Fortunately for one group of mallards I encountered years ago, I was hunting other game on that particular outing. Maybe in return for my decision not to shoot — or, possibly, without regard to it — those ducks showed me something that has paid big waterfowling dividends.
They were about a dozen in number, and were using a tiny pothole on the private land where I was hunting upland birds. Seeing them explode from the shoreline cover as I popped up over the edge of the dam, it occurred to me that small waters could offer hunting as good as any to be found at major impoundments and rivers during duck season — if approached the right way.
Another pair of mallards confirmed that hunch not long afterward on a visit to one of the preeminent waterfowl hotpots in all of the U.S. — Stuttgart, Arkansas. There, in an area where flooded rice fields and flooded timber draw tons of birds annually, I had a local hunter suggest one morning that we hunt a little pond he had access to.
“We’ve had hunters in the timber and fields for week,” he said. “Nobody ever thinks about trying one of the little ponds we have around here.”
Less than 10 minutes after we set up, a pair of mallards came in quickly, and birds went into the bag. Incredible as it may seem, those were the only birds bagged that day by any of the hunters on our trip! I was hooked on hunting small waters, and have been ever since.
Maybe the most difficult aspect of focusing hunting efforts on ponds, sloughs and even small rivers is the change in mindset that it requires. Just as gin-clear water forces bass anglers to “lighten up and downsize,” duck hunters who choose to hunt small waters have to change their approach to setting up and tactics.
Hunting often is best on these little jewels from mid-morning through mid-day, and then again late in the afternoon. Ducks feed first thing in the morning, and they’ll often fly to small ponds afterward. If bigger waters (major impoundments, waterfowl refuges, large river drainages) are fairly close, ducks might venture there for some mid-day loafing, but will return to the potholes later.
Another possibility when large waters that are open to public hunting are nearby is that ducks will get off the big waters to escape hunters and pressure. If you hunt such big waters, take time to investigate any small waters that are nearby. If you find some, and have or can obtain access to them, do some scouting — some quiet, non-hunting scouting. Chances are good that ducks off the big waters are visiting those potholes; the key will be to figure out when they drop in.
Scouting in general will be helpful because it will help you determine which potholes or small drainages are better at certain times of day. Doing that kind of homework will help you plan your hunts to enjoy the best chances of having ducks show up.
Beyond the scouting, there are some basic rules that will apply regardless of water size — and some others that you’ll have to adapt to hunting any small waters you decide to tackle.
Your blind should mimic adjacent cover as closely as possible. It’s often quick and easy to make a blind with brush you pick up from around the pond. However, you also will be well served to carry along some camo cloth in a pattern that also will blend well with your surroundings.
Figuring out what pattern will be best is another reason scouting is important. Providing as natural a look as possible for your blind is important because ducks using ponds, pits and other small waters are going to be more wary to begin with.
Think about it. How much easier is it for local predators to make a sneak and set up an ambush along a weed-choked shoreline than it would be on water? You’re likely to notice ducks being more diligent in “checking things out” before cupping their wings for a final approach. The more realistic your blind setup, the better off you’ll be and the more ducks you’ll get.
If you can do so, you’ll be ahead of the game by creating some blind setups in advance on the small waters you plan to hunt through the season. Having your blinds in place will give ducks a chance to get acclimated to the look of the shoreline before you ever show up to hunt. They won’t see anything looking out of place when they show up some morning after you climb into the blind for a hunt.
It’s also important to know which ducks are using the area you plan to hunt. It’s not uncommon to have multiple species in an area at the same time, and knowing the current population dynamics can give you an advantage when it comes to decoys.
There is nothing wrong about mixing and matching decoys when hunting small waters. Just don’t think that means you have to carry a lot of dekes with you. Smaller numbers set up as realistically as possible will prove to be most effective.
There is another important reason for not loading yourself down with decoys and other gear, and it’s especially true in areas with lots of small ponds and/or small waters adjacent to bigger waterfowl hotspots. Ducks don’t always use the same places every day. You may need to pick up decoys and move to another place for a new set up. Mobility is very important in this kind of hunting.
Calling can be very important, too. From my experience, it actually can make or break a hunt — but not in ways you might think.
I have never used a hail call when hunting a pond, pit or other small water. I know hunters who do, and they seem to do alright with it. But for me, loud, aggressive, fast-paced calling just goes against what I try to do with my setups on small waters.
Think about it. Especially in areas where ducks are sneaking off big waters to get a break from the action on a pond, would their instincts lead them to be making rackety, loud calls to bring in more ducks? Instinctively, that just doesn’t make sense.
Hail calls, to me, more closely resemble the kinds of shouts, laughs and chatter you hear from a long way off at block parties — or downtown when your favorite college or NFL team has won the big game. Ponds aren’t the places for ducks to be making that kind of waterfowl noise.
Instead, my instincts tell me that ducks on small waters are like groups of close friends who have gotten together to “chill out” for a while. They talk and interact, but not with the intent of drawing the attention of others. That’s why I never use a hail call.
Instead, I focus on feeding chatter and the occasional plaintive, low, slow “lost hen” calls. Of course, ducks don’t think like humans. But the only way I can relate my approach is to suggest that I want ducks to just hear me and drop in. I don’t want them to react because I’m using calls to holler and get their attention.
That concept really is why small-water duck hunts are so big on enjoyment here. They’re more laid back, more relaxed. They’re easy — almost casual — to set up. You might have to move once or twice during a day, but those moves won’t be such big deals because you won’t have a lot of gear to transport.
No matter how many times you have to do it during the course of a single day, setting up takes very little time. Just remember to factor in wind direction. And take as much time as you need to create a blind that provides optimum cover while looking as natural as you can make it.
Even on the edges of huge, popular waters full of waterfowl, blinds and hunters, choosing to visit small waters always makes for more intimate hunting. And more often than not, that choice makes for more successful hunting.