Waterfowl hunting is some of the most fun that a guy or gal can have in the outdoors, and puddle ducks are some of the tastiest critters on the planet. Yet the barrier to entry to waterfowl hunting seems huge if you don’t have big water flowing through your backyard or if you’re outside of a major flyway and there’s no public land to hunt. But if there’s any water of any kind in your area, chances are you have ducks. The key to duck hunting creeks and small water is finding overlooked and out-of-the-way spots.
My friend Brett Shaffer of Grumpy Duck Co. spends a lot of time chasing ducks on small water. He hunts creeks, ponds, and a small river in a rural central Pennsylvania valley. It’s a place with no big water outside of the main Atlantic flyway — and he consistently kills ducks.
I asked him for his best advice for small-water success, and he offered up six steps that will keep you on ducks season after season.
Step 1: Scout
“The ultimate goal of scouting is to be where the ducks want to be,” Shaffer says.
In waterfowl hunting vernacular, it’s called “being on the X.” Now, you could just set up anywhere on the creek and hope for the best. You could even jump shoot the creek. But you likely won’t kill as many ducks with either strategy as you would by setting up on the X after a solid scout. (And consistent jump shooting could pressure the ducks to leave.) If you want to consistently kill creek ducks, it’s best to do the work before the hunt.
Jump on OnX or Google Earth to scan the creeks and streams for potential roosts, feeds, and loafs. In addition to areas on the streams that hold ducks, you’re looking for small ponds and ag fields where ducks might go to feed. Once you have your spots marked, grab your binos and hop in your vehicle. It’s time to put in some miles.
Cruise the backroads during the middle of the day to the spots you marked on the map. As you do, stop to glass other potential spots that you missed during your e-scout and mark those suckers down. Drive and glass. Keep marking good spots and keep finding ducks. But some spots you need to leave alone.
In our valley, we have two “sanctuaries” that someone from our hunting clan checks somewhere between mid-morning and mid-day. One is a pond fed by a warm spring, and the other is a slow bend in a creek on private land that’s off-limits to hunting. Ducks congregate to loaf and roost in these two spots. This provides a census of how many ducks we have in the area at a given time. You’ll do well to find similar sanctuaries in your area.
During the evening, cruise and glass to find where the ducks are flying. It’s similar to “putting turkeys to bed,” so you can get on a gobbler the next morning. This doesn’t always work out because sometimes they don’t fly until after it’s too dark to see. But it’s always worth a shot.
In the morning, observe the first flight. Follow the ducks as best you can to see where they’re putting in on the creek. You might have to drive as they fly to see where they go. From the right vantage point, you’ll spot the X from your vehicle. But most of the time, that’s not the case. You’ll have to walk and glass the creek to find exactly where the ducks dropped in. Put your sneakin’ cap on before you do, and use your glass, so you don’t blow them out.
Where you find the ducks isn’t necessarily indicative of where they landed, especially if you’re scouting later in the morning. They may have swum up or downstream. Read the stream. Use your deductive reasoning powers to sort out the X if you didn’t watch the ducks land. Look for bends in the stream, eddies, and pools, or confluences where smaller streams or ditches drain into the larger stream. Sometimes, ducks like to drop in on a nice, clean straightaway.
If you can’t set up on the X, the next best thing to do is set up somewhere along their flight path on the creek and try to pull them. That’s why it’s important to observe them coming and going from their roosts, feeds, and loafs. Use the stream features in the paragraph above to create your setup.
Be sure to note the weather and the time of day to set behavior patterns. Keep a journal or a group text thread with your hunting buddies to log the details. If you’re looking at the scouting times of day, I’m talking about here and thinking, “Well hell, I don’t have that much time. I can only scout in the afternoon when I get off work,” that’s fine. Scout when you can scout. But do it. Do your best to put together a complete picture of what’s happening with the ducks in your area.
Another thing to keep in mind is that ducks will roost, feed, and loaf interchangeably. Do your best to figure out which spot is a roost. Don’t shoot the roost. If you do, the ducks will bail. One hunt will cost you a bunch of future hunts.
Step 2: Get Permission
If you hunt in a large agricultural valley as we do, you’ll often find that the best small water spots are on private land. And, as Shaffer says, so much of private land hunting comes down to two things — diplomacy and clear communication.
When asking for permission, plan to have a detailed conversation with the landowner. It should cover everything from where to park, which days of the week you can hunt, and whether or not the owner wants you to check in with them somehow before every hunt. You should also talk about whether or not you can bring guests, season dates, and which exact duck species you’ll be hunting. There’s a great spot in our valley where the owner no longer allows waterfowl hunting because guys killed a mess of wood ducks without first checking in. The owner assumed they’d be killing mallards. He liked watching the wood ducks.
You’ll also want to find out if anyone else has permission to hunt there. It’ll give you a good idea of how hard the ducks are being pressured, and it will also let you know what kind of private land diplomacy you’ll need to practice. It’s best if the ducks aren’t over pressured and that all the hunters get along. Pissing and moaning will lose you a duck spot in a hurry. If other folks have permission, do your best to work with them and even invite them to hunt with you. It might come down to you being the bigger person so that the ducks aren’t over pressured and all the relationships stay on an even keel.
We hook our landowners up with gifts during every season. Nothing extravagant. Just enough to let them know we appreciate them. Typically, we take them some wild game bologna or sausage. Another favorite is homemade wild goose pastrami.
Step 3: Set up Your Hide
Your duck hunting creek hide needs to do three things — get you as hidden as possible, give you enough visibility to see birds, and get you close enough to the X for good shooting.
Get a look in the daylight as you scout. If there’s natural vegetation that offers you enough overhead, front, back, and side cover based on how the ducks are putting in, that’s great. Use it. But you’ll likely need to bring some clippers to cut vegetation (if you’re allowed, ask the landowner) and make yourself a stick blind to add what’s naturally available.
We often use layout blinds and solo 360 blinds when the creek bank doesn’t offer enough cover. These puppies disappear when they’re brushed in to match the surrounding natural vegetation. Your movement is also fully covered when you’re in them. They aren’t necessary, but, man, they sure are nice and are a worthwhile investment if you plan on consistently chasing waterfowl.
“Sometimes, the best you can do is hide behind a tree,” Shaffer said. “You’re in a spot where you can’t carry anything in, and the creek bank doesn’t offer you anything for building a natural blind.”
So, you get behind or beside that dang tree and keep still.
Here’s the takeaway: as long as you can see and shoot, you can’t be too brushed in. Ducks are wary critters, and a half-assed hide that doesn’t look right will get you busted. No matter if you’re improvising a stick blind or hiding in a layout, brush your shit in well. You need to be invisible when duck hunting creeks.
Step 4: Get Your Decoy Spread Right
Shaffer wants you to ask yourself one question before you start chucking decoys: What did your scout tell you?
If you’re smack on the X, you probably don’t need decoys. If you want to give the ducks something to look at, toss out about half as many as the number of the ducks that are coming to that spot. If six ducks are using that hole, chuck a pair or a pair and a single.
Set your spread to make it look like a scene you observed while scouting. Put some feeders along the edges in the shallow water. Drop in some preeners. Place a couple in the middle of the creek to simulate ducks that just landed. Leave a hole for where you want the ducks to land and do your best to keep the wind generally at your back so that the ducks land face-first into the hole.
Step 5: Get Your Gear Right
The great thing about duck hunting creeks is that it doesn’t require much gear and isn’t as cost-prohibitive as other forms of waterfowl hunting.
Chest waders are great for setting decoys, retrieving ducks from the current, and chasing cripples downstream. Hip boots might seem like enough until you step into a hole you didn’t see and water streams into your sock.
A half dozen decoys are usually plenty, and a jerk rig is a nice-to-have piece that gives your decoys some seductive movement when the current isn’t doing it for you. Grab yourself a 6-gallon bucket and paint it in earth tones. It doubles as a seat and gear holder.
A decent call will help turn the ducks that need a little sweet-talking. Binos will help you watch the ducks that didn’t do what you thought they’d do.
You’ll also want to choke your shotgun and pattern accordingly. We shoot 20 gauge Boss, copper-plated bismuth 2 3/4-inch No. 5 shells through a modified choke. Bismuth patterns similarly to lead and the modified choke gives you enough leeway to kill ducks that are close, as well as take an honest poke at ducks that are gaining a little ground on their flight out of town.
Step 6: Hunt
Creek hunting ducks isn’t rocket surgery. Beat the ducks to the spot, hide, and shoot them in the face when they cup up. There are, however, a couple of things to consider.
If you’re where the ducks want to be, and you damn well know it, keep your yapper shut and don’t call. Just let them do their thing. If you throw a weird note and make the deal seem suspicious, you might blow your chance at shooting.
But what if the ducks don’t do what you thought they were going to do? Let’s say you missed the X, and they drop in upstream. You could sneak to water swat them. Or you could pay attention, use your current hunt as a scout, and choose a better setup for your next hunt.
Hang tight if the ducks don’t show when you thought they would — especially if you have cold, cloudy, rainy, or snowy weather that will keep ducks flying throughout the day. As much as you can pattern waterfowl, they’re still wild animals that do unpredictable shit. With the right weather that keeps ducks flying, you might pull ducks you otherwise wouldn’t have seen.
And don’t overhunt. If you grind on the ducks, they’ll leave. This is especially important if you’re outside of a major flyway and are hunting mostly local ducks. Play the long game, rest your spots by only hunting them once a week or less, and have good hunting for the entire season instead of just a few hunts. Sometimes the smart hunt is the one not taken.