— By Phil Kahnke
Picking your waterfowl hunting locations can be a very simple process, or it can be a never-ending battle. While duck hunting shouldn’t be as complicated as a college economics class, I often like to think of how I pick and choose my hunting spots based on macro- and micro-level examinations.
The old wisdom regarding hunting locations is simply “be where the ducks want to be,” and this is very solid advice. Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy when it comes to picking the perfect hunting spot.
Ideal spots are few and far between. More often than not, great-looking or ideal spots often have a tragic flaw — water is too deep, there’s no cover, the wind is wrong, someone else is already there, it’s on private property you can’t hunt … the list could go on.
So, here’s a look at life in the real world when, for one reason or another, we can’t hunt that ideal spot.
Typically, the first step in deciding where to go duck hunting is finding a general area that is holding a strong number of ducks. This arbitrary number is relative to the individual hunter or the number in a hunting party, but it’s still a starting point that involves using previously learned knowledge of one’s surroundings and typical hangouts for ducks. It should also include a fair amount of scouting leading up to season and prior to each hunt.
All of this is what I consider the macro level of scouting. At this level it’s more important to keep the bigger picture in mind by looking at an area from a 10,000-foot view before dissecting it with a microscope.
Putting the necessary miles on the truck to find a wide area that has multiple wetlands with good numbers of ducks is key. Not only does this give hunters multiple locations to hunt within close proximity of one another, but it also ensures hunters will see more ducks than the birds that are on the actual marsh they’re hunting.
While it’s great to have a wetland that may have a few hundred ducks on it come opening day, if there are no other bodies of water or other birds nearby then the hunter may be seeing empty skies shortly after shooting time starts. An extra few miles of scouting to find a good concentration of water (especially with the dry summer that parts of the Dakotas experienced this year) and ducks often pays great rewards.
While scouting, it’s also key to remember that your equipment determines what type of water you can navigate, whether it be a small walk-in-type slough where waders will do just fine, a larger wetland area where a canoe or smaller boat is necessary, or a large body of water where a mid- to large-sized motorized boat can move you around safely and more efficiently.
I mention these various scenarios because it’s easy for hunters — especially waterfowl hunters — to bite off more than they can chew. At times, we all need to be reminded that our equipment needs to be up to the task to have any shot at success, and this is especially true on water sets as the size of the water body increases. Plus, if you start looking now, there are a multitude of options for duck hunting vessels that can handle larger bodies of water, and many can be found at bargain prices.
Once you’ve got the general picture in mind, it’s time to break it down at the micro level.
Imagine it’s mid-September and while scouting one evening you find a nice, shallow slough loaded with blue-winged teal, mallards and a few other species in the mix. It’s close to other wetlands and plenty of food, so it’s likely there are more ducks in the area.
Once I find a place like this my mind immediately transitions into analyzing it, breaking down every detail and deciding which specific spots on the slough would be most productive based on various weather conditions.
The first thing I look for, beyond specific spots the ducks are using, is a point that juts significantly out into the marsh. Being on a point provides several advantages, the first of which is the simple fact that it will be closer to where more birds tend to fly.
Secondly, a good point acts as a pinch point, as most ducks prefer to fly over water rather than going over land, and everyone knows that ducks are easier to decoy when they start out closer to your spread rather than farther away.
Even though a point is often the ideal setup you should look for, there can be times when a flat shoreline or bay may provide the closest access to an area that ducks are naturally using. If you’re hunting an area like this there are several often overlooked details that can play a huge role in your success.
It should go without saying, but always be sure to know basic weather conditions, such as wind direction and speed, and always bear in mind where the sun will be rising in relation to your chosen spot and the incoming ducks. While these might seem like simple tasks on their own, using the wind and the rising sun as one combined tool tips the odds in your favor. In fact, a rising sun at your back can be a better method of camouflage than even the best duck blinds can provide.
Weather conditions often complicate decisions for a duck hunter and may cause a significant change of plans at the last minute. Using the standard “wind at your back” setup may not always work as hoped, but that doesn’t mean you must abandon hunting a chosen spot.
A quartering-away wind or even a side wind works well in many situations. These scenarios can help one hide in a less-than-ideal-cover situation because incoming birds will not be staring directly at the hunter as they are making their final approach. This wind scenario can also help position hunters so that they are not staring into a sunrise all morning. And trust me, your eyeballs, shooting performance and duck identification abilities will all appreciate it.
While out scouting and analyzing a list of possible areas, always keep in mind that something may come up to keep you from hunting the most desired location on any given day. To counter this, make sure you have a solid Plan B and maybe even a Plan C available as options. For example, I always have a couple of different spots in the back of my mind as secondary areas, and, typically, these are spots that, depending on the duck numbers in an area, could easily be first-choice spots.
I also like to hunt areas that are in between good numbers of birds, but may not specifically hold a lot of ducks themselves. Places like this can be overlooked by other waterfowl hunters, so chances are good that these areas receive very little hunting pressure.
Locations like this that offer shots at trafficking birds often reward hunters who have more decoys and more aggressive calling styles, but, regardless, it can be very fulfilling to turn a flock of ducks that had no prior intention of landing in that area into your decoys.
While a lot of conditions come into play when determining where you are going to hunt, being able to strategically analyze the lay of the land, the wind, the sun and bird behavior into one master plan will help you put more birds in the bag at the end of the day.
About the Author: Phil Kahnke is an avid waterfowl hunter and photographer from Salem, S.D. Please visit philkahnke.com to see more of his award-winning photography.