Success on public waterfowl hunting areas is not guaranteed. It's not simply a case of throwing a few decoys into the nearest pothole and waiting for the birds to fall all over themselves trying to decoy.
Hunters who want to get the most out of the public areas find they need to actually work at it. Access to the areas may be monetarily inexpensive, but success does have a cost. Hunters must invest considerable time, effort and skill to best take advantage of the opportunities.
Each of the public waterfowl hunting areas on the coast is different, with slightly different habitat, regulations, means of access and duck populations. But a few general tactics serve hunters well on all of them.
Some of those general tactics and other advice culled from three decades of hunting ducks on public areas include:
The main avenue to success on coastal public waterfowl hunting areas is familiarity with the place. No one can expect to boat or walk into a new area, particularly in the dark of a winter morning, and expect to just stumble upon the perfect pothole.
Pre-hunt scouting is absolutely necessary. Knowing an area-learning its intricacies, the lay of the land, how to reach certain places, how tides affect access, etc.-above all other things determines how successful a public lands hunter will be.
What to look for when scouting?
A place to hunt, of course.
The best ponds on public areas seldom are the ones offering the easiest access. First, the "easy" ponds are hunted hard, and birds tend to shy from them after the first week or two of the season. Second, they attract a crowd.
When scouting, try to find isolated ponds relatively far from any easy access. Those ponds seldom get heavy pressure, and because they aren't close to another pond, hunters on them aren't prone to get crowded by another group.
The best way to locate those ponds is to obtain a good map of the area before scouting. All the refuges and state WMAs offer maps of the areas. Some even have aerial photos in the check station or headquarters. Look hard and take notes.
Just any pond, isolated or not, isn't necessarily a "glory hole." Ducks have to have a reason to go there.
Some marsh ponds are located along traditional flyways and almost always have a fair number of ducks trading near-yes, ducks have regular travel routes, just like other animals. But unless a pond offers something to hold their attention, ducks aren't very prone to work a piece of water.
Usually, food is the best attractant.
The absolute-best marsh ponds are the ones with growths of native aquatic vegetation. Look for ponds with thick growths of wigeon grass, spikerush, smartweed, and other aquatics heavily used by ducks. Find one, particularly one isolated from other ponds, and you're in business.
But be aware that growth of aquatic vegetation can vary wildly from year to year, depending on weather and water conditions. Ponds in some sections of a marsh seem to produce more vegetation in dry years while others produce more duck food in wet years.
It was food-a profusion of wigeon grass-that made that pond mentioned at the top of this piece so attractive to ducks. The next season, that same pond produced almost no wigeon grass, and hunting there was pitiful. But a pond a little farther north and west of that one produced a bumper crop of spikerush and smartweed. It was the "glory hole" that season.
Try to learn more than one public hunting area.
Many of the areas are open only a few days a week, but managers try to stagger open days of nearby areas so that hunters have some place to go every day of the week.
Also, by scouting at least two areas, hunters have options should weather or other conditions move birds out of the primary hunting area.
A boat may be the most important piece of equipment a hunter can have when using public lands.
While it's possible for boatless waterfowlers to take advantage of the public hunting opportunities, those without some sort of watercraft are severely limited in their options. Walk-in hunting is available on only a few of the areas, and being afoot seriously restricts a person's ability to get away from the crowd.
While canoes and pirogues can be very effective on some areas, the most utilitarian vessel is a wide, aluminum flatbottom skiff 14 to 18 feet long pushed by a 15- or 30-horsepower outboard.
The shallow-draft flatbottom can navigate the thin water of low-tide sloughs common on the coastal marshes; plus, the beamy craft can handle the considerable load of decoys, dogs and other gear associated with waterfowl hunting. Too, the aluminum boats can take the beating of rough-and-tumble hunting.
There is no such thing as too many decoys.
Most hunters on public areas use no more than two dozen blocks. Double that, and hunters double the visibility and effectiveness of their spread.
Yes, it's more work to haul those extra bags. But it proves the point that those willing to work harder than the next guy are the ones who see the best results on public areas.
While mallard decoys work well, it's a good idea to include many drake pintail decoys in a spread. Pintails are a common bird on Texas coastal areas (they're much more common than mallards), plus the white on the "sprig" decoys shows up much better than the drab of hens, making them more easily spotted by overhead ducks.
While hunters want their decoys to be seen by approaching ducks, they don't want those birds to spot the crouching hunters.
If there's a most-common mistake made by waterfowlers on public lands (other than incessant and hideous blowing of duck calls), it's not taking concealment seriously.
Because regulations governing use of public waterfowl hunting areas prohibit construction of permanent blinds, hunters must use natural cover to conceal themselves. Some pond edges offer scant cover, and hunters wanting to set up there must haul temporary blinds.
But many potholes and ponds on coastal marshes are rimmed with thick, waist-high growths of cordgrass. That cordgrass can make a perfect hide, but only if hunters are careful to not destroy the cover by wallowing out a huge hole in it.
The best tactic is to pick a thick stand of cordgrass on the upwind side of the pond (remember, ducks land into the wind), then very carefully burrow into the cover, making a hole just big enough in which to sit flat on the soggy ground. (Chest-high waders are required gear.)
Hunters burrowed in the grass need to make certain there is enough high cover on their east side that, when the sun rises, it will keep them in shadows, making it harder for approaching ducks to spot the hidden hunter.
By remaining still and taking care not to destroy cover when entering and exiting the burrow, a good clump of cordgrass can serve as an effective blind throughout the season.
And if hunters pick the right ponds-if they scout, learn what ducks are looking for and are willing to work harder and hunt smarter than the next guy-they'll find the public waterfowling areas along the Upper Texas Coast can provide experiences that money can't buy.
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