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Tough it out: public land waterfowling is not easy, but if you work hard at it, and follow this expert's advice, you can succeed.

The fact that shooting companion Phil Bourjaily had convinced me to travel any distance to waterfowl hunt in Iowa was notable in and of itself. What made nay participation even more astounding was the fact that our hunt was taking place on a notoriously crowded public wildlife area.

"That's a lot of ducks." Bourjaily, always quick with an understatement, was right. It was a lot of ducks. As we rounded the corner of a tiny point of soggy, ground and half-submerged smartweed. Aqua-Pods in tow, we startled some 300 mallards, wigeon, gadwall and teal into flight. "That looks like the spot," said Mr. Understatement.

What happened next could only be described as classic in every sense of the word. Even before we'd covered the boats with remnants of the year's millet planting, small knots of birds were returning. Decoy placement became a neopreneclad version of "Twister," as I scurried, simultaneously trying to hide and throw. Forty minutes later, Bourjaily was finished, three beautiful drake mallards and an equally impressive trio of greenwing teal gracing the bow of his boat. By my hip, two greenwings and three mallards were arranged.

"Hello?" It was my wife, Julie. "You've got to come down here," I whispered into the cell phone. "Just turn west off the hard road and follow the gravel until you see the pickup. We'll come and get you. Dress warm and bring coffee." I hung up. An hour later I was trading out Bourjaily for my camo-draped wife (a most excellent bargain on my part). For the next sixty minutes, I had the pleasure of watching her drop in quick succession a six-bird limit of greenwing teal ... and, as she's quick to remind folks, with only seven shots. It was, as Bourjaily later agreed, phenomenal.

"And the best part," he added, "was that there wasn't another hunter within a mile of us," Again, Mr. Understatement was correct.

Public Land

Just mention the words "public land" to any waterfowler who's been around the block a couple seasons, and you'll get an instant reaction. "Been there, done that," he'll say. "Too crowded. Too many yahoos. Won't be doing that again."

Anyone who has spent any time duck hunting on public land has had at least one bad experience. The guy who called non-stop, and not well at that. The skybusters, and the guys who believe in the "wall of steel" theory. And then there's the wonderful gentleman who motors through your spread five minutes before shooting time and begins setting up fifty yards downwind. It's enough to make the Pope get out from behind his blind and explain the situation.

Yes, I've had these hunts, too. I've also had some fantastic public duck hunts, a number of which have been better than any private land, fancyblind experience I've ever enjoyed. Where, you ask? How? Certainly what follows is but the tip of the iceberg in terms of what's available, public landwise, for the avid waterfowler. However, these suggestions and strategies can, on the right day with the right wind, help restore your faith in the fact that there are, indeed, productive public lands.

Defining "Public"

Most waterfowlers are familiar with wildlife management areas. WMAs are parcels of land, water or a combination of the two, that in some manner have come to be owned by the state. Practically without exception, these areas provide a diverse wildlife setting, often both from a wildlife as well as a geographic or topographical standpoint.

There is no set minimum or maximum size for these public areas. A waterfowl production area in South Dakota, for instance, may cover only one or two acres, while Arkansas' famed Bayou Meto WMA, a legendary wetland as synonymous with greenhead mallards as is any place on Earth, encompasses more than 33,000 acres. Truth is, despite the huge stature gap between the puddle in South Dakota and the puddle near Stuttgart, the size of the area does and doesn't make a difference--a point to be discussed later.

Though numerous and found to dif fering degrees in each of the fifty states, these state-owned properties are but one option available to the waterfowler limited to or looking for opportunities on such free-to-roam parcels. Other possibilities include the following:

[much greater than] Restricted public hunting areas. Some public hunting areas can only be loosely defined as such because waterfowling opportunities are available in part or only on a limited predraw basis. Typically, these lands are under the control and management of the state fish and wildlife agency, through whom hunters must go in order to participate in annual or season-long lottery-style drawings. Ohio's Magee Marsh, a fabulous wetland along the Lake Erie shoreline, is one such example of a drawing-type hunt, as is Iowa's Lake Odessa. These areas can indeed provide excellent waterfowling and some, like Odessa, in all fairness, do offer a portion of the area on a no-drawing, walk-in basis. However, many hunters find such lotteries to restricting and far too competitive.

[much greater than] State parks and reservoirs. In many states, annual drawings are held for blinds or blind locations along lakes, rivers, streams, ponds, marshes or other wetlands that fall within park boundaries.

Often, these drawings are conducted not by the state fish and wildlife agency, but by a department of parks or natural resources. Late summer drawing deadlines (August or September) are typical. Information for these hunts can usually be obtained through the state department of natural resources.

[much greater than] National wildlife refuges. Many federal holdings such as Wisconsin's Horicon National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) or California's Sacramento Valley and Klamath Basin complexes not only allow regulated hunting, but actually cater to waterfowlers. Most, like Washington's Ridgefield NWR, limit the number of hunters through the use of a lottery-style drawing and specific blind assignments. Most, if not all, charge some type of day-to-day or annual use fee, and such refuge hunts can at times prove very productive.

Success Strategies

Success on public hunting areas involves a number of different elements, one of which, I'll openly admit, is luck. However, there are other variables, all much more within the control of a hunter, and they play a more significant role in success. Some, such as scouting, are part of every hunt. Others, timing, for instance, may not prove as consistently critical. Nonetheless, each element is important in its own way. Each can, on any given day, spell the difference between birds that work and no birds at all. Let's take a look at them.

[much greater than] Timing. When you hunt a public area is often as important as where you hunt. Weekdays offer some of the least competitive opportunities. If you can, hunt Tuesday through Thursday. Saturdays and Sundays are better than no days at all, hut I'd suggest staying away from holidays if you must have solitude.

The time of day, too, can make a world of difference. Along with the activity at first light, there's often a period between l0:00 A.M. and 2:00 P.M. that will provide a secondary bout of bird movement.

Human movement, too, will often increase then, as those hunters who put out before dawn head back to the ramp. With this in mind, many hunters will sleep in and only head to the blind some time after the exodus begins and the 10 o'clock flight commences.

[much greater than] Scouting. In-depth scouting. Whether it's done over a period of years, weeks or days, it really doesn't matter. What does matter is that it's done, and that it's done as thoroughly as possible. What if you're like most folks who put in forty-plus hours each week? How do you get such scouting done? Truth is, there's nothing that can replace actual time spent in the field-walking, watching, drawing, noting-but there are several ways to maximize the efficiency of the time you do have.

[much greater than] Use maps: Maps are probably the most oft-forgotten resource available to waterfowlers. Many hunters, myself included, fall into a rut in terms of location. Year after year, we hunt the same areas because they have produced in the past. But what if they don't produce? Maybe there's another part of the same complex that the birds are using. Perhaps there's another area just five miles away that would be more productive. Maps can provide this information even before the season begins. Most state wildlife agencies can supply detailed maps of their holdings, as can the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the Corps of Engineers. Map-makers such as DeLorme Mapping Company ("Atlas & Gazetteer") can also help you find optional blind sites. DeLorme also offers a state-specific set of topographic maps on DVD if you'd rather start your search on your computer.

[much greater than] Ask questions: It's surprising the number of public land waterfowlers who have never talked with their area manager or local waterfowl biologist, both sources of exceptionally current area-specific information. Over the years, it's been my experience that refuge managers and regional biologists are a friendly, happy-to-help lot. Most are far enough removed from state bureaucracy that they feel comfortable speaking honestly about an area, its good points and its bad points. Time spent speaking with such individuals can provide details about, among other things, future wetland projects, regulatory changes, closures, openings and yearly agricultural plans.

[much greater than] Do something different. If everyone else is using a spinning-wing decoy, try an old-fashioned jerk cord. Varying the size of the decoy spread can also be productive. If possible, try 100 blocks; if not, try only four or five. Smaller spreads can be tremendously effective, especially later in the year as educated birds become wary of large spreads.

Try mixing unusual species into your spread, or arrange a spread entirely of species uncommon to your area. Last fall I assembled an all-drake rig of gadwall, wigeon, Eurasian widgeon, all three teal, sprig, shovelers and mallards, along with a pod of divers including cans, redheads, goldeneyes and buffleheads. Unusual? You bet, but it was different from anything else out there, and the white on the drake divers attracted ducks like nobody's business.

In areas with an abundance of coots, I've found two or three dozen coot decoys to be effective. I'll place three or four magnum mallards--drakes for visibility--on the fringes of this conglomeration. For a reason I'm sure known only to them, ducks often ignore the finest decoy spreads and bypass live birds in order to land alongside a flotilla of coots. If they want coots, I'll give 'em coots.

[much greater than] Hunt hard. Sure, comfort's nice, but it doesn't always lead to a hefty duck strap. What's this mean to the public-lander looking to get away from the competition? The more willing you are to walk the extra mile, use the off-beat boat ramp, get muddy and stay miserable, the more successful you'll be.

Low water levels at eastern Iowa's Hawkeye Wildlife Area, a huge impoundment on the Iowa River, had all of the state's boat-bound hunters and most of the stick-blind hunters grounded. Hoards of migrating bluewing teal were enjoying themselves on the inch-deep, bug-filled waters. They were out of reach to most hunters, but me and a couple of friends made a quarter-mile walk from the ramp to the millet-covered flats, where we sat on our neoprene-covered butts in the mud, surrounded by ten mallard decoys. We were wet, muddy and uncomfortable, but we killed limits that included bluewings, mallards and gadwalls.

Go the extra mile to find your own space, hunt hard and be willing to do something different, and you'll fine all the public-land success you can want.

RELATED ARTICLE: Ten commandments.

These guidelines will help you efficiently hunt public wetlands and elevate your level of enjoyment.

I: THOU SHALT NOT SHOOT ANOTHER MAN'S SWING. If your neighbor's working a flock that passes over your blind within range, let them go. It's common courtesy, and you never know when that neighbor's going to be built like Stone Cold Steve Austin with a temper.

II: THOU SHALT ALLOW AMPLE SPACE BETWEEN THINESELF AND OTHERS. Unless you're both willing to partner up, give the next guy room. In most cases, fifty yards isn't enough.

IIII: THOU SHALT KNOW THE EFFECTIVE RANGE OF THINE OWN FOWLING PIECE. They're called sky-busters, hunters who shoot at anything within eyesight and often spoil the day for everyone nearby.

IV: THOU SHALT NOT BLOW A DUCK CALL NON-STOP. Sure, you paid $20 for it, but that doesn't mean you have to get $20 out of it every time you hunt. Remember the immortal words of legendary outdoor writer Nash Buckingham: "A duck call in the hands of the unskilled is conservation's greatest asset."

V: THOU SHALT SET UP AND TEAR DOWN QUICKLY AND EFFICIENTLY. Don't putter through the decoy spreads at five minutes 'til shooting time or Iolly-gag in your blocks for a hour just because you have to be back to work.

VI: THOU SHALT NOT CLEAN THINE KILL AT THE RAMP NOR PARKING LOT. Hunters need to realize that a lot of non-consumptive users visit public hunting areas, and that the image we leave for them reflects directly on us as a whole.

VII: THOU SHALT BE FAMILIAR WITH AND ABIDE BY REGULATIONS. Ignorance, says the wildlife officer, is no excuse, and it can come with a hefty fine.

VIII: THOU SHALT KNOW AREA BOUNDARIES AND RESIST ALL TEMPTATION TO IGNORE THEM. This one's not only a public relations issue, but a legal one as well.

IX: THOU SHALT LEAVE THINE TEMPER AT HOME. Do you really want to get into a shouting match, or worse, with a complete stranger.

X: THOU SHALT WORK HARDER THAN MOST. No where in the world does the old adage "Hard work and perseverance will be rewarded" hold more he than in public land waterfowling. Do your homework and go that extra two miles, and you just may have that hole to yourself.
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Author:Johnson, M.D.
Publication:Petersen's Hunting
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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