Not every state is equal when it comes to duck hunting. Explore these tactics if you find yourself hunting small bodies of water
Where I live—and have spent my entire 26 years of life—duck hunting isn’t the most popular thing to do.
I wouldn’t even put it in the top 10. In fact, I don’t think the words, “Man, you should’ve seen how many ducks I killed this weekend,” were ever uttered by anyone near me in high school or college. Most in my circle were obsessed with mature bucks in the fall and winter or going after toms in the spring.
But to me, I find much more joy standing in flooded timber, sitting in a blind, or cruising down a backwoods section of river in a kayak with my shotgun in tow waiting for the moment to drop a bird, rather than sitting in a tree stand. I credit this to my reactivation into hunting post-undergrad. While my brother taught me the ropes of deer hunting during my sophomore year at West Virginia University, I wasn’t able to spend too much time in the woods due to school and work obligations, so my second reintroduction to hunting came in a soybean field in western Maryland, waiting for Canada geese to swoop down. It was an unsuccessful hunt, but a few months later I shot my first duck, a surf scoter drake, in a floating blind in the Chesapeake Bay.
From there, I was obsessed. I tried to teach myself as much as I could about duck hunting from online sources and got out as much as possible in between shifts at the newspaper where I worked. Needless to say, through my many failures in the last few years, I’ve learned why West Virginia isn’t a bucket list state for waterfowlers. Still, I learned a few things from those mistakes and few successes that have translated into tactics necessary for hunting ducks in the best places the Mountain State provides for waterfowl hunting: small bodies of water.
Scouting small water for ducks
The hardest part of hunting small water is finding the right place. I’ve been lucky to stumble onto a few streams or portions of a river that hold plenty of birds, but if your luck is waning there are a few ways to find the right place.
First, let’s start with food. When looking for new water, apps like onX Maps help immensely, and regardless of hunting public or private land, you want to figure out what food is around. If a stream runs through or near land that holds millet and other cereal grains, corn, or soybeans, you’ll likely find waterfowl nearby. Further, water with a good mix of wild rice, wild celery, or other aquatic plants known to attract ducks, or water surrounded by oak trees, are excellent attractants, though this will come down to boots-on-the-ground scouting.
To help find food sources, onX recently released a new crop layer feature that helps you figure out where different plantings are, which helps identify rotation and potential habitat.
Other resources, such as the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s websites will help you identify areas that may support waterfowl. I found that starting at National Wildlife Refuges—such as Canaan Valley in Davis, West Virginia—helped me identify the right areas for different dabbling ducks which I could apply towards different public lands.
Other times, it may be worth taking a look at different Wildlife Management Area maps that hold large ponds, flooded timber, or that have streams or drainages cutting through them. After doing this, research the site, and then go out to scout.
Speaking of which, once you find an area that you like, break out your binoculars, kayak, canoe, or small boat and hit the water. If you don’t own a boat, you can figure out if the area is conducive for your hunt by checking water depth or if there is ample room to net a dead, drifting bird.
In a state like West Virginia, if you notice the ducks prefer private land agriculture fields, ask for permission. Once again, look for row crops as your best source of food.
Decoy spreads for small water duck hunting
After scouting out your spots for the upcoming season, you may wonder how to decoy birds in. I prefer to keep things as minimal as possible since I typically hunt alone and have to carry everything in, but I’ll still never leave my vehicle without at least a dozen decoys.
If I’m just running 12 floating decoys, I’ll use only mallards unless I see a reason to throw in others that match birds I’m seeing in the area. If that’s the case, I’ll use eight mallards and four secondaries. And, if the type of water calls for more decoys, such as a long stretch of river, I’ll go up to 20-24 mixed decoys. Again, this depends on what I’m seeing in the area.
So, where do you place them? Since waterfowl like to land into the wind, I’ll position myself with the wind to my back or to one of my sides and set up a majority of the birds in front of me in two pods, usually between 12 and 2 o’clock and 3 and 5 o’clock. If I’m only running 12 decoys, I’ll split them into groups of four and toss the other four into a third pod to my left, between my 7 and 11 o’clock, the idea being that no matter where the birds are coming from, they’ll land somewhere in the middle or close to my left. With bigger water, I’ll make pods of six or make more pods of four, staging some pods downstream to coax the birds in.
I also look for edges and vegetative cover to plant decoys since it makes it look more realistic.
The biggest piece of advice I can give is to use the advice above as a blueprint.
Every situation calls for different decoy spreads, places to put yourself, or other variables. Sometimes you may be sitting on the edge of a flooded cornfield watching a 24-piece decoy spread and hardly anything comes in while other days you’re anchored in a kayak on the edge of a woody section of river and an exorbitant number of birds flock to your eight-piece spread.
Enjoy yourself, know the rules, and don’t be afraid to try hunting small water.
Andrew Spellman is an award-winning photojournalist and author, as well as the editor or ProjectUpland.com and managing editor of both Project Upland and Hunting Dog Confidential Magazines. A 2017 graduate of West Virginia University's Reed College of Media, Andrew's work has appeared in multiple newspapers and magazines. He is also an avid hunter and angler who enjoys chasing varying game in his pocket of Appalachia.