But most of us will never have an elaborate blind of our own. Waterfowling can be an expensive hobby, and after you've spent money on the gun, shells, waders, camouflage clothing, a few decoys and a dog, there may not be enough left to lease a prime spot in a field or on the river, or to build a boat blind.
So what's a hunter to do? Especially one who longs for the sight of birds with cupped wings, silhouetted against the rising sun as they cut through the crisp, morning air on a path to the decoys? Have no fear. There are plenty of ways to hunt ducks and geese that don't require bounced checks or a second mortgage.
Like many waterfowlers, I shot my first duck after flushing it from a creek. I've sneaked up on quite a few more from rivers and stock dams. Others came to decoys placed in shallow water a few yards from where I lay on the bank, camouflaged by nothing but a few willow branches.
I've also taken my share of Canada geese while lying between picked corn rows laced with a few shell decoys. A few geese landed within 10 yards. Traditional waterfowl hunting, as most know it today, involves blinds, decoys and calls. But you don't need a fancy river blind, a cornfield pit or, for that matter, any blind at all to hunt ducks and geese. In some cases, you're better off without them. And you don't need dozens of decoys - in some cases you don't need any.Field Hunting
Want to know if those new boots and coveralls will keep you warm? Try lying in corn stubble when the wind is howling and the mercury has gone south for the winter.
Doesn't sound like a lot of fun, you say? Stay home. But for goose hunters who can't invest the time and money in leasing ground and putting in a blind - or don't want to - it's the next best method. If you do your homework and pick the right field, the hunting will make you forget the cold.
"There are more nice days than there are cold days anyway," said Gregg Sweley of Gering, who has been hunting geese this way for 10 years.
"It's nice to have a pit for the cold days - the really cold days. But you can dress for the cold. And this way, you can change fields every day."
Sweley started hunting geese in fields near Wood River, his hometown, when he was age 15, and he's
He'll have a pit again someday, but for now he prefers to go where the geese are, and that's not always the same place. "You've got to be able to hunt different groups of geese and move away from the hunting pressure," Sweley said.
Increased hunting pressure in recent years has made decoying geese more difficult. Being mobile, Sweley can move if the geese get decoy shy. Geese also change their habits. When it's cold, they typically head for corn stubble to feed on grain that didn't make it into the combine at harvest time. But sometimes they'll land in a bare field and pick up gravel or dry beans.
When it's warm, geese often prefer grazing on winter wheat, rye or wet-meadow grass. If you're mobile, you can hunt the green stuff while others are sitting in their cornfield pits watching birds fly by, Sweley said.
Geese must have open water, and they typically feed and roost in the same neighborhood. But in some areas, when the cold comes and the open water goes, so do the geese.
Homemade goose chairs have improved the comfort level of field hunting for Sweley. "You don't get as dirty," he said, "and you're not lying on the frozen ground."
One of the many types of portable blinds on the market, goose chairs often resemble low-profile lawn chairs. Some models have a super-magnum shell decoy that covers a hunter's head and upper body, and slots cut in the decoy allow him to see. Other portable blinds surround a hunter and chair with camouflage fabric.
In addition to providing comfort, chairs make shooting easier by allowing a hunter to shoot from a sitting position. They also allow some room for movement to watch incoming geese - the best part of the hunt to some.
"If you don't want to watch them, you might as well stay at home in a closet," said Sweley, who does not believe the common waterfowling wisdom that says hunters must remain perfectly still to avoid spooking decoying ducks and geese.
"You can move," he said. "You just don't want to move fast." If you're slow and deliberate with the first shot, the birds won't know what hit them, Sweley said.
Sweley arrived at this conclusion after shooting geese while lying in a field of rye grass planted as a winter cover crop. It was hard to completely conceal himself in the short grass, and, like most hunters, Sweley has trouble holding perfectly still. But the geese didn't mind. "If you blend yourself in with the decoys, they'll land right in with you," he said.
With a little scouting, it's not hard to find a good field. Follow the geese from the roost in the morning to find out where they're going and what they're eating. Dig out your plat map and knock on a few doors in the neighborhood, and you should find a landowner willing to let you throw some decoys out in a field. If you can't find a field where the geese are feeding, choose one between the roost and the feeding area.
Whether you have a goose chair or not, camouflage clothing is useful. Alternatively, you can cover your feet and legs with camouflage fabric, or just place a shell decoy over your feet and use another to shield your face while you watch incoming birds.
If you don't have a chair, an essential piece of equipment is a pillow or some other headrest, Sweley said. Lie on the floor and hold your head up for an hour or two and you'll see why.
As is the case while hunting from a conventional blind, good calling and a well-placed spread of decoys are the keys to success. Some goose hunters think more is better when it comes to decoys, but Sweley is not convinced. Some days a big spread is needed to turn a flock, he said. But, at times, he has been more successful with three dozen decoys than with twice that many and, some days, he hunts with only half a dozen.
No matter where he is, Sweley picks up the decoys after every hunt; he hates seeing decoys left out for the entire season. "It doesn't take long for them [the geese] to wise up if the decoys never move," he said. Besides, he'd rather change the spread to match the conditions of the day, particularly the wind. Besides, decoys are a lot harder to steal if they're locked up. Some pit blinds always seem to produce, but digging a pit can be a lot of work, Sweley said, and often it is not easy to find a farmer willing to let you dig a hole in his cornfield. Finding a landowner willing to let you throw out a few decoys is another story, though.
A few years ago, Sweley spent the coldest day of his life lying in a cornfield. That January morning the geese decided to sleep in, and by the time they flew out to feed, he was so cold he could barely
He has spent many cold days in the field since, and he'll do it again this year. "A pit is nice for comfort. But just because you've got a pit doesn't mean you'll shoot geese, and just because you've got a pit doesn't mean geese will fly your way."
Field hunting might sound crazy, but it works.Wading into a Marsh
Slogging through a marsh and then sitting in the mud and muck for a day isn't pretty.
On the hike in, the mud will tug at your boots. The cattails will make you lift your feet high and test your conditioning. When you break a sweat, you'll wish you'd packed your parka instead of wearing it. And when you finally settle in, it won't take long for the cold to seep through your waders.
It's enough to test the dedication of any waterfowler.
But the cattails can provide all the camouflage a duck hunter needs, and the wing-shooting in those shallow-water areas is enough to keep many hunters coming back for more.
Mike Harder was 7 years old when he started hunting with his father in the Rainwater Basin, a complex of shallow wetlands stretching across 17 counties in south-central Nebraska. At age 16, he regularly headed out with friends from Grand Island. Now 25, the Creighton University student still trudges through the marshes to hunt ducks whenever his schedule allows. If it doesn't, he's been known to skip class on occasion to get his fix.
Harder has a 12-foot johnboat topped with a blind and outfitted with a heater that keeps him nice and toasty. But when he's hunting alone or with a friend or two who can handle the cold, he usually leaves it at home. Instead he heads out across the marsh on foot with his four-foot-square, homemade decoy boat - just big enough to float a few dozen decoys and a five-gallon bucket. When he finds a little pocket in the cattails, where he can blend into the environment he takes a seat on the bucket.
"If you've got a boat blind you're going to be a hundred times more comfortable," Harder said. "But you're going to lose a flock or two here and there just because you can't hunt as many little pockets. Unless it's 45 below, I'll just go out there with a bucket. It's less obtrusive."
Ducks are drawn to the pockets and coves surrounded by vegetation, Harder said. Those areas also make for a natural-looking decoy spread. In the open water on a windy day - and there aren't many calm days in October, he said - the decoys bounce and swing wildly on their cords, often flaring decoying flocks.
"You've got to stay out of the wind or you won't get a duck on the marsh ever," Harder said. "When there's five or six spreads out there, they'll go to the one where the decoys have the least amount of bounce."
In the Rainwater Basin the duck season typically ends before the calendar says it should. It doesn't take much cold weather to freeze the shallow marshes, forcing the ducks to find other places to roost.
Harder shows up early and often. Early shooting includes teal, gadwalls, widgeons and a few mallards, wood ducks and pintails. Sometime in late October, the basins usually provide a week of the best white-fronted goose hunting in the state. Canada goose hunting is getting better every year in the Basin. If there's still open water in early November, the big push of mallards arrives from the North.
The birds come in waves. "If you want to kill ducks on the marsh, you've got to put in your time. That's all there is to it," Harder said. "There will be days when there are no ducks around, but you can't give up, because the next day could be the flight."
Hunting pressure on public areas in the Rainwater Basin is a challenge for waterfowl hunters. The public marshes seem to draw as many hunters as ducks, especially early in the season, and not all the hunters play by the same rules. Too many will shoot at any duck that comes within 100 yards. Harder swears the goal of some is to make sure other hunters don't get a shot.
"You've got to be respectful to the other people," he said. "If the ducks get first look at somebody else's decoys, why would you call? All you're going to do is make them go higher." Let the other guy have his flocks, Harder said, and you'll get yours.
Harder thinks most people set up too many decoys and call too much. All it takes is two dozen duck decoys and, maybe, a goose decoy or two in a good spot. "If you're in the spot they're coming to you, don't need a big spread," he said.
Harder has spent enough time in the area to have a good idea where the best spots will be, but he starts looking for new ones in August when the public hunting areas reopen for dog training. In the process of finding out what to expect on opening day he and his dog get some exercise.Marsh hunting isn't for the faint of heart. Harder said in his younger days he thought he was
going to freeze to death on more than one occasion, thanks in part to cheap waders. A day in the marsh can be cold, especially in the hours before shooting time. Harder insists on showing up early to get first pick of the prime spots and avoid the rush. He hates it when hunters show up at first light, trudge through the marsh and ruin the hunting for those who got out of bed early.
"I don't know why I do it, to tell you the truth," Harder said. "It doesn't seem like very much fun when you're sitting here and talking about it. I guess it's better than staying home and doing nothing."
And it's a fine way to get a duck.Pass-shooting
Ducks and geese almost always fly following "funnels" in the landscape - narrow points in rivers or lakes, hilltops at the edges of roosts. Those are the interstate highways of waterfowl flight. If conditions are right, the birds will fly within gun range of a concealed hunter.
Tub Springs, a creek near Scottsbluff, is one such place. Robby Newton of Gering has been hunting ducks there for five years. The creek winds through the North Platte River valley. The creek draws ducks as do nearby sandpits and the river. When the river and sandpits freeze, Tub Springs and other spring-fed streams in the valley provide the only open water, and they draw ducks by the thousands.
Ordinarily, Newton doesn't bother lugging decoys to the creek. "That makes it a long walk," he said. The hunting method he chooses - pass-shooting - dates back to the beginning of waterfowling, when
Hunters who choose their spots carefully usually don't have trouble getting shots. The biggest problem is figuring out the lead - how far in front of a bird to aim. If you don't figure that out, your biggest problem might be keeping the gun loaded, because you will miss many more times than you connect. "Lead 'em a long ways," Newton said with a laugh.
Pass-shooting is not skybusting, the waterfowler's term for hunters who shoot at ducks or geese that are out of effective range. The scourge of all waterfowlers, a skybuster doesn't know his own limits. From time to time, a skybuster pulls a bird from the sky, but more often they just waste steel shot and educate the flocks. "Skybusting really isn't productive," Newton said. "You end up with a lot of wounded birds and it makes the guys hunting in blinds mad at you."
If you hunt from the right spot, plenty of birds will fly within gun range. That's the easy part. But at Tub Springs, trees limit the field of view and leave only a small window through which to get off a shot - usually an overhead passing shot, the most difficult there is.
Pass-shooting isn't always so difficult. Some places present easy crossing shots. Once you find your spot, though, you'll know it.
That doesn't mean it will provide good shooting every day. When Newton began hunting Tub Springs, he spent many sunny, warm days wishing he had brought his fishing pole instead of his shotgun. He considers a perfect hunting day to be when the weather is at its worst. "On a perfect day you can basically knock them out of the sky with your gun barrel. We see one or two days like that a year," he said.
Foul weather, especially fog and snow, forces the birds to fly low. Even high winds might not hurt your chances if the ducks are flying the right direction. "A duck flying into the wind is not as bad as trying to hit one flying with the wind," he said.
As with other kinds of waterfowling, successful pass-shooting comes down to location and timing. "It's simple and dependable, I always know I can go down there and have a place to shoot. It gives you a chance to stand around and tell lies, and, every once in a while, if you think about it, to shoot a duck," Newton said.
Not much different from hunting out of a blind, is it?Jump-shooting
A day of duck hunting isn't supposed to leave you so tired. It felt less like an ordinary duck hunt and more like a long day walking in search of grouse or pheasants.
But to Tim Henderson of Valentine, this is waterfowling. For 25 years he's been jump-shooting ducks on Gordon Creek. There's nothing fancy about it. "The ducks sit tight on the creek," Henderson said
Jump-shooting is waterfowl hunting in one of its most basic forms. All you need is a little cover or topography to conceal your approach as you sneak up on unsuspecting waterfowl.
Gordon Creek, Henderson's favorite spot, lends itself to jump-shooting. The creek cuts about four feet into the floor of a Sandhills valley, and its banks and meandering course conceal a hunter's approach.
Creeks, rivers, ponds, lakes and other places that attract ducks and geese lend themselves to jump-shooting. The trick is getting close enough. If the cover or topography is right, a hunter easily can get within a few yards of a bird. Dams on small lakes and ponds give hunters an easy approach - at least to one end of a water body. A creek or canal with high banks allows the same approach, as does dense vegetation in the right spot. In other places, though, a hundred yards of belly crawling might be necessary to get within range.
Unlike Gordon Creek, where high banks conceal hunters from waterfowl on the creek below, many places lend themselves to spot-and-stalk hunting. Often you can scout a waterhole from a distance and plan your approach according to the topography.
When possible, approach from the downwind side. The wind will mask your sound and slow the retreat of flushing birds. The only tricks to jump-shooting are being quiet and remaining unseen. Failure to do either will send your quarry skyward before you can even think about a shot.
In general, though, jump-shooting is just what Henderson says it is: Start walking and sooner or later, you'll scare up a duck.
Many young waterfowlers get their start jumping ducks and move on to shooting over decoys. For Henderson, the opposite is true. In his younger days, he would throw a few decoys out on a pond before school. These days, he prefers jump-shooting - walking Gordon Creek or sneaking up on a Sandhills water hole - to setting decoys. "It doesn't take much to get ready," he said. "You just grab your shotgun, some shells and the dog and head out. If you just have a couple of hours, the hunting's a little easier."
Henderson's hunting partner, Toby Miller of Valentine, prefers jump-shooting to shooting at decoying birds. "It's easier for me to shoot when they get up this way," he said. "Up-and-away is a lot better than incoming-overhead for me."
Jump-shooting doesn't require investing time and money in decoys and blinds, a real savings if you don't hunt often. A major investment in equipment is difficult to justify in parts of the state such as the Sandhills, where Old Man Winter often makes his presence known early, sending waterfowl on their way south. "Duck season can be pretty short here," Henderson said.
But it can be good while it lasts.