Joe Balog was born and raised on the Great Lakes, where he's earned a living as a charter boat captain, pro bass fisherman and outdoor communicator. As waterfowl editor for Realtree.com, Balog was bitten by the duck bug while hunting the world famous St. Clair Flats. Between duck hunting, fishing, and dog training, Balog spends some 300 days a year on the water.
Nothing catches my attention like the weather. As most of us nationwide are in some phase of the 2013 waterfowl season, eyes are glued to the news when the forecast comes across the screen. Radio stations are inevitably tuned to AM, where listeners can count on “weather on the 8’s”. For some reason, I find myself listening over and over, ensuring I don’t miss any changes.
Perhaps it’s a sign of getting older, but it just seems like the weather is more drastic in today’s age. I remember hearing somewhere that this may, indeed, be the case; apparently subtle signs of unexplained global changes. Perhaps I may just be turning into a middle-aged man with too much concern over such things.
In any case, my stomping ground around the lower Great Lakes has found itself in the midst of the earliest freeze-up I can ever remember. The thought of ice fishermen taking to the lake during duck season is too much for me to handle.
Normally, in times like these, waterfowl hunting becomes a boom or bust scenario. With the big waters of Erie and St. Clair nearby, it’s often times “boom” for me. Rarely frozen, these monster waterways house the ducks that push out of the smaller lakes and potholes to the north; the open lakes flashing like a neon sign to migrators.
Yesterday found me drooling. Thousands of ducks poured out of nearby marshes into the windswept lake. Temperatures had finally leveled out at a chilly 28 degrees, but, despite ice on the decoys and a poor hiding spot, ducks committed to my spread. I’ll never forget the look a lone black duck gave me when he landed on the ice edge, just inches from my decoys floating in an open hole. He stood there on the ice, just looking down at my phonies, and then looking at me. I thought hard about giving him a long, hard look at a load of BlackClouds, but the whole scenario made me chuckle, so I passed. No matter how many times I lay eyes on a duck standing on those skinny legs, I still often laugh.
The drive home was filled with visions of the following day. The great shoot out of 2013 was imminent, so I thought. Nothing could stop me now.
I hunt often by myself, but this was to be an event for a few partners. I quickly found two enthusiastic buddies, planned the meet time, and settled in for a brief night’s sleep. Waking up several times throughout the night was another indicator of my delight.
The alarm clock rang, the dog was pumped, and off we went. A deserted boat ramp ensured light hunting pressure. Once set, a single duck glided over the decoys just seconds prior to legal shooting hours.
And that was the last duck I saw.
Raise your hand if something similar has never happened to you. Anyone with their hand up hasn’t duck hunted long.
That’s right: with the exception of a few groups of “high flyers," no ducks made an appearance in today’s game. The dog found a cripple – a drake mallard no less – so we came home with one. I guess you could say we had an incredible ducks-per-shot average, considering.
But, despite all of my scouting and well-laid plans, despite the fact that I carted two extra boxes of ammunition to the hunting grounds, despite the fact that I planned to be home for lunch, we never fired a shot. And that’s waterfowl hunting.
I practically quit goose hunting a few years ago after watching geese pour into “the next field over” every time I went. Countless times I’ve tried to time ducks to hunt the magic hours they show up at a loafing area or roost. And it seems I almost never find “the X." But I continue to try.
Hunting in the icy conditions presented lately requires a number of very special considerations. The boat and motor must be battleship tough. I can’t imagine running anything but an air-cooled motor in these conditions. I have a Mudbuddy that belongs in a museum considering what it’s given me.
The ice can also be a very bad environment for a dog. When at all possible, I carefully choose hunting locations that allow the dog to get on dry ground. Not up on his stand, but dry. Twenty-degree air with the wind blowing thirty is tough on any animal. Well, except a duck.
Finally, you've got to stay safe. Get wet in these conditions, and you can find yourself in a world of hurt. Lifejackets and kill switches are mandatory when motoring. The boat is never overloaded. I don’t mess with big waves – there will be more ducks again next year.
Despite careful considerations, we never found the ducks, but not for a monumental lack of trying. Mile after mile of ice-filled bays never revealed the bounty I was so sure of finding. The dog just looked at us like we were crazy, as we may well have been. But who ever said duck hunting was anything else? Tomorrow is sure to be better. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
I'm not sure of the medical terminology, but I have a tendency to let things bother me. While hunting waterfowl, often the birds shy away from the blind location for unknown reasons. I feel the burning desire to eliminate that occurence as much as possible.
Nothing is worse than watching bird after bird nearly commit to the spread, only to fade out at the last second. Did they see us? Were the decoys wrong? Do we have something sticking out? The questions never seem to end in my head.
At one time, not long ago, I decided to eliminate all the possibilities I could control, thus concentrating my efforts on the few remaining. These controlled variables include decoys, calling and concealment.
I traded in my old, battered decoys for new models by Banded. They are life-like, life-sized, economical and in numerous postures. Plus, they seem to be holding up to my crew's reluctance to protect them in any way possible. So my spread "looks" good to start.
When it comes to calling, the only calling my group does are tones that sound like ducks. No high balls, no incredo-feed-chuckle-machine gun junk. If we look like ducks, and sound like ducks, we can never be caught in the act. Sure, magnum decoys and ear-piercing calls might prevail in certain situations, but I like to keep it natural to further ease my mind.
Finally, I hunt extremely pressured ducks (my area holds 116 consecutive state hunts in a 3,000-acre parcel, per season), so concealment is key. With my system, everything must be meticulously camouflaged, and the boat must be hidden a good distance away from the hunting party. Facepaint is mandatory. Even the dog must be considered.
In this video, you will see some of the extra steps I take to ensure everything within my grasp is properly camouflaged. In addition, the custom-made dog cover serves to fully insulate my companion on cold morning here in the north. An overhead view within the video helps show what the ducks see. Consider that when setting up the next time out, and you'll kill more birds.
Think modern Canada goose hunting, and almost without exception, corn stubble, layout blinds and trailers full of decoys come to mind. Coveralls and dry ground. Drive right up, dump ‘em out, set ‘em up, and start the waiting game. No marsh. No moving water. No farm pond. It’s like whitetails and treestands. Squirrels and .22s. Cottontails and beagles. Some things just go together, I reckon.
But the fact of the matter is geese are waterfowl – WATER-fowl – and as such can be hunted quite successfully over water, just like mallards. Maybe even in the same place you hunt mallards.
Now, and before any of you throw up your arms in disgust and begin tossing out words like Roost-Shooter, let me assure you I’m not speaking of shooting the roost. At least not mid-season. Maybe the last couple days, but not now. Here, I’m talking farm ponds. Rivers. Impoundments. Backwaters. Any place geese sit – or can be convinced to sit – on the water.
Me, I enjoy hunting Canadas over water. One, I enjoy playing in the water, even when it’s cold. There’s just something about those bitterly cold mornings alongside a shallow interior river. The world’s alive there; mink, otters, eagles, and more often than not, Canadas.
Two, geese seem less wary over water. Perhaps they feel safer and more secure with their feet wet. Or maybe it’s because they seldom get hunted over water; at least that’s how it is around our part of eastern Iowa. Are they easy? Are they dumb? Canadas that have been shot at and missed for the better part of three months are anything but dumb; still, geese over water often make me feel like a Tim Grounds or Bill Saunders rather than M.D. “What the heck did I do wrong again?” Johnson. It’s a great feeling, too, and I can’t imagine Tim or Bill ever getting tired of it.
Three, I don’t run into much competition on the water, especially flowing water. And especially late in the season when it’s cold. Really cold. I’m talking hands freeze to the gun cold. Cornfields, here at least, get plenty of attention from the decoy trailer and layout blind crowd.
I have access to two private riffles on a nearby small tributary to the Mississippi that, with the exception of two brutally cold years during the 16 we’ve been in Iowa, never freeze. As long as the snow doesn’t get too deep and cover all the feed, some Canadas tough it out and stick around. Neither riffle is a roost; that’s below any one of three or four roller dams on the same small river. But the geese love to spend the sunny days on the gravel lining the riffles. For me, it’s six or eight floaters, six full-bodies, a dozen sleeper shells, and a pretty comfortable seat I chain-sawed out of a log jam some years ago. Calling is subtle; clucks, and a couple soft honks. There’s a place to safely lean my shotgun and a spot for my Thermos; and as long as the coffee stays hot, I’ll stick ‘er out.
Yeah, I like hunting Canadas over water.
There’s a different name for it in all parts of the waterfowl world. Around here, we call it “Man Down." I’ve also heard it referred to as “biting it," “taking a header” and even “getting flushed." Where I hunt, it’s feared more than anything, as the marsh is quite mucky, very cold and extremely stinky. It’s true: going over the waders is a dreaded circumstance.
I pulled a pretty Olympic example just the other day. A buddy’s dog, which I love to photograph, was making his way back from a good retrieve. I took the opportunity to snap a quick picture. Determined to get just the right shot, I decided to get down eye-level with the dog. I jumped from my cattail perch into the duck hole, and I went down.
I barely saved my phone from certain disaster, but the rest of me took a pretty good hit. You remember the old movies where a guy gets sucked up in quicksand, and then disappears into the earth – the only thing visible at the very end being his wrist and hand, before disappearing into oblivion?
In any case, the photo at the right is the last one taken that day, and documents my catastrophic plunge. But it was worth it.
We’ve often heard the old timers talk about going under when waterfowling as if it were a death sentence. Years ago, it was.
Prior to the advent of modern neoprene waders, everybody wore the rubber, old-school style. When water came over the top of those, a hunter or fisherman had two options: get out of those death traps somehow, or sink to the bottom. A friend of my family quit duck hunting, after enjoying it for a lifetime, because of a near-death experience of such. After several tours in Vietnam and countless run-ins with the enemy, you would think the guy would be impervious to fear. But, planted on the bottom of the marsh, arms stuck in the muck after a fall, waders filled to the brim, he made his mind up right there. No more duck hunting.
In today’s day and age, however, we have neoprene. It's quite possibly my favorite material on planet earth, ranking higher than both cotton and leather, neoprene goes with me everywhere. Truck seat covers, dog vests, rainproof cuffs on my foul weather gear, and, especially, waders. Save your arguments that the new breathable, light materials are the way to go. For me, it’s the heaviest, coziest, thickest neoprene available.
Neoprene has one other advantage, though, that I’m alluding to. It floats like a cork.
A few years ago, I shot the video above showing what would happen when neoprene waders fill with water. While performing the test, I was surprised to learn that the buoyancy of the neoprene itself, combined with the air trapped in the boots of my test waders, floated me surprisingly well. I “re-learned” that a few days ago.
Now I’m not advocating putting yourself at risk, as if todays’ neo-waders are a life ring. Just the opposite: duck hunting can be deadly and should be treated as so. But you can go to bed knowing that if you “take a header” in the marsh tomorrow, you won’t sink to the bottom.
Trust me, I’ve tested it, over and over again.
By the way, the dogs in the photo watched my ridiculous antics and simply swam by without concern, anxious to get the next duck. Of course they did.
While many things impact the success of a waterfowl hunt, unquestionably the biggest factor is location. Any veteran can share stories of the days when everything went right. “I could have been lying in the open field in an orange jumpsuit and shot my limit." We’ve all been there; the venerable “X” marks the spot, as they say.
Luckily for the ducks, in today’s world of 3-inch magnum autoloaders, those days are far and few between. More often than not, waterfowl hunts leave us scratching our heads and tweaking our spreads.
A recent discussion in a popular forum chat gave me a little perspective on my watefowl hunting, specifically how I can go to bed at night knowing I did my best. I wanted to breathe a little life into the subject here, where we can all reflect on our approach.
The subject was that of face paint or the use of face-masks when hunting. While many who commented on the thread noted their demand for all parties in the blind to cover their faces, others simply said that sitting still while ducks approached was the key. As is the case in just about everything in the outdoor world, it’s all just theory, as no one has ever interviewed a duck, goose or fish.
Upon further pondering of the subject, though, I found it hard to believe many would overlook a good camo job on their face, when considering all the other steps involved in fooling waterfowl that seem to be accepted. Consider this:
- Waterfowl hunters buy and use camo-dipped guns, so they don't have black guns that stick out.
- They dress head-to-toe in all the best camo, more so than any other hunters.
- Waterfowlers use the best blind materials on their boats, sometimes utilizing actual palm leaves instead of just camo paint or synthetics.
- They take an hour prior to shooting time to camo their layout blinds, after actually spreading mud all over them, because the birds flare from "new" looking camo blinds.
- They spray fake snow from a can all over their gear in the winter.
- Duck hunters talk about having perfect paint on their decoys, because the ducks can supposedly see the chipped paint. They get flocked heads for goodness sake.
- Some even go as far as to swear by ultraviolet reflecting paint, invisible to the human eye, on their decoys.
But then many comment that a camo job on a bright, round face, often peering above the blind of brush, pointing directly at the game, is not important.
On another note, I once interviewed Phil Robertson on the subject. For decades, his crew of Duckmen have been known as the “bearded guys form Louisiana with the black faces." At the time, his opinion was that face paint alone helped his crew kill 25 percent more ducks throughout the year. I went back and checked my notes to confirm that fact; it was unbelievable to me at the time, and continues to be. But the Duck Commander confirmed it. When the birds are in close, concealment is critical.
My crew goes as far as to totally camouflage everything to eliminate that as a possibility of failure: hunters, guns, gear, faces: even the dog.
This fall I intend to photograph a few hunters with “before and after” camo face jobs. We’ll be sure to share that with you all on Realtree’s Facebook page. But, for now, consider all that you’re doing, and all the money you’re spending, in pursuit of our quacking and honking friends. If you’re like me, you’ll agree: face paint is a no-brainer.