Waterfowl Hunting: Getting Started

By Mark Goodwin | August 21, 2015
From Missouri Conservationist: Sep 2015

“Ducks! Ducks!” the hunters whisper. Tiny black specks appear on the horizon. Best eyes spot them first. Approaching fast, the ducks take form — mallards. At least 20.

Drawn by calls, decoys, and a field of flooded corn, the mallards circle high above, their wings pounding the air. Cold hands clasp cold shotguns. Circling, circling, lower they come. A hen mallard calls as the ducks circle in from the left. One of the hunters whispers, “They’ll be at 35 yards when they make this pass. Should we take them?” “No,” comes a response. “One more pass and they’ll have feet down, ready to land in the decoys. We’ll shoot then.”

Out of sight behind the hunters, the ducks begin to circle. At 70 yards, they reappear — flying straight away. Frantic, the hunters grab calls, but it’s too late. The mallards fly on, become tiny black specks, then disappear. “What could have spooked them?” one of the hunters asks. They study the blind. It’s good. Someone shrugs “who knows?” They stamp their feet to keep warm and scan the sky. Moments pass, then again comes the whisper: “Ducks! Ducks!”

This is waterfowl hunting. Like a religious experience, it can change you. Only if you have hunted waterfowl can you understand the draw of the sport — how it can eclipse all others. Wish to risk a case of waterfowl obsession? Here’s how to start.

Find a Mentor

To a beginner, waterfowl hunting can be intimidating. First, there are a number of seasons. There’s teal season in September, followed by the resident Canada goose season. Then comes the duck season, opening in three different zones across the state. Then there are separate seasons for Canada geese and brant, white-fronted geese, and light geese (snow, blue, and Ross’s). To abide by these seasons and bag limits, waterfowl identification skills are essential. And you must throw into this mix the fact that regulations often change from year to year.

There are other concerns. Equipment can be extensive and expensive, but affordable options are available. Learning to call waterfowl requires much practice. Once you learn, then you must learn when and how often to call. In addition, public hunting areas are often large. Where are the best spots to hunt on an area? And what about decoys? How do you set up a decoy spread?

For help with all these matters, a veteran waterfowl hunter, serving as a mentor, is invaluable. How do you connect with one? If you hunt other game in Missouri, chances are you have a friend — or a friend has a friend — who is a seasoned waterfowl hunter. Most are willing to help hunters get started in waterfowling. All you need to do is ask.

Another option is to join a local conservation organization, such as Ducks Unlimited or Delta Waterfowl. These and other groups are flush with members who are eager to pass on the hunting tradition.

Mind Your Manners

Follow these points of waterfowl-hunting etiquette. Your mentor will appreciate it. In a permanent blind, corners are often the best spots because they offer a wider shooting angle. Though your mentor will probably want to give you a corner, be sure not to take one every time you hunt.

Assure your mentor that you will shoot only when he tells you. A common complaint among veteran waterfowlers is hunters who shoot when the birds are still too far away. The best waterfowlers get most of their ducks at under 30 yards, with the birds coming in, feet down, preparing to land in the decoy spread.

If your mentor has a retriever, never be critical of its mistakes. Even well-trained retrievers have bad days. Most hunters are proud of their dogs and appreciate compliments for good dog work. Criticism, on the other hand, can produce hard feelings.

Putting together a waterfowl hunt often involves some expense and handling a lot of gear. Make sure you contribute. Offer to drive or pay for gas. If food is part of the day, be sure to bring some. Permanent blinds often have space for cooking, and during mid-morning lulls, the guy with the portable propane stove who fixes pancakes and bacon is well liked.

Get in Shape

Visit a public waterfowl hunting area during the pre-dawn draw for hunting spots, and note the hunters’ physical condition. Regardless of age, they tend to be fit. There’s a reason: hunting waterfowl can prove physically demanding. Walking a quarter mile to a hunting spot in heavy waders through water and sucking mud, while dragging a layout boat loaded with decoys and assorted gear, will make any heart pound. It’s best to have a regular schedule of aerobic exercise as part of your routine if you plan to hunt waterfowl, especially if you’re 40 or older.

Practice Safety

Aside from being in good physical condition, there are other safety concerns that go with waterfowl hunting. One is hypothermia. Always wear lots of layers and bring a complete change of clothes. Layers can help you avoid sweating during a hard slog, then having it freeze while you’re waiting in the cold for the ducks to arrive. When hunting in cold weather over water, there is the chance of falling or stepping into water that goes over the top of your waders. If that happens, a change into dry clothes keeps you in the game.

Hunt with at least one other person. That way, in case of an accident, you have help.

Know the area you are hunting. If you’re on a public area, and you don’t know the spot you have drawn to hunt, ask the area manager about ditches and other areas where water might suddenly get deeper. If you have to walk through water to your spot, use a walking stick to feel the depth of the water in front of you.

Large, permanent blinds often hold four hunters comfortably. With that number of hunters, acknowledging proper fields of fire is vital. Shooting toward another hunter will, at best, ring his ears — at worst cause injury.

Learn the Basics

As in all hunting, one of the most important keys to success is being where the game is, when the game is active. You may draw first pick at a public waterfowl-hunting area. Looking at posted records, you see hunters have “limited out” in a certain field three days in a row, so you pick that field. If, however, you set up in the field in a spot waterfowl aren’t using, you probably won’t bag many.

Be Where the Birds Are

If you set up to hunt in an area, and notice that waterfowl are using a different section of the area — move to that spot. Never mind that you spook a few birds in the process and burn a little hunting time. Put yourself where the waterfowl want to be.


Once set up where waterfowl are, hide yourself. Even if it’s shooting hours and birds are trying to work in, do a thorough job of concealment. Most novice waterfowl hunters overlook this point, and wonder why they have a hard time working ducks and geese into shotgun range. The answer is simple: the birds see them. If you are hunting from boats, cover them in dead vegetation found close by. Cover yourself, too. If sitting on a bucket among flooded corn, pull cornstalks around yourself. If you think you are well concealed, but waterfowl are still flaring from your hunting spot, you probably haven’t done a good enough job of hiding. Or you may be moving. When waterfowl are flying over, you must be absolutely still. Birds have the best vision in the animal kingdom.

Don’t Over-Call

Calling waterfowl is an important skill, but many hunters overdo it. Listen to flocks of waterfowl and note how much they call. That’s what you should imitate. Your calling should help waterfowl locate your decoys. Once accomplished, any more calling, if at all, should be limited.

When learning to call, give friends and family a break. Practice when you are by yourself. The sounds you make when learning to call ducks and geese will most likely fall outside the category of pleasant listening. You can find lots videos of experienced waterfowlers showing how to call ducks on YouTube.

Set a Proper Decoy Spread

Learning to set out a proper decoy spread is simple. Place them in a loose horseshoe pattern, which gives waterfowl a patch of open water, somewhere around 30 by 30 feet, to land in. Place yourself 15 to 20 yards from the open water, facing it, with the wind to your back. This is important, because waterfowl prefer to land into the wind.

How many decoys you use is a personal matter. Some hunters use dozens; others use fewer. More important than number is decoy motion. If the day offers little breeze, decoys will sit motionless, failing to attract waterfowl, which are drawn to the motions of live ducks. On such days, hunters often use motion decoys or jerk strings. If hunting in flooded timber, where ducks are less likely to see you, kicking the water often produces enough ripple effect to attract ducks.

Be Patient

Patience is another important facet of waterfowling. Often, at first light, waterfowl action is fast. After an hour or so, action slows. By 9 a.m., the sky may be devoid of waterfowl. Many waterfowlers assume action is over and head home. These hunters miss some of the best hunting. Though an hour or two may pass with no waterfowl, later flights frequently offer great action.

Watch the Weather

During waterfowl season, be a weather watcher. The majority of Missouri’s waterfowl is migratory, breeding in the northern states and Canada, and flying south to overwinter. Often, just ahead of strong cold fronts, come flights of new ducks. Looking for places to rest and feed, they typically respond well to calls and decoy spreads. Usually, the nastier and more blustery the weather, the better the waterfowl hunt.

Support Waterfowl Conservation

Waterfowl Hunting and Wetland Conservation in Missouri — A Model of Collaboration is a must-have for all serious migratory bird hunters. All proceeds from this richly illustrated book’s sales are dedicated to wetland and waterfowl conservation that benefits Missouri. The book is available for purchase through the Nature Shop at mdcnatureshop.com.

The cost of the Federal Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamps, more commonly known as “duck stamps,” has gone from $15 to $25, the first price increase in more than 20 years. Many hunting, conservation, and wildlife-watching groups have been asking for a higher priced duck stamp for more than a decade. This is because 98 cents of every dollar generated by duck stamp sales goes directly to purchasing or leasing wetland habitat. Since 1934, duck stamp funds have been used to acquire more than 6 million acres of wetland habitat, providing homes for countless wildlife species and places for hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy. The $10 increase will help protect an estimated 17,000 additional acres of habitat every year.

Stamps are available at some U.S. Post Offices, Department of Conservation regional offices, or online at on.mo.gov/1L1Bnwx. Online orders are charged an additional $3.50 for shipping and handling.

Visit MDC’s Waterfowl Hunting Web Page

Missouri’s best public waterfowl hunting is found on 15 intensively managed wetland areas around the state. Visit on.mo.gov/1D6vFH3 to browse managed waterfowl-hunt areas and their morning draw procedure if they have one, as well as waterfowl reports, seasons, zone boundaries, and regulations. Waterfowl season begins when ducks and geese are migrating in the fall. The season start is staggered between zones, with the northern zone of the state opening earlier than the middle and southern zones. This provides plenty of hunting opportunity as waterfowl migrate south across the state. The specific dates and regulations are set in summer and are published in the Waterfowl Hunting Digest, which you can find online at on.mo.gov/1Kvgxp3 or anywhere hunting permits are sold.

Cooking and Cleaning

When it all comes together, and you head home with waterfowl, it takes just a little knowledge to convert your birds to excellent table fare — with one exception. Mergansers are a group of ducks that eat only fish. The meat of mergansers is extremely fishy tasting.

Other ducks and geese, if cleaned and cooked properly, make for excellent eating. At home many hunters take a sharp knife and cut the breast meat off waterfowl, but you can also save the legs for braising. If any of the breast meat is bruised or bloodshot, cut it out.

People often complain that ducks and geese taste like liver. If that has been your experience, cut the breast meat into 1 to 1½ inch pieces and soak them in water for two or three days, changing the water twice a day. This will pull the blood out of the meat, which will remove much of the liver flavor.

With this done, marinate the meat in your favorite marinade, place it on kabobs flanked with cherry tomatoes and pieces of sweet peppers, fresh mushrooms, sweet onions, and fresh pineapple. Grill over a hot charcoal fire, two to three minutes a side, giving the meat a hard sear but leaving the inside pink and juicy. The results will please.

Finding and Raising a Good Retriever

Though not a necessity, a good retriever adds much to a duck hunt. There’s great joy in watching a well-trained retriever practice its craft. There is also the practical benefit of having a dog retrieve your downed birds. A fine retriever, however, results from careful breeding and training. You can’t just buy a retriever pup, feed it, and when it’s grown, take it hunting. An untrained retriever will ruin a duck hunt, as will a hunter who spends his time whistling and yelling at such a dog.

Well-trained retrievers or well-bred pups are your best options for a waterfowl dog. Training involves knowledge and dedication to the task. There are many fine references for anyone interested in retriever training

Also In This Issue

Black Walnuts
From walnuts and hickories to hazelnuts and pecans, Missouri forests harbor many delicious, protein-rich foods.
Urban Deer
Managing deer in urban and suburban areas promotes safety and makes better use of the resource.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Angie Daly Morfeld
Art Director - Cliff White
Associate Editor - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Heather Feeler
Staff Writer - Kristie Hilgedick
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Thurber
Circulation - Laura Scheuler