“We’re not going to shoot a duck sitting here.” Though everyone had been biting their tongues, someone had to speak up. I hate not being satisfied with my position when duck hunting, and my two hunting partners knew it. They knew we were in the wrong spot. Not the wrong area, but the wrong spot in that area. We needed to move, so we did. A half hour later, we were shooting ducks feet-down over our decoys.
GO WHERE THE DUCKS ARE
When I was first introduced to duck hunting, I was immediately surprised to see how reluctant some hunters were to change, especially when it came to their location. But my background is in professional bass fishing, a pursuit where if you’re not by the fish, you go where the fish are at 70 miles per hour—or finish the tournament out of the money. So, I’ve always had the mentality that if I’m not by the ducks, I go to where the ducks are.
But to do this where I hunt on Lake St. Clair, I needed to piece together a mobile boat and decoy system that would be quick and easy to move but also safe for all waters, big and small.
Lake St. Clair is true big water, and the areas I hunt can only be categorized as diverse. One minute may be spent traveling in a heavy chop, while the next is spent zipping across six inches of water on a mud flat. The marsh areas are full of heavy grass, cattails, and bulrushes. Regulated hunting areas contain shallow water, flooded corn, and good-sized levies. Finding a portable, safe boat and motor setup for all of these situations, as well as one that could be hoisted by hand over a levee, was not easy.
I ended up choosing a modified V hull 1448 riveted john boat with a 23-horse surface-drive mud motor. The riveted boat is lighter than an all-weld model but still plenty strong. And a mud motor is a must here; I hunt in the middle of winter in the north and often deal with freezing conditions, and I want to go fast on plane through skinny water. The size of the boat makes it safe and secure for big water, yet light enough to move by hand with two hunters...although it’s much easier with three.
Everything about this rig and all my gear, right down to the decoy anchors, is carefully weighed and noted. It’s vitally important to me that my rig can go ultra shallow without pushing the boat, and my whole system can be set up, broken down, and moved easily. If I can move to ducks working another area, I want it to happen right then.
I hunt heavily-pressured ducks in corn, cattails, and bulrushes. All three situations demand unique camouflage, but even the lightest boat blind is not an option. We’re dealing with ounces here. Grass mats placed on landscaper’s fence and blended with natural camo became the quickest, lightest, most portable option out there. I begin by placing two mats (about 4x8 feet of coverage) across the boat in a few select areas. I flesh it out with camouflage ghillie netting and use surrounding vegetation attached with dowel rods to complete the rig. This creates an overhead view of standing reeds or corn instead of matted-down holes. The dowel rods also add stability to the camouflage system.
When it becomes apparent it’s time to move, the whole system can be taken down in seconds and put back up in just a minute or two. And at day’s end, the camo material goes back to nature, preventing me from having to carry anything but the grass mats and saving weight for the run home.
SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
If you sit around thinking about how hard it is to move, or what a pain it is to gather decoys, you’re sitting there too long if ducks are piling into another part of the marsh. They are patternable creatures, but their patterns change, sometimes in an hour. To be successful from day to day, a hunter’s pattern must change with them.
In addition to the quick pick-up, weight is also considered when rigging decoy anchors. For the areas I hunt, 4-ounce weights are plenty. Just the difference between a 4- and 6-ounce weight sheds close to four pounds overall from my boat. The decoys I use are lightweight and inexpensive; better-looking, tougher decoys are made, but they’re also much heavier and more expensive. I can replace mine every few years for a low cost, and besides, I’ve found that location is far more important to duck hunting success than the exact look of decoys. I do like multiple species in my spread, especially as migration changes the species of ducks prevalent in my area. Early season starts with more teal; later I mix in more blacks, but they all must be quick-rigged and light.
KEEP IT HEAVY ON SAFETY
There are a few things that I won’t give up when it comes to lightening the load, and the reason is simple: Where I was raised, hunters and fishermen die on the water every year. The Great Lakes are no place to fool around in winter with an overloaded boat, especially while wearing waders, in the dark, and traveling with a dog. A few safety items must be considered.
Always carry a VHF radio. Thinking a cell phone would save you in a remote area is laughable. Most of my best places have no cell service—funny how that works. And cell phones are notorious for acting up when even slightly damp. My VHF is totally submersible, reaches the US Coast Guard instantly, and offers the weather forecast. Bag the phone.
I get turned around easily. A GPS is a must on every boat I’m in. But I’ve also found that marking exact locations of previous hunting success with a GPS waypoint, much like marking a fishing hotspot, can be a big help. Everything in the marsh tends to look the same, and my GPS doesn’t lie. I can get dialed in on a spot in a certain wind and then return to the exact reed clump when similar conditions present themselves years later. A small GPS is key, and I like a boat mount over a handheld. The unit runs directly off my boat battery, so it never runs out of juice, and I can’t lose it.
The boat battery itself should also be a consideration. I’ve always been an overkill guy when it comes to battery size because, in the case of batteries, bigger is better. I use a huge 31 series battery that can run my GPS and a small trolling motor and start my engine hundreds of time daily. My battery box also has access for a spotlight or phone charger and keeps wires hidden. This big battery costs me in the weight department, but it gives me the peace of mind, knowing my motor will always start and my GPS will always work.
Lastly, I carry a gear box with a few tools and other safety items like flares or a distress flag. I keep all of my gear in a waterproof Plano boat box. Plano makes a ton of waterproof boxes to carry these items and others, and you can leave them in the boat for good, knowing that when you need them, they won’t be rusted beyond recognition.
Duck hunting can be really hard work, a fact that my wife will never understand. This becomes especially true when hunting areas that don’t have permanent blinds, in draw-style state hunts, and in places where access is tough. And ducks are smart—only hunters know how smart they can be. So versatility is a must when hunting often. Trust your instincts: Move when things aren’t happening.
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