When duck hunting on public land, the biggest battle might actually be against other hunters. 

To be successful, you not only have to figure out how to outslick the birds, but the hunting competition as well.

So how do you prevent being overrun, and also stay out of harm’s way on a public-land duck hunt? 

Easy. Use the light spread.

Last year, my dad, who works out of state, came in for a late-season duck hunt. Knowing that he no longer hunts, making his first trip in years was highly anticipated. (He used to be a die-hard duck hunter, but after our family’s beloved golden-retriever passed away, my dad gave up the sport.) 

My wife was joining in on this hunt as well. We planned for a quick, fun hunt instead of one of my hardcore adventures, so we opted for arriving at a reasonable hour. 

Sure enough, other hunters had already gotten to the hole I planned to hunt, so we went elsewhere more than a ¼-mile away. This alternate location was frozen over in the 20-degree weather, and we didn’t see a duck,  but the hilarity of what happened to the other hunters at that hole made up for our lack of success.

Another group of guys had come in like us, but they decided to hunt the small 60-yard wide pond even though the 5-guy group we walked by was already set there. During the first few seconds of shooting hours, 10 shotguns simultaneously unloaded 30 shells at once. 

The initial shots happened when it was so dark the thunderous assault netted only two ducks. With two decoy-spreads practically merged as one, neither group could properly work any birds.

I spoke to the first set of guys after the hunt and learned they were furious with the other group’s steel BB’s dangerously blasting all around them, ruining their hunt. 

The next day, my buddy Andre was planning to join me hoping to bag his first-ever mallard. I knew that small pond would have some ducks, but we would need to have it to ourselves to be successful, and even more importantly, to make it out alive.

To make matter’s worse, Andre couldn’t arrive until around daybreak. I would have to preserve the spot single-handedly: It was time to enact my secret trick to thwart off other hunters. 

I arrived on the premises the earliest I could - at 4 a.m. Then, I proceeded to jog the 1 ½  miles to the location, pulling my gear in my kayak behind me. If someone went in by boat, they could beat me, so I sprinted like it was a race. The kayak glided smoothly along the snowy ground, and I got there first.

Unlike normal, I didn’t bother to begin setting up my decoy spread. Instead, I went to work setting up my “light spread.”

I spaced out several lights a few feet apart near the tree we would hunt. Then, I walked to the outer edge of the decoy location and placed more headlights near that edge of the pond. 

After the decoys were deployed, I sat quietly reading a book in the darkness for an hour until I heard noises. It wasn’t my friend, but another group of hunters - a bunch of them. So I started moving my lights around in the blind to resemble multiple people moving around. 

All I heard was, “Look at all those hunters. Let’s find another spot.”

It was hard to contain my laughter, but luckily they kept moving along. 

Right before shooting hours, I noticed a single light heading down the trail, and I yelled for my friend to join in. He said, “I thought you said this place was crowded. How come we got the spot all to ourselves, and why are we using lighted decoys?” 

I laughed out loud and told him about my trick. 

With two guys, I would have a buddy wait by the decoy lights to man that station by moving those lights around. But those stationary lights were the best I could do on this solo mission. With three guys manning a light station, and one of our guys muttering loudly, “Darn, another group,” the comments I’ve heard are way too vulgar to post.

In short order, we were exiting the woods an hour after daylight with a two-man limit of big ducks, including my friend’s first ever greenhead.

I didn’t hear many shots from where the other group had ended up hunting. We walked over to the guys and told them we were limited out and they should go give the spot a try. Since they were yet to bag a bird, they hurried over to the hotspot - but were very surprised to see my group consisted of only two guys.

Later in the day, I brought my wife in for a midday duck stalk, and she shot two female mallards. But without my kayak, I had to go swim in a frozen pond to retrieve her ducks. 

Remember, no matter how far in you go in or how early you arrive, when a group of guys sees a solo or small party of hunters, they’ll sometimes setup right next to you. But when two large groups are already set there (or presumed to bet set there,) they’ll usually realize the low odds of success and choose to hunt elsewhere.

It would be nice if I could go on a solo mission with my small six-decoy spread and be left alone to make a quality hunt at a safe distance from others. However, those are benefits that only come with a lease. 

Public-land hunting requires different strategies, but it makes the accomplishment of harvesting a limit of birds very rewarding. I’m not complaining, but rather accepting the reality and finding a solution to make that quality, safe hunt.

Is this lighting tactic bush league or fair game? You make the call.

But remember - when ducks are falling into your decoys from the shotgun blast of another group, you’ll be wishing you had brought some extra headlights.