Bare Bones Setups For Ducks, Story and Photos by Mark Fike

“Spring Drake – Mallard” by Peter Mathios courtesy the artist and Wild Wings, Inc.

everal years ago, the duck hunting in my area of the mid–Atlantic Flyway really dwindled, verging on poor conditions. To keep up my hunting and keep the dog happily retrieving, I had to make a few serious changes to my waterfowling strategy. I had some of the best days on the water I have ever had!

Many duck hunters think you have to own a few dozen decoys, a motion decoy, a boat, a blind and a large selection of calls in order to be successful on ducks. Imagine being able to successfully bag your limit of wood ducks, along with a few black or mallard ducks, with minimal gear investment! This is well within the reach of any shotgunner. You only need a place to hunt, a decent shotgun and shells, a pair of waders, one or two calls and some camouflage. Two or three decoys or a motion decoy are a bonus, if you already have them.

My partner and I used to exclusively hunt bigger waters. We live on the Atlantic Flyway, where everyone uses big spreads to hunt the tidal rivers and enjoy good shooting. When the shooting became poor in our location, only large landowners and lessees with access to water immediately adjacent to agriculture fields were seeing any action. We knew we had to change things up, so we began to explore the smaller waters in the area.

Our discovery happened quite by accident, and I think we stumbled upon a gold mine in the form of small–water duck hunting. While doing some scouting and deer hunting one day, we observed over a dozen woodies in a swamp my buddy owns. When they took off, a pair of mallards went with them. The scene was straight from a hunting video! Rather than hook up the boat, drag a bunch of decoys down the road and spend over an hour before the sun came up readying our setup, we decided to sleep in a little the next day and bring waders and one call to the swamp. Since then, we have never looked back.

Along the way, we learned a lot. We consistently take ducks when others are not even seeing birds. Here’s how we do it.

Conceal yourself

Use available cover to conceal yourself and always wear camo, including a mask and gloves, when hunting small waters.

Extend Your Season

Many hunters feel wood ducks are only an early–season option. But, depending on the winter temperatures, wood ducks may stick around all winter. We hunt primarily in Virginia, but I know hunters in Pennsylvania and Maryland who also experience the same kind of action we have found in our area.

Our season typically ends in late January, and we have taken birds up to the last day of the season. Each area is different, but if there is open water, wood ducks are certainly able and willing to stick around. Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) Waterfowl Biologist Gary Constanzo explained the ducks do move south with the changing temperatures, but wood ducks that are farther north often fill in southern areas that were recently vacated. Basically, the ducks move in a leap–frog way; one flock of ducks in southern Virginia may fly to North Carolina, while a flock from Maryland or northern Virginia may fly to southern Virginia. This can provide hunters with consistent hunting throughout the season.

The exception to this would be when the whole area experiences a long, hard freeze that sends all ducks south to find food. Even then, some woodies stick around. A few seasons ago, I went to the swamp we hunt to inspect a wood–duck box on Valentine’s Day. The ground had snow on it and the swamp was iced in with just a few open holes. Wood ducks were pairing up already and were busy swimming around in the few open pockets.

Interestingly, during warmer seasons when many duck hunters are complaining they need a cold snap up north to send birds their way, we have found plenty of wood ducks and mallards in the small waters most guys overlook. Big–water duck numbers may be lower, or at least appear lower, as the ducks spread out more but are not frozen out of many of the smaller waters. This is the time to really hit the swamps, beaver ponds, farm ponds or marshes. Don’t overlook the small, winding tidal creeks, either.

Setups & Gear

Hunting a swamp is fairly straightforward. A set of waders is a must, even if you have a dog. You can stand on the main bank and hunt some swamps, but most swamps are expansive and normally ducks like to land in a pocket just out of range of the shoreline. Get a pair of waders that are comfortable and warm. I like something that is easy to move around in and will put up with the few briars and thorns I have to wade through. Redhead makes a nice set of Bone Dry® waders that are camo. Mine have lasted five seasons now and still keep me dry and warm.

Scout the area a week or so prior to the season. Get there before daylight and watch how the birds come and go for a few hours. I also recommend making a scouting trip mid–season if you have not hunted the water for awhile. Sometimes a cold snap or other weather change can affect the flight patterns of birds. We found when some waters became icy, the birds came from the opposite direction we were used to seeing them. Pay attention!

Be sure to set up for your morning hunts where you can get shots going both ways and still be near some cover so you will blend in. Wear a mask and gloves and avoid looking up if you have high flyers, as light may reflect off your face and spook the birds, which have great downward vision. Use available cover to your benefit to break up your outline.

I love to find a logjam where there is a standing tree of some sort. When I get tired, I can lean back on the tree. You can even nail a 2x4 on a tree to make a seat with an old piece of plywood. Why not have a little comfort while waiting? I take a pair of trimmers along to snip away brush in my shooting lanes. My buddy found a hump in the swamp that stays dry, so he put an old chair on that spot, which is conveniently surrounded by briars that break up his outline. Using the trimmers, he cuts out shooting holes and has the best spot in the whole swamp. We found one spot so great we decided it was worth our time and money to use scrap lumber to build a bridge out to our hunting area. We dropped a tree across a deep channel in the swamp and nailed plywood to some 2x6s to keep the walking easy, even on icy days.


Using a retriever to locate and return ducks takes some of the harder work out of swamp hunting.

You don’t need a dozen decoys for small–water hunting. In fact, you don’t really have to have any for wood ducks. But if you want to use a trio of decoys spread out in a pocket of water, it can help draw in passing birds not really sure about committing. Mallard or woodie dekes are fine. We don’t use standard decoys very often, but we sometimes use a motion decoy. A Mojo® or flapper decoy works great. We put ours in clear view of the skies above and move back from it, leaving the decoy in the middle of an open area. This has proved helpful in drawing in high fliers with a few hail calls when we need some action. Be sure to face the decoy into the wind so it looks realistic.

We always carry and use calls. While only one call is needed, we both carry a wood duck call and alternate calling when the birds first start to fly to make the setup sound realistic. The decoy helps pull in birds, if needed. I also carry a Primos® Wench Call to entice any mallards or black ducks in the area. Having that call has brought in a bonus bird many times. Finally, if your small water happens to be in the flight path of Canadas, you might consider carrying a goose call as well. I keep one handy to pull birds our way if we hear them in the area. Taking a goose back to the house is always a welcome bonus when hunting wood ducks and mallards in small waters!

The shots that will come while hunting small swamps or ponds will almost always be very close and fast. Using an Improved Cylinder or Modified choke is ideal for our area.

Loads should always be patterned prior to hunting to ensure a good kill. Everyone has their preference when it comes to shotshells, and so do I. I am not usually a fan of steel shot, but if steel shot has an ideal place in the field, this would be the time to use it. Kent makes Fasteel® loads that have worked very well for me. Hevi–Steel® shells have been good at taking longer–range shots. Occasionally we all get passover shots that need some more range. Federal’s Black Cloud® Steel has also been very effective for our small–water shooting and the occasional long–range shot. The great thing about using steel shot is most of it comes in 25–round boxes for about the price of a 10–round box of other non–toxic shotshells. For small–water shooting, I almost always use steel shot of some sort. Pattern your gun before heading to the water so you know there are no holes in your spreads and to find out what your shotgun prefers to eat. [Editor’s Note: Hevi–Steel® has now been replaced by Hevi–Metal®.]

One optional technique for hunters wishing to try small waters is jumpshooting. Most small waters are too small to use a canoe or boat, but some marshes, swamps or larger creeks that hold ducks are great places to jumpshoot ducks. Jumpshooting is quite a bit of fun, and action can be had all day long.

Scouting is key to your success in jumpshooting. You can use the midday hours to scout and then jumpshoot new territory. Examine a topo map of the area you plan on scouting or hunting and walk along the edges of the water, moving slowly as you might stalk deer. Use trees and brush to conceal your movement and carry a small pair of binoculars. Be particularly aware at bends in the waterway. These are great holding places for ducks and excellent places to cut across country to get close to ducks before popping out to flush them. Creep up on the water very slowly and pay careful attention to the water’s surface. Telltale ripples may indicate birds swimming. I look in sunlit areas first, as that is where most ducks will be on a cold day. Almost no one jumpshoots and stalks ducks anymore, so the birds are often less wary and the shooting can be fast and furious!

Having a well–trained retriever is invaluable in this kind of hunting. If you have a good retriever, you don’t have to carry waders with you, but keeping a lightweight set in your backpack is often worth the effort.

This season when your buddies are all hitting the big water and working hard to set up their spreads, take a break and hit the small waters. You will be very surprised at the quality of wingshooting you will encounter, not to mention the easy bag limits if you shoot well.