Waterfowl seasons are upon us out West, and that means if you’re not one of those lucky hunters who can afford to belong to a private club, more than likely you’ll be hunting on public refuge areas at least some of the time. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing because I’ve had some of my finest duck hunting days on public refuges. You just have to know how to go about it.
Because most people work Monday through Friday and hunt only during weekends, you’ll generally find much less pressure on the refuges during mid-week. If you have to hunt weekends, try to shy away from holiday weekends. Also, don’t be afraid to sit all day. Often you’ll experience a short burst of mid-morning flight activity as most hunters pick up and leave a bit before noon.
In-depth scouting is crucial to success. If you have little experience on a specific refuge, try to make a trip or two there before hunting season just to get a feel for it. If you cannot do this, there are two things you can do to help you gain critical insight into the area.
The first is looking at maps and aerial photographs. These tools are the backbone of a serious big game hunter’s arsenal, but waterfowlers often overlook them. Even if you’ve had some success on a specific refuge, knowledge of the entire complex can be beneficial during those times when your honey-holes run dry. Maybe there’s another part of the same complex the birds are using. Do you see ducks flying in the distance, but wonder what’s over there? Your maps and aerial photos can quickly tell you.
Most state fish and wildlife agencies have detailed maps of their holdings, as will many federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Corps of Engineers and the Bureau of Land Management. And, of course, the Internet is an excellent source of information.
Just as important as using maps is asking questions. It’s surprising the number of hunters who, year after year, spend much of their time on a piece of public ground and have never once talked with the area manager or their local waterfowl biologist; both are sources of some of the most up-to-the-minute, accurate, area-specific hunting information available. Over the years, it’s been my experience that refuge managers and regional biologists generally are very friendly and helpful. Many years ago, when I lived in southern California, I became good friends with the then-manager of the Kern National Wildlife Refuge, a place where I hunted a lot. I called him the day before I went to hunt there, and he told me exactly where the best action was happening right then. Thanks to him, I knew which blind locations to hunt, and I consistently hammered the birds.
Effort = Success
I’ve never hunted refuge areas that didn’t require a lot of work. Often that meant backpacking as many decoys as I could carry up to an hour through the water and muck to a secluded little hidey-hole. Generally speaking, those who invest the most sweat equity—walk the extra mile, use an off-beat boat ramp, get muddy, work harder and generally get wet, sweaty and muddy—shoot the most ducks. Period.
It’s also important to think outside the box. That’s because with the possible exception of migrating birds that have just arrived from someplace else, the ducks that frequent public wetlands can often be most accurately described as highly educated. They know exactly where the refuge boundaries are, and they recognize and avoid every blind, especially the ones surrounded by frozen, unmoving and very unattractive plastic decoys. When standard techniques don’t work, throw ’em a curveball.
For example, if everyone else is using two dozen mallard blocks, use a half-dozen—or none at all. Use a jerk-cord on at least two of your decoys to add motion to the set. Or use no decoys and try flagging from a tule patch. Or flag like mad with your standard decoy set out. Another tactic is to use an “off” decoy species. In those areas with an abundance of coots, I’ve found two or three dozen coot decoys—yes, dozen—to be effective. I’ll add three or four magnum drake mallard decoys on the fringes of this conglomeration of coots for added appeal. Sometimes this stupid-sounding setup works like gangbusters.
Nate is a northern California boy and my brother’s former college classmate. He’s a psycho waterfowler who hunts refuges a lot. “I hunt all day, but find good shooting often occurs mid-morning after many other folks have experienced a 2-hour lull in the action and decide to head home,” Nate said. “If you’re in an area with ducks, mid-morning flights can be easier to decoy than the early morning flights.
“Match your calling to the conditions. I tend to call hard and try to out-call people around me, but if you’re in a small hole or the birds exhibit some call-shyness, less can be much better than too much. But if the birds don’t know where they’re going, try to make your spot the place to be by making the most commotion.
“This is really important: If the other guys are hammering them in another hole and you’re not getting any shooting, stop everything. Let them limit out, and as soon as they begin to pick up and head home, move to their spot and set up your decoys.”
Nate says the best camouflage in the world is a shadow. “Position yourself and your decoys so the wind is from your side so that the ducks are coming in across your blind as opposed to in your face,” he said. “You want the ducks looking across your spread rather than at you as they come in.”
The Bottom Line
You don’t have to be a rich hunter with lots of connections to kill limits of Pacific Flyway ducks. Up and down the coast are some of the nation’s finest public refuge areas, vast expanses of flooded marsh that draw literally millions of migrating waterfowl each fall. They don’t cost much to hunt, and for those willing to pay some dues in terms of research and work, the rewards can be great. I can honestly tell you that during my days of hunting California refuge areas 3 days a week, it wasn’t unusual for me to kill a heckuva lot more birds than many hunters who spent their days on adjacent private duck clubs.
Oh, sure, they didn’t have to work as hard. They often had comfortable pit blinds to sit in, big lunch boxes and sometimes even radios so they could listen to the weekend football games. And they had the “status” of being a “private duck club member.”
Good for them. For me, waterfowling is all about the shooting. Trust me when I tell you that public refuges can be your ticket to a hefty ammo bill come season’s end.