Hunting and fishing parallel one another on a number of levels. People who enjoy fishing often times enjoy the shooting sports as well and vice versa. The thrill of the pursuit, the unpredictable events that occur during a trip, and the beautiful environs in which these sports take place are what attract people to them.
Similarities between fishing and waterfowl hunter are numerous. A hunter who likes high-pressure duck-hunting can learn a thing or two from the bass fisherman.
Serious bass fishermen have become adept at being successful at high- traffic, heavy-pressure lakes. Most of North Carolina’s largest lakes are public waters, and other serious bass fishermen as well as weekend warriors beat the banks regularly. Additionally, boaters and jet skiers travel these waters, cutting up the water, scattering fish. The fish in these lakes have seen every shape and color of plastic lizard and aren’t easily excited by other lures. It takes special steps, know-how and good old-fashioned patience to have success at public waters.
Anyone who has hunted a public waterfowl impoundment knows the similarities — waiting all year in anticipation of duck season, then not being able to find a place to park the truck, let alone set out decoys, because half the people in your county are hunting there, with camo waders just like yours, three dozen decoys in a mesh bag, just like yours, and four or five calls draped around their necks — just like yours.
They’ve also been on the water, seen a few ducks come to the impoundment and heard 60 other gun safeties switched to the firing position and heard 25 duck calls — then watched the birds pass overhead.
The question is always how to bag a few birds among all those hunters?
The first thing, and arguably the most important, is to do homework. When pro bass anglers hit the lake tournament day, does anyone think they’re saying, “Well, I guess this is as good a spot as any?”
No, they’ve pre-fished, studied maps and become familiar with the water.
The answer to duck hunting is the same. Hunters must research the area and know where the ducks likely will be because ducks, like bass, always will favor certain areas.
“My experience with game lands is that they are first-come first-serve,” said Culley Wilson, a Cape Fear area hunter and guide (Wild Wing Adventures, 919-349-6381, Culley-Wilson@Charter.net) and a member of the pro staff team for Avery and Zink calls (http://www.averyoutdoors.com, http://www.zinkcalls.com).
“It’s important to know where those key areas are. If you’re the first hunter to the water, it won’t matter a bit if you don’t even know the spots the ducks will favor.”
Wilson suggested going to a hunting area several days before one plans to bring a gun and retriever. When he scouts a potential duck-hunting spot, he sits near where he expects the birds to fly. Getting there at first light, he sits for an hour or so, hoping to observe birds.
If they aren’t there, or aren’t as active in that area as he expected, he quietly moves to different areas of the swamp until he finds the birds.
Phil Byrd, who has guided duck hunts for years in North Carolina and Alaska, agreed that scouting is extremely important to hunting success, and suggested hunters not only look for birds but also observe their actions and tendencies.
He spends hours without a gun, often before hunting season, sitting in his truck at the edge of the water, watching birds to see how they move, fly, feed, rest, what parts of the water they prefer and why.
“In a lot of magazines they will tell you to make a V-shape or modified J-shape with your decoys,” he said. “That’s just not how ducks sit. Go out and spend some time glassing ducks. You want (decoys) to look like ducks; that’s the point.”
Earlier in the morning, Byrd will scatter his spread, as ducks tend to eat first thing in the morning and are consequently more dispersed on the water. Around 9:30 a.m., if he hasn’t killed his limit, he repositions the decoys, tightening the spread to where they’re almost touching one another. Real ducks tend to huddle together to rest after they’ve filled their bellies, he said.
Wilson firmly believes in hunting where he’s scouted birds in the morning or afternoon, but not where they are found in the evening.
In the evening, ducks will gather at the areas where they roost for the night.
“I am really against shooting roosting birds,” he said. “The ones you don’t hit you won’t see again. They’ll try to go where they can be safe.”
If you were largemouth bass fishing, you wouldn’t use a blue-and-white Ilander lure, which would seem to be a no-brainer.
But many duck hunters regularly make a similar mistake. For example, in the eastern part of the state, a hunter isn’t likely to see too many mallards. But hunters routinely end up blowing mallard calls when nearly all the birds present are diving ducks.
“The birds figure out real quick that when they hear mallard calls, their buddies start getting killed,” Byrd said. “It’s important to have a working knowledge of different types of ducks, which will be likely to be found on the water you are hunting, and equally important to be familiar with calling.”
If a hunter uses the wrong call, or calls poorly, not only will he not have a successful hunt, but he’ll prevent birds from approaching the decoy spreads of those hunting around him.
When largemouth bass fishing, one of the most common steps anglers take to coax finicky bass into biting is to downsize lures. The same can be true for duck hunting.
Migratory ducks that come in droves often are attracted to large spreads of decoys. Earlier in the season, before the migratory birds have flown in large numbers, smaller spreads can be much more effective.
Wilson recommended when a hunter chooses to downsize decoy numbers, he should use no more than one dozen, and just minimal calling.
Local ducks a hunter may see know the area and know the traffic. They’ll shy away from a huge flock of ducks on the water, which is accompanied by loud calling, when they’ve been used to seeing a few scattered birds on a lake during previous days.
To Byrd, decoys are a crucial part of hunting and definitely a key to success at pressured waters.
“It’s a competition,” he said. “You’re competing with all the other guys out there. I either go balls-to-the-wall with 300 or 400 decoys or go with a lot less.”
He also is a proponent of using better-quality decoys. better built than the standard decoys or hand-carved decoys.
“Ducks aren’t dumb,” he said. “The average guy has about four dozen (decoys), $25 a dozen.”
But ducks have seen the same decoys all along their flight paths, all the way from Canada to North Carolina. They’ve learned the standard hunting patterns used by most hunters and have been conditioned to steer clear of those commonly-used artificial ducks.
A bass angler trolls with an electric motor because it’s quiet and doesn’t produce a lot of commotion near the fishes'backyard. Byrd and Wilson agreed concealment in duck hunting is key.
“It’s important to blend into an area naturally,” Byrd said.
He recalled when he’d seen hunters in a blind or boat camouflaged with evergreen branches in the middle of a swamp lined with browned grasses. That tactic didn’t work very well because the ducks obviously spotted something strange.
Remaining motionless when birds are approaching also is important, he said.
“Being still is one of the biggest things,” Byrd said. “You also have to teach your dog to hold, to be steady and sit and stay.
“I’ll tell my clients to look into the reflection of the water to see the birds. If (ducks) see a white face looking up at them, they’re gone,”
At a lake, bass fishermen know the standard fish-holding type areas to seek better results — flooded timber, rip rap, boat docks, dynamic drop-offs, etc. Invariably, areas with these features which are closest to the boat ramp, and that are accessible from shore will get fished the most. But spots that are miles down the lake, those that have barriers to casting or those that only shallow-draft boats can reach will get less fishing pressure. Consequently, although there may not be as many bass at those areas, fish that live there will be more willing to accept a lure.
A similarity exists in hunting public waters.
“An area that’s really difficult to get to is one thing I look for,” Wilson said. “If it’s really easy to get to, then I’m not the only one who’ll be there.”
Some hunters beat waterfowling pressure by bringing a small canoe or john boat. In addition to being a dry place to store items and carry decoys, such small hand-powered crafts are great tools to reach virgin hunting territory. Not only that, hunters can float across deeper channels and position themselves in more secluded hunting spots.
There are certain times on a lake when bass are just going to be more accessible and easier to catch, such as the spawn and prespawn periods each spring. When the water temperature begins to drop in the fall is one of those times, too.
For duck hunting , temperature and wind are important in determining when birds move. But moon phases are an often-overlooked factor.
“Lots of guys just show up and say, 'I killed some ducks here two years ago; we should have some luck here.' But it just doesn’t work like that,” Byrd said.
He suggested keeping an eye on moon phases as well as weather conditions and changes. Ideally, a hunter’s choice of hunting days won’t simply be determined by what days of the month the weekends fall but rather by weather conditions.
“A north wind on a full moon,” Byrd said, “you can pretty much count on (producing duck migration).
“A hunter should pay attention to weather patterns, but not just those in his local hunting area. If a cold front brushes across states farther north, it’ll push the birds here.
“It’s similar to fish — if they have plenty of food and warm water, why would they want to go anywhere?”
So for the remainder of the 2007-08 duck hunting season, apply the lessons learned at bass waters during the summer and fall.
Understand that thousands of hunters, just like you, want ducks to land in their spread. Keep that in mind when you prepare for your hunt. Make changes from the normal routine:
• Go huge or small with your spread, not the standard four dozen.
• Try to find areas that are more difficult to get to and will be more secluded.
• Know your game and spend some time scouting prior to a hunt.
In many cases, the challenge isn’t just to outsmart ducks but to become wiser than other hunters.