We came in from the east side of the field, shuffling along in single file through the dark. It was cold and our breath hung in the air in front of us while our shins split skim ice on the trail. Mallard hens could be heard barking out raspy quacks on the nearby reservoir where they had roosted the night before. The sun crested the eastern horizon just as we reached the decoys surrounding the pit. We walked through them quickly to break up the thin ice holding them in place. Light wind filtered in from the northwest, ensuring the ducks would break and cup from the south. With a bright sun behind us on a high pressure morning it seemed promising. But then again, all hunts do before the sun lights the sky.
There were five of us hunting this morning and we fit comfortably into the pit blind. It was of typical construction, heavy gauge steel with split flip tops and dog boxes located on each end. We settled into our locations, each of us choosing a spot and readying our guns and gear for the morning. The sun was rising quickly and anticipation was running high as the first ripping wings of early fliers crossing our location could be heard. Shooting time was only minutes away. We talked to each other in whispers and waited with collective impatience. Soon however the time ticked away and legal shooting light was upon us and our loaded guns.
A fighter squadron of greenwings flashed in and out so fast that not a shot was fired. We all laughed at each other for a second but more ducks decoying sharply shifted our focus. These were mallards banking hard into the breeze, four drakes and two hens. No need to call as they were committed. Shotguns firing we dropped three of the six into the decoys, not great for five shooters but typical of this crew. Ducks were flying all around us now, and our pleading calls sounded from the pit.
A pair of pintails swung in over the top of us, the long sprig and graceful neck of the drake visible in the early day. We froze in place within the blind as they swung downwind and headed back our way. We waited until they reached point blank range before tumbling them with a pair of shots. It was shaping up to be another glorious morning in northeast Arkansas.
This same scene repeats itself all over the rice and bean fields of Arkansas every day of the duck season. Sunken pit blinds have been around for generations and they continue to be the most popular way to hunt in open fields. But just like every other hunting strategy there are general rules that apply that lead to success. The days of dropping a pit into a field and placing spinning wing decoys around it and shooting ducks are over. You must do your homework and put in the hours in the field to ensure your pits are concealed and in the right location.
Hunter Longnecker is a Stuttgart native and Avery Outdoors territory manager who grew up hunting out of pits. He and his father hunted many mornings with the Stephens clan on their farm, a group that included John Stephens Sr., Rich-N-Tone president John Stephens Jr., and his brother Heath.
“My grandfather Howard Longnecker and John Sr. are friends so I was fortunate enough to tag along with them as a kid,” Longnecker said. “We hunted from roll top pit blinds exclusively and being part of that group I learned how to use them from some of the best. I remember how they would dig a small hole in front of the pit for a special decoy.
“This was before all of the mechanical decoys we have today so they made their own to add motion on calm days. In that hole, a modified trolling motor base was placed and it was hooked to a battery in the blind. The turning of the blade just under the surface created sound and motion. It sounded a lot like ducks feeding.”
Longnecker believes there are definite advantages and disadvantages to hunting from a pit blind. The biggest disadvantage is lack of mobility.
“You really need to see how ducks work a field before you sink a pit,” he said. “Just going to the middle of the field and dropping it there can work but you can be as little as 50 yards away from the right location and struggle to decoy ducks. I had a friend last season who watched a field for two seasons before he placed a pit there. It is hard to have that kind of time to scout an area but if you can it will really make a difference going forward.”
One of the best advantages of a pit is being able to hunt any wind direction.
“This type of blind is universal to your wind on that day,” Longnecker said. “The direction doesn’t matter because you can have a clear shot and birds decoying directly into, to the side, or in back of the blind.”
Pit blinds also allow for large numbers of decoys to be used, attracting migrating birds easier.
“Common practice is to surround the blind with decoys with multiple open holes for the duck to land,” Longnecker said. “Most pits will have upwards of 300 decoys around them. As long as you are not hunting the same ducks day in and day out, these big spreads are very effective.”
Stephen Pitt lives in Hernando, Mississippi but he can be found at the Languille Lounge Duck Club south of Jonesboro much of the duck season. He has hunted this area for over twenty years with his father and brother and other club members. They hunt exclusively from pit blinds so his experience with them is vast. His thoughts on this style of hunting are insightful.
“All of the land we lease is in crops, primarily rice. So it was only natural that we have hunted from pits. They are the best way to hide in open country and still be dry and comfortable,” Pitts said.
He has some definite ideas as to where the blind should be located in a field.
“Land forming and leveling of rice fields has become prevalent these days and those types of locations are easier for blind placement,” Pitts said. “You basically need to put it near the middle on one of the straight levees. If it is an older style field you will need a different strategy entirely.”
Farmers planted rice initially in low areas that already held water naturally. That means a lot of the shape of the land is still there. It is just difficult to see from ground level. Pitts believes that ducks still know where the old bodies of water were and still use them.
“My experience has shown that ducks will still follow and use the old slough beds in a field,” Pitts said. “Take a look at a topographical map of an area and you can see on the contour of the land where these old wetland habitats were. Watch groups of ducks working a spot and they will gravitate to those contours. That is where you pit needs to be.”
Pitts added that the area around a pit needs to be allowed to grow up in natural cover.
“The more natural grasses are around a pit, the more hidden it will be,” he said. “Fertilizing that grass will help as well in the offseason if possible.”
A central debate is over the preference for the type of top that is on pit blinds. Many prefer the roll top for better concealment while others prefer the quick shooting access of brushed flip tops. Pitts and his members prefer the latter.
“Roll tops are slow to get into action so we have flip tops on all our pits,” he said. “I have hunted from roll tops and it seems like the ducks will be 10 yards farther away by the time the top is rolled back. Especially on a windy day. Many times when conditions are right we leave the tops in front of us down and just pull the back ones over us. That way we can see the action better and spring into shooting positions quicker.”
The roll top is advantageous in hiding a hunter from wary eyes. It all boils down to personal preference but it would be a good idea to hunt out of both before purchasing a pit of your own.
Northwest of Stuttgart on Highway 165 lies the town of Brummitt. Just about every day of the duck season Dennis Adkins and his son Kris can be found hunkered down in a rice field pit nearby. Adkins has been hunting that area for the past 43 years, mainly out of blinds near the edges of the field with trees behind. But about 10 years ago Kris couldn’t stand to watch flock after flock landing near the middle any longer.
“My dad thought I was crazy, he didn’t think I would shoot a thing out there,” Kris said. “Luckily there was a ditch dividing the rice and bean fields with some coffee beans growing around it so I could hide. So grabbed a few decoys and headed to the spot. I shot a limit of greenheads and pintails within 10 minutes. Guess who was walking out there then.”
That fast action made the decision to buy a pit blind and put it there easy. Just installing the blind wasn’t good enough for this pair however. They like to go the extra mile to ensure that their blind is well hidden.
“My dad and I will cut huge amounts of brush for the blind every season. We even will camouflage the areas 50 yards on either side of the blind,” Kris said. “We also cut oak branches for our flip tops as the leaves will hold on them for the whole season. Every little extra thing we can do to be well hidden is done and our results show it.”
In a typical season there are 1000-1,500 ducks and geese harvested from that one blind.
Kris Adkins is also conscious of the decoy spread and changes it as the season progresses. He and Adkins also pay attention to the details by keeping the decoys clean and even adding tire shine to the drake mallard heads to make them pop in the sun.
“We normally start with around two hundred decoys around the blind as the big numbers attract more birds early on,” Kris said. “But as the season progresses we will start shrinking the size of the spread until we have as few as three to four dozen out. One thing we have discovered as well is the specklebelly floater. They not only attract geese but the ducks will eat them up as well. We keep two dozen of them in front of the pit at all times.”
Calm days are always hard but Kris makes sure this base is covered as well.
“We use four jerk strings instead of the normal one or two. That movement in the decoys will mean the difference between taking passing shots and having close range decoying birds,” he said.
Hunting from pits requires attention to detail and a willingness to work hard to equal success. Scouting, decoy placement, making sure the blind is well hidden; all of these play a role. A hunter needs to be sure of his location more so than with other blinds because once a pit is installed it is tough to move. But nothing beats the effectiveness of a good pit in a field for getting the birds in tight.