Waterfowl Scouting 101

Waterfowl Scouting 101

– Photos & article by Prois Staffer, Gretchen Steele –

As waterfowl season approaches with what seems like breakneck speed, being prepared is the key to success. There are dogs to train, decoys to rig and repaint, blinds to build, and boats to tune up; but the one important part that  many hunters overlook is scouting. Scout smart this year with these techniques, you just may find yourself on the “X” on opening day.

Not only are there a variety of high tech options you can use as additional tools, such as radar tracking of big pushes, online migration reports from fellow hunters afield, and aerial surveys, nothing beats  boots on the ground and eyes to the sky.

It’s hard to beat the excitement of finding a large group of ducks or geese on the water, but it’s vital that you identify whether or not you’ve found a main roost area. If the birds are hitting it at sundown, or busting out at daybreak, chances are that’s a main roost area and you want to leave that water alone. Hunting on or even within ¼ or ½ mile of a main roost, can result in pushing birds out of an entire area in no time. The key here is to watch where they go when they leave in the mornings or try to determine where they are coming from in the evenings. This will often lead you to their preferred loafing areas and feeding fields. Often, ducks will leave the roost area and make a pit stop at a small pothole or pond before heading on to feed in the fields. Find that spot, and you have just found the spot that will provide you with an action packed memorable hunt.

Don’t discount even small batches of birds in the air. Even small groups are worth watching.  Sometimes it’s that one little batch of mallards that give away the location of a whole field or pond full of birds.  Don’t think that because that slough is only holding 50-75 birds it’s not worth hunting. Small groups add up and finding a slough, pond or river bend that has small groups coming in at steady pace will net you a dandy hunting spot.

The amount of guesswork for selecting a spot decreases quickly once you have found birds on the ground. Now it’s time to start looking at numbers. For Canada geese, “the more the merrier.” Consider looking for fields holding 100 – 150 birds. But don’t stop there with your scouting; more important than the number on the ground is how the birds are coming into the area.

Often a field with a smaller number of birds overall can be more productive than a giant feeding area. Successful hunters know that a field with 60 or 70 birds that has geese coming in in small numbers will likely be most productive. Big flocks can be hard to decoy and call in. Small groups of 4-6 coming together just seem to respond better to flagging, calling and the decoys.

During your scouting trips, wait at a distance until the birds leave the field, then explore to find the exact spot where they were feeding. Signs that will clue you in are fresh droppings and feathers, tore ground, torn up corn. Mark that  spot in your GPS, your note book or even leave a small flag there as a reminder if possible, even snapping a photo with your phone will work to help put you right on the X the following day.

With ducks, there is more wiggle room for setting up on the X. When dry-field hunting ducks, you really are looking for big numbers, numbers that reach well into several hundreds, especially mallards. Mallards are more like to be coming in as large groups or waves.  It’s important though, to watch a big duck field feed to insure that they are indeed committed that field, and there is still plenty of food available.

None will dispute that watching a giant tornado of ducks is awe inspiring and downright cool to witness, but what’s even cooler and what you are looking for is when, where and how those ducks hit the ground. You are looking for birds that are committed and using the field with regularity. Avoid spots where the ducks seem to be bouncing around and unsure. If they are unsure when you are scouting them they will likely be just as unsure and less likely to commit the next day. Picking the fields where the ducks are piling in and seem committed and comfortable will go a long way towards insure a successful hunt.

Turning a scouting trip into a good or even great hunt is a bit like solving a puzzle and requires you to put your observations together into a workable plan.

Think about even small parts of the puzzle. What direction is the wind, what direction will the birds be coming in, what  is the species mix, is the weather going to take a drastic change overnight?  All of the things that you were able to determine from your scouting trip will and can make a big difference in how you determine how to place your decoys, blinds, and dogs.

Bottom line, scouting is a ton of time behind the windshield, the binos and the spotting scope.  It’s boots on the ground, and can quickly eat up an entire day. However, the more you know about what the birds are doing, how they are moving, and what the numbers look like,  the more likely it is you’ll have great hunt the next day.

Gretchen is a proud Prois Staffer as well as an excellent photographer and writer. She has a strong passion for the outdoors and our hunting heritage.