Thursday, December 02, 2010

Remember the J

I just returned from a great working vacation down in Texas in which I was able to combine some work along with some free time with family. On a couple of those days away from "the grind" of fly-fishing, I had the opportunity to hunt ducks with my dad in central Texas. Duck hunting is something he and I've done together for many years now and if nothing else, it's always great to just sit in a blind with him and remember how it felt to be in awe of the natural world.

We were planning on hunting a small, private lake in a part of Texas that could be considered "pothole country" when describing it in terms duck hunter would understand. Not a lot of grain or any large bodies of water to speak of, just lots of small ponds and lakes which makes for a great winter home for thousands of ducks every year. The hunting in these areas can be very unpredictable as there is no shortage of habitat and the ducks can move around from pothole to pothole for no apparent reason. A little pre-trip scouting never hurts as this allows one to get a feel for the where, when, and how the ducks are using various potholes.

On our pre-hunt scouting trip last week, my dad and I had our jaws banging into the dashboard of the old suburban as we crested a small dam on one of the larger ponds in the area. After seeing no ducks on any of the other ponds in the area, this one was full of well over 1000 ducks of a wide variety of species. There were divers and puddle ducks almost completely blanketing the lake. We backed up and got out of the area to minimize our impact on their peaceful afternoon, we'd save that for the morning

After a restless nights sleep, dad and I were up with plenty of time to spare so we made our way over to the pond to put our spread out, get the calls warmed up, and settle into the blind well before the first flights arrive. The first hour was simply amazing to watch and unusual in my experiences hunting this region of the country. Large groups of ducks, mostly divers like Bluebills and Redheads would come pouring over the decoys only to flare about 10 yards out of range, The shear number of birds was amazing to watch in itself but the behavior seemed odd to us.

There was something that they just didn't like about the setup, so we set off to see if we could determine the problem. The calling was probably not the best, but may dad has been doing it a longtime and it apparently works most of the time so we eliminated that one (with hesitation). We double checked our blind and made more of an effort to stay concealed and motionless while the birds were in the area. Next, we walked around the blind to see if there was anything out of place that might be alarming the incoming ducks. Finally we started moving the decoys around.

Decoy spreads are an often overlooked part of the whole duck hunting process. Sure, there are times when all you have to do is wildly toss a dozen or two mallard decoys out in random fashion and the birds come in just fine. However, if you take the time to think about it, you can use those decoys to not only bring the birds in but also bring them in closer which makes for easier shots and cleaner kills (and easier retrieves if you lab has a blown ACL). I always like to have an opening in front or to the side of the blind in which I am trying to get the ducks to aim for when approaching the spread.  The classic V pattern will usually do the trick just fine and is the way to start out most of the time. That's what we had on this morning, and there just seemed to be something about our spread that was keeping those birds from committing.

That's when I remembered the "J" or "fishhook" decoy spreads that the commercial hunters of the early 20th century used to use on flocks of diving ducks in the Chesapeake. So, we changed our spread so that there was a single line of decoys extending from 5-60 yards away from the blind. We then made a small "J" shape curve just out in front of the blind with 5-10 more decoys which were slightly bunched together. The thinking with this type of spread is that the ducks will see the single line and follow them on into the curve of the J where they will sit or flare, either way they will be well within range if everything goes as planned. It seemed to make a difference this day as we were able to get many more shots on ducks as they came much closer to us on each approach with several groups landing in our spread.

Now if I could only shoot as well as my dad.

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