Public vs. Private Land Duck Hunting

I’ve had the fortune and pleasure to experience two distinct forms of waterfowl hunting. The difference lies in the type of land we as hunters have access to: private and public. Here’s a glimpse into my experiences on both.

Private Hunting Lease – Texas (2015) – One of my first hunting seasons

Three successive shotgun blasts reverberated across the water. Two winged figures fell from the sky.

One dropped at a 90-degree angle from its prior trajectory straight down to the water. The other descended from its flight path at a 45-degree glide, landing a few dozen feet to the right of the decoy flock it had intended on joining. It began paddling off as a yellow lab, at the command of his owner, leaped from his makeshift reed blind into the water with a resounding splash! He bounded across the pond in pursuit.

A few minutes later, the seasoned pup proudly trotted back to our blind, bird in mouth. He circled a stoutly, bearded man toting a shadowgrass-pattern Remington over one shoulder, his aforementioned owner. The dog reluctantly relinquished the feathered possession in exchange for praises of “Good Boy.”

Two beautiful ducks were now tucked away in our blind not 5 minutes after legal shooting time – a blue-wing teal drake and a mottled drake. The sun had just begun to rise over the horizon, illuminating the Texas plains as far as the eye could see. The pond in front of us shimmered with the morning’s first light, and a soft breeze sent ripples across the water, creating motion in our decoy spread.

The past hour had been spent in perfect silence as we listened to the sounds of nature awakening – feathers rustling as birds grew restless in their roost, frogs chirping from atop their lily pads a stone’s throw away, and the occasional splash of either fish or gators surfacing somewhere across the pond.

This is the symphony every waterfowl hunter knows well. We wake hours before the sun, trek in pitch black to the blind, set our decoys, and wait patiently whilst our surroundings come to life.

As the sky grew brighter, more ducks abandoned their roosts and took flight. I was one of four hunters sitting on the DU-sponsored pond that opening morning. The ranch had conveyed optimistic reports of pre-season numbers, which meant we were all ripe with anticipation. Our immediate luck certainly suggested we had a fruitful morning ahead.

The day progressed into a gorgeous, sunny Saturday, which for hunters often means unproductive conditions. Yet, that didn’t persuade the ducks to stay grounded that day. Teal buzzed the decoys at lightning fast speeds, dancing acrobatically mid-air. Big ducks cupped up over the spread, oblivious to our presence a mere 25 yards away. Our targets were plentiful and fearless.

In two short hours, we were headed back to the lodge with 4 limits in tow. Our bag was a mix of blue-wing, mallards, widgeon, gadwall, and shoveler.

Public Land – Washington State (October 2018) – A bit more seasoned hunter

I now live in Washington state and hunt birds primarily in state-owned wildlife areas, a sharp contrast to the curated flocks of a private lease. Admittedly, not all private land is as productive or maintained as the property I had access to as a nascent waterfowl hunter, however private land is innately less pressured, lending to overall higher success rates.

October 13th was general season opener for ducks this year in WA state, and I had my plans laid out for months prior. Even more exciting, my opening day partner was an avid pheasant sportsman who had only been on one [unsuccessful] duck hunt before. I’d promised a good day in the blind, so my fingers were crossed that the ducks would deliver.

We headed out to my favorite spot on the western Washington coast. The .6 mile trek across the marsh, ladened with decoys, shotguns, layers and blind bags is not an easy one, but the view from the blind once the sun rises is worth the endeavor.

At the time of our arrival, the wetland immediately in front of us was nothing more than a mud flat with a few shallow channels of water. High tide wouldn’t be until 9am, but with legal hunting time a couple hours before then, we had arrived plenty early to set a smattering of decoys in the existing water and hunker down in the blind with our thermos’ of coffee and hot chocolate awaiting the glow of shooting light.

Sure enough, by the time the clock struck 7:02, we’d already heard flurries of feathers in the air. The first two ducks that swirled above our light spread in the dimly lit fog were lucky, as shots from both of us sprayed and missed their targets. But, we had our first bird down not long after that, and the morning flew by in what seemed like seconds.

Four hours we spent in the blind, and four ducks were harvested between the two of us (technically five but one of them dove, and we never were able to find him, which is the unfortunate nature of hunting without a dog.)

Two birds a piece was certainly not a limit, and some hunters might be disappointed with that draw. Yet, I felt as fulfilled as the times I harvested limits in record time on private land. Perhaps it was the joy of knowing I put a new waterfowl hunter on to their first duck. Or, maybe it was just the happiness of enjoying some of my favorite scenery and witnessing flocks in their early season migration.

But, I also give credit to the respect for wildlife that has grown in me as a public land owner.

There’s never a guarantee when you return to a hunting spot in a new year. Habitats erode, areas are over-pressured, food sources change, or land ownership could be reallocated. Then, you’re back to square one in seeking a new favorite locale that the birds have also taken a liking to. This uncertainty holds a sense of accomplishment and reward for those who put in the time and effort to learn their hunting grounds and the patterns of waterfowl throughout the season.

Private or Public?

At this point in my life, I relish the ability to challenge myself as a public land hunter, however, as a waterfowl enthusiast, I cannot speak more highly of the conservation efforts that many private leases undertake to ensure their property can support an abundance of ducks come fall, and throughout the year for local species.

Do I have a personal preference? Well, that one’s up to my wallet for now.

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