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Author: Scott Haugen
Often times, out of the way places hold puddle ducks in large numbers. Here's a look at a few sweet spots and how to go about hunting them.
Peeking over a full-size mirror blind, at more than 10 dozen decoys spread about the marsh, we were reluctant to admit defeat. Plain and simple, the birds quit using the area the day of our arrival. We had no choice but to relocate, and after a day of hard labor, were glad we did.
We found an out of the way slough, one full of feed and being hammered by mallards and widgeon. Come first light the following morning, three of us had our limit within minutes. The birds poured in, while we milled about the decoys retrieving kills. It was one of the most memorable duck hunts of my life.
With water shortages plaguing marshes throughout the Pacific Flyway this season, it may be these out of the way locales that ducks seek for food and safety. Be it sloughs, ponds, rivers or creeks, there's good hunting to be had in all.
Branching from main rivers, sloughs are a valuable habitat to migratory waterfowl. They provide shelter and can be rich in food. With a dozen decoys, good hunting can be had in these bodies of water.
I've had good success both in sloughs heavy with vegetation along the banks, and in sloughs barren of foliage. In open sloughs, portable blinds are the key. With decoys spread throughout duckweed, typically close to shore, it won't take long to see if ducks are using these waters.
Jump shooting sloughs is another option. If floating a river, several sloughs can be hunted in a single day. If I see birds pouring into sloughs, I'll set up decoys...if not, I'll move on, jump shooting as I go. Wood ducks love the edges of brushy sloughs, while mallards, widgeon, pintail and teal will light in open waters, working their way toward the shallows to feed.
Ponds are an important habitat for migratory waterfowl. Private lands, where farmers' ponds abound and little hunting pressure exists, have always proven productive for me. These are great little bodies of water on which to spread your decoys, and they can lead to good shooting if northern birds are moving through.
One December day, my buddy and I floated a river, hitting every slough we could find. We'd hardly fired a shot all day when, right at dusk, we discovered clouds of widgeon funneling into a small, two-acre pond a few hundred yards inland. Jumping the birds, we plopped down a half dozen dekes and fashioned a rudimentary blind near the shore. Within minutes, the birds began circling. By the end of shooting time we had our limits of widgeon, and returned the next morning for more of the same action.
Even if they're not laced with food, ponds can be good, open-space retreats, for migrating birds to escape predators. Additionally, small ponds often rise following heavy rains, maybe to the degree of flooding. As pond levels rise, they often pick up cut grain remnants, sending them afloat and creating an ideal food source for birds on the move. After heavy rains late in the season, it's worth the time and effort to check out all the ponds in your hunting area, no matter how exposed they may appear.
As winter approaches and freezing occurs, rivers are often times the only open bodies of water. I've had incredible hunts for mallards and pintails during freezes, as they seek points of land and ends of islands near which to rest. In these locations, water is slower moving, yet not locked in ice.
Decoying is a good bet off gravel bars and bends in rivers. With a dozen or so decoys, birds on the move will often pile in. These birds are normally eager for a place to land, flying low to the water. During freezing rains, I've also hit birds on the river and done well with only a handful of dekes placed near shore.
Rivers are one of the best bets for jump shooting fanatics. Surprising ducks that are moving along the water, or resting in secluded alcoves, is an exciting tactic. As birds move south through the flyway, many will utilize rivers as navigational tools. This is where you can slip into some fine shooting, year after year.
Some of my fondest memories of puddle duck shooting has taken place along creeks -small, winding bodies of water you can chuck a rock across. One January morning, Dad and I hunted some flooded fields without luck. It was cold, windy and the birds should have been on the move. We packed our gear and headed for home when we noticed a flurry of birds in the distance. Close inspection through our Bushnell spotting scope revealed scads of green-winged teal.
We set up on the creek, threw out two dozen decoys and had our limits of teal in no time. During the remainder of the season, we pulled a few more limits from that creek, including some nice, fat mallards and long tailed sprigs. Had we not searched that creek, we wouldn't have known what we were missing.
Creeks are also good locations from which to pass shoot. They often connect rivers to ponds or lakes, thus providing safe and ideal travel corridors for ducks. A few decoys placed in creeks can often entice birds to pass over where you sit, offering fast paced shooting.
Jump shooting creeks can also be productive, especially in high water conditions. In such stages, food is often churned to the surface, and the rise in water levels can be attractive to birds. These hunts can be a brush-battling experience, and a dog is often times necessary to retrieve downed birds.
Come duck season, monitor weather conditions and real estate where you hunt. Scope out the land and gain a firm working knowledge of what bodies of water exist. If all the elements come together, you may find yourself amid some prime puddle duck shooting.
Scott Haugen was born and raised in the outdoor world. Before he was old enough to walk he was carried into Oregon's blacktail woods on the shoulders of his father. At age four, he caught his first limit of steelhead. Haugen's journeys have taken him to Africa, Australia, New Zealand and throughout Asia. He's traveled to over 20 countries and has chased wild game throughout North America.
Haugen's recently released book, Hunting the Alaskan High Arctic, is available directly from the author. To order your copy contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.