Sep 9, 2017

Scouting Makes for Early Season Waterfowling Success 

By: Don Kirby

We could hear the birds flying in front of us, landing and splashing in the water in the pre-dawn darkness, their wings making a sound like paper tearing as they slashed through the air.  My partners; a young yellow Lab named Jake, and my sixteen-year-old son, Blake. They both vibrated with excitement as we waited for the light to come, and with it, our opportunity to take some of the many ducks bustling in the reeds in front of us, checking out our decoys, oblivious to our impatient observation on that opening day of the north zone in northwest Wisconsin. 

As dawn came and went, my worst fears were confirmed, fogged in!  The “dewpoint monster” had gotten us and, as the temperature before first light dropped, the lake fogged in and we could barely see 10 yards.  Fortunately, we still had birds we could hear, and they were still moving around.  We had a couple of exciting surprises as birds appeared suddenly, in range, only to disappear before we could react.  I had to “coach up” both my partners to keep frustration from setting in!  There were clearly ducks “all over us,” yet we couldn’t tell drakes from hens, due to the visibility, and the fact that the mallards weren’t plumed out yet, the drakes showed little of their normal green headgear.  Luckily, about 15 minutes into the season, we had a hen and drake mallard come straight into our preferred “landing zone” in the decoys, and I was able to show my son the contrast in a drake’s dark chestnut colored breast, over his white belly; clearly identifying the difference between him and his traveling partner.  At that moment, we agreed to limit ourselves to this “shot” for the morning, waiting for the right conditions not only to identify sex and species well, but also to ensure good killing shots for him with his 20 gauge youth gun.  

The fog cleared, ever so gradually, and as it did, our shooting opportunities continued to improve.  We managed seven mallards between us, with nary a woodie or a teal to be had.  We got all of our birds in about 90 minutes, from 7-8:30 am, and by 9:00 am, the sun shone bright on a bluebird day, and musky anglers were casting across the bay from our makeshift island blind.  We’d had a terrific hunt, made better by good retrieves from my dog, and the joy of having Blake’s grandfather and his little sister along, to watch all of the fun as well.  For me, the best part was having “cracked the code.”  After several years of scouting and then hunting this general location, and this spot specifically, I’d been able to put all the ingredients together, and pull off an amazing morning of duck hunting using everything I’d learned over the previous experiences.   

The key to all of it; putting in my time, well before the season, scouting the locations, and then watching birds react/respond to the various aspects of the habitat.  The real proof to me that I’d finally figured it out?  The next morning, with a totally different wind, we hunted the same spot, adjusting our hides to reflect the new conditions as best we could.  Although we didn’t harvest as many birds as on opening morning, we still had several nice opportunities, including a couple geese and the first banded bird for my buddy, Jay! 


How to get started:   

During late summer, it’s hard to be a waterfowler.  While fisherman are all over their game, and even Packer fans can start to watch the lads work out at training camp, those of us who wait for the whistling wings of October and November can only peruse the latest outdoor catalog’s offerings, work on re-stringing last year’s tangles, patch up the holes our hunting partners’ errant shots made in the decoys, and wait for the earliest seasons to start on September 1st. 

Rather than just waiting and fixing, what if you could make a real difference in your hunting experience by doing some legwork right now?  It’s certainly possible.  Any hunter with more than a few years of experience knows that good scouting is almost always the root cause of success in the field.  Although you certainly can’t pattern the birds right now (in many cases, they’re not here yet), you certainly can explore new places to hunt, both on public and private lands.   In the story I shared earlier, I’d done most of my scouting work on that large lake, studded with islands (publicly owned), while on fishing trips, earlier in the year, or after conducting other hunts.  I’d check out spots where I’d seen birds flying/landing, noting better hiding or wading spots, checking depths and shore conditions by making quick incursions, etc.  Each time I’d learn something else I’d try to apply it the next time I was out, sometimes not until the next fall, as this particular hunt location is more than four hours from my home. 

In my role for WWA, I often get to interact with the smart folks in the Wildlife Bureau. One message I’ve heard often from our waterfowl biologists is that their surveys indicate that most waterfowlers on public lands in Wisconsin are very sedentary.  This doesn’t mean you won’t get off the couch, it means that once you have a spot to hunt, you don’t move.  Ever.  Oftentimes, this reluctance to try something new results in some areas that have a high degree of hunter traffic, while other public areas, sometimes very nearby, get much less attention and pressure from hunters.  It also means that you could be missing out on some really great hunting only because you’ve never explored anything else. 

Nobody likes to miss a day in the blind in October, so what better time to research your next hunting spot than right now?  Sure, it’ll be pretty buggy now compared to later in the season, but how great will it be to know what that boat launch looks like, where the likely hunting spots will be, and other key “comfort” factors when you go to hunt a place for the first time next fall?  The time you spend now will seem like a great investment when you have waypoints in your GPS, or know just where the next bend in the trail is at 5 o’clock in the morning some day in November. 

Fortunately, it’s never been easier to get started on effective preseason scouting, particularly if you’ve got access to a computer.  From very easy sites like Google Earth, or Virtual Earth, that show satellite imagery, to county websites that have maps of publicly owned hunting lands and GIS maps that show ownership records of private lands, you can do a lot of “getting started” right in your own living room before you get in the truck. 

Once you’ve targeted an area, using whatever mapping assistance you find online, then it comes back to the basics of fieldwork:  

Approaching Private Landowners 

  • Never trespass.  You do all of us, as hunters, a disservice when you don’t request and receive permission to enter private lands, even before “having a look around.” 
  • Pick your times.  You’ve heard it before, but approaching hard working farm folks when they’re in the midst of harvest time, or when cows are awaiting service is almost a sure fire way to get the big “no”.   Be respectful. 
  • Be clear about what you’re asking for.  Identify yourself, who you’d hunt with, where you’d like to utilize the owner’s lands, and for what.   Even the most protected deer hunting properties might not mind a few “golf course geese” being culled during the early September season. 
  • If successful in obtaining permission – be thankful.  Respect the rules, follow up with landowners, don’t take advantage of opportunities you didn’t ask permission for, and make sure to show your thanks after the outing and/or season.  It does make a difference. 

On Public Lands 

  • Do your homework first.  In the case of many public lands, there may be experts that are more than happy to share information.  County personnel, state property managers, and even WDNR Wardens may be able to share valuable information with you.  I can share two experiences: years ago, I once questioned a warden via e-mail about a particular lake I wanted to hunt that was within her area of responsibility.  She was a huge source of information and guidance. More recently, I discovered a small, isolated piece of county land that surrounds a small lake while reviewing maps online.  When I made a query of the county land office, the fine gentleman there even offered to have one of his most experienced staffers meet me out at the property to show me around.  They even made it clear that the property is very lightly used!  Treated respectfully, most of these folks are happy to help you get information. 
  • Remember, just because you’ve discovered a place for the first time, doesn’t mean you’re the next Christopher Columbus.  It’s hard to tell in August what the usage patterns will be for a property later in the fall, but by utilizing contacts like those described above, you can get a feel for what might be going on later.  Be prepared to share the resource, be respectful, and you might even make a new friend. 
  • Know your boundaries.   The saddest excuse in the book for any private landowner that abuts public lands is “I didn’t know” when they find someone that is trespassing off the adjacent public lands.  Be a responsible hunter, do your research, and carry a paper copy of the map with you so that, if you do accidently stray, at least you’ll be able to take and receive effective direction on where the error was made.  

Have your tools ready: 

  • Before doing any actual on-the-ground/on-the-water work, be sure you’ve got your maps ready, your compass, and some binoculars to better see your surroundings. 
  • Better yet, learn to use your hand-held GPS, or the one in your phone, and bring it with you.  Sometimes, you can even get waypoints to check out from your PC work before you leave the house.  Other times, you’ll find great things you want to be able to get back to – that’s what GPS is all about. 
  • Make notes.  If you don’t keep a log, now’s the time.   Record the place, conditions, key information, including names and phone numbers, etc.  Believe me, once you’re over 40, you’ll appreciate being able to reference all this stuff, without having to remember it! 

Scouting for the early season is different from scouting later in the year.  Wisconsin is a production state, we “build” many of our ducks right here, especially for mallards, woodies and teal, the most common species found in hunters’ bags.  When doing this preparation work, remember that you’re seeking to learn what these “local” birds are doing, not checking to see if “the flight” is down yet, so tread lightly, don’t make such a disturbance that you end up disturbing the birds you’re looking to pursue later. 

Finally, consider involving a young person in all of this preparation.   Just think, most of our younger folks are great with technology, so now you’d have the chance to connect some “online” time with some “huntin’ time,” and both of you will benefit.   You’ll find the exercise of the whole process more rewarding as you expose someone else to the work and the wonders of waterfowl hunting. 

Now get going!  All of us at the Wisconsin Waterfowl Association are committed to education and encouraging new participants in our traditions, it’s among our three key missions.  This year, take some time, do some research to learn some new things for yourself, make some observations about potential new areas, and ensure your early season hunting trips are more successful and satisfying.