Waterfowl hunting has a reputation for being expensive, but hunters don’t need to shell out tons of money on a boat or a truckload of waterfowl gear to be successful. That’s especially true in a state with as much public land as Idaho.
Jump shooting is a low-cost option for public land hunts, but it is not the only one. The classic method of hunting over decoys is a good option for public land waterfowl hunters. The excitement that comes with watching ducks work a decoy spread (circling them to see if it is safe to land), the interactive component of calling and close shooting provide an experience that many waterfowl hunters live for.
Public land hunters may have to work a little harder to set themselves up for success when hunting over decoys, including dedicating time for scouting, and being willing to put in extra effort to get away from most of the hunting pressure.
But for those who are willing to make the commitment, there are many walk-in public hunting spots scattered throughout the state that can produce good waterfowl hunting – and it doesn’t take hundreds of decoys. Idaho waterfowlers can put together a successful hunt with nothing more than what they carry in on their backs, including:
• A shotgun
• Idaho hunting license
• Migratory bird (HIP) permit
• Nontoxic shotgun shells
• Federal migratory bird stamp
• Six to 24 decoys
• Camouflage clothing
• Duck call(s)
Eye in the sky, boots on the ground
By finding and setting decoys in a place where ducks already want to be, hunters can eliminate the need for a large decoy spread that might be needed to attract birds from far away.
With a smartphone or a computer, you have everything you need to start looking for a potential waterfowl spot. The first step is finding water, and when walking in with decoys, it pays to think small. Using Fish and Game’s Hunt Planner or some sort of GPS mapping tool, hunters should scour smaller rivers and streams for public access points, and search for potentially overlooked pockets of water — creeks, sloughs, ponds, etc. — on all different kinds public property, including those that are more traditionally associated with upland game hunting.
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Don’t ignore traditional waterfowl spots including larger rivers, reservoirs, wildlife refuges and Fish and Game’s Wildlife Management Areas and habitat areas. For these, try to identify spots where there is likely to be less hunting pressure, such as areas inaccessible by boat or off the beaten path.
The Snake River and its reservoirs also provide some prime access to waterfowl hunting for southern Idaho.
Once you’ve compiled a list of potential locations, it’s time to get out and see what it looks like from ground level, and more important, whether the ducks like it.
Observe your potential spots frequently to see if ducks are using them, both before and throughout the season. While not necessary, a decent pair of binoculars makes spotting far-off ducks a lot easier.
After you confirm ducks are using a location, study it closely to pattern the birds and determine when they are arriving and departing. That might be at first light, but it could be also be mid-morning (which means a couple hours of extra sleep and warmer temperatures), or in the afternoon or early evening.
In any case, you’ll want to have your decoys out and be ready to hunt before they start pouring in. Putting in this work ahead of a hunt can minimize the amount of time you are staring at empty skies, and allow you to plan a more efficient and productive hunt.
Hunters shouldn’t put all their effort into one location because it does not take much hunting pressure to discourage ducks from using it. This is especially true of smaller waters. Work to find and pattern ducks at several locations, avoid over-pressuring any single spot. Continue to scout various spots throughout the season, and above all else, be adaptable and mobile. For the best results, public land hunters need to be able to adjust their strategy based on where the birds are, and where other hunters are not.
Once you’ve tracked down some promising public areas, consider concealment (i.e. is there natural cover, or if you have to build or bring a blind) and be adaptable. Ducks will generally land into the wind, so you will want to set up with the wind at your back if possible. Identify a number of different places you can set up at each location depending on the wind direction.
Think about where you might want to position your decoys. Keep in mind that your decoys should be within effective shotgun range (somewhere around 40 yards). If you are hunting without a dog, you will also want to make sure that the water is shallow enough for you to safely wade, both to set out your decoys, and to retrieve downed birds.
If it’s a spot that you’re likely to find other hunters, consider making a weekday trip if you can. On weekends or holidays, focus your efforts on your more secluded locations.
Another consideration is weather. Earlier in the season, small waters, such as ponds, sloughs and backwaters may be a good option, but may freeze as the temperatures begin dropping, and you will have to shift your focus elsewhere. This is where scouting for a variety of options pays dividends.
Idaho’s varied geography means duck hunting opportunities are different depending where you’re located, but most areas have places where a person can hunt waterfowl, and it doesn’t require a huge commitment of money and gear to be successful.
For more information on where and when to hunt waterfowl, check the Idaho Migratory Game Bird Seasons & Rules brochure online or available at most local sporting goods stores.