Five veteran hunters share their advice for evading detection by wary waterfowl
By Wade Bourne
It's like a bad record that keeps on playing. Ducks are circling over the blind when a hunter inside decides to peek. The birds see him, and their reaction is quick and obvious. They dig for altitude and disappear over the horizon. Call it the "Bye Bye Birdie Blues."
All of us have sung it at one time or another, because ducks and geese rely on keen vision as a first line of defense against predators, including hunters. Waterfowl are especially adept at spotting movement and seeing detail in low light conditions. A glint here, a fidget there, a shiny shell hull, or some other visual cue may be all it takes to alert them to danger.
To avoid detection, hunters are continually perfecting ways to improve the stealthiness of permanent blinds, boat blinds, pits, layouts, and natural cover.
Following are tips from five veteran waterfowlers who have spent years mastering the art of hiding from the prying eyes of ducks and geese.
Hiding Big, Boxy Blinds in Plain Sight
A few years ago, I wrote an article for this magazine titled "My Ultimate Duck Blind," which chronicled the construction of a hide that my partners and I built in a flooded field in western Kentucky. Making this blind disappear in plain sight was crucial to our success. To do so, we used materials and methods to turn the blind into a "thicket," giving it a natural profile that would not flare circling ducks. We started by spraying the large plywood box blind with olive drab paint. Next we covered it with military camo netting, carefully trimming out the doors and shooting holes. We wrapped the top and sides of the blind in heavy woven wire to provide a means of attaching vegetation. Then we piled on white oak and willow branches, plus various vines and weeds that grew naturally in the river bottom, cinching this vegetation tightly to the wire with plastic zip ties. When we were finished, the blind looked like a big pile of brush.
The blind had some unique finishing touches. We covered its six shooting holes with camo netting and oak brush to break up the open spaces. We also rigged each shooting hole with a camouflaged wire panel that was hinged along the front rail. When we are hunting, we keep these panels propped up, ensuring that working ducks will never see us. Then, when the birds fly into shooting range, we push the panels forward and out of our way as we come up shooting.
To add to the blind's stealth effect, we drove several green metal fence posts at random intervals and distances around the blind. We then tied small precut oak and willow saplings to the posts to make them look like stand-alone trees. In addition, we fashioned a wire tunnel over the dog platform and runway, brushing it heavily to hide our retriever.
The blind still had a boxy profile, so to help round it out, we built curved wire screens on each end. The screens, which were constructed out of metal fence posts, woven wire, and brush, provided extra camo to hide the doors and steps on both ends of the structure. We were careful to leave enough space for hunters to wade between the blind and the screens.
Cloaking Boats in Natural Cover
Boat blinds allow waterfowlers to hunt effectively over water. These crafty vessels also give hunters the mobility to follow ducks as they shift from one area to another. "We hunt a lot in flooded timber, and if the water is too deep to stand in, we'll use a boat blind," says Mike Ward, president of War Eagle Boats in Monticello, Arkansas. "We'll also use a boat blind when we find ducks working a buckbrush pond or the backwaters of a flooded river. The boat not only gets us to where the birds want to be, but also hides us when we get there."
Ward runs and guns in 16- and 17-foot War Eagle johnboats outfitted with Banded's Axe portable blind. "I like this blind because it doesn't stretch the full length of the boat," he says. "Both ends taper down when you pull the camo net over the bow and stern. This presents a more rounded profile, like a beaver hut. I always try to break up any straight lines on my boat blind."
Boat-blind hunters don't have to rely solely on artificial camouflage. "When it's feasible, we always try to set up with the sun at our back," Ward says. "In timber, we'll nestle the boat in some trees so we're in the shadows. Shade is always great natural camouflage. It will help you blend in anywhere."
When hunting in buckbrush or weeds, Ward will shove the boat back into the cover. "We want the boat to look like a bump in the cover. Again, we'd rather be a beaver hut than a box," he says.
Once their boat blind is positioned, Ward and his partners typically cut weeds, vines, and other onsite vegetation. They add this material to the blind to help it blend into the surroundings. Ward also carries a small piece of camo netting to drape over the boat motor. "The whole idea is to go for a soft look," he says. "Again, we cover all the straight lines and hard shapes and try to look as natural as possible. Then we keep our heads down and hold still when ducks are overhead."
Perfecting Pit Blind Camouflage
For decades, Jeff Kerry has hunted from pit blinds in shallow ponds in California's Grasslands near Los Banos. Pintails and wigeon are his main quarry, and he goes to great lengths to elude the sharp eyes and suspicious natures of these birds.
"Our pits are in big open areas, so it's important that they have a low profile," Kerry explains. "When we're putting in a new pit, we push up a shallow island of dirt and then sink the pit in the middle of it. The pits are only four inches above the waterline, so we have to taper shallow dirt aprons around them. This keeps the waves from breaking over and flooding them."
Kerry and his hunting partners camouflage their pits with tule reeds, which grow in patches throughout the Grasslands. "We do this in early fall, before the ponds are flooded. We'll gather up the reeds and tie them in bundles eight to 10 inches around. Then we pile these tule bundles along the edges of the pit. We also lay some tules across the pit to break up the opening and give us some cover to hide under," he says.
In addition, Kerry bundles extra tules for use later in the season, when the cover around his pit starts looking shabby. "We don't want any bare mud showing," he says. "That's not natural where we hunt. And we avoid tramping the reeds into the mud. We try to keep our pit looking like a broken-down tule island."
Kerry is fussy about keeping shell hulls and trash picked up around his pit. "If I can see it, the ducks can see it," he says. Following that same logic, he's also careful about hiding his retriever. "We bury the dog box behind the pit on the prevailing upwind side. Then we camouflage it just like the pit. Many hunters don't think dogs scare ducks, but it certainly can't help to have a dog up and looking around in the wide open."
As a final ploy, Kerry cuts two-foot stakes and punches them into the bottoms of old leaky decoys. He sticks these decoys in the mud near the pit or dog box to create the illusion of live ducks feeding or loafing. "This is just something else we can do to break up the outline of the pit and dog box," he adds.
Blending Layouts into Open Fields
Josh Dokken, creative director for Avery and Banded, grew up hunting Canada geese in corn and soybean fields in Minnesota. He and his buddies hunted from layout blinds during both the early and late seasons. In the process, they developed a highly effective system for disappearing among their decoys in wide-open spaces.
"We would position our layout blinds in the decoys, typically a few yards from our landing hole," Dokken says. "To avoid spooking the birds, we had to camouflage the layouts really well. This helped reduce hard lines, shadows, and other liabilities that would make the blinds look out of place."
Hunting in small groups was crucial to their success. "The more hunters in a spread, the greater the chance of spooking the geese," Dokken says. "So we'd limit the number of hunters to just three or four. In a four-hunter setup, we'd place two blinds side by side. Then we'd put the other two blinds together about 15 or 20 yards to the left or right of the first group. All four hunters would be facing downwind toward the landing hole."
The hunters created a system of sloping burlap panels around each set of blinds to reduce sharp angles and unnatural shadows. They did this by fastening burlap to the top sides of the blinds with zip ties. Next they stretched out the burlap three to five feet from the blind and secured it to the ground with goose decoys on motion stakes. This gave the blinds a tapered contour instead of vertical sides. "Because the blinds were joined in the middle, we'd need to attach the burlap only to the left side of one blind and the right side of the other," Dokken says. "Then we'd slope the fronts and backs of the blinds in a similar fashion."
As a final step, the hunters covered the blinds and burlap panels with cornstalks and bean stubble. "We didn't just pile it on," Dokken explains. "Instead, we'd apply it to match what the rest of the field looked like. We'd also set a few decoys around the blinds to break up any remaining shadows. And our blinds had mesh screens to hide our faces when geese were coming in."
The result of all this effort was a decoy spread with no unnatural humps or other notable features. "Our goal was to make our setup look as natural as possible, especially from overhead. The Canadas typically sailed into our spread with little hesitation."
Making the Most of Natural Cover
The key to bagging ducks and geese is being where they want to be. This often involves scouting to keep up with the birds' movements, then setting up in their feeding and resting spots. More often than not, mobile waterfowlers have to improvise, concealing themselves in whatever cover is available.
Tack Robinson, of Honey Brake hunting lodge in Louisiana, has become an expert at this. The veteran hunter spent more than 20 years working as a videographer for outdoor TV shows. During his far-flung waterfowling adventures, which took him from the U.S. Gulf Coast to Canada's prairie provinces, he learned many tricks for staying hidden in natural cover while birds are working overhead.
"To start with, I always wore outer garments made from lightweight Mossy Oak die-cut leafy camouflage material," Robinson says. "These clothes provided a 3-D effect similar to that of a ghillie suit, only not as bulky. I'd cover myself from head to toe in that stuff. Then I'd nestle into whatever cover was available, hunker down, and keep still. The birds never knew I was there until I came up shooting—sometimes with the camera, other times with a shotgun."
This concealment scheme worked in every environment and situation Robinson encountered. "It didn't matter where I was or what natural cover was available," Robinson says. "As long as I followed several basic camouflage principles, I could truly become a part of the landscape. I didn't need a blind or a pit to hide in. Instead, I just analyzed the environment and adapted to it, and ducks and geese would never see me until they were hanging over the decoys."
One key to this adaptation was looking for the thickest cover he could find. Overhead cover was important, and so were shadows cast by trees, bushes, brush, reeds, undercut banks, and other natural structures that go a long way toward hiding hunters from cautious waterfowl.
Robinson adds that hunting in natural cover means being as discreet as possible. "You need to develop almost a sniper's mindset," he says. "You learn when to move and when not to. It's best to hunt alone or with one other person. You don't want anything shiny. You do everything you can to blend into nature and go unnoticed."