How to Hunt Ducks

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Published on: Oct. 2, 2000

Last revision: Nov. 5, 2010

"If I must choose among the sports that draw me into the open, it will be duck hunting. No other sport with rod or gun holds so much of mystery and drama." -Gordon McQuarie, The Bluebills Died at Dawn

Hunters of my generation grew up believing we were heirs to a wasted legacy. By the time we were old enough to shoulder a gun, all that remained of the golden age of duck hunting were vintage tales by Gordon McQuarrie and Nash Buckingham.

Throughout our youth, drought and wetland drainage continued to take their toll on duck numbers. The number of duck hunters thinned, too. From an all-time high of 53,100 in 1977, Missouri waterfowl hunter numbers shrank to 22,500 in the early 1990s.

Then, something miraculous happened. Ducks Unlimited and other citizen conservation groups, together with state and federal agencies, restored millions of acres of wetland. When rain returned to drought-stricken nesting areas, duck numbers rebounded. Several duck species now are at or above their historic levels. Suddenly, the golden days of duck hunting are back.

Duck hunters’ ranks remain depleted, however. The sport requires specialized gear and knowledge passed from generation to generation. Once decoys were abandoned and the chain of inherited knowhow was broken, the fraternity of duck hunting couldn’t be restored to its former vigor overnight.

The following pages may not make you an expert, but they contain everything you need to know to get started. If you wonder why you should bother, I recommend reading Dabblers & Divers: A Duck Hunter’s Book, published by Ducks Unlimited and Willow Creek Press of Minocqua, Wis. It captures much of the magic of duck hunting.

Essential Gear

Any general-purpose shotgun 20 gauge or larger is practical for duck hunting. Modified or improved cylinder chokes are preferred.

Because lead shot poisons waterfowl and birds of prey, including eagles, waterfowl hunters must use ammunition with non-toxic shot. Steel is the least expensive alternative. It isn’t quite as heavy as lead, so it has a shorter effective range. However, years of experience have demonstrated that steel is effective at reasonable ranges. Other choices include bismuth/tin, tungsten/iron and tungsten polymer, all of which are ballistically superior to, but more expensive than steel.

The choice of shot size depends on type of shot, the size of the ducks you hunt and your average shot range. Experts recommend using steel shot two sizes larger than you would use if you were shooting lead shot or the ballistically comparable nontoxic shot alternatives. If Grandpa always used No. 4 lead shot for mallards, trade up to No. 2 in steel.

Many hunters find No. 3 steel shot a good all-purpose load. For decoying ducks at short range, No. 5 or No. 6 steel shot can provide excellent results.

Waders are a necessity in most duck hunting situations. Features to look for include insulation, reinforced knees, a shell pocket and a fit that allows easy movement. Waders don’t have to be expensive to be serviceable, but I’d advise you to buy the best you can afford.

Decoys come in a dizzying array of sizes and shapes, but the Missouri duck hunter’s mainstay is the standard-sized, plastic mallard. Add some pintails and other species, plus a few feeding or sleeping duck decoys to make your spread more realistic.

Decoys come with weighted keels or water keels. The water keel is a hollow chamber beneath the body that steadies the decoy in rough water or wind. These work as well as weighted keels and are lighter to carry.

Flexible lead strap weights will stop decoys from drifting with the wind, and they are easy to secure when not in use by wrapping the weight around the keel. Tie them on with braided nylon cord, but avoid bright colors.

Four dozen decoys are enough to attract ducks in small wetlands. Use at least six or seven dozen in large, open water, especially if you have competition from other hunters. To keep down the cost of a large decoy spread, buy unpainted decoys and decorate them yourself, using a factory job as a model.

Nylon mesh bags with shoulder straps are indispensable for carrying decoys if you don’t have a boat. Once you accumulate more decoys than you can carry on your back, a canoe is the cheapest, most versatile means of transportation. A johnboat with a motor is handy when you have a long haul to your hunting spot. For serious duck hunters with plenty of cash, it’s hard to beat layout boats or fully equipped duck boats that double as mobile blinds.

The choice of a duck call is personal. A call that makes one hunter the Pied Piper of pintails can sound like a rusty kazoo in another’s hands. Try several calls before buying one. Then invest in an instructional tape and practice every chance you get. Listening to real birds in the field also helps improve your calling.

Ideal duck hunting weather is chilly, breezy and wet, which is why longtime duck hunters accumulate an entire wardrobe exclusively for their chosen sport. Wool and plastic will do if you can’t afford breathable, water-resistant fabrics and exotic insulation. Just be sure to dress in layers that you can shed to avoid soaking your clothes with sweat when setting out decoys or doing other chores.

Camouflage is essential. Make sure everything ducks might see - including you - is covered in camo.

You can purchase all the essentials of duck hunting for well under $1,000, or half that if you already own a serviceable shotgun and waders.

Where and When

"...ducks fly best when the weather’s worst." - Ed Zern, Wings and Water, Guns and Dogs

The most obvious question facing beginning duck hunters is, "Where can I hunt?" The question that bedevils beginners and graybeards alike is, "When should I hunt?" The Conservation Department can help you answer both questions.

Missouri has dozens of wetland areas where you can hunt ducks. Thirteen have managed duck hunts with limited access to ensure hunting quality and safety. These are listed in the annual Migratory Bird Digest, available wherever duck stamps are sold. Half the daily hunting slots at these areas are awarded through a reservation process in September. The other half are awarded by drawing each morning.

Hunters who show up for daily drawings run the risk of being turned away, but the process provides access to Conservation Department personnel who may know about good spots and can tell you how to get there.

You can get information online about which areas have the most ducks. Waterfowl distribution survey data is available at www.mdc.mo.gov/hunt.

Often, the best time to hunt is when an arctic cold front moves into Missouri, pushing migrating ducks ahead of it. Watch weekly waterfowl surveys at such times and be ready to hunt the next day. Daily duck harvest data from various areas, also posted on the Conservation Department’s website, provides further insights into where the hunting is hot. Another option is to visit with other duck hunters through the Conservation Department’s online "Conservation Café," at www.mdc.mo.gov/chat/.

Once you learn the basics of duck hunting at these areas, you can find your own secret hunting spot on one of Missouri’s big rivers, around a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers reservoir or on a local lake or wetland.

Secrets of the "raft"

"The waterfowler who lures birds to decoys is like a painter, working his canvas in the half-light of morning to create an illusion of nature and life. His raw materials are water, marsh, blocks of wood and a sense of proportion." - Norman Strung, Misty Mornings and Moonless Nights

To a novice, one decoy spread looks pretty much like another. But designing a "stool" that pulls ducks in is an art. A good decoy spread must take into account three rules of waterfowl behavior.

Ducks are polite

They won’t land in the middle of an area already occupied by other birds. Use this to your advantage by leaving an inviting opening in the middle of the spread and positioning that hole so it’s within shooting distance of your blind. Arrange decoys in the shape of a letter C or V so incoming ducks can land without flying over other (fake) ducks.

Ducks always fly into the wind when landing

Orient your decoy spread so birds flying into the open slot are flying into the wind. Position yourself slightly to one side of the birds’ approach path so they aren’t looking directly at you.

Ducks are detail oriented

Gun-shy ducks are quick to spot details that make a situation look "wrong." If ducks refuse to land in your spread, check the following details.

  • Real ducks don’t have anchor cords draped over their heads or backs. Overturned decoys should be righted as soon as you spot them.
  • Ducks only huddle close together when they are spooked and ready to fly. Keep decoys at least three feet apart.
  • Ducks tend to cluster in groups of three to 10 of their own species. Imitate this "family" grouping habit.
  • Real ducks paddle around, dive and preen. If no wind stirs your spread, kick up some waves with your feet to make the decoys bob. Or tie several decoys to a long rope and tug on the end occasionally.
  • Adjust the orientation of your spread for wind shifts. Monitor your spread constantly for drifting decoys or other problems.
  • Freeze. Don’t turn your head to watch circling birds when they go behind you. Don’t fidget with your duck call or other gear. Ducks may ignore unfamiliar objects that sit still, but strange things that move make them nervous.

Calling

"One man’s blowing can be wholly effective, of course, but put two fellows to work who know their notes on well-tuned instruments and some added ‘come hither’ gets into circulation." - Nash Buckingham, from Mattock Bay Mallards

To reproduce a duck’s raspy, reedy voice, you have to grunt or whisper into most calls, using your vocal chords rather than just blowing. Blow from your diaphragm, with cheeks and throat held tight. To imitate the "quack" sound that is the building block for most duck calls, blow a gust of breath into the caller and cut it off by touching your tongue to the roof of your mouth, as if saying "huuut." Mastery of five basic calls will enable you to bring birds within shotgun range.

  • The hail call consists of three to five loud to medium "huuuts" with descending pitch and volume. Start with this call when you spot a flock of birds.
  • The come-back call sounds like the hail call, but it is softer and the notes are more drawn out. Use this call to turn a flock back your way if they get sidetracked or if they make a pass at your spread and then fly straight away, as if to leave.
  • The feeding chuckle is a low, gabbling call. Use it intermittently, throwing in a few soft, single quacks, when birds are circling your spread at close range.
  • Silence is the most difficult call for novice duck hunters to master. The more you call, the more you risk making an error. As long as the birds are doing what you want them to do, play it safe and be quiet.
  • Instructional tapes are helpful in learning to use your call, but to learn to call ducks, observe an experienced hunter. Don’t just listen, but watch the birds. You’ll discover that good callers adjust call type, loudness, frequency, cadence and urgency to the birds’ behavior.

Permits

Duck hunters must have a Migratory Bird Hunting Permit and a federal Migratory Bird Conservation Stamp, more commonly known as a duck stamp. Those over age 15 also must have small game hunting permit.

Gunning Strategy

"Ben with his improved cylinder and ‘trap loads,’ was to have ‘first crack’ at the call-downs. My job was to pick off side-climbers, flatten swimming ‘crips’ and, in case of dry spells, to make myself as useful as possible with the ‘tree-top talls.’" - Nash Buckingham, Mattock Bay Mallards

Duck hunters who leave the order of fire to chance inevitably find themselves clobbering the same birds, while a dozen others within easy range escape untouched. Buckingham and his companion based their gunning strategy on their individual wingshooting abilities and the limitations of their guns and ammunition. To ensure maximum shooting opportunity, they let the flock come all the way in, waiting until the lead birds were practically on the water before opening fire.

Another common shooting strategy is to divide the area around the blind into fields of fire. The person on the left takes the leftmost birds, the hunter on the right shoots birds on his side, and the one in the middle confines his shooting to the center of the flock.

Things get more complicated with more than three gunners. Rotating gunners, each person shooting in turn, is usually the best option. The details of your gunning strategy are less important than actually having a strategy. Ducks have a way of obliterating the best-laid plans, but your chances of bagging birds are better if you at least start with some general ground rules

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