From August through December, there’s a camo bag on the back seat of my truck. It carries all the incidentals needed for spur of the moment waterfowl hunts: calls, headlamp, shells, gloves and mittens, knife, multi-tool, dog whistles, duck strap, shotgun chokes, and so forth. It also contains three items too seldom found in the kit of waterfowl hunters: 10x binoculars, spotting scope with window mount, and a rangefinder. Carrying and using optics will boost your success and enjoyment in many ways I have found. Here are some of my tried-and-true techniques.
Big-game hunters wouldn’t think about heading out on a scouting mission without this trio of quality optics, and neither should waterfowl hunters. Viewing ducks and geese on a field, marsh, or open water as though you were at least 10x closer to them offers obvious, and some not so obvious, advantages.
1) Scout from a distance. Watching birds from as far away as possible is a plus in high-pressure hunting areas. Instead of pulling the truck up on a roadside just a quarter or half section away from the flock, binoculars, or better yet a spotting scope, allow you to find a ridge or a windmill a mile or more away from the flock and do the majority of your scouting from there. Skittish birds feel less pressure and other hunters cannot as easily key the same flocks and fields based on watching you watching birds.
2) Get the details. Viewing birds through a spotting scope also gets you “inside” the flock on the ground or on the water. One of the best goose hunters it has been my privilege to hunt beside is Dawn Charging. Dawn is a photographer and an artist with the commensurate eye for detail. She watched flocks of Canada Geese in her native North Dakota, and could tell you not only what part of what field the birds were using, she saw which areas attracted Giants as opposed to lessers, how the various subspecies mingled, and the size of average family groups in each flock. When she sets a decoy spread, she builds in all of these observations for maximum reality. The only way to do this is by viewing birds in detail, but from a great distance, through optics.
3) Precision location is easy. A rangefinder is also a valuable scouting tool. It’s old wisdom that even if you can’t call and you don’t have good decoys it doesn’t matter as long as you can put yourself where the birds want to be. That means scouting, marking the exact location the birds are using, then being able to find that spot at 0’dark thirty. Today, the combination of rangefinder and handheld GPS makes it almost too easy.
Find a flock in a field you want to hunt in the morning. Roll up on them, and pause at a safe distance that won’t spook the birds. Punch in a GPS waypoint. Range the center of the flock in the field, and note the exact compass bearing on which you’re ranging. Roll up the window and move on. As soon as you’re out of sight of the birds, stop and manually put a marker into the GPS that locates the distance to the birds on the same bearing. You’ve just marked the center of your spread for the next morning. Now, roll on to at least a couple more flocks and do the same so you have backup fields. Ranging these locales saves tons of time and frustration the next morning, and it doesn’t matter the weather. You have an exact spot to which to drive.
With today’s high-performance non-toxic loads, it’s up to each hunter to determine his reasonable shooting range based on patterning, experimentation, and practice, but the rangefinder is an invaluable aid in assuring birds are within that self-imposed range.
4) Passive ranging. The rangefinder should be used to establish preset ranges on specific, easily remembered objects. For example, use the rangefinder when you’re setting decoys. Range back to the blind from the farthest decoy, and note that distance. I like to set distinct confidence decoys like egrets or blue herons at the edge of max shooting range. These are easy to see and remember – the ducks must be inside the herons if I’m going to shoot. However, keep it simple or you’ll end up second-guessing yourself, and the greatest detriment to good shooting is thinking too much.
5) Active ranging. If you’re hunting in a group, another way to boost success and gain instinctive range estimation skills is for each hunter to take turns with the range finder calling out distances as the birds approach. Lock the range finder on a bird in the flock and call out 20 yard increments … “200, 180 … 100, 80, 60, 40, TAKE ‘EM!” If all the hunters will work within this arrangement, you’ll be amazed at how much everyone’s shooting will improve! This system works especially well in field goose hunting scenarios. For this purpose, be sure to select a rangefinder built on golfing technology that locks the laser in on small, moving targets. On the golf course it’s the flag stick; in the field it’s a lesser Canada moving through the sky.
6) How close is too close? On popular public hunting areas multiple sets in a small area are a fact of life. The closest I like to set to anyone else is 300 yards, and farther if possible. And equally I hate it when any spread encroaches closer than that to mine. Too many guys don’t know what 300 yards looks like. With a rangefinder you can prove it if you have to.
Binoculars are valuable in the blind, too.
7) Waterfowl I.D. The ability to identify ducks on the wing by silhouette, wing beat, and other subtle characteristics is difficult to develop especially if your time afield is limited. Yet duck identification is a critical skill, especially in light of complicated bag limits. Binoculars will bring birds in close view, and quality glass gathers light to make colors and markings easier to distinguish in low light even on juvenile birds. The gear most associated with bird watching is binoculars – what is duck hunting but bird watching with a happy ending?
8) Recover gliders. No matter how good a shot you are or which non-toxic load you shoot, sometimes you’re going to hit a bird that glides a long way. If you keep binoculars close at hand, you can grab them quickly and lock your attention on the glider. Follow it all the way to the ground and get a solid mark. Whether you’re sending a well-trained retriever or going yourself, you’ll have a much better chance of recovery with solid landmarks.
9) Better hunting skills. Binoculars will help you become a better caller and waterfowl hunter in general. How? Well, if you’re watching distant birds through the binoculars as you call to them, flag them, or make any other proactive move to bring them in, you’ll be able to see their instant reaction to what you’re doing. This is far more educational than only watching distant specks or silhouettes react so you can refine your skills.