By Shane Treloar
4:00 AM alarm goes off.
Same as my work alarm, but instead of snoozing and rolling back over, this one’s different. I bounce up out of bed, search through my pile of clothes set out in the darkness trying not to wake the wife. I find my thermals and slide ‘em on. Find my way to the kitchen. Coffee. Black. Toss a hot pocket in the microwave while I go start the truck. Even the dog knows that this isn’t just an early workday. The breeze out of the northwest is brisk and piercing, and I say a little prayer to the wind gods that it will keep blowing throughout the morning. One last check list in my head before we hook up to the trailer and head out.
Gun, check. Ammo, check. Pup, check. Let’s roll.
That first 20 minutes, from the time you roll out of bed, to leaving the driveway, seems like 30 seconds. The hectic scramble of trying to wake up while also mentally going over everything you think you’ll need for the coming few hours flies by. And let’s be honest, I almost always forget something. The drive to the flooded cornfield you insanely plan on sitting in, in the rain and the wind, takes 15 minutes, but that flashed by as well.
As I pull up with rain on the windshield, the headlights dance across the open field ahead illuminating stalks swaying in the wind. That’s when I see it, the white mad flutter of two spooked birds awakened by my high beams. Instantly I feel a small rush of adrenaline. Why? I don’t know, it’s still 2 hours until opening light! I don’t think that question can ever be answered honestly, other than you simply feel a slight sliver of justification as to why you decided to remove yourself from a perfectly warm bed, only to trudge around muddy rows of a cut cornfield.
I open the trailer door and get to work. Sometimes luck is on your side and there’s the advantage of driving right up to the spot you plan on setting the trap, but face it, most of the time that’s just a dream and not a reality. I have a long pack ahead of me. A few dozen decoys, a small panel blind, gun, all my gear, and of course all the junk food from the pantry I could manage to throw into my pack.
It’s nearly 5 AM at this point, so time is of the essence. One trip, two trips, three trips, back and forth from truck to a dark corner of the vast open abyss, a single head lamp meandering through the night, accompanied only by a dog and the occasional cuss word when you slip and nearly drop your cargo. A hard pack-in seems horrible at the time, but the continuous movement, one step in front of the other, goes by faster than the airplanes soaring above the clouds.
I check my watch, time’s just shy of 6 AM; about an hour until first light now. I set out to place decoys in the darkness in a formation I think would look inviting to anything flying overhead and begin to brush up the blind. Every once in a while, I can hear the whistle of wings, or the chuckle of a hungry hen lurking in the fading darkness above. I pause and look up to catch of glimpse of what I hope to soon see beyond the sights of a barrel. The adrenaline spikes again.
As the night starts to lift, and the sun on the horizon begins to light up the clouds, the last hour of preparation has disappeared in the blink of an eye and you find yourself within 10 minutes of seeing if the hard work will pay off. I step back and double check the cover of the blind, one final walk through the decoys, I mumble to myself as I make a last-minute change and dart inside the blind. 5 minutes. I can now see the black silhouettes of hovering groups, wanting to join what they think are fellow friends on the ground.
The dog whines in nervous anticipation and excitement as I toss a shell in the chamber and two in the tube, followed by silence as I watch a small group of fowl in the distance glide across a dim sky.
I put the call around my neck, raise the end to my lips and give out a welcoming greeting.
Waterfowl hunting can be very technical, but when broken down to a few basic and key concepts, it can end up being simplified. When I think about a duck or goose hunt for the coming weekend, scouting for the hunt is critical, weather is a defining factor on how and where I choose to hunt, and the decoy spread and cover can define how the hunt goes. If you check all those boxes, mix in some calling, proper shooting, and a little bit of luck, and you just might come out with some birds.
Before that 4 AM alarm ever comes, you have to put in the work. So here’s a very brief rundown on what goes through my head before I even begin to set that early alarm.
Let’s start with a very quick rundown of what gear a beginning hunter needs. While the area you plan on hunting will clearly determine the type of gear you will need for your hunt, every hunter will need these key following things. The most obvious one here is a shotgun and ammunition. Something as simple and reliable as a Remington 870 pump action will do the trick!
Research what shotgun shells you need for your gun and the type of bird you plan on hunting. For hunting close range ducks, you will need a different type of shot rather than hunting open field honkers. So, take the time to study up on what would work best, as that can be a very detailed part of your gear selection. Most duck hunts, a good starting point would be something like a 3 inch #2, 3, or 4 shot. Be sure to check your state hunting regulations for more specifics.
Next I would suggest getting a good pair of hip or chest waders with a camo rain jacket. Both can be used to keep you warm and dry no matter what type of conditions you are in. And trust me, staying warm and dry is critical to the hunt experience.
A beginning hunter can start out with a dozen or two-dozen duck floater decoys. The versatility of a good set of decoys should never be overlooked for a new hunter. I recommend checking craigslist for a used set. They can be thrown out in the back pond or stuck in the mud of the cornfield. Once you build up the skill and the knowledge, and want to progress to bigger and more extravagant hunts, building up your repertoire of good decoys will come with time.
Another arrow that can be added to the quiver is picking up an inexpensive duck or goose call, and learning how to use it. There are some hunts where calling isn’t needed, but there are some situations where knowing how to call, and what types of calls to send are necessary to bring birds in. Lastly and equally important as everything above, always remember these two things: snacks and toilet paper. I believe there is no explanation needed.
The hunters that set themselves apart are the ones that put in the time and the miles in order to find the right hunt and birds. You can find waterfowl all over the place. Such as on the ocean or big open water like the Salt Lakes, the Midwest has miles of cut sweet corn, or the pea fields of California and Oregon, flooded timber of the south, or scattered backfield ponds of the west. There’s always a hunt for somebody.
Like previously mentioned, you’re not going to find those spots until you put in the motivation and miles. Before you really set out looking for birds, you need to identify where the major water roost spots are. A roost is where birds of all kinds will spend their nights. Think of a roost spot as your house and the feeding spot as the grocery store. You will stay at your house during the nighttime and then find food at the grocery store during the day.
To convert that back to waterfowl lingo, the birds will stay on the roost (mostly) at night and in between feedings. Then they will find food in the morning and evenings. If you don’t know where the birds spend their nights, it is hard to figure out where their likely feeding grounds are going to be.
Roosting locations are going to be near your larger ponds and lakes, ocean, bays and inlets. Birds will also spend their nights on wider rivers and creeks as well. The thought process behind knowing the roost first can be seen in two ways. I can start my scouting trip at the roost spot and literally follow the birds to their chosen feeding spot, get permission if possible, and hopefully put together a hunt. Or, if I know what feed options birds have around their roost spot, I can scout those options and most likely find where the birds are going when they lift off their roosting location.
Once that first box is checked, I like to start out searching in areas I am familiar in. Land that I know, landowners that I know, or public hunt spots I am versed in. Birds have to eat, feed and drink. Know the crops and loafing spots in your area, figure out the patterns of the birds and what they specifically like during that time period, and narrow your search.
Remember that waterfowl hunting isn’t always the best on private land. Private land has its advantages due to less hunting pressure, but many others and I have had great hunts out of a public land state blind. So, don’t count that piece of the puzzle out. If those areas that you know of don’t pan out, expand the search. If the birds are in the area, and you see the lines across the sky or the groups dancing above the tree lines, they’re headed somewhere, you just gotta find them.
In my opinion the most crucial key to successful waterfowl hunting is paying attention to weather patterns, and the weather the day of your hunt. Understanding what birds do during certain weather circumstances will make or break your hunt. If its 60 degrees and blue sky, the chances of filling the duck strap with a full bag of mallards is going to be pretty tough. Rain and wind can get birds moving more often, while bitter cold drives birds to feed more vigorously as they’re expending more calories trying to stay warm during the night.
If you want to hunt the family pond back in the timber, but its been 25 degrees and the water is frozen over, then that would be a prime example of not paying attention to the weather and the patterns of the birds during that stretch. As said a little above, wind can get birds moving, but wind is so much more critical as well.
Knowing the wind direction and strength is pivotal to how you set up your hunt. Waterfowl will almost always tend to fly into and against the wind rather than with it. Slowing and landing with the help of the wind stopping them is what they prefer. If you find a few groups of geese feeding in the middle of a cut cornfield and your only cover for a blind would be along the edge, but the wind will be in your face creating a tailwind for the birds, is that a manageable hunt or will I be introducing a tough landing zone for birds who will ultimately land out in the middle, into the wind? These are the questions you need to ask yourself. Will the weather I am presented offer me a good chance for a successful hunt?
Decoy Spread & Cover Blinds
I’ve scouted and found my birds. I have developed a game plan for set up according to the weather, and now it is time to strategize how I want to toss out the decoys is my hurdle. If you were to google “decoy spreads for optimal waterfowl hunting” you would get lost in article after article titled “Top 5 decoy spreads for windy days!” The best key of advice regarding this subject, is to find what works and run with it. Ducks and geese aren’t mathematical machines that compute the amount of decoys you have and if it’s in a perfect U-shape pattern. They’re going to see realistic birds on the ground, maybe coupled with some motion to further tantalize them, and if they like it they’re going to come in.
Birds typically do not like to land on top of other birds. So set a spread that looks natural in the habitat you are hunting, but don’t forget to leave a little room within shooting range for the real birds to join the party on the ground you have created. Present the birds in the sky with an approachable spread, a good landing spot, and if isn’t working out, take a step back and change something. Make it work.
The second part of this is the cover or the hide you have to conceal yourself from the eyes of the birds. Anything that looks out of place to them will immediately send red flags and the birds will be in the next county before you can issue a comeback call attempt. Make sure your blind is dressed and hidden with the correct brush or surrounding foliage. A blind can never be too brushed in either.
Whether your hunt requires a layout blind in a field, a panel blind along a grassy edge, or potentially no blind at all because you use a tree or stump, this is one of the most critical parts of the game.
Last two minutes
The last two minutes of darkness and quiet as your watch the birds at a distance fly in is the calm before the storm. The moment before the safety of your chosen weapon can be clicked off and you fulfill what you ultimately set out to do. It can seem like a lifetime! That right there is duck hunting. You have scouted, found your spot, gained permission or reserved a public land blind.
You have completed the back and forth journey of toting your gear and decoys through mud and water. Concealed your blind and set out an appealing spread. You put in the work, the miles, and all the physical and mental energy you have left. You have shared a beautiful sunrise or a magnificent sunset with your closest buddies, family and 4-legged friends. You get to witness the pure beauty of God’s creation, as it likens to a masterful Bob Ross painting of fiery red clouds across the sky.
Describing how glorious a flock of birds cupping down in the middle of your decoy spread with a frantic backspin of the wings as they touch ground is wonderfully exuberating. It usually consists of reenacting the movements with your hands and more with sound effects than words. Sometimes the sight of it has made me set down the barrel of my gun just to watch it all transpire.
The time shared in a blind with new and old friends is some of the best times I’ve had in my life. Remember that there’s much more to hunting than what we covered above. Scouting the fields with a friend, watching birds with your hunting partner, sharing that concealed blind with your family, those are the things you won’t easily forget and why waterfowl hunting is amazing. The meat in the freezer dwindles, and the pile pics come and go, but just like those final 2 minutes, the memories made in the blind will last a lifetime.
In Collaboration with Safety’s Off Guide Service (John Vanwingerden, Shane Treloar & Tyler Nelson).
To book a hunt with Safety’s Off Guide Service by getting a hold of them here: https://www.facebook.com/safetysoffguiding or by calling 360-241-3008
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