I love hunting dogs. I’ve been around them my entire life and have had three myself. Unfortunately, I’ve had bad luck with them. My first dog, a beautiful yellow Labrador, would hurl himself into the water with reckless abandon, retrieved decoys, balls, and even brought me live rabbits and grouse from the woods. He was a retrieving machine. But he was gun-shy to the point where a car backfiring 10 blocks away would send him into hiding for hours. My second dog was fine with gun shots. As far as he was concerned, I might as well have been calling him a good boy for all his reaction to a blast. But he was the weirdest Labrador I have ever known, because that dog didn’t like to swim. He would wade, but the moment his paws weren’t touching bottom, he’d retreat to the shallows in panic. My third dog seems to have potential, but he’s only about a year old and hasn’t had a chance to go out hunting yet. So until he’s ready I’ll continue to hunt waterfowl as I have since I was 10 years old: dogless.
Hunting ducks and geese is a challenging activity, but doing it without a furry companion to pick up the slack is even more difficult. The fact is, though, that man was successfully hunting waterfowl long before he ever welcomed wolves to his cave-side fires. I often liken it to trying to do stand-up comedy without writing your jokes first. You can pull it off, but you might have to get a little bit creative and keep a few jewels in your back pocket. The hunting locations you choose have to be more meticulously studied and you’ll have to invest in extra equipment, but waterfowling without a dog can be done and done well.
The first thing you’ll need when going after ducks and geese without a dog is a good pair of waders. Regardless of whether you’re hunting from a blind or a boat, chances are you’re going to have to get in the water at some point. They’re a good investment to make even if you DO have a dog, simply for their protection. Waders help keep you dry, add an extra layer of insulation, and can be used if you plan on going fishing. The thing about waders, though: You need to be willing to spend a bit of money on them. Going cheap with waders is never a good idea because they will inevitably start to leak or tear, ensuring you’ll have a cold, wet, and otherwise miserable day. So invest in a solid pair, one that can stand up to punching through brush, slogging through beaver bogs, and T-boning yourself as you jump over gunwales.
The second thing you should invest in—or even better, make—is a retriever handline. No matter where you hunt or how careful you are, be it because of deep water or impassable terrain, if you hunt waterfowl without a dog, a bird will eventually fall where you can’t get to it. What you’ll need is a few yards of light rope (I prefer parachute cord) and a large treble hook. You can buy these online but most of them are expensive and a bit too heavy, tending to sink floating birds where they can get tangled in debris underwater. So I prefer to make my own hooks. They don’t have to be anything fancy; in fact, they should be simple and inexpensive. That way, if you lose or break one, it’s not a big deal.
I start by buying a pack of large fishing hooks—5/0 or larger. Then I remove the barbs (essential!) and line up three of them together in the shape of a treble hook. Using a light-gauge wire, which not only holds the hooks together but gives the rig a bit more weight, I’ll wrap the hooks from the bottom of the eyelets down to the top of the shanks. Finish the treble hook off with a layer of duct tape over the wire, tie it to the end of the rope, and bang—you’re done. Whenever a duck or goose falls where you can’t wade out to get it, simply pull out the handline and toss the hook over the bird to pull it in. An extendable decoy retriever can work well for this, too, but takes up more space.
A duck boat
Choosing a hunting location when hunting without a dog can be a convoluted process. You want an area where there are a lot of ducks and geese moving through, but you don’t want a place with deep water where you won’t be able to get to your downed birds. Things get easier if you have a boat. A boat gives you a distinct advantage because you can get to a lot of places where hunters can’t walk to reach, and they of course make retrieving birds a heck of a lot easier. There are a couple of ways to hunt from a boat. The first and probably easier method is to simply anchor up along a bank edge with some cover and a good view of the sky. Set up your decoys. If you have a brightly colored boat you’ll want to conceal it a bit. Again, you don’t need anything fancy. I usually drape my drift boat in a couple of cheap camouflage tarps and stick a few woven reeds to the sides. Once you’re in position, hunker down and simply wait for the birds to come by.
The second way to hunt from a boat is by jump shooting. This works best on small rivers or streams but can be done on a pond or lake. This entails rowing or paddling slowly along the water with your shotgun near at hand. Keep your eyes up and you head swiveling for either flying birds or flocks on the water. It’s a fun way to hunt because at any second a duck or goose can soar over you into range or explode from the water in front of you, giving you a chance to drop the oars and bring your gun into action. Remember to be sporting and only shoot the birds that are in flight, not the ones paddling around on the water. In some places doing so is illegal and in all places it’s looked upon as dirty pool.
If you don’t have a dog OR a boat, then your success as a waterfowler really depends on your chosen hunting location. Generally you have to avoid the bigger rivers, lakes, and duck ponds those with dogs and boats would normally hunt, instead concentrating your efforts on spots that will be easier to traverse on foot. If you’re going for geese, cornfields are always a good option. Set up a blind or simply lie still in the middle of the field with some decoys and wait for birds to fly in to feed on the corn. Swamps and flooded timber almost always hold ducks and are easy places to find cover. Remember to think outside the box and go to places other hunters normally wouldn’t. One of my favorite duck-hunting spots in the world is a hardwood ridge that runs between a thick swamp and a reservoir. There’s a shallow creek that flows between the creek and the reservoir. I’ll set up under cover of the trees along the creek and pick off birds as they fly between the two larger bodies of water. You’d look at that spot and never even think about ducks, but it’s easily the best duck-hunting spot I’ve ever found.
Dogs are great. They make fantastic companions, wonderful pets, and when trained right are huge assets in the field. But not everyone wants a dog, can afford a dog, or has time to train a dog. Or they can be like me and end up with a couple of defective ones. Whatever your reason, not having a dog should never stop you from chasing ducks and geese. The real mark of a good hunter is their ability to be successful in the field no matter the situation, and a good waterfowler should adapt to whatever comes flying their way.