Waterfowlers are a dedicated bunch. Wet, cold and windy weather are our ideal hunting conditions. Such miserable elements prompt ducks and geese to move more regularly between roosting, feeding and loafing areas while also pushing fresh birds down along their fall migration routes. Sure, it’s nasty outside, but you’d better be there if you want a shot at knocking them down.
Our sport is also gear-intensive, requiring long hours of preparation before we even set foot in the field or marsh. At least it should. And once that abundant gear is readied, it needs to be transported to and from the field in some of the most difficult and physically challenging conditions imaginable.
Yes, waterfowlers are among the most dedicated of hunters, but they also make things harder than they need to be, inflicting unnecessary pain upon themselves and others in their hunting parties through a lack of organization.
Harrison Township, Michigan waterfowl pro Joe Balog logs hundreds of hours each season on the storied St. Clair Flats, home to some of the largest concentrations of migrating waterfowl in the often harsh and unforgiving Great Lakes region. Organization is central to Balog’s waterfowl strategy. From decoys to dogs and the myriad of other gear he takes to the field, every critical piece of equipment has its proper place in Balog’s waterfowl system. “When you hunt daily, as my group often does, anything less than total organization makes life miserable,” he says.
Decoys are among the most cumbersome and space-intensive hunting essentials imaginable. They are bulky, heavy and require anchors and lines that can quickly become a tangled nightmare when rigged and transported traditionally.
While many hunters employ vast decoy spreads, especially during flight days, Balog rarely does. “I hunt an area with large numbers of mallards and incredibly high hunting pressure,” says Balog, who seeks out the tiny, more remote pockets to hunt, where smaller and more realistic decoy spreads yield excellent results. In this case, smaller often means just 9-24 decoys. Less is more, and realism is key. “I want my spread to look like a couple small groups of ducks gathered in a remote sweet spot to escape pressure and loaf,” says Balog, who uses mostly mallards, with a couple of other species like gadwall or widgeon mixed in. “Late in the season I use more black ducks,” he adds.
Balog forgoes traditional decoy rigging and the accompanying potential for temper-flaring tangles in favor of a Texas style rigging system made by Rig ‘Em Right. “Texas rigging their blocks is one of the best things marsh hunters can do to eliminate headaches in the field,” says Balog, who keeps rigs of six to 12 decoys worry free and ready for deployment inside 108-quart Plano Sportsman’s Trunks. “These surprisingly affordable and durable trunks are like gold in my boat,” says Balog, who also uses them as movable shooting benches and dog platforms in addition to a safe, dry place to stash other gear like PFDs and additional dry clothing.
Balog’s penchant for setting up in out-of-the-way pockets means his stash of gear also includes a variety of tools and equipment to aid in fast and flexible concealment. “I often hunt by constructing fast, temporary blinds,” the Realtree prostaffer says. “Most times, my group and I like to pick an area that has good overhead cover – like a thick bunch of cattails or phragmites, but I always bring real-grass grass mats, too – like the ones from Avery or Cabela’s – and put them on conduit poles to make temporary blinds whenever the natural cover is insufficient.” The key to successfully setting up and hunting in these small hot spots is concealment. “Again, we try to hunt in remote areas and have the ducks come in right on top of us.” Continues Balog, who wears face paint 100% of the time. “It’s mandatory to hunt in my crew.” He says. “Even the dog gets camouflaged with a custom-built cover.”
Lake St. Clair is big water that commands great respect, along with additional preparation and gear. The lure of the big lake and all its ducks attracts many hunters who are unfamiliar with the lake and hunting big water in general. Unfortunately, many hunting parties find themselves stranded each year.
Balog takes no such chances, maintaining a dedicated, waterproof boat box containing distress signals, a handheld VHF radio, spare spark plugs, electrical and duct tape, penetrating oil, cable ties, first aid kit, extra flashlight and batteries, and boat paperwork. He keeps an identical box loaded with a variety of tools, including a small, propane torch and striker for de-icing duties. “I’m amazed by the number of hunters who don’t keep these essential safety and maintenance items in their boats,” Balog says. “They’re just asking for trouble, and sooner or later they’ll get it.”
While Plano and a few other companies make specific marine safety boxes for this purpose, most are orange – no good on a duck boat. Balog employs Plano’s model 171200 Ammo Case instead. “It’s a durable, waterproof box that’s big enough for the chore, but not so big that it takes up too much space,” he says. “And it’s olive drab in color.”
Of course, a blind bag is a must-have piece of gear for any waterfowl hunter, providing space for items like shells, calls, gloves, phone and other items. But not all blind bags are created equal. Balog prefers the WF 13 bag by Tenzing, and uses it exclusively. “When something works, I stick with it,” he says. Whatever bag you choose, features like a durable waterproof base and full waterproof exterior are a must. “Any other features are a bonus,” says Balog, who likes the WF 13 because of its durable zippers and hardware, storm shield cover, pull out hand muff with built-in hand heater pockets, clear phone pocket, and shoulder strap with built-in bird loops. While contents vary from hunt-to-hunt, Balog keeps certain items inside his blind bag at all times, including shells, choke tubes and wrench, ear plugs, hand warmers, gloves, hats, face paint, call lanyard, dog whistle, ratcheting brush cutters, more cable ties, multi-tool, and extra bottles of water.
Waterfowlers spend thousands of dollars on gear, so it makes sense to spend a few extra bucks on the specialized products that help keep it safe, dry, organized, and in good working order. While many hunters do, most fall short of Balog’s standards. “My system is extremely organized,” says Balog, who learned the importance of preparation and efficiency through years of fishing professionally on the FLW Tour and guiding fishermen and hunters alike. “Organize or fail,” he says. “Sooner or later we all realize this.”
Waterfowl hunting is challenging enough. Develop and implement a storage system with the right, quality products, and you’ll become a happier and more successful duck hunter.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Leslie Vick
Images courtesy Traditions Media