6 ways your waterfowl hunt can go wrong—and how to adjust your tactics
A lot can go wrong to foul up your duck or goose hunt, but with this troubleshooting guide, you can still limit out
As any waterfowler knows, a morning in the blind doesn’t always go according to script, even with meticulous scouting and planning. After all, many of the variables that can conspire against a duck or goose hunt are difficult to accurately predict. But unforeseen circumstances don’t have to ruin your hunt. If you can recognize what’s happening and react quickly and appropriately, you can still salvage the day. Here are some of the most common hunt busters that can arise, along with tactics for making the best of the situation.
THE WIND CHANGES DIRECTION
Setting up your blinds and decoys is all about understanding wind direction, since ducks and geese will invariably approach and land from downwind. Set up incorrectly, and the birds will slide off to the side, land short or simply not commit to your spread. But the wind direction can also change unexpectedly, so you must be prepared to react accordingly.
In those rare instances when the wind shifts a full 180 degrees, leave your blind where it is and move some or all of your blocks to the backside of your blind. Of course, you’ll also have to reverse the direction you’re facing in the blind. Alternatively, you can leave your decoys where they are, turn in the blind and shoot the birds as they pass overhead. Keeping low and still is more critical than ever in this circumstance, as the birds will have to fly directly over your blind before landing.
More often, though, the wind will veer off less than 90 degrees; this is especially true in the afternoon, when the breeze commonly shifts counter-clockwise. Astute hunters often set up anticipating this shift. If you haven’t, simply move the wings of your set-up into a standard J- or U-shaped spread to accommodate the change, pivoting your blind accordingly. Make sure the open side of your J-spread faces the direction from which you expect birds to arrive.
Salvaging your hunt in this case will depend on your willingness to adjust to the wind; approaching birds will tell you how comfortable they are by how they react. At all costs, avoid letting birds, especially Canada geese, fly directly over your decoys—that’s a recipe for disaster. You want to ensure they can get into the hole without having flown over one of your wings.
THE BIRDS LAND SOMEWHERE ELSE
You’ve set up perfectly, but for some reason the first flight landed in another part of the field. And now that the birds are down, subsequent flights are sure to follow suit. If the birds went straight in, they were likely not avoiding you—they simply decided they wanted to land somewhere else (this happens much more often with geese than with ducks).
What you need to do in this situation is immediately get the birds back up. To do this, try to quickly sneak up on them and get a shot off, but be careful not to harass already settled birds. Once you have the birds in the air, leave a flag or coyote decoy where they had landed and get back to your blind.
That should work, but if the next flight also doesn’t come to your spread, you have no choice but to pick up and move. Grab your blind and as many decoys as you can carry and re-establish where the birds want to be. Act quickly so you’re in place before another flight arrives. Even if it’s a pretty rough set-up, at least you’ll be giving yourself a chance.
If the birds have chosen another field altogether, however, it’s probably a scouting issue, underscoring the importance of watching a field more than once before choosing to hunt there, as well as the importance of putting the birds to bed the night before your hunt. In this case, you’re best to pack up, get permission to access the field the birds have chosen, and try again that evening or the following morning.
OTHER HUNTERS HAVE SET UP IN THE SAME FIELD
Mike HungleIf it hasn’t already, this is bound to eventually happen to you: You arrive in the pre-dawn darkness to find another group of hunters setting up in your field. When faced with this situation, the first step is to establish that your group is indeed in the proper field; it’s not unusual to get a little mixed up in the dark.
Once you’re sure you’re in the right place, don’t be shy about asking the group who gave them permission to be on the property. If they can’t answer to your satisfaction, politely ask them to leave—they clearly need to learn a lesson about legal and ethical hunting.
What you’ll likely find, however, is that each party independently received permission, but from different people associated with the property. One may have been given the green light by the husband, for example, and the other by the wife. Whatever the case, there’s nothing to be gained by arguing or calling the landowner so early in the morning—all you’ll do is ruin two hunts. If you have another field to hunt, be gracious and use it.
Another solution is to accept the situation for what it is and work together with the other hunting party to make the best of it. With a little cooperation, you’ll not only salvage the hunt, but you may also see it turn into something spectacular. You’ll have twice the decoys and twice the workers, after all. Just make sure you settle on who’s going to direct the hunt, deciding how and where to set out the blinds and decoys, and establishing who’s going to call the shoot when the birds arrive.
In such situations, it always pays to be diplomatic—mistakes happen. The other hunters will inevitably be as disappointed as you, and how you comport yourself can easily affect future hunts on the property. You just never know when the other guy turns out to be the landowner’s brother-in-law!
THE BIRDS WON’T COMMIT TO YOUR SPREAD
This is the most common challenge hunters encounter. You did a great job of spotting the field, you’re set up in the right place and the birds are on their way. But just as they close to 100 metres and you’re preparing for a shooting opportunity, they unexpectedly veer off. Then the second flight mimics the first. So, how do you remedy this?
First, scrutinize how the birds are reacting—are they flaring or simply sliding off to the side? If they’re flaring, it’s usually because they’re seeing something that makes them suspicious. Get out of your blind and take a careful look at your set-up from a distance. Are approaching birds seeing something reflective, such as spent shells? Could it be that someone in your group is peeking early and revealing a shiny face? Are the decoys reflecting light because of frost? Was something out of place, left out on the ground during set-up in the dark?
Sometimes, the problem is a combination of sun and wind. As a rule, avoid traditional set-ups on sunny mornings with a west wind, or on sunny afternoons with an east wind. Either scenario means birds will be approaching directly into the sun, with its glare bouncing off your decoys. Flocked decoys can help, but often the best remedy is to position your blind along one wing of your set-up and shoot approaching birds from the side.
If the birds are just sliding off to one side, it’s often a case of decoy positioning or you’ve run into previously hunted birds that have become blind shy. Start by opening up one side of your decoys to accommodate the side the birds want to be on. If that doesn’t work, the best solution is to move your blind onto one wing and shoot the birds as they cross. With this crosswind set-up, approaching birds won’t have a blind full of hunters staring them in the face.
Finally, if problems persist, consider your calling. Most often, less and quieter calling is preferred to loud calls, and over-calling can make birds nervous just as they’re looking to commit. As a guideline, the only time to call raucously is when approaching birds are doing the same. Otherwise, less is generally more once birds are on their final approach.
YOU WAKE UP TO SNOW ON THE GROUND
Finding snow on the ground in the morning can be a harbinger of a poor hunt. It’s hard to avoid the black hole appearance of your set-up against the white background of the snow, a sure signal to birds that something’s amiss. But don’t despair—snow can pose problems, but it shouldn’t keep you from heading afield. Just be aware that you need to reduce your footprint as much as possible.
Start by approaching and parking on the upwind side so that incoming birds will encounter less disturbed ground. And don’t run your truck during set-up, as that only leads to more melted snow. Use white covers for your layout blinds, and dress in white if you can. Once you’re all set up, a couple of spray cans of artificial snow can work wonders on your blind and surrounding area (don’t worry, it easily washes off).
Many experienced waterfowlers forgo layout blinds on snowy mornings, choosing instead to go with traditional willow blinds. That’s because layouts tend to create slop as your body heat warms the ground beneath them, and getting in and out invariably creates even more of a mess.
Also, periodically brush the snow off your decoys if it’s accumulating, but don’t risk being caught out with birds approaching. At least the snow will tend to stick on the upwind side of your decoys for the most part, while the birds will be approaching from downwind.
RAIN OR FOG HAS SETTLED IN
If it’s downright pouring, you’re usually better off staying in bed than risk getting stuck in, or chewing up, a farmer’s field. Anything less than that, though, you should go for it. Just be prepared for the birds to act a little differently than usual. Often, they’ll fly later in the morning and the flights will be more spread out, making patience key. It will also be tougher to predict where they’ll land in the field, so be prepared to react accordingly. The black hole syndrome common to snow hunts can become an issue, too, so take similar precautions when setting up.
Decoys will often shine when they’re wet, so use flocked decoys if you have that option. Alternatively, wipe down your decoys between flights if they appear at all shiny. Of course, there’s typically little sunlight on rainy days, and that leads to another problem—the flat light conditions that favour approaching birds by making your set-up much more noticeable. To combat this, it’s more important than ever to ensure your blind is well camouflaged.
Whatever you do, don’t put off your hunt to the afternoon, hoping the weather will improve. It’s not unusual for geese to sit in a field all day when it’s raining, and if you bump them out when setting up, they won’t return. If your only option is an afternoon hunt, however, and the birds have roosted midday, you can still find success. Just set up a full hour earlier than you normally would, because cool, rainy weather can make birds anxious to feed.
The challenge with fog, meanwhile, is getting yourself on the button when setting up in the morning. If fog is expected on the morning of your hunt, drive into your field after the birds have left the evening before and mark your blind location by dropping an e-pin with your phone or GPS. Alternatively, leave a reflective flag where the birds were feeding.
Like rain, fog can delay the timing of morning flights, so be prepared to wait it out. Even in the thickest fog, mallards will find their preferred feeding spots, but geese are often less discerning. So if you’re hunting geese, call periodically even when you can’t see or hear approaching birds.
You can even stand up in your blind if needed to help spot approaching birds, but be on high alert—ducks often approach silently in the fog, as will geese on occasion. That means you need to be ready to react in an instant when they suddenly appear in front of your blind. And get to work on filling that game bag.