed by contented feeding chuckles to keep them coming is usually enough.
Don't over-choke your gun, either. Puddle hunting is almost always an exercise in close-range shooting, and fat, forgiving patterns are better than tight, duck-destroying ones. An improved-cylinder tube is as tight as you'll usually need, and something even more open than that is sometimes better. My gun of choice for hunting puddles is a 28-gauge over-and-under, choked cylinder and improved-cylinder, using 9/16-ounce handloads of TSS Nos. 9, 9-1/2 or 10 shot. With steel or other lighter-than-lead nontoxics, a 20-gauge and 2s or 3s is a good choice. But leave that choke open.
If you want to dodge the crowds and increase your duck hunting opportunities without spending a lot of money in the process, maybe it's time to take a look at those little wet places you've been ignoring. Most of your fellow hunters have been ignoring them, too, but it's a pretty safe bet ducks aren't ignoring them. Throw a few decoys into a burlap bag, and strike out for a puddle.
You might be pleasantly surprised.