By: M. Ashley Evans
Duck hunting has become one of the most popular of the hunting sports around the world and has been throughout history. A mural in the tomb of Khum-Hotpe shows that the great Pharaoh’s of Egypt loved the sport and took great pride in their harvest. In America, duck hunting is very popular – thanks in part to our geography. Many bird species use the Mississippi River to navigate their migratory paths by – that’s why Arkansas is considered the “duck hunting capital of the world.”
Duck Hunters have their own sub-culture – it includes everything from dress code, to etiquette, the wearing of duck bands and specific breed of dogs utilized. These special people seem to get a thrill out of the cold and wet – and a big grin across their face when they hear flock of ducks calling as they fly in. So if you have the itch to snag some duck and are not really sure how to get started – this article is for you!
Conservation is a key focal feature for hunters. Ducks Unlimited is a famous international organization that stands in the forefront in non-profit conservation of waterfowl. This organization works hand in hand with hunters to protect not only the waterfowl species, but localized habitats, and thus the hunter’s way of life. It is through logistical harvesting that the hunters work to collect data for the environmentalists that prove to be an invaluable asset in the work of conservation.
In the late 19th Century a large number of our native waterfowl became on the verge of extinction. These species included the Wood Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Canada Goose, Snow Goose, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Mallard, Northern Pintail, various species of Scaup, and a few of the goldeneye species. Many of these species tipped precariously over the ledge due to habitat loss – poor land management including over harvesting and not replanting.
Also over hunting due to the rise of commercial hunting was causing a great amount of pressure on the various species. However, hunters soon saved the day. The Duck Stamp Act, also known as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, was passed federally. It not only put a check on unrestricted hunting, but it steered funds from the Stamp towards habitat loss. The president of the American Game Protective Association said in a 1919 editorial publication, “if young men from the next generation are to enjoy from the country’s wild life anything like the benefits derived by the present outdoor man, we must be the ones to shoulder the burden and see that our thoughtlessness or selfishness does not allow us to squander that which we hold in trust.”
Hunting season, bag limits and migratory bird season dates all are subject to change each year, and from state to state. The migratory bird seasons are set according to a framework that is mandated by Federal law. The season selection dates are usually decided in April, and then they are posted to the various hunting media outlets.
Duck hunting is highly regulated. Adults (over 16 years old) have to purchase a license as well as state and Federal waterfowl stamps. Depending on where you hunt, you may also have to purchase a Wildlife Management Area user permit and a Migratory Bird Permit. Please check with your local Wildlife and Fishery Department to see what is required in your area.
I can’t stress this enough – double check to make sure that you are hunting legally and responsibly. The fees are very high if you break even ONE of the regulations. So make sure that you have met the requirements for your Hunters Education course, that you have all the right permits and/or licenses, that you know your bag limit, possession limit, and all the regulations.
There are numerous duck species that you can hunt in North America. It is important to be able to identify the species, and you may only have a couple of seconds to be able to do so before you decide to take the shot. After you decide where you plan on hunting, make sure you research what species of waterfowl frequent your region and become familiar with their characteristics, call, and habitat preferences.
Not all ducks are available to hunt at the same time, and the availability can vary from year to year. Knowing your species is critical to staying legal. Regulations can drastically vary between drakes and hens, so know what kind of bird you have your barrel pointed at before you pull that trigger. A great website for learning to identify ducks by their coloration as well as their call is: http://www.ducks.org/hunting/waterfowl-id
Mallard’s are very beautiful ducks. The drakes have a bright green head and a gorgeous chestnut hued body. The hens too are just stunning. They are most often called “the favorite” duck to hunt. Mallards are larger ducks that are easily callable because they chatter to each other a lot. Both male and female have the bright blue speculum bordered by bright white. Mallards typically live for 5 or 10 years in the wild – but the oldest known mallard lived an astonishing 27 years.
Mallards forage in water by dabbling – or submerging their head and neck. You will rarely see a mallard dive or submerging. They will forage on land too by grazing, grubbing around for roots and plucking at seeds. These ducks are omnivores, but the majority of their diet is vegetation. They have been known to eat crustaceans, tadpoles, earthworms, small fish, and frogs.
They will nest near water – not usually more than a mile away as the young ducks diet is primarily aquatic insects. The mallard couple will choose a nest site, usually well concealed on the ground but it can be in a hollow tree. A mallard will lay seven to ten eggs, rarely up to fifteen, and usually have just one brood per year. The female will incubate the eggs for about a month. A day after hatching the young will leave the nest and feed themselves. The mother will stick around and tend to them while they are young. The young mallards will take their first flight at around two months.
They are the most widely distributed North American waterfowl. If you are out with a goal of hunting mallards, they prefer a strong cold front. Many people love hunting mallards because their call will attract not only other mallards but other duck species. If you have an unresponsive flock flying by, give a few contented quacks and feeding chuckles and also a variation of a call, such as a comeback or a drake whistle.
Mallards frequent farm ponds, quiet corners of a large marsh, and slow water creek sections. But once they hear gunfire, they will recede to quiet waters such as beaver pools, salt marshes, pasture ponds, or tiny bays in the backwater.
While location is primary when hunting mallards – decoys and calling is important too. Mallards can be brought in with spinning wing decoys. Have about a dozen or so floating fake mallards too, with a heavy emphasis on hens. To give these shy birds a boost of confidence, throw in a few Canada goose decoys. Make sure there is a jerk cord to give some movement to the decoys to give confidence to these ducks.
Wood Ducks are quite possibly the most beautiful duck in North America. During breeding season, the drake has a brilliant, iridescent color pattern with crisp white lines that look almost hand painted. After the breeding season, in the late summer, the Wood Duck drake will lose its bright colors and will have a more grey hue. It has no close relatives, except for the Mandarin Duck of Southeast Asia. In the last century, hunters saved the Wood Duck from extinction with not only the funds from the Duck Stamp, but also by purchasing and placing Wood Duck Nesting Boxes in their habitat which encouraged hens to lay there. The astounding recovery of the Wood Duck population is one of the early triumphs of modern wild life management.
This duck prefers a habitat of wooded marshes, shallow inland lakes, beaver ponds and wooden swamps. Mainly the Wood ducks prefer primarily deciduous woodland and places where large trees hand over the water. Wood Ducks are very agile in flight and can weave in and out of the trees which make it quite difficult to shoot. They seem to prefer pre-sunrise and evening hours. Their call is a high pitched whine. Wood Ducks love acorns – which gives them a very earthy taste.
Wood Ducks forage in the water by taking food from the surface. They will also submerge and will forage on land. They eat primarily seeds and aquatic plants but will also eat insects and crustaceans. In some regions, waste grain is a preferred food source. When swimming, the Wood Duck bobs its head about just as much as a pigeon does.
The Wood Duck has a brilliant display of courtship that highlights the drake’s colorful plumage. They will nest high off the ground in hollow trees or barn lofts – up to sixty five feet high! But the nesting boxes are often placed much lower. There is an average of 9-15 eggs laid per brood, with usually one or two broods per year. The hen will stay with the young and watch over them until around six weeks. Wood Ducks will “egg dump” occasionally. This is when the hen will lay eggs in another hens nest. Some hens will catch on to this trick and will destroy the dumped eggs. The ducklings will remain in the nest only for a single day. The morning after they hatch, the young will climb up the ledge and jump to the ground – where there light fluffy bodies allow them to bounce for safety.
The Northern Pintail is a regal looking duck and quite a prize trophy for hunters. It is often called the “Greyhound of the Air” because it has long narrow wings. The drake has a chocolate head with a grey body and a white breast. They can live for up to 22 years in the wild.
They prefer marshes, fresh ponds, prairies, northern tundra, lakes and salt bays. The Pintail is one of the most numerous duck species in the world, though outnumbered by the Mallard. They have a circumpolar breeding pattern, meaning they breed from Alaska, western Greenland and the Canadian Arctic all the way south to the central and western United States. They have been known to winter as far south as the Caribbean.
The mating pair will form while they are on their winter range and courtship continues during the spring migration. Occasionally some pairs will not pair up until after they arrive at the breeding grounds. Generally, several males will court one female until she makes up her mind. The hen will nest on dry ground amongst vegetation – though often more visible than other duck species. There is on average 7-10 eggs in a brood and generally only one brood per year. Within a couple of hours after hatching, the hen will lead her brood away from the nest to feed themselves. They are capable of flight in one or two months after hatching.
The Northern Pintail prefers to forage in shallow water by up-ending (tail up and head down), or by submerging just the head and neck and foraging in the mud. They are not opposed to forage on land either for seeds, plants and roots. They will eat small fish, crustaceans, worms, snails, mollusks and even tadpoles.
These are very leery birds and are hard to decoy. They will circle over head a great many times before landing – always on the lookout for danger. It is best to call them in with a trill of a pintail whistle. South Texas is a fantastic place to hunt Northern Pintail.
Bluebill’s – or Greater Scaup and Lesser Scaup
It can be hard to tell the difference between Greater and Lesser Scaup. They both have a very distinctive blue bill and bright yellow eyes. They are colored like an oreo – black on the ends with a lighter colored middle. In North America, we have four of the Oreo colored ducks. The two other’s on the list are the Ring-necked, and Tufted. But they are more easily distinguished from the Greater and Lesser Scaup.
During the winter, the location will be a major factor in distinguishing between these two Bluebills. Greater Scaup prefer to winter near saltwater whereas the Lesser Scaup will seek out freshwater and prefer to be more inland. But during the summer there is quite a bit of overlap in their territory ranges.
They are both quiet ducks – Lesser Scaup will occasionally call out. They have a very distinctive call – it sounds like a high pitched whistle resembling paper ripping. They tend to come out mid morning. Both also travel in large flocks – many times numbering up into the hundreds. However, they are rather private birds for being around so many, and they don’t intermingle much when bobbling along on the water. Bluebills will eat aquatic insects, wild celery, eelgrass, salicorna, and fingernail clams.
The Greater Scaup can be 16-22” long from head to tail. He has a black mark on the tip of his bill that is very wide – it almost looks like a bit of lipstick. His head is perfectly round and his neck appears short and stout. When in flight, the white on his wings goes out all the way to his primary feathers and the entire wing edge is white. His back will have white crosshatching pattern. Greater Scaup will have 5-11 eggs per brood.
The Lesser Scaup is shorter – only 16-18” long. The black tip on his beak is very small and narrow. The Lesser Scaup has a very distinctive head shape – its tall and egg shaped with a slight peak up on top and near the back. Some, in the right lighting, appear to have a purple hue to the black feathers that glimmer iridescently. His neck looks more elongated and the crosshatching on his back extends onto the wings. The Lesser Scaup will have 8-14 eggs per brood.
Most hunters will target Bluebills in an open-water environment, typically from a boat. Bluebills are capable of diving 30 feet or more in search of shellfish, but this doesn’t mean that you have to target deep waters. In the East Coast, hunters enjoy targeting Bluebill from box style blinds on the shore.
Since Bluebills flock in such large numbers – you will need a lot of decoys. Anywhere from 50-200. If you are in open water, the larger the spread the better.
The Common Eider is found along the New England coast. It is the largest duck in the Northern Hemisphere – weighing over five pounds! The Common Eider is a striking duck – the drake has bright white with stark black contrasting plumage, a lime green patch on the back of the head, and the lower breast has a peach hue. Their bill is very long and sloping.
Flocks of these rather lethargic ducks can number in the thousands. Eider down is famous for its insulating properties. In fact, it insulates so well that in Iceland the down is harvested commercially at Eider farms.
Eiders prefer to stay near the coastline at all times. They like to nest on islands or on the rocky shorelines. Very rarely will you find an Eider on fresh water. Eider will forage mainly underwater, but occasionally by up-ending or swimming with only his head submerged. Typically the Eider will feed at low or receding tide. They prefer to eat mollusks, mussels, and other bivalves. Occasionally they will eat insects, plants, crabs and small fish. They can dive as deep as 20 meters to feed on the sea bed.
Courting involves several males vying for the attention of one female. The drake will display with much-exaggerated head movements, rearing up out of the water, wing flapping, and low cooning calls.
There are only 3-5 eggs per clutch. After about a month, the eggs will hatch. Very quickly the young will go into the water. The hen will stay near the young, but they will find their own food. Several broods will form a larger group called a “crèche” that is tended by several hens. After 2.5 months the young will fly.
Common Eiders are circumpolar in their range. They typically will breed along the coast of Alaska, the Hudson Bay, and the eastern side of Canada. Common Eiders are very difficult to track since they migrate over such a large area and over very large bodies of water. They will winter as far to the east as Greenland and down the Atlantic Coast to Virginia and as far west as southern Alaska.
Gadwall, or Grey Duck
Like its name implies, the Grey Duck has a subtle grayish brown hued appearance. Males have a black patch over the tail. And Females are patterned with brown and grayish buff. Both sexes have a white patch on their wing. They are about the same size as a Mallard. Gadwalls have a large, square head with a steep forehead. The bill is quite thinner than a mallard, and so is the neck and wings. They are often found with American Wigeon and various Coots.
Like other dabbling ducks, they tip forward to feed on submerged vegetation without diving. Gadwalls are notorious for stealing food from flocks of dicing ducks or coots. They eat primarily aquatic vegetation and will venture out to feed much farther than other dabbling ducks. They up-end to feed on the leafy pondweed, wigeon grass, naiad, algae, and the seeds of bulrush, smartweed and spike rush. Occasionally, Gadwalls will feed on crustaceans and midges.
Courtship display consists of the drake rearing part of his body out of the water to expose the white patches on his wings, and rearing his head back. The male will help find a spot for the nest. They will breed mainly on the prairie and Great Plains near seasonal and semi-permanent wetlands, and alkaline lakes. Gadwall will breed a little later than most other native duck species. During migration, they prefer the reservoirs, fresh and saltwater marshes, ponds, city parks, muddy estuaries, and even sewage ponds. I wouldn’t advise hunting off of sewage ponds, however. They prefer to nest in fields and meadows and on islands.
Gadwall hens will lay 7-12 eggs in a clutch. Two or more females will lay eggs in the same nest. They will hatch after a month and very soon the hen will lead the ducklings to open water. The Gadwall ducklings will venture out into much more open water than most other dabbling duck species. After 50-60 days, the ducklings are able to fly.
Gadwall has a staccato grunting call and is very easy to decoy. Some people don’t like their taste, but like with all ducks, the taste of their meat depends largely on their regional diet.
American Black Duck
The Black Duck is not completely black but has a dark speckled appearance. Their heads are grayish brown. Hens tend to be slightly paler than the males. The under-wings of both sexes are white with a bright iridescent purple speculum. They are a close cousin of the Mallard, and very similar in size. Black Ducks are a large duck with very round heads, thick bills, and bulky bodies.
They are a dabbling duck and sit high up in the water. Black Ducks will eat aquatic plants, small fish, and invertebrates. They are known for also flying into fields to eat waste grain and corn.
These ducks are notorious for hiding in plain sight – intermingled in flocks of Mallards and Gadwall. However, they are shy to decoy and very challenging to call in. The dark chocolate brown flanks and grey face help to distinguish them from the Mallard and Gadwall hens. Because of their intermingling, some have hybridized on the eastern shore of North America and may have a dark body with a partially green head.
American Black Duck prefer to nest in freshwater and saltwater marshes in the eastern wetlands. During migration, they will forage and rest in marshes, and ponds. Occasionally, these birds will appear on the West Coast and even in even in Europe and Asia. One female was banded in Canada and later turned up in France. The Mississippi Flyaway and the Atlantic Flyaway are both fantastic places to target your American Black Duck hunting trip.
The Canvasback Duck is another large duck that a lot of hunters enjoy going after. It has the “King Duck” status for many hunters not only because of the thrill of the hunt but because of the flavor of the meat because of their preference for wild celery beds. Drakes have a chestnut-red head and neck, with a black breast, grey back, black rump, and a dark brown tail. The bill is black and the legs are a bluish grey. The iris of the Canvasback is bright red. Hens have a light brown head and neck that becomes a dark brown into the chest and fore back. The Hens sides and flanks are grayish brown.
Canvasback Ducks breed in the Prairie Pothole Region. They will nest in the marshes surrounded by thick vegetation such as cattails and bulrushes. They will breed as far north as the sub-arctic river deltas in the interior of Alaska and as far south as the Prairie. These ducks prefer to dive down to eat tuberous vegetation. The Canvasback hen will lay a clutch of about 10 eggs and are plagued with Redhead hens egg dumping in their nests. But the Canvasback hen will lay her eggs in other nests too.
The migratory path goes through the Mississippi Flyaway or through the Pacific Flyaway. Historically, the Chesapeake Bay was a hotspot but due to the loss of submerged aquatic vegetation, their numbers have shifted westward. The Canvasback will breed in deep-water marshes, bays, ponds, and lakes. During the winter migration, they can be found near the coast and on lakes.
Green and Blue Winged Teal
Teal is very pretty ducks; extremely agile and quick. They are small, blocky ducks, the smallest of our dabbling ducks. The Green Winged Teal drakes have a chestnut head with a green streak behind the eye. They have a grayish brown body with a white vertical stripe near the chest. Blue Winged Teal drakes have a brown speckled body with a blueish black head and a white streak on their face. They have a powder blue patch on their upper-wing.
Teal are dabbling ducks and often congregate with other species of dabbling ducks. They prefer to congregate around the edges of ponds, or calm lakes and will choose a well-concealed place to rest or forage. The Prairie Pothole Region is the main breeding ground. Teal like warmer weather and are absent from most of North America during the winter – they migrate down to Central America and the Caribbean. During the flight, the flock will twist in unison.
Most duck hunters consider them very difficult to harvest because of their speed – but they are extremely prized for their taste. Pro Tip: teal requires plucking, not breasting.
Gun & Ammo
When hunting in extreme weather conditions you need gear that works well. Remember, gear is only good if it works. You really do only get what you pay for when it comes to equipment. There is quite a bit of gear required for duck hunting so we will go over some of the basics.
First and foremost, it is illegal to hunt waterfowl with lead shot. Some non-toxic shot is a lot more expensive than others – but a lot of that variation will boil down to which one does your gun shoot best? So I recommend getting a few varieties of the same weight and length and seeing what works well for you. There are several brands that advertise as having more impact and higher velocity – such as Bismuth and Tungsten – and from what people have told me, it’s true. However, the cost difference is so great that I don’t think I could justify the cost when shooting less than 30 yards.
A 12 gauge is by far the most common size shotgun for waterfowl hunting. A 20 gauge can work too; it will just require a bit more skill. There are numerous duck hunters who prefer a 10 gauge. 20 gauge is a good size for women and youth and 10 is a good size for the goose. Keep in mind; all shotguns must have a plug that allows no more than one in the chamber and two in the magazine. Any more than three shots are illegal. Semi-auto vs. pump just boils down to the hunter’s preference. A semi-auto will be faster, but a pump can withstand a lot of rough weather conditions without misfiring.
You want to choose your shot size based on the length of pellet your gun can handle and the size of the game you are hunting. 3” in the standard for most shotguns, but if you can chamber a 3.5” is better for geese. For example, if you are hunting Teal, which is a smaller bird, then you can use a smaller pellet. You will want a #3 or a #4 shot for the smaller and faster birds. Larger birds, like mallards, they need a little more power to take them down properly so you will want a #2 shot.
Many hunters carry both duck and goose loads with them into the blind. But after repeated handling, the printing on the casing will wear off. Use a sharpie to write the shot size on the end of the brass to prevent this.
Choose your choke based on the distance you are hunting. A choke will cause the pellet spray pattern to stay more tightly grouped for a longer distance or will cause it to spread out for when you are shooting at a close distance. So if you are shooting the ducks that will land right in front of you – a cylinder choke is your best bet. If your game is between 25-40 yards out, then a modified choke is ideal. Keep in mind that steel shot is naturally going to have a more tight spray pattern, so keep that in mind when choosing your choke. Here is a wonderful guide for choosing your shotgun choke size here
It’s vital to know how far out 35-40 yards is before you go hunting. A great rule of thumb is “If you can see the eye, the bird will die” which is a play on the famous quote by American Revolutionary War hero William Prescott at the Battle of Bunker Hill “Don’t shoot until you can see the white in their eyes.” It is a handy way to gauge distance.
Spending time shooting skeet or trap prior to a hunt is a smart move. It is just as important to learn how to be a wing shooter, and not cross over your neighbor. Because odds are, you won’t be the only hunter out on the marsh on opening day. Keep in mind, the ammo used for duck hunting can have a bit more felt recoil than the ammo you would use at the range.
Clothing & Waders
There is a vast difference between a GOOD pair of waders vs. a so-so pair of waders. Cold and wet is the typical weather for duck hunting – and hypothermia is not something you want to deal with when out on a fun hunt. Having warm clothes and good quality waders will save you a lot of pain and misery.
Do take into account the location of your hunt – neoprene is excellent to keep you warm and waterproof, but if you’re out on a southern coast where the temperature doesn’t get too cold it may not be something you have to have. Chest high waders are a much better option than hip waders because they will also keep you dry when you sit down. Waders with the boots attached are well worth the investment. One hunter told me, “you can buy some $50-$60 waders or you can enjoy duck hunting – you just can’t do both.”
Base layer clothing under the waders is required too. Merina Wool is naturally antimicrobial and is a great option for the base layer. A wading jacket is a really good thing to have too. Sitka is a good brand for clothing – and the quality is well worth the price tag.
Having the right camouflage is essential. You can make a mistake and still get away with things in most other categories – but if you make a mistake in camouflage, it can be complete deal-breaker. Waterfowlers will conceal themselves, their faces, blinds, boats, guns and even dogs. So how to you choose your camo? It all boils down to where you plan on hunting. If you are going to be tucked into a blind – then your camouflage doesn’t matter as much since you have sufficient cover.
Try to match your camo to the colors in the region. You want to blend into the landscape, even from an aerial view. Try to remain as natural as possible. Avoid wearing anything shiny too. Ducks have really good vision. A reflection will scare off a flock in a hurry. Ducks seem especially good at spotting hunters and blinds when it is cloudy out, as there is less sun in their eyes and the low light provides contrast.
Decoys & Calls
Decoys need to have a variety of species represented. There are a vast number of types of decoys available, and it can feel overwhelming to decide what you need. It’s a good idea to build your group based not on brand but on the type of ducks you will encounter. This is where talking to local hunters can prove invaluable! If you don’t know what species you will be hunting, you can’t go wrong with mallard decoys.
Knowing the direction of the wind is important when positioning your decoys. That can be difficult when there is only a light breeze. One solution is to have an empty squeeze bottle and fill it with talcum powder. Give the bottle a few squeezes and see which way the powder drifts.
Around 25-30 decoys is a good number to start out with. You don’t have to take them out all out with you – keep a few behind for if one or two gets damaged. There are a lot of different ways to rigging your decoys – most of the people I have talked to highly recommend Texas Rig. There are kits available, or you can research it. Don’t worry about buying the most expensive decoys out there, low to mid-range is just fine. In fact, many duck hunters have had successful harvests with just a few painted milk jugs. Get a variety of floating fakes and mechanical spinners. There is a lot of benefit with having some movement in your decoy spread.
Most people set up their decoys in a C shape or J shape spread. Make sure that the gap in the C or J is wide enough for ducks to land in. Decoy spread can get a little frustrating; you want them set up to where they are close enough to appear socializing, but not so close that they bump together. This is another aspect where knowing your birds comes in handy. Watch how the various duck species congregate. Pay attention to how close they sit to one another. Also, your spread will vary depending on what part of the mating season you are in. The earlier in the season – the more ducks you want. And later in the season, when many ducks have formed couples, you will want to reduce the number of ducks.
In addition to the spread, you want to have a few rigs configured. Many people make their own jerk rigs – there are several variations out there, and YouTube is a great resource. A jerk rig has a rope you pull on to create movement.
Duck Calls are quite possibly the most highly debated subject amongst duck hunters. There are wood calls, acrylic, and some have a combination. Then there is single vs. double reed vs. triple reed options. For beginners, there are some great 6-in-1 combination calls that will produce Mallard, Green-Wing Teal, Pintail, Wood Duck, Widgeon, and other calls. But the most important aspect of a Duck Call is learning how to use it – YouTube is handy, and ask for the advice of other hunters. Without the know-how, your duck calls more than useless – it can scare off fowl. Sure Shot Triple Reed is a good option for a natural sounding call.
But please, don’t get overwhelmed at all the calls. You don’t have to play 40 different notes of tune with each and every call. Keep the calls simple. It’s a good time to call the ducks when you can barely see a wingtip or a tail feather. Not when the ducks are flying straight at you. Practice is the key; learning how to call in ducks is truly an art form. Learn how to take apart your duck call and clean it thoroughly, a lot of junk can build up in it and affect the sound.
When you are just starting out, it is a great idea to go on a guided hunt. It’s a sure way to gain invaluable experience and knowledge. It can also make it a much more enjoyable experience for a first-timer. If you can’t go on a guided hunt, find a friend or a relative that you can tag along with. It’s even a great idea to leave your gun in the truck and just go with someone to watch and learn. The best way to learn about duck hunting is by being out in the field with someone who hunts responsibly. If you go out with someone a time or two beforehand, your first hunt is much more likely to be a success.
It is a true joy to watch a well-trained dog retrieve a downed duck. Dogs are very helpful for hunting along a creek – since creeks are typically deeper than waders will allow and you can’t swim with waders on. But if your dog yips around excitedly at birds overhead, or fails to mark easy open-water retrieves, or even is too gung-ho and breaks at every shot – your dog is more of a hindrance to you (and everyone else hunting on that lake) than a help. A part of the intricate bond between waterfowler and canine companion is the ability the hunter has to command and control his dog. A dog can be a phenomenal asset to a duck hunter but only if trained properly.
Scouting is one of the keys to a successful duck hunting venture. In fact, it quite possibly is one of the most important factors. It wouldn’t matter if you are an expert marksman with the best shotgun in the world, who has a flank of beautiful lifelike decoys bobbling along and is just singing the best duck tune all day long with the call – if there are no ducks around, then there are no ducks to shoot.
Go out with your hunting friends and scout out the area. Watch the waterways and the fields. Ducks are social and somewhat habitual – they have their loafing spots, their feeding spots, the traffic way, and their roost. But please don’t hunt at the roost. The ducks will all leave to find a new roost… which leads to new feeding and socializing spots. Scout out your new area a few times before hunting it so you can become familiar with the patterns the ducks use in moving across the property.
If you are scouting out at a feeding area, you want to scout out the X. Just like when field hunting. Game will go from their roost to their feeding area. Ducks, like other game, like to feed in the morning and evening. Your X is where the ducks have fed the evening before. It’s ok to set a visual marker for you to find the next day. Make sure you have permission to hunt wherever you have scouted out! Public hunting land is not a bad option. Public land is usually well maintained, with water and food sources for game as well as refuges. Talk to a wildlife officer about the process of hunting on public land and where the ducks are, he will probably know quite a bit about the land he manages.
You don’t have to stick to one spot. In fact, it’s a mistake to try to do so. Be mobile and patient for the best results. After the ducks have lost a few members of their flock they will avoid the area for a while. This is a part of the Adaptability Skill that great hunters have. They can hunt over a private pond one day, hunt in a wooded creek the next, and then in icy open water the next.
Many waterfowlers will make the mistake of flushing duck from their roost just before dawn. If you leave them alone, many will fly out at first light to feed and then in smaller groups return to the root later in the morning. You will have more consistent shooting if you set up along their traveling path and catch the multiple groups passing by throughout the morning.
Terrain & Positioning
Coves are great spots because they offer some shielding from bad weather and they tend to be full of plentiful vegetation for the duck to eat. These are quite possibly the most hunted pieces of land simply because of ease of access. But keep in mind – coves are wonderful places to start a hunting season, but the birds will quickly seek out a more reclusive place to hide.
Be patient on that first shot. Skybusting (shooting at ducks that are really too far away) is unwise as it will scare the flock. Remember, 20-30 yards is the prime shooting range. If you do hit a duck farther than that, you will most likely just be injuring it – which makes it hard to retrieve and isn’t a respectful hunting tactic.
Points on the waterway are used for everything – resting, feeding, and socializing. Ducks, like chickens and pigeons, will swallow tiny pieces of gravel to help with their digestion. So the tiny bits of gravel up on the edge of the shore of a Point is sought out by ducks. Keep away from Points on windy days since they are so open with no protection from the weather.
Creeks are typically very secluded and offer a lot of protection for birds from natural prey. Creeks with gaps of the sky above and rows of Oaks or native Pecans are ideal.
Ducks tend to land into the wind. Knowing this places you at an advantage – you will know which direction the ducks will come in at. Many hunters position themselves with the wind at their backs, so that the ducks have them fly straight at them for an easier target. And for many, that works well. But, when the duck approaches the decoys, he will be facing you and more likely to detect movement from you or your dog. The initial shot may indeed be easier, but any follow up shots will be problematic. Try to position yourself so that the wind is not blowing into your face. This causes the birds to “land long” – they will fly over from behind you and land away from you, which is really not the ideal set up. If you set yourself up so that you shoot crossing at an angle in front of you, your follow up shots won’t be much farther away if any.
Ducks are pretty smart. So keep in mind what kind of cover you are using. It is vital that you remain undetected – but choose your cover wisely. If you are at a pond with brown dead vegetation around it, and you choose to decide to build a blind out of green grassy substance, then the birds will know something is off. Your blind needs to be an extension of the ground around it. Pay a lot of attention to detail here.
Once you have your ducks – you need to get busy breasting. This means removing the breast meat. Unlike dove, that you can breast with your thumb, ducks you usually have to cut up the middle of the belly. Then you can easily remove the breast meat from each side and freeze it. Some people prefer plucking the bird and cooking it whole. Try a few ways of dressing it to see what fits you the best.
One of the easiest ways to field dress a duck is to separate the skin from the breast. Then set the duck on the ground on its back. Place one foot on its neck and one foot on its tail – don’t step on the wings. Stick a finger in under the top and bottom of the breast and pull it straight towards you. This will leave the wings intact for proper identification of the duck just in case the game warden was to stop you. Then when you get home, clip off the wings and filet the meat.
A very tasty way of preparing duck is to grill it. Marinade the duck for 24 hours and then place it on a hot charcoal grill. This allows the fat to slowly drip away and the skin to get nice and crispy. Keep basting it regularly and grill it for 6 minutes on each side. Make sure you take the duck off the grill while it is still pink, and then place it under the broiler for no more than 10 minutes. You want to serve it medium rare. Cover in more marinade and serve.
A great marinade for duck is ½ C of Braggs Liquid Aminos, ½ C Apple Cider Vinegar, ½ C of Honey, several crushed cloves of garlic, some freshly grated ginger root, a generous dash of red pepper flakes, 1 tsp of dried tarragon, and a heaping cup of orange marmalade.
Tips & Tricks
• Ducks can be picky and spook easily. They can see well and have a higher vantage point. On a good duck hunt, the pace of shooting will get your blood pumping fast. Load and shoot as fast as you can.
• Ice: creating open water holes in frozen waterways is a very effective tactic. You want to break the ice into large sheets that you can tuck under the remaining ice. If the ice is too thin, when you break it up it will create a bunch of small floating pieces that will cover the water. This will look unnatural and spook a flock. Also, the smaller pieces will freeze over faster. Using a net to sweep up all the floating bits is a handy trick.
• Cold fronts have strong tailwinds. Many duck species will take advantage of a cold front and will come in with it or just slightly behind it.
• Cross country ski poles are a handy tool to have for not only stability in walking through the mud, but for reaching a decoy just out of arms reach or as a support for holding up netting.
• You can leave that orange safety vest at home. The bright color will spook the waterfowl and duck hunters are exempt from that requirement.
• A boat is not a necessity – but it is extremely helpful.
• Carry a small pouch of wet wipes. You’ll thank me later.
Duck hunting is not just an experience – it’s a lifestyle. So grab some friends and go hunting this season.
Hunting is not only a wonderful tradition, and an honorable boost for conservation that we can enthusiastically pass on to the next generation, but it’s a joy. There is nothing like breathing in the crisp air of the icy morning and seeing the first light of dawn break over the ridge top. So whether you kill your limit or don’t get a chance to take the first shot, try to cherish the moment: the stillness in the field, the hushed sounds in the woods, the peace that only being out in the beauty of creation brings. Frankly, being able to down a few birds is just an added bonus.