Gerald Almy: Ponds reliable hotspots for ducks
If you’re still in the frame of mind for hunting, ducks remain open through Jan. 25. We wrote about rivers a while back, but another good place for Shenandoah Valley hunters to try is a small pond or pothole. Of course some of these may be frozen over, but if you can find ones without ice they can be magnets for traveling waterfowl this time of year.
After being exposed to months of hunting pressure on larger lakes, bays and sounds, there’s nothing a late-season duck wants more than a quiet, secluded spot to hide out on. Small, neglected potholes and ponds can be great spots to hunt for the sportsman who takes the time to research and locate these gems.
According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, there’s a pond within 10 miles of 80 percent of the U.S. population. You can locate these mini-duck habitats in several ways. Drive backcountry roads and stop to talk with farmers and mail carriers, or place a call to the local game warden or wildlife biologist. Using topographic maps and Google Earth is also a great way to locate small neglected duck waters.
Focus on ponds isolated from human traffic. The more you locate, the better the odds one will hold ducks on any given day.
Besides all-weather ponds, check out low spots near rivers that overflow during heavy rains and hold water for a while. I’ve had superb hunting on areas where the Shenandoah River spilled over into farm fields during heavy rains or snow-melt. Also check out places where beavers have dammed up small creeks.
Two basic strategies work well for these waters — jump shooting or waiting for the birds to come to you.
Jump Shooting — This is one of the most exciting tactics for pond ducks, since it entails a stalking and fast-paced shooting. If possible, scout from a distance with binoculars and try to see if birds are present, how many, and where they’re located. Look over the topography to see where ditches, hills or brushy vegetation will allow the closest stalk.
Your goal should be to get within 35 yards or less of the birds for good jump shooting. As you stalk, keep a low profile and move silently. Coming up behind the dam is often the best approach.
Two hunters can stalk together if you know the location of the birds. If the pond is larger and you don’t know exactly where the ducks are, it’s best to move in from two different locations. Be aware of where your partner is, though, for safety reasons.
When a flock of ducks suddenly rises up, it’s important to force yourself to select one target. Once you drop that bird, then pick out another duck.
A good retriever helps to collect the birds. If you don’t have one, bring waders or a rod-and-reel with a treble-hook lure to retrieve birds.
A second tactic used for ponds involves waiting for the birds to come to you. Either get in before daylight and await the ducks’ return, or flush them off without shooting and wait for them to come back. With either approach, the technique is basically the same. You’re relying on the appeal of that resting area to bring in the birds.
If you find ducks on the water, flush them subtly, in small groups. You don’t want to totally scare them, just worry them a bit. That way they’ll return in small flocks that offer extended shooting.
You can set out 6-12 decoys if you choose, but often I’ve simply waited by the pond in some brush or a makeshift blind and had birds pour back in by the dozens.
If you’ve set up on a pond before dawn, ducks will usually come pitching in at first light. If you flush birds off during the day, expect to wait 5-60 minutes before they return. Of course they won’t always come back. That’s the gamble you take with this tactic.
When the ducks do come back to these small bodies of water, they’ll circle warily at first. But soon enough, you’ll hear that exhilarating rush of wings beating the cold winter air, then watch transfixed as they pitch down confidently into shooting range. It’s one of the sweetest of all waterfowling experiences. And you can enjoy it for free on ponds and potholes.
Gear for Pond Hunts
• 12-20 gauge shotgun, improved-cylinder or modified, 2-4 shot.
• Camouflage from head to toe.
• Waders, retriever or rod-and-reel with treble hook lure.
• Decoys & calls — optional.
• 7-10 power binoculars.
Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.