How to cope with crowds and beat them at their game — or join them
Every duck hunter has been there: You wait quietly for hours in the dark only to see headlamps close in as shooting hours approach. Or, you get up at a ridiculous hour to beat the crowds but find a long line at the boat landing.
Unless you own or lease land, or hunt ultra-remote corners of North America, you’ll typically face competition in the duck marsh and goose fields. Maybe that’s because access to quality hunting continues to slowly diminish. Or perhaps the Internet and social media have spilled the beans about heretofore-secret spots. Whatever the case, competition for good waterfowl hunting can be intense, and that seems especially true during 2020, the season of COVID.
That prompts an obvious question: How can you overcome competition from other hunters and find success? Basically, you have three choices: Avoid other folks, beat them at their game or join together.
Lose the Crowds
Everyone talks about finding spots other waterfowlers can’t or won’t hunt. Few accomplish this consistently because it requires substantial time and effort. Still, a few practices can put you farther from competition.
First, unless you’re intimately familiar with every back corner of a property, try to avoid obviously well-known areas. For example, you probably won’t roll into Bayou Meto in Arkansas or Horicon Marsh in Wisconsin and find a secluded spot your first day. Likewise, avoid areas with improved boat launches or easy foot travel. Those make for easier hunts and, thus, lots of hunters.
Scout more than you hunt — and scout a lot. Consistent time behind the windshield, in a boat or on foot, will reveal areas other hunters avoid or aren’t willing to access. Caveat: You will strike out a lot. However, the few you find might be gold mines.
Accept that you’ll have to work much harder than other hunters. That means earlier mornings, later nights, many more miles and substantial time. Not everyone can make those sacrifices, especially day after day.
Further, adopt a different mindset. Remember, avoiding the crowds often means leaving easy-to-find concentrations of ducks, so you’ll be hunting fewer birds. Have faith, however, that those off-the-beaten-path ducks or geese should work better than birds in heavily pressured spots.
The first and most important step is to find good areas before the season and then secure them before other folks when you hunt. But this tactic often results in people sleeping in watercraft several nights to hold areas or engaging in unsafe boat races in the dark. It’s usually better to identify several likely options beforehand and simply choose one other folks haven’t claimed.
Obviously, that requires a lot of scouting, and you’ll still have to get up early. Still, multiple options will let you avoid other groups and the confrontations that may arise in crowded quarters. Tip: During busy opening days or weekends, look for duck travel areas where birds fly to escape pressure. Often, ducks might follow waterways or tree lines while looking for safe havens.
After you’ve secured a decent spot, you must hunt better than other groups. On big water, that might mean using a larger, more inviting decoy spread. In timber, it usually involves superior calling. In goose fields or tight-quarters marsh situations, better concealment often makes the difference. Bottom line: Be different than the many other hunters around you. Set yourself apart. Try to present scenarios that seem realistic and put pressured ducks or geese at ease. That’s a lofty goal, but taking the difficult steps to reach it usually puts you ahead of the rest.
The final option might be best: When you encounter another group afield, offer to hunt together. That way, you won’t be competing for birds or the spot, and you might make new friends and learn something. Yeah, maybe you won’t fill straps, but who cares? Ultimately, hunting is about time spent outdoors with good folks, not fretting about some imaginary competition.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.