Duckhunting Public Land

Posted by on Jan 8, 2013 in Feature Articles | 0 comments

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The air that crept through the small opening of my mummy bag was icy enough to wake me. It was 3:30 in the morning; a good 2 and a half hours before shooting time. The ducks weren’t even awake yet, but I crawled from the back of my pickup and fired up the Coleman. It was 26 degrees, and hot coffee was on the menu. Ah, the joys of duck hunting!


I arrived at the string of pothole lakes in Central Washington the night before, after stopping for a quick pheasant hunt on the way, before darkness settled in. A single quail was now nestled in my orange game bag as a result. I had to be back home that night, so this particular morning would define my entire hunting “weekend.” Home was a 4-hour drive away. Here are just a few pointers that helped me get the job done.

Get there early. I don’t have the opportunity of hunting on private or leased ground, nor do I pay for a guide, which is one reason I drive the lengths I do for even a chance of a quality DIY hunt. Needless to say, when left to hunting public areas, no matter how remote they may look on a map, getting there early is always a must.

Use the right tools. I finished my coffee and started the near-mile hike with 12 decoys—two geese and ten old, scuffed-up ducks—strapped to my back. I carried my old Mossberg in one hand, and a telescoping pole in the other. My black lab, Mollie, passed away unexpectedly earlier in the summer, so I was left with waders and a long hooky gizmo to retrieve my quarry. She was a great dog, and as so many duck hunters would suspect, she was unequivocally the happiest when she was swimming after a downed quacker. This was my first duck hunt without Mollie, so to say it wasn’t easy is an understatement. But as I left the parking area, I noticed I was still the only hunter there, and that made my spirits rise. A bit.

Set a simple spread. What connects the larger bodies of water in this chain of lakes, are small feeder streams that run from one to another, bisecting the landscape of sage hills and rock cliffs. I set up my decoys in three groups. One group was a mix of widgeon and mallards, and was tucked near the far shore, across the inlet from the blind. The rest of the decoys were mallards, and they sat staggered about 25 feet off the near shoreline. In essence, I created a simple, open-water landing strip between the two groups. Oftentimes, creating the classic “J” or “V” pattern with your dekes can create a nice, open welcome mat, as well, depending on the type of water you are hunting.


Keep the wind at your back. Ducks like to land into the wind, and experience tells me ducks will generally fly down the waterways that line the bottoms of these particular canyons, so I felt good about the simple set-up. The life-sized, flocked geese comprised the third group, and they sat nicely on the shore of a small bay behind me. I really didn’t expect to shoot geese that day, but I don’t think it ever hurts to have a distraction nearby; something to add to the confidence of the wary fliers.

Blend in, be still. I almost expected the divers to land in my spread before first light. They did not disappoint. There’s something magical about being only a few yards away from the animal you want to hunt. You are in each other’s space; something Mother Nature never really intends to happen. But you can get close—real close—as I learned in the bowhunting world, as long as you wear the right camo and be ever so vigilant about your movement. After several minutes, the buffleheads slowly paddled away from my spread and away from me, seeming to sense the danger in the near blackness.

Talk to the animals. From as early as I could see, birds sporadically flew down the canyon, generally from right to left. Shortly after first light, I turned one of the lower-sailing flocks with a classic bawl, and with buried face and call in hand, purred the flock directly into my blind like something out of a duck-hunting textbook. With adrenaline flowing, fire erupted from my 12-gauge as I emptied three shells into the morning sky. Nothing.

Practice! After a short time, I settled into a shooting groove, and the duck Gods ended up on my side. By 9:00, I had filled my duck quota of 7 birds. Two scaups, three buffleheads, a green-wing teal, and a widgeon sacrificed their lives for my dinner table, and I appreciate that. And I appreciated that telescoping pole when I was chest deep in murky water!


Hitting the duck waters after losing your dog isn’t easy, and most of the time neither is shooting a limit of ducks on public land. But I know that experience, fortune, and even Mollie was on my side that morning, as in my mind she hurried into the water and happily retrieved those 7 ducks; like she really did a year earlier in that very same spot. If you follow these simple pointers on duck hunting public land, you’ll be on your way to shooting your limit, too. Now get out there, give your dog a hug, and go hunting!

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