I learned how to duck hunt in Michigan. You'd think there would be ample opportunities to hunt ducks and other waterfowl in the "Great Lakes State," and there are. It's just that it can be pretty tough going at times. There are classic waterfowl spots that will produce time and time again. Saginaw Bay in the Lower Peninsula, and Munuscong Bay in the Upper Peninsula come to mind.
Like many hunters, I had my spots. My family's farmland always seemed to produce enough goose action for the whole season, but I had problems finding those awesome duck spots. It always felt like I really had to work to find what I was looking for, and bagging limits continually evaded me. Finding ducks rested on so many factors too. The weather in Michigan, come autumn, is about as predictable as the state lottery numbers. It can be really cold one day and T-shirt weather the next. The other thing is hunting pressure. I recall one opening day of duck season when I headed to a lake system not known for ducks. I figured that once the ducks got shot up on other waterways, they'd head my way. Well I guess everyone else thought that too as there were more boats on the water before sun-up than at a pro bass tournament. I spent most of the day trying to avoid the raining steel-shot pellets and forgot the ducks.
The funny thing about duck hunting in Michigan is you have so many options, but it can be hard to get away from others. One of these options is something I stumbled on to at the end of the season. It turned into one of the most enjoyable duck hunting tactics I know, partially because it was successful and partially because nobody else was doing it.
Michigan sometimes sets the season dates to give us a few days in December, after the firearm deer season. Normally, early December is pretty cold, and this year was no exception. Ice had started covering all but the biggest lakes, and the ponds and smaller waterways we usually used for duck hunting had iced up quite well. Most duck hunters I knew either packed it in for the year, or they headed to the larger rivers to chase the last remaining ducks in the area. They weren't disappointed with their efforts on the river, but they also felt a bit of competition. It just didn't seem too fun as far as I was concerned. I'm not one for hunting in crowds, as my one earlier experience explains.
While driving home after a late November deer hunt, I crossed over a bridge that spans a small creek. I looked down into the flowing water and saw a single mallard swimming upstream. A quick call to a buddy and we found ourselves headed down a two-track road winding back into state forest land in December, looking to close out the duck season. Eventually we came out close to that same creek. This spot was well away from any main road, and I fished back in this same area for feisty brook trout many times. I never thought to look for ducks here.
Some stealth-like scouting proved to be effective, and we soon made out the clucks and chatters of feeding ducks ahead of us on the creek. These weren't mallards though. The creek was covered with black ducks! We decided to work our way down to where we could enter the creek without being detected and work our way back, flushing ducks as we went. This proved to be a solid technique. We each filled our one black duck daily limit with short shots on fleeing birds.
Further investigation of this situation showed us that the ducks seemed to prefer open areas of the creek just above a bend or heavier brush. There was plenty of green plant life still to be found on the creek bottom so it was obvious that they saw this as a safe food source. Being early December, the winds were cold, and the only ducks we found were blacks with the occasional mallard thrown in. We hunted this creek for the rest of the season and saw ducks each day. Although we only harvested a few black ducks, we connected with a few mallards as well.
As for tactics, keep to the sides of the creek and slowly approach bends and open areas. It also seemed to work best to approach from the inside of a bend, meaning if the stream was taking a turn to the right, approach from the right side of the stream. We worked the stream both from the upstream and the downstream sides, switching on different days. Mostly we tried moving against the wind. The theory being that the ducks would take off and fly toward us. The biggest benefit of this was a little help covering our noise as we moved. With two of us hunting, we kept about twenty feet between us as we moved. If we came upon a flock that sat tight, one of us would move to the opposite side of the stream and close the gap, with a slight stagger. This gave clear but equal shooting opportunities when they arose.
So what will you need for this type of hunting? Good waders are a must. There is going to be some shore ice, and sometimes you'll find yourself crashing through it as you work your way downstream. There is also the possibility of heavy brush so hunting-style waders are the way to go because they are built to take abuse. Also remember that the water will be cold, so you'll want something warm. A 5mm neoprene is a good choice. I had ice built up on my waders on more than one occasion, but I still felt warm. A good wading jacket is also a must. You'll want to keep warm and dry, but still have proper ventilation. Look for something that has a breathable membrane such as GORE-TEX or Cabela's Dry-Plus fabric; both make for an excellent hunting coat. I also wore a vest with a lot of pockets for shells, calls, etc... Remember, you're on the move. An extra pair of gloves is essential. If you get one pair wet, have a back up. A camo facemask is a good idea as you're going to be working downstream or upstream much like a commando. This is ambush hunting at it's best.
A few other hints for you, based on my experiences are to carry a variety of ammo. I have a gun that will shoot up to a 3-1/2" round, but for ducks I regularly shoot 3" in fours and fives, depending on what type of shot I'm using. For this excursion, I brought along some 3-1/2" number two's and four's. This turned out to be a good idea as some shots were long-range pass shots at ducks that bolted before we even knew they were there. We also left our "pretty guns" at home and took our "meat guns." This isn't "kind" hunting, and we were worried that a quick slip over a hidden branch or an icy bank might mean a wet and beat-up gun.
One other thing that worked in our favor was pressure. While we never saw another hunter, there were others out on at least two occasions. They weren't duck hunters though. Early winter will bring out the rabbit hunters in droves. We had a guy working his dogs downstream from us on a couple of days, and it kicked up a few tight holding birds that were swimming downstream away from us. They flew back to us and gave us solid opportunities that we wouldn't have gotten otherwise.
One other thing you'll experience is the peaceful solitude of flowing water during winter. Is there anything more scenic than icy, snow-covered banks of a meandering stream? The water flowing under the ice elevates the noise of the stream just slightly. Can you feel that chilly air as it blows through the branches of surrounding trees? One of my favorite memories about these hunts was finding the tracks of ducks as they crossed over snow covered ice bridges that built up on shallow sand bars. That alone is worth every bit of effort it took to go.
If you live in a northern area and are looking for a challenge in duck hunting that will reward you with possible shooting, classic scenery and little-to-no hunting pressure, look for a stream or creek after the lakes and ponds freeze. On an early November fishing trip to Alaska for late season MONSTER rainbows, I found myself wishing for a shotgun instead of a fishing pole. A couple of days with temps below zero at night had frozen all the surrounding ponds and I saw literally thousands, if not tens of thousands of ducks along the river. And yes, I am planning a return visit some year with a fishing pole as well as a few decoys and my trusty scattergun.