Sometimes the biggest challenge in duck hunting is getting into a location where the ducks want to be. This Ridgefield hunt provided a perfect example.
Date: Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015
Location: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Fee Hunt Unit, Blind 18
Conditions: Mostly cloudy, cool, calm
Birds Taken: 2 for 2 hunters (1 mallard hen, 1 ring neck hen)
It was nearly noon on this late October hunt and hunting partner Tim and I watched a flock of a dozen widgeon skirt around our blind about 100 yards out in front of us, crossing right to left and diving in to towards the pond surrounding blind 17, about a quarter mile to the north of us. As they passed I could have sworn I saw one in the flock give me the middle feather as they passed. “Your pond sucks!”
It had become laughable, really, as this was one of 10 or so such flocks to fly by us that morning and completely ignore us, instead making a nearly straight line to blind 17. This last group of widgeon flared just before they reached 17’s pond, circled twice, and continued north.
“I wonder why they didn’t shoot,” I asked Tim. The group in 17 had taken a number of birds in the sky above them, right where these widgeon passed.
“Maybe they’re out of shells,” he said, referencing the refuge’s 25-shell-per-hunter limit.
I crawled out of our pit blind, 18, stood up, and looked out over the marsh. The hunters in 17 were packing up and yet birds were still bombing in to their blind, just as they had all morning, flaring when they saw the hunters scooping up decoys below them.
So it goes with duck hunting. Sometimes you are where the ducks want to be. Sometimes you are not.
A Good Start
Ridgefield can be hit and miss for standby hunts, as it’s not uncommon for 12 or more of the reservation holders to show up for their picks, especially during weekends or “ducky” weather. But on this Thursday, only five of the reservation holders showed up, leaving plenty of quality blinds for the rest of us. And, this was certainly looking like ducky weather to me. Although this day would be partly cloudy and calm, it sat right between two weather systems. It looked like an ideal day for local ducks to move around following one system and for migrating ducks to blow in, right in front of the trailing system.
Our luck was good and we drew the top standby spot and without hesitation I grabbed blind 18. We had hunted this once before with good success, bagging about a dozen birds. I had a good feeling.
We hiked out to the blind and surveyed the water around the blind. It seemed a little low. Water surrounding the island blind looked more like a sparse marsh than a pond. As we starting setting decoys, we chose to create pockets of different species around the blind, out at the far edges of the water, with plenty of lanes for incoming birds. Since the wind was calm we didn’t really need to account for it. Instead, we tried to keep what little open water there was relatively open. We settled down and waited.
A Slow Hunt
At legal shoot time, the hunters in blind 17 let off a long volley of shots and I would not be surprised if all three of them emptied their guns. We waiting and watched. Nothing. During the next 20 minutes we had a few questionable passing shot opportunities, which we resisted save for one. I was, of course, the guilty party. I have a subconscious need to waste three shells first thing in the morning. Tim has the discipline to wait for the best shot. For the most part, anything the flew by us, at least from right to left, kept out of range headed straight for blind 17.
We tried a few things to see if we could get more action. We brushed up the pit blind with some grass and piled up logs to break up our silhouettes. We tried a couple of other decoy combinations, including bringing them in closer to the blind and leaving more open water away from the blind. That brought passing birds closer in, but not close enough. And it did not bring any finishers.
After about an hour we got a hen mallard to drop in close to the blind and took it. Later in the morning, Tim also took a hen ringneck. But on a day when we saw at least 150 birds, those were our only real opportunities. In all I shot five shells and Tim shot two.
Bigger Water Made the Difference
In the end, the birds today really wanted to be at blind 17. On our way out we got a good look at 17, and it had a lot of water around. It’s a pit facing north and surrounded on three sides with a large, open pond. The previous hunters had left with a three-man limit by midday and others were setting up for an afternoon hunt there. They hadn’t even finished putting out their “V” set of decoys before they had flocks of pintails circling them.
My theory is that many of the birds we were seeing on the refuge were moving off the river, perhaps from the coast, for calmer inland waters in front of the incoming weather. They were larger flocks that are used to bigger water and that’s what they seemed to want. Blind 17 was about as big as it got on this day at Ridgefield. Despite the checkout station’s volunteer insisting that water levels were near normal, we drove around and noticed the water around all the blinds looked a little low, in fact very low. (For instance, blind 5 can be an island completely surrounded by water and instead sat on the bank in front of a small, skinny pool.)
At the end of the day,we made adjustments and I don’t think we did anything wrong, we just weren’t in the right spot. But I’d take a long morning in the blind over most other things.