When ducks show interest but you’re not getting shots, it’s time to change your setup
If ducks come towards your spread and then suddenly flare off in different directions, I can guarantee there’s something wrong with your hide. But when ducks approach your setup and then give you the cold shoulder, buzz by out of range, or set their wings for the wrong spot, and it happens few times—the problem is likely with your decoy spread. And the fix is a little more complicated than throwing on some more face paint.
Instead of just hoping the next flock of ducks will finish, get out there and troubleshoot the spread. Here’s how to make tweaks for the most common fly-by scenarios.
Problem 1: Ducks set their wings but are landing way far out.
A decoy spread situated too close to the hunting blind or hideout doesn’t bring ducks in to a convenient landing zone that’s well within shotgun range.
Move the decoy spread farther away, offering a gap or slot between you and the decoys that shows the next flock an inviting place to land.
Problem 2: Ducks are locked up on the spread but then land just short of shotgun range.
This problem often happens in a crosswind, when ducks approach into the wind but put their landing gear down well short of the decoys that are right in front of you.
When hunting a crosswind, move the whole decoy spread farther upwind so that ducks setting their wings into the wind for a short landing are doing so right in front of you.
Problem 3: Ducks show interest, flutter, but then flare (and your hide is perfect).
If you are certain that you and your dog are hidden well, then the most likely problem is that there’s no place in your spread for the birds to land.
Go with a pod plan. Split your decoy spread into two groups, one to either side, with an inviting gap in the middle.
Problem 4: Heads turn, the ducks take a closer look, but then the flock continues on.
This is the most vexing of all decoy spread problems. You can sit and bird-watch, or you can get creative and do something about it.
Fixing this situation is an art, not a science. But there are several concepts to consider:
A common problem is that the decoy spread is not a spread at all, but more of a knot. When hunters set up in the dark, they often end up with a tight, unnatural look. Get out there and create some breathing room. Think about repositioning the decoys in loose pairs that don’t sit in any specific pattern.
Also, try adding goose decoys. Ducks trust Canada geese, and a pair or trio of honkers in the spread will comfort suspicious ducks.
If you have a spinning-wing decoy out, turn it off. Spinners are great for getting ducks’ attention, but they can sometimes spook pressured ducks at closer ranges. If your spinner has a remote, try hitting the kill switch as soon as the ducks have seen your spread and start to work closer.
On the other hand, lack of motion can be a deal-breaker for interested ducks. A simple jerk cord will create realistic motion on a windless day.
Problem 5: Pairs and singles are avoiding you altogether.
As morning wears on, flock size shrinks until it seems that it’s just pairs and singles looking for refuge. But these ducks have been getting shot at all morning by hunters with outsize decoy spreads.
It may seem counter-intuitive to remove decoys, but doing a partial pickup and leaving out only six or seven blocks can make enough of a difference to attract straggling doubles and singles. Also, carry a couple of full-body dekes and place them really close to your blind, as part of the new set. Ducks standing around on shore are ducks that feel safe.
MAKING THE SHOT
The only way that you’ll ever reach a high level of proficiency with your firearm is through trigger time. Not only do you need to know how to put your bullets where you want them, you also need to acquire an intimate understanding of your weapon’s capabilities and limitations. The more time you spend with your gun, shooting and hunting, the more you’ll understand it. There are no shortcuts. While training to shoot, make sure to familiarize yourself with a variety of shooting positions—not just from a bench equipped with sandbags. Of course, benches are ideal for getting your rifle sighted in, but once that’s taken care of, you need to explore postures and positions that are likely to be encountered in real-world hunting situations. By doing this, you’ll have a better understanding of which shooting postures work best for you at various distances. No matter what stance you’re using, ask yourself the following questions before you take a shot: Do you have a good rest? Is your breathing under control? Is your grip on your rifle secure, but not so strong that it’s torquing the rifle? What is your point of impact? Have you picked the exact spot that you want to hit? (You can practice this checklist in your spare time at home by dry-firing your rifle. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with your hunting weapon.)
Each of the above positions would be improved by the use of a rest. A rest is anything that helps steady the rifle for the shot. When standing, you can rest the rifle against a tree to get more stability. When kneeling, a set of shooting sticks or a propped-up backpack can work. For prone shots, you can use about anything: wadded-up clothes, sleeping pads, fixed or detachable bipods, even a rock.
The prone position is inarguably the most stable position for use in real-world hunting situations.
OVER-THE-SHOULDER SHOOTING TECHNIQUE
This shooting method is used by so few people that it qualifies as a secret. When a natural rest cannot he found, and when ground cover rules out shooting from a prone position, you can use the back of your hunting partner to get a solid rest and radically increase your effective shooting range. When you’re ready to fire, tell your buddy to hold his breath and plug his ear. Then run through your normal shooting routine. It’s deadly. (For the target, that is.)
SHOT PLACEMENT FOR BIG GAME
If you have the time, it is always best to let the animal turn and offer a broadside shot. Broadside means the animal is perpendicular to you, facing left or right, not looking at you or away from you. In a broadside situation, a shot placed behind the crease of the shoulder will result in the bullet traveling through both lungs. The lungs and heart are your primary target when trying to kill an animal. A hit in the liver can also produce a kill, but it is not quick. Shooting just behind the shoulder hits only minor bones in the ribs, preserving most of the meat. When a major bone in the shoulder is struck by a bullet, bone fragments destroy much of the surrounding meat. Quartering shots are also valid, but the meat of one of the shoulders will be jeopardized. In some instances it is necessary to drop the animal in its tracks, also known as “anchoring.” In alpine situations, where steep rock faces and cliffs exist, this might keep the animal from tumbling thousands of feet. Other times, when hunting a small parcel of land, stopping the animal instantly keeps it from jumping onto the neighboring property, where retrieval might be difficult. Dangerous game also requires shot placement that anchors the animal. Bears, known for not bleeding well, are good to try to anchor, shortening the tracking job. In a broadside situation, aim square in the center of the shoulder if you want to anchor the animal—imagine you’re hitting it in the center of the scapula. On an elk, for example, your only change in aim is moving the crosshair left or right about a foot, depending on which way the elk is facing. By shooting the shoulder, you accomplish three things that help in bringing down the animal quickly. One, the shoulder itself is broken, making the animal less mobile. Two, the shock moving through the area disrupts the spine and nervous system. Three, the bullet, along with bone fragments from the shoulder, travels into and sometimes through both lungs. All this combined usually results in a very fast kill. The one downside to this approach is that a good portion of the shoulder meat can be lost to damage.
This antelope is facing the shooter. A shot that lands a few inches to the left or right of the bull’s-eye will certainly kill the antelope, but there will be substantial meat loss in the shoulder.
When a hunter is carrying everything he needs to survive on his back, the thrill of taking an animal becomes almost secondary to the thrill of staying out on the land and fending for oneself for a period of days or even weeks. But that’s not to say that the backpack hunter is somehow less interested in having a successful hunt. Backpack hunters are com-mitted to searching out the richest and least exploited hunting grounds, and they’re willing to suffer in order to reach them. Often the payoffs for these efforts can be extraordinary. Many of the ﬁnest public land hunting opportunities in the United States belong solely to the backpack hunter because he’s the only one who’s willing and capable of reaching them.
A good backpack hunting location is any area that’s inaccessible to hunters who are operating out of vehicles. Such areas might be inacces-sible for a variety of reasons. including a complete lack of roads or else a closure of existing roads due to legal restrictions or weather conditions. Some areas. such as Alaska’s Brooks Range, Idaho’s Frank Church Wil-derness. or Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, are almost wholly inac-cessible to vehicle hunters. These are the great famed bastions of the backpack hunter. though backpack hunting opportunities are certainly not restricted to pure wilderness locations.
In fact, some of the ﬁnest backpack hunting opportunities are on the fringes of vehicle access areas, in places that lie just beyond the reach of road hunters but not so far into the backcountry that you’re competing with outﬁtters who pack in large groups of hunters on horses or mules. In some cases, an hour-long uphill climb is all that it takes to prevent vehicle-based hunters from visiting an area. Typically these guys will stay within a mile or so of their vehicle, and they’ll almost never stray more than 3 mﬂes away. In the rare instance that a vehicle-based hunter does walk more than 3 miles, he usually won’t reach the farthest point of his wandering until the midday period. when hunting conditions are at their worst. In order to avoid nighttime walking, he’ll start heading back to his rig well before the prime-time dusk period. The game animals in such areas are sometimes completely chilled out, as they haven’t experienced any hunting pressure. What’s more. other animals from pressured areas tend to congregate in these places after getting bumped from their usual haunts. The backpack hunter is uniquely equipped to capitalize on such hunting grounds because he doesn’t waste valuable time and energy traveling back and forth from a distant vehicle or camp.
A backpack hunter must be physically and mentally prepared for the arduous task of hauling meat.
Of course, the range of a backpack hunter is limited to how far he can feasibly pack the meat of his kill. Deer-sized animals, once they’re boned out, can usually be transported in a single (though sometimes grueling) load. Other animals, such as moose, might require a hunter to make six or seven trips while carrying loo-pound loads. Before heading out on a backpack hunt, a hunter needs to be realistic about how much he can endure. One time, my brother Matt and I backpacked into the mountains a distance of 9 miles and shot two cow elk. After killing them, we quartered the carcasses and hung them in a tree where they were safe from grizzlies. Then we boned out 200 pounds of meat, loaded 100 pounds into each of our backpacks, and headed for the truck. It was well past dark when we got there. We camped at the trailhead that night, then left before daylight the next morning to make another run. After 18 miles of walking, we were back at the tmck after dark that night with another 200 pounds. We then did the same thing the next day, moving the ﬁnal 200 pounds over the same trail that we’d now traveled a total of six times—all while enduring single-digit temperatures. It took us about a week to physically recover from that trip. Now I regard the distance of 9 miles as being the outer limit of how far I’ll walk for an elk.
A typical backpack hunter’s lair: not cozy, but enough to keep him or her in the ﬁeld while others sip cocoa at the local diner.
Minimize your backoountry funk by washing when the opportunity arises.
Many backpack hunters specialize in the spot-and-stalk hunting strategy, mainly because the locations that are most suitable for back-pack hunting occur in the Rockies and Alaska—places Where open expanses and varied topography are the norm. In these regions, it’s often possible to spot game from a long way off and then execute a carefully planned approach. But the backpack hunter is hardly limited to a spot-and-stalk strategy. Archery elk hunters in Arizona will backpack into their favorite mountain ranges and then use calling strategies almost exclusively once they get there. Black bear hunters in California will backpack into remote areas and then spend their entire trip setting up ambushes at the edges of likely feeding areas. A blacktail deer hunter in Oregon might backpack into an area that’s primarily suitable for still-hunting; day after day. he’ll carefully work mile upon mile of bmshy and tirnbered terrain while sleeping wherever he happens to be at nightfall. More typically. though, a backpack hunter needs to be elastic in his approach. Because he’s traveling long distances over unfamiliar terrain, he needs to be ready for anything. For instance, you might hike into an area for mule deer and then spend your ﬁrst day glassing from a peak to see if you can identify some distant areas with a lot of deer activity. The next day, you might still-hunt a ridge where you saw some deer the day before—albeit from a couple of miles away. If that fails, you might spend
an entire day ambush-hunting on a canyon-bottom trail that seems to be getting a lot of deer trafﬁc. If nothing turns up there, you might climb to yet another peak that gives you a fresh perspective on a new patch of ground. All along. you shouldn’t be worried about switching from one tactic to another. You’re hunting in ways that the situations dictate, doing what makes most sense in the moment.
The Folsom site at Wild Horse Arroyo. Near the end of the Ice Age, hunters using sophisticated stone spear points slaughtered a small herd of bison here. They were almost certainly using drive tactics.
The term drive has nothing to do with vehicles. Instead, it is used to describe the strategy of chasing game toward waiting hunters. It is an ancient method that requires careful coordination between multiple individuals. In fact, linguists and anthropologists have postulated that the challenges of drive hunting may have helped spur the development of human language; our early African ancestors needed a way to coordi-nate their hunting activities, and so they learned to talk. Here in North America, the archaeological record abounds with the evidence of successful drive hunts. The Folsom site, in northeastern New Mexico, revealed the remains of more than twenty Bison antiquus (an early ancestor of the modern buffalo) killed by Ice Age hunters who drove the animals into an arroyo and then slaughtered them with spears. Across the Great Plains, from southern Texas to southern Alberta, there are dozens upon dozens of locations where Native American hunt-ers drove buffalo over cliffs—sometimes hundreds or even thousands at a time. Some folks might argue that these “buffalo jumps” don’t really represent game drives as we understand them today. It was the cliff that did the killing, they’d say, not hunters. But a careful examination of these sites reveals the opposite. It is common to find great abundances of arrowheads—sometimes thousands—mixed among the slaughtered bones at the bases of the cliffs. It seems that the cliffs usually did little more than injure the animals. Hunters did the rest. Today, drives are used effectively on several big game species, ranging in size from javelina to elk. It’s the only hunting strategy in which you’re actually trying to spook your quarry. It can be exciting, fast-paced, and sometimes quite hectic. In a perfect situation, two hunters are all it takes to orchestrate a drive; one guy goes into a thicket to spook up the quarry, the other guy kills it when it comes running out. But in reality, drives aren’t usually so precise. Instead, they are built around a number of unknowns, and these are addressed by the use of additional hunters.
It’s often going to take more than one guy to find your quarry and get it moving in the right direction, and it’s often going to take more than one guy to cover the possible escape routes. Realistically, most drives require between four and eight hunters to do things right. Each hunter in a drive is assigned a role, either as a pusher or a stander. Pushers are responsible for getting the game up and moving, usually by walking through areas of thick bedding cover. Sometimes the pushers will get shots at game that they’ve kicked up, but it’s usually the standers who get the shots in. These are the hunters who are responsible for covering the escape routes used by the quarry, which is where most of the action typically occurs.
Whitetail deer are particularly conducive to drive hunting. Here, a group of hunters in Wisconsin celebrate after conducting a successful deer drive that has produced dozens of whitetails over the years.
It’s probably no surprise that most hunters prefer to be standers. But it’s the pushers, at least the good ones, who deserve the respect. Instead of blindly walking through the woods, trusting that he’ll scare out game and that it will go in the right direction, a pusher needs to engage in constant analysis. He has to let his movements be guided by the terrain and the available evidence of animals. If he’s doing a deer drive and he sees some semi-fresh deer beds beneath hemlock trees, he’ll veer out of his way to pass beneath every single hemlock in the woods. He’ll also alert the other pushers of his find, so they can do the same. And if he cuts a fresh track, he’ll dodge off course to follow it. If that track goes into a particularly dense thicket that might hold the deer, he’ll enter the thicket in such a way that the deer is likely to bound away in the direction of the standers. And if the wind is blowing toward this thicket as he approaches it, he’ll adjust his course so that his odor doesn’t arrive ahead of him and potentially spook the deer out in the wrong direction. What’s more, the pusher remains on high alert at all times for a critter that has detected the standers and attempts to double back and make its way through the line of pushers. In addition to these considerations of strat-egy, the pusher needs to be a disciplined worker who’s willing to bust through the nastiest briar thickets and brush-choked hellholes that Mother Nature can throw his way. Obviously, there is more to being a stander than just shooting at game. A good stander approaches his role in a drive with some of the same care and thoughtfulness that an ambush hunter uses when picking his location. When hunting a species with a sensitive nose, such as deer or elk, he positions himself with a mind toward the wind so that he’s not letting his odor reveal his position to the game. He anticipates potential shot avenues and makes sure that he’s got enough room to maneuver and get his weapon in position. He remains extremely alert, watches in all directions, and expects sudden surprises. Most important, he main-tains a constant awareness that his hunting partners are out in front of him somewhere, and he never even thinks about taking a shot that might send a bullet or arrow in their direction. At this point, it’s helpful to take a look at a couple of hypothetical drives, one for whitetail deer and one for elk. While no two drive scenarios are the same, these two illustrated examples (see this page) will give you an idea of the thinking that goes into a drive.
Calling and decoying big game is so much fun because it’s just about the only time in life when you can justify deception, double-crossing, hoaxing, fraud, dupery, and dishonesty. Here, the goal of the hunter is to mimic, through visual and audio trickery, the same critters that he’s trying to harvest. It’s an exciting, challenging, and interactive discipline that forces you to learn detailed information about your quarry—infor-mation that will inevitably lead to more successful hunts and a deeper appreciation for the animals that we are blessed to share the woods with. For our purposes here, a decoy is defined as an artificial animal used to entice a real animal into range of a bow. (For the sake of safety, big game decoys should be reserved exclusively for bowhunting. These are lifelike decoys that can fool animals and hunters alike; obviously, you do not want another hunter shooting in your direction.) The tactic of using decoys for big game is still in its infancy. In recent years, there’s been a steady proliferation of decoy types, and now you can find some sort of decoy for many species of big game, ranging from antelope to elk. The most versatile and effective decoys are 3-D picture decoys that use high-quality images of animals printed on an elastic fabric that can be stretched over a thin wire frame. These are lightweight and packable. For some species, you use a female decoy to draw in males during the breeding season. For others, such as antelope, it can be more effective to use a decoy of a small male—this elicits an aggressive territorial response from dominant males. (Decoy use for each animal is covered in the dedicated species sections.)
In fact, the territorial response of the males of some species is so strong that they’ll be attracted to anything that suggests the pres ence of another male. A simple white flag on a stick or a wearable hat made to look like a male antelope will sometimes draw in antelope bucks who want to bully the suspected youngster and drive him away. Hunters also use antlers of deer, elk, and moose to the same effect. Flash the antler from behind a tree or bush to give the impression of a rival male. This might just draw your quarry in close enough for a shot.
When hunting predators such as bears, decoys made to look like wounded or distressed prey can be effective. Waving a patch of fur or an animal tail on a stick can get the attention of a black bear and perhaps bring him close enough for a shot. Calling for big game is a much more established strategy, and it’s much more difficult to master. You need to understand the proper se-quences of calls and also the proper pitch, tonality, and cadence. Not only are you trying to learn the “words” used by animals, you’re trying to build proper sentences as well. To understand this, imagine a high school party. Suddenly there’s a loud banging on the door accompanied by either “This is the police” or “Pizza delivery.” Although both state-ments are in the English language, they will have completely different effects on the partygoers.
The same goes for hunting. Using the wrong call, making a call at the wrong time, or calling with improper tone can have the opposite effect of what you want. Mastering these animal languages requires a ton of practice and careful study of the sounds made by actual animals. Thank-fully, there are many DVDs, downloadable videos, and YouTube videos that explore this information. (Hint: Any instructional material by Will Primos is going to be excellent.) Great callers listen and practice year-round, even keeping a few calls on the dashboard of their car or truck so that windshield time equals practice time. Warning: Calling practice in the home needs to be done in moderation, as it can cause serious marital strain.
There are many types of big game calls available to hunters. Internal and external reed calls are the most widely available and easily learned. It’s easy to imagine that the original version of a reed call was someone holding a piece of grass in his fingers and blowing on it. Today reeds are usually coupled with tubular structures made of wood and/or synthetic materials with either an open reed on one end or an enclosed reed inside the tube. The size of the reed and the tension at which it is held dictates what the call will sound like. Predator calls, elk calls, and whitetail buck calls are all made in this style. Diaphragm calls, or mouth calls, are the next most popular type of big game call—particularly for predators and elk. These are placed inside your mouth, against the upper roof, and air is blown between your tongue and the call’s latex reed. These are a little harder to master but have a great advantage over other calls in that they are completely hands free and generally more versatile. To amplify the sound and give it a more genuine quality, diaphragm users can blow into a tube.
A mixture of big game calls. A: Down-N-Dirty SlickHead Doe Bleat. B: Down-N-Dirty HawgHead Deer Grunt Call. C: Quaker Boy Moose Mate cow call. D: Handmade blacktail deer fawn bleat. E: Arizona Game Calls J-13 javelina distress call. F: Quaker Boy Bulldozer moose call. G: Whitetail rattling antlers. H: Phelps E-Z-Estrus elk call. I: Assorted elk diaphragm calls. J: Knight & Hale Pack Rack whitetail rattling call. IC: Moose scapula used to mimic the sounds of a bull raking brush with its antlers.