Even in a good season conditions change, so does the behaviour of game birds and the best way to improve your bag is to understand what is happening. Peter Warner and Sav Mangion explain how some simple tools and burning a bit of fuel can save you time and effort on hunt days and set you on the path to a full bag.
Gippslanders have it easy in many respects, with so much duck habitat compressed into the one region of Victoria.
Peter Warner has been just about everywhere over the past 50 years but he still puts in the effort to scout wetlands, even the ones he knows like the back of his hand.
“As a group we probably hunt four or five days a week depending on the season,” he said.
“We would go out three times a week scouting: for every three hours we spend in the hide we would have spent one hour just looking about.”
In Gippsland that translates to as little as a 10-minute drive or up to an hour on the road before transferring into a boat.
“We spend a fair proportion of our hunting time just looking; we have an advantage because everything is so close, but I would recommend before opening and during the season to get some intelligence,” he said.
“We don’t advertise what we find from scouting; it might be selfish, but that is the world of duck hunting, just as fisherman don’t tell you where they got a bag of fish.”
Peter’s scouting tools include a pair of binoculars, a powerful spotting scope and a small drone, useful for taking a ‘duck’s’ eye view of the landscape.
Three things are required before a location is even worth scouting: water, ducks and access by either vehicle, foot or boat. Then the more detailed work begins.
“You need to have a look first and see where the birds are roosting, where they are during the day and where they are feeding, look for the flight lanes where they are going to and from and look to position yourself where you will get a shot,” he said.
“It isn’t just a matter of finding a heap of birds in an area; you need to get the local knowledge to get on a flight lane.
“Dowds Morass is an example: it has a lot of heavy cover, you can set up and be 100 m off a flight lane and not get a shot and a hunter only 50 m away will get reasonable shooting.”
Observing bird behaviour, especially if you are new to a hunting area, is critical to success.
“Access is the first thing, whether you can get to where the birds are and where you want to shoot, understanding if you can wade or if you need a boat or a canoe,” Peter said.
“Birds are creatures of habit; if you look in the afternoon you find them resting up and you look for where they are feeding, then you look for where you want to set up to shoot and assess what you need for cover.
“It is very hard to go somewhere blind and be successful, particularly here in Gippsland.”
Sav Mangion chuckles at the Gippsland scouters “not advertising” their prime spots but he adds that he doesn’t ask either.
“Getting willing information from other areas can be difficult; people are protective of their spots, scouting knowledge is the only thing that you have you can keep to yourself,” he said.
Besides, Sav works on the theory that you should believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.
“I generally don’t like asking people for information and my biggest reservation about sharing information is that ducks fly, they move; it is sometimes easier not to share because there are so many variables.”
Like Peter, Sav just needs to know there is water and ducks in a particular area to make a scouting trip worthwhile.
Static information like access, camping areas and boat ramps can be assessed pre-season, and weather and water can be monitored from afar but preparing for a hunt requires observation on the ground.
“Through scouting you can find out if the ducks feed at one place in the morning, rest up during the day, and then feed somewhere else in the evening,” Sav said.
A few hours the day before hunting is time well spent but even if Sav arrives in darkness hours, before hunting starts he will still pick up the binoculars first and the shotgun second.
“Ideally you want to get your head around what it is you are getting into, even if it takes you past the legal start time,” he said.
“I will do some scouting with binoculars from the shore at first light when it is a new place.”
Peter agrees, adding that you can learn a lot in a short period time by observing how birds respond when the shooting starts.
“Scouting goes part of the way, it tells you there’s water and birds there, but often it doesn’t tell you where you should set up, it helps to see birds in a hunting situation, flying around after they’ve been stirred up,” he said.
“By going back to the same area you gain knowledge over time which you can apply.”
Both like the idea of keeping a diary or some sort of record of locations, conditions, and bird behaviour but Peter warns not to keep returning to the same spot expecting the same results.
“The trap a lot of people fall into is they do well somewhere so they go back there again; birds aren’t stupid, and the numbers will drop off with hunting pressure,” he said.
“We harvest, almost farm, birds, by rotating out shooting spots.”
Peter appears to break rule number one (go where the ducks are) by revealing the true secret of scouting — the ability to find out where the birds will be.
“There are plenty of spots we go to where you won’t see a bird but you know it is on a flight lane and if you put the decoys out you will bring them into range,” he said.
“If you go to a spot and don’t do any good go back there but move around and try different areas.”
Weather is another factor, especially in Gippsland where king tides and rainfall can create irresistible feeding areas overnight.
Fog will prevent ducks flying or you seeing them even if they do, and if the wind blows the ducks head to sheltered areas.
“If it is blowing a gale at 4 am when you head off, that’s a disadvantage,” Peter said.
“We look at the weather for the week and plan locations based on the conditions and our scouting on the ground.
“I have about 250 waypoints on my handheld GPS for spots I know birds go to; it is a very handy tool for scouting and particularly good for finding those places again in the dark.
“I like to mark a spot on the shoreline and then the spot where I want to get to in the water; if you have to walk a kilometre it can be very hard in reed-covered areas to find a location without a GPS.”
Both scouters see the chatter on social media about what areas are hunting well but they prefer to go to places where they have gathered their own intelligence.
“The best scouting is to go out and have a look,” Peter said.
“The spotting scope and binoculars are where you really hone in on the birds, you might even put them up and see where they go.
“You have to keep looking because the numbers fluctuate during the season and bird behaviour changes during the season.”
Hunters who can’t spare the time to scout tend to gravitate to the places where the most birds are reported, which generally means it also has a high concentration of hunters.
Peter recommends using general knowledge to scout the day before opening, looking at alternatives nearby.
“Do I want to be where there’s a big bunch of birds and a big bunch of hunters and all the associated issues or should I look for somewhere with less birds and fewer hunters? My preference is definitely the latter,” he said.
“If you are in a region, use the time when you are not hunting to scout and gather knowledge for tomorrow’s hunt or one in the future.
“Don’t waste the opportunity, you might find a spot to come back to.”
Sav Mangion said scouting gives you confidence as a hunter and the more you do the better you get.
“If you do it right then everything else is 10 times easier, you want to be where the ducks want to be, so go and find out where they want to be,” he said.
“Build your knowledge base, whether you keep a diary or keep it in your head; it is something fishermen have been doing it for years, but duck hunters haven’t been in the same habit.”