Athens Review, Athens, Texas

January 5, 2013

Matt Williams: Finding that perfect duck

Knowing the rules can guide you with a good hunt and a poor one

Matt Williams
Athens Daily Review

Athens — The chilly blast of winter weather that raced across Texas over the Christmas holidays was hopefully a teaser of more good things to come for Texas duck hunters. With several more weeks remaining in the second split of the 2012-13 season, waterfowlers would surely appreciate more of the nasty stuff — much more it — as they head down the home stretch of what was originally forecast to be one of the most promising seasons in a long time.

I don't know how your duck season has gone so far, but judging from the hunters I have spoken with, it has been about as spotty as a new born fawn.

Some hunters have enjoyed outstanding shoots, particularly those with access to well-managed properties with limited competition. Others have experienced red hot shoots one day, ice cold the next. A few have gotten burned repeatedly, some so badly that they may have already hung up their waders until next season.

Brad Smythe has experienced the good, bad and ugly of Texas duck hunting many times through the years. A native of Longview, Smythe grew up hunting lakes and river bottoms across northeast Texas before relocating to Rockport in 1991.

Located along the middle Texas coast, Rockport is a duck hunter's paradise that attracts thousands of wintering waterfowl each year. I have seen blue skies around the quaint coastal community go black with red heads, pintails, wigeon and other species more than once.

Smythe ran guided hunting/fishing trips for the The Nature Conservancy for about three years and he liked it. So much that he decided to launch his own guide business in 1994.

The business name — Web Foot Guide Service — says it all. You might say Smythe has been hunting and fishing happily ever after since.

I recently caught up with the veteran guide and asked him to share some duck hunting tips that might give East Texas waterfowlers a leg up as the current season heads into the final weeks. Here is what he had to say:

• Scouting: Smythe says scouting is a big key in East Texas, especially for the guy who is limited to hunting on public water.

“There is no substitute for it,” he says. “The hunting in that part of the country is very dependent on getting weather to constantly bring in new flights of birds. And a lot of the public stuff gets hammered so hard that when you do get some new birds down they usually don't stick around for very long. You might get a good shoot on them one time and then they move.

“The later the season gets, the more time you have to spend scouting in that country — mornings or afternoons. That's nothing more than getting out and watching bird flights and learning where they are moving.”

If you do discover a group of birds, the guide says it would not be wise to disturb them. Instead, he suggests watching the birds for a while to see what they are doing and how they are acting.

“That can tell you what type of habitat they are sitting in, what the water depth might be and what they might be feeding on,” he said. “It will also give you an idea of what to look for in other areas.”

• Friends with the Wind: Wind direction and velocity can play vital roles in duck hunting success. As a rule, ducks like to fly into the wind when landing. For this reason, is usually a good idea for hunters to position their blinds and decoy spreads so the wind will be at their backs. However, Smythe says there are times when it can pay to go against the grain.

“Most duck hunters think they always need the wind at their backs to kill ducks, but that isn't always the case,” he said. “Try hunting with the wind in your face and you might be surprised at how well you'll do. I'm not talking about 15-20 m.p.h. winds. I'm talking about a light wind that just puts a slight ripple the water. The ripple will make your decoys appear much more active than if they are sitting out there motionless on a slick surface, which is what you will get with a light wind at your back. The birds will decoy much better. I've seen it work countless times.”

• Light Wind Spreads: Smythe prefers loose decoy spread over a tight one in unfavorable light winds. “And I'm not afraid set some of them out of gun range, either,” he said. “This will make the birds slide into you, then towards the decoys. It's a trick I use down here on coast quite a bit.”

• Go Natural on Blinds: All those pop-up blinds decorated with the newest in camo patterns are nice, but given the choice Smythe says he had rather go natural every time.

“Try to get a little creative with your blinds, especially if you are hunting around a bunch of open water with plenty of public shoreline available,” he said. “Build your blinds out of what is natural to the area you are hunting instead of using what everybody else is using,” he said.

• Stay Low: Ducks have incredibly sharp vision. They can spot a bald face, human outlines, boats and other things that look out of place along an otherwise desolate shoreline from a considerable distance away. The more things you can do to disguise yourself out there, the better.

Smythe says one of the best ways to accomplish this is to keep as low a profile in blind as possible, preferably by sitting on small tubs or buckets, or actually laying down on the ground, until somebody calls the shot.

“Where you build the blind can be a big help, too,” he said. “If you  know there are birds in the area, look for a place where there is a higher clump of ground behind where you will be setting up. You won't appear to stick up as much. Utilizing little things like that can be big help.”

• Spread It Out: Smythe says how you position a decoy spread can a times make a big difference in how many birds will actually commit, especially on heavily pressured water late in the season. “A lot of guys set up tight groups on either side and leave a big hole in the middle,” Smythe said. “But sometimes you might need to try something different. Don't be afraid to make a big wide spread with 60-70 decoys that is littered with holes throughout the whole thing.

“I open my spreads up big; sometimes it may be 50 yards to the outside edge of the decoys. But the spread will be so loose they'll still cross it. They won't land on edge, they'll actually come on inside the spread.”

Matt Williams is a freelance writer based in Nacogdoches. He can be reached by e-mail, mattwilliams@netdot.com.