Jan/Feb 2016Coastal Plain Waterfowl 101by A. Hunter Smith
Five time-proven lessons for pursuing "puddle ducks" in South Carolina's storied coastal plain rivers.
I first started hunting the upper Combahee River and the creeks that form it some thirty-five years ago, a time when a man with some gumption and duck hunting know-how could expect a good shoot there just about any time the notion struck him. And that notion struck me an awful lot back then. I'd scouted out three different tidal flats, just a few miles apart, which I hunted regularly - which one depending on the tide and the wind and the time of day. They were "big duck" holes - green heads, black ducks and pintails mainly, with enough teal, gadwall and widgeon around to keep things interesting.
One bitter December afternoon full of sleet and light snow, I ran down to one of those spots in a five-acre pocket of water closed off from the rest of the flat by a wall of reeds and sawgrass that was backed up to the west wind by an old ricefield dike grown over in salt cedar and palmetto. While the water from river to tidal flat was being whipped into a wind-blown chop, this place was sheltered, and the water stilled down to a mere ruffle, the perfect location to blind up with the sun over your right shoulder and the wind on your back.
On those sleet-fouled and windy days, with a heavy cloud cover hanging just above the far tree tops, the mallards and the pintails absolutely loved it. You didn't need many decoys, maybe a dozen-and-a-half or less, because they weren't looking for a place to be. They already knew where that place was, and if they were up and trading around, they were coming there!
That particular afternoon they were up and around and then some; the pintails materializing out of the frigid haze like unannounced specters, ghostly white elegant bodies twisting and long tails flowing as they banked into the wind. Then came the mallards, swinging round low overhead and passing in and out of the cloud banks with a feeding chuckle and a whistle of wings to tell of their arrival. A highball or two is all they wanted, and down they'd come. Drove after drove, rocketing out of the mist and appearing suddenly, perfectly cupped and dead over the decoys and no more than twenty-five yards out!
In my amazement over it all, I have to confess that I missed a few shots that I shouldn't have, but all in all, it didn't take me long to get the job done, and I was picked up and running for home well before the end of shooting light. When I got to the landing, there was a salt-rusted pickup that had seen better days backed down at the ramp, and a young boy of about sixteen at the helm of an equally weather-worn john boat, fighting the falling tide to get her lined up on the trailer. His equipment was obviously all hand-me-down from long years back. The boy was having a hard time with loading the boat, with the tide and wind in command of it, so I banked my skiff and jumped out and tied up and went over to help.
After it was done and I was loading up myself, the kid, big-eyed and obviously curious, came over. He reached for a big drake pintail before asking if he could, and just as quickly corrected himself.
"Can I please see him?"
He was mesmerized by that bird, holding him gingerly with two shaky hands as if the duck were some fragile and outrageously expensive piece of crystal. He was turning him over and over in his hands and stroking that long black tail, and every motion was in loving awe of the duck's beauty. The boy reminded me of myself at that age, and I knew exactly what sort of passion burned in him. Long story short, I ended up with a new hunting partner for the last few weeks of that season. The next morning, as we sat shivering in a frost-glistened duck blind in the hard dark of December, I set about giving him a crash course in duck hunting.
Lesson I:Don't Outgun Yourself
The boy had a good handle on gun safety and handling, but he was woefully uneducated on the whats and whys of choosing the right gun for the job of shooting a duck. He was shooting a Browning 12-gauge pump, with a 28-inch, full choke barrel and loading it with 3-inch number-two shot, a combination that might work for pass shooting at extended ranges, but at decoy ranges, he might as well have been shooting a rifle at them, as small and tight a pattern as that setup throws. For the remainder of the season, I lent him an old Winchester model 12 with a 26-inch modified barrel, chambered for 2-3/4-inch shells.
Out to forty-five or even fifty yards, a modified choke, 2-3/4 high brass shells, and shot sizes from number-six up to number-four are all you need for ducks and then some, even with steel shot. Heavy 12-gauge guns with full and extra full chokes, chambered for 3 or 3-1/2 magnum shells, have no real business in a duck blind, unless you are intentionally shooting at extended ranges up to eighty yards or more at big, fully-plumed late season geese. Shooting ducks over decoys is quick work at relatively close ranges, and for this, you need a gun that is quick to the eye, fast on the swing and that throws a powerful, yet forgiving, pattern.
Lesson II: Blinds and Setup
It's important to understand just how sharp-sighted and wary a duck is. In South Carolina, most any duck that flies over your blind knows precisely what sort of danger is likely to be lurking down there and exactly what it looks like. They have run a gauntlet of similar setups for thousands of miles on the way from their breeding grounds, and nearly all of them have seen or heard the shooting. It's imperative that you cover up thoroughly.
Whether you are in a fixed blind or blinded up in a boat, you must blend in with your surroundings as seamlessly as possible. It's always best to blind up with the natural vegetation from the same area that you are hunting. For various laws and reasons, this is not always possible or feasible, in which case use what God or the sporting goods store gives you. You are looking to mask the profile and outline of your blind and yourself as completely as possible, and to conceal any unnatural or highly visible colors. Metallic sheens that sparkle and glint in the sunlight, such as those that come from boat fittings and engines, are of particular concern. You might as well put a sign up, that says, "Humans in bushes with guns down here!"
The clothing you wear should match the coloration of your blinding materials as much as possible, and you should always wear a hat of some sort, to shade the glint and shine of your face. When ducks are working decoys and circling your setup, they are trying to discern if there is anything down there they should worry about. More ducks are flared by people staring up at them than just about any other reason. Once ducks have started to work those decoys, you must keep your movements down to a minimum, until it is time to rise up and let fly! You need to remain as still and as motionless as possible until it's time to move, and then move with purpose and intent to pull that trigger. Otherwise, there likely won't be any trigger pulling at all!
Understand that ducks are extremely finicky about where they put their feet down. I don't care how well blinded you are, or how well set up, or how many ducks are trading around. If you aren't where they want to be, most will fly right on over your head and not look back. They are so particular, in fact, that unbelievable as it sounds, distances of mere yards can stand between you and success. The way to overcome this is through observation. Pay attention to how ducks work the area you hunt. The wisest duck hunters keep a sharp eye on them the entire time they are in the blind - where they are going and how they go about getting there.
Having a good handle on where they are most likely to set down in a particular water is key to choosing where to set up. However, that choice is not really yours to make. It also depends on the wind and, to a lesser degree, the sun. For the beginner, the basic answer to the question of where to place your blind or boat is pretty simple. Blind up with the wind and the sun on your back. Be sure and give the ducks plenty of room to set down in front of you, fully lit in the sunlight and readily identifiable.
Lesson III: Decoy Placement
The next subject for my newfound protégé was how to place decoys in relation to the blind so that ducks will decoy within gun range. There are a multitude of different approaches to putting out a spread of decoys, but in the simplest terms, the decoys farthest from your blind should still be in range (no more than forty to fifty yards for the beginner). But how do you set the decoys out in a manner that will persuade or "funnel" the ducks into landing close to you?
Certain configurations developed by duck hunters over long years of waterfowling seem to work better than others; many were developed during the market-gunning days, when it was all about shooting as many ducks as you possibly could in the least amount of time.
Successful decoy spreads come in "V" shapes, "S"s, J-hooks and half-moons (plus many variations), any of which can be altered to suit the water and the type ducks you are hunting. But what they are all designed to do is to convince the ducks to "decoy" (or set down) within twenty-five to thirty yards of your blind. But, if they decide to set down outside of the spread, you still want them to be no more than forty or forty-five yards away, which for an experienced shot should be within lethal range. Finding out what configurations will work best in the places you hunt will require experimentation.
Lesson IV: Ricefields and Puddle Ducks
The next thing I taught the kid was what kind of ducks he should expect to encounter within the habitat at his disposal. The shallow-water tidal flats of the upper Combahee are often no more than one or two feet deep, even on the crest of a high tide. Broad pockets of open water, laced with cover and pocked with little islands and hidden within a maze of old canal works are woven along the edges of rivers and creeks that nourish them, sometimes for miles on end. Such waters are tailor made for puddle ducks - widgeon, pintails, gadwalls, green heads, green-winged and blue-winged teal, mallards, black or mottled ducks, and, at times, wood ducks - species that feed by dabbling or tipping rather than submerging. This includes areas that were once water-controlled rice fields (in the 18th and 19th centuries), but that have long-since reverted back to brackish water marshlands.
A note of caution: many such old "broken" rice fields are still claimed by King's Grant rights and are thus within the borders of private properties, yet just as many are considered to be natural estuarine marshlands open to legal public access. If there is any confusion about what type lands they are, the responsibility rests with the hunter to do the research and make the proper inquiries to determine if they are open to public entry. Though it may require some effort on your part, it is the right and honorable thing to do.
Lesson V: A Word about Calls
Throughout our time together, I had been teaching the kid about duck calls and how to use them. Calls are no less than musical instruments, and learning to play them well requires the same type of dedication and practice [see "Natural Music" in the July-August 2014 Sportsman's Calendar issue of SCW]. Every time we had a lull in the action, or when we were driving to or from the hunt, I sat beside him and blew my call and had him listen closely and then repeat the notes to me. I taught him the highball and the lazy call, the feeding chuckle and the alarm call, and that lonesome Ank, Ank, Ank of drake green heads and black ducks when they are hen-less and by themselves. Then I taught him how to weave them all together. But, most importantly, I taught him the rhythm and the cadence, those feelings and expressions in the notes that sounded best to the ears of the ducks he'd be performing for.
All in all, he picked it up pretty quickly, and at the end of that season, I was able to sit back and rest a note or two, while he played to whatever audience was circling us. The first time he worked a green head on his own and saw the duck turn to the call and then come and work the decoys, calling back down to him on every pass, the kid was hooked for good!
The truth is, there's no greater feeling of accomplishment in the world of duck hunting than to talk to them and have them talk back. A duck call in the hands of someone who really knows how to play it is what separates the men from the boys in a coastal plain duck blind, and if you will practice as if trying to make it to Carnegie Hall, and stick to the basics of good set up and decoy placement, duck hunting success will follow for you as well.