At first glimpse, their tactics and techniques may seem somewhat unorthodox, but doing things like they did in the simpler days and simpler ways of yesteryear can translate to an eminently enjoyable experience and a meaningful object lesson in waterfowling.
It's a style of hunting that was commonplace in my younger years, and those who knew a few simple tricks accounted for their fair share of ducks, not to mention the occasional goose.
These techniques are well suited for waterfowling in South Carolina. Doing things the old-fashioned way involves a minimal amount of simple equipment and no need for elaborate blinds, decoy spreads, or the sometimes overwhelming paraphernalia association with hunting ducks or geese.
Instead, these poor man's tactics require nothing more than waders over suitable clothing (good camo or earth-tone attire that blends in with your surroundings is a must), a gun and shells, ideally a canine companion, and, in certain situations a canoe or johnboat.
Let's look at four distinct approaches in some detail, remembering that each has the potential to produce waterfowl for the game bag in meaningful numbers.
Paddle 'em up
Across almost all of South Carolina, creeks, sloughs, and small rivers draw ducks like a downed dove attracts fire ants. Most hunters overlook these waterways for the simple reason that they can be navigated, - if at all - only by small, shallow-draft watercraft. Yet they are tailor-made for those willing to paddle a canoe or push-pole a johnboat.
As a rule, such duck havens twist and turn this way and that, with every new bend and each change of direction carrying the fruitful promise of waterfowl scrambling for the sky as they suddenly remember an urgent appointment in the next county.
This approach is best done by two hunters, although a fellow who is quick on the uptake and skilled with a paddle (especially paddling with one hand) can manage it alone. When done in tandem, the gunner sits in the front of the boat or canoe, gun at the ready, and gets in some jump shooting anytime ducks get up within range - while his buddy maneuvers the craft.
Equality of opportunity comes through switching positions periodically - perhaps after a pre-determined number of shots or after passage of a given amount of time.
The solo paddler needs to be able to drop the paddle immediately and get his gun mounted in a hurry. Experience will show that it is highly advisable to have a hole bored in the end of the paddle to hold a loop of rope that is attached to the craft. Otherwise, haste will likely lead to the waste (and possibly a real problem) of a paddle floating in the water just out of reach.
The key to getting shots is keeping quiet. That means silent paddling or poling (some outdoor carpeting in the bottom of the watercraft can help quite a bit) and clinging close to the side of the stream which best conceals your approach to turns.
Similarly, the boat needs to be painted in camouflage or earth tones, and sometimes keeping a low profile or even having a bit of netting on the side can be advantageous. In the case of canoes, be sure to have one with a good-sized keel. The added stability will be welcome at times of sudden moves, such as the need to swing on a fleeing duck.
When hunting this way, don't overlook any backwaters or sloughs that seem even marginally penetrable. They richly merit exploration, for this is precisely the kind of habitat where hard-pressured ducks like to laze and graze as they idle away the middle of the day.
One final consideration needs to be kept in mind. Allow more time than you think you will need with your first explorations of new water. Such trips should be leisurely progresses, not hasty exercises in paddling. You never know when you will have to portage around log jams or a tree across the creek.
Participate in one "idiot roundup" - as the wife of a good friend described an outing that found her husband, Roy Turner, and another buddy, Mike Jennings, well short of their take-out point when darkness fell - and you will appreciate the importance of allowing enough time to reach your destination as shooting hours come to an end. They got back at close to midnight, with panicked families about ready to turn to the authorities for help.
Walk 'em up: Part I
Along with floating streams, it is also possible to walk their banks or even wade along shallow ones. In effect, you are doing what the still-hunter out for deer does, and at times, the still-hunting can turn to stalking if you spot or hear distant ducks.
A good pair of binoculars can help, allowing you to scan distant pools, and obviously, you want to listen carefully for duck conversations that alert you to their whereabouts.
Whenever possible, it is better to wade than walk the shoreline, mainly because the former approach enables the hunter to keep a lower profile and utilize natural cover to maximum advantage. Just be sure you know the depth of the stream, especially in murky situations, before you get too adventurous. A soaking can be uncomfortable at best and downright dangerous at worst.
Whether you wade or ease along the bank of a stream, stealth is of great importance. In still water, even an unnatural wake can alert ducks, and rest assured you will be seen when still out of range should you persist in rambling along on high ground rather than stooping, creeping, or even crawling.
More often than not, as is the case when paddling, your shooting opportunities will come when you round a bend in the stream and surprise ducks at close range.
Occasionally, though not too often, you can get a second chance at ducks jumped this way. If they aren't certain about the exact nature of the danger that frightened them, sometimes they circle back and offer a passing shot. It's certainly worth waiting, carefully hidden and absolutely still, for a few minutes.
Speaking of them circling back, keep an eye on the sky as you ease along. Most of your shots will be at ducks you have jumped, but occasionally, an alert hunter will spot waterfowl winging his way as they follow the stream. When this happens, the best thing you can do is freeze immediately. It is normally movement, as opposed to your profile, that gives you away to ducks in this situation. This also offers an obvious argument for utilizing trees, whenever possible, to mask your approach as you ease along.
Walk 'em up: Part II
Taking shank's mare to ducks found in ponds and potholes, along with ducks or geese grazing in recently cut corn or similar circumstances, involves somewhat different approaches.
In most cases, you've got to be willing to stoop to conquer. In order to get within shooting range of ducks resting or feeding on farm ponds or other isolated bodies of water, you need to utilize whatever cover is available.
Where a dam has been built to create the pond, it is often possible to approach from below it and peek up over the dam, ready to shoot when ducks take wing. In other cases, cattails, willows, or similar vegetation may let you slip up unobserved. Similarly, if you see Canadas feeding in a distant field, try to figure out a way-maybe a drainage ditch or a wooded edge - to sneak within range.
The key is to keep out of sight until you get as close as possible. That may literally mean crawling on hands and knees or even slithering along like a snake, but it can be worth it if you get some shooting. Be keenly aware of the fact that as soon as you show yourself, or once ducks smell a rat, things will happen in a hurry.
A final possibility, one that more closely resembles hunting over decoys from a blind, involves selecting a prime spot for pass shooting. The observant duck hunter can pick out favored flight patterns as ducks go to and from roosting areas or choice feeding spots, or there may be sites where they just seem to fly past regularly.
For example, islands in the middle of larger streams or the points of peninsulas sticking out in large bodies of water can be fine places for pass shooting. Similarly, it is possible, especially on cloudy or overcast days when ducks return to roosting areas during legal shooting hours, to get excellent action at dusk near a roost without actually disturbing it.
It takes good knowledge of duck habits and habitat preferences, not to mention first-rate wingshooting skills, to score effectively when dealing with hard-flying ducks on a mission to a distant destination. But in common with the other methods of hunting described above, this was a traditional way to deal with ducks. Try these offbeat tactics, perhaps interspersing them with more commonplace ones, and chances are you will add heft to your game bag. You will also enjoy some of the ways folks hunted when they didn't enjoy the luxury of boats driven by 100-horsepower outboards or heated blinds.
Some oddball tips
* Calling has little place in the types of waterfowling described here, but there is one notable exception. You can use sometimes use a call to locate garrulous ducks - much the way a turkey hunter uses a locator call to find a gobbler - and then, having pinpointed them, commence your sneak attack.
* An old quail hunter's adage suggests "always start cold," and the same thing applies to this style of duck hunting. Whether you are paddling, walking, crawling, or wading, there's a lot more exercise involved than sitting in a blind. Keep that in mind when it comes to attire.
* If you are walking, a hunting coat with a roomy game pocket can be a real advantage. It's easier to store ducks, leaving your hands free, than to carry them in one hand or have them dangling from a game cord.
While not an absolute must, a staunch canine companion is as valuable an ally as he is in a blind. He'll find downed ducks that fall on land readily, get those that end up in water where you can't venture in waders, and often alert you, through "body language," to the presence of waterfowl.
However, good training and behavior are essential, for a wayward or unruly dog can flip a canoe, spook ducks, or otherwise spoil the show. You want a dog that stays close and heels immediately on command, and if the retriever is light colored, consider utilizing some canine camouflage garb.
Editor's Note: Veteran outdoor writer Jim Casada has written or edited more than 40 books on various aspects of the American hunting scene. For details on his works and how to order them, or to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit his web site (http://www.jimcasadaoutdoors.com).