And why these different birds share a common thread
Like the seasons, duck hunting usually follows somewhat predictable patterns.
In the upper Midwest, it usually starts with local mallards, wood ducks and blue-winged teal, followed by early migrants, the peak flight and then a few hardy stragglers at the end. Hundreds of miles south, the season begins with “calendar” ducks and then hinges on subsequent pushes of migrators, depending on weather patterns.
As time passes, however, trends can change. Ducks don’t punch time clocks or follow rigid travel instructions, after all. Flyways shift, conditions vary and birds might behave differently. It’s part of the ever-evolving world of waterfowl.
Still, for human hunters accustomed to perceived certainties, some subtle differences seem to stand out. In fact, I’ve noticed recently that a few birds I encountered frequently years ago have become scarce. It probably has little to do with species numbers or migration patterns. Rather, my perceptions have likely morphed through the years.
Either way, I don’t see these ducks as often nowadays.
The Gullible Prairie Gadwall
My buddies and I were part of the shock-and-awe cadre of nonresident hunters that began descending on the prairies in the late 1990s. Hunting in North and South Dakota was ridiculously good, and if you couldn’t find a field or slough full of greenheads, you could always resort to Plan B — or should I say Plan G: the ever-reliable gadwall.
Gaddies weren’t that common in the Midwest at that time, so we regarded them as a novelty. Further, those early prairie gadwalls behaved like every duck should, returning to sloughs in small groups after being flushed away, and decoying like they were approaching a pile of cracked corn. We shot a lot of ’em, including many during hunts where our cover was laughable.
That has changed. Gray ducks are no longer the butt of jokes or an easy backup hunt. Hunters have turned them into “real” ducks. They circle endlessly. They land out of range. And although they’re still not as sharp as mallards or pintails, they’re not dummies. Southern hunters likely experienced this long before I did, but I’ve seen these birds change before my eyes. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. Hunters like challenges, and a strap full of gaddies probably means a bit more nowadays than it did in 1998. Still, the shift has been remarkable.
The Friendly Migratory Bluebill
Depending where you hunt, scaup — mostly lessers but some greaters — continue to be the bread-and-butter duck for most diver hunters. They’re never easy, thanks to their swift, erratic flight and the rugged big-water environments they inhabit. Still, they used to seem more consistent.
That is, ’bills and other divers used to arrive in good numbers and then provide shoreline and open-water hunters with fairly reliable action for a few weeks, depending on the weather. Hunters didn’t always fill up on bluebills, but if you had favorable conditions and shot straight, you could make hay during good days.
About 18 years ago, I noticed a disturbing trend. Some bluebills in my neck of the woods began flying high and avoiding decoy rigs. Maybe they’d always done that, but I’d never noticed it. Either way, the trend increased, and nowadays, any bluebill that’s been on a body of water three days or longer behaves like a local duck. They flare. They leave roosts before shooting hours and don’t return till after dark. They sit in hidden sanctuaries and thumb their noses — er, bills — at hunters.
Changing weather and habitat might explain some of that. Traditional Midwestern diver food sources, such as freshwater shrimp or fingernail clams, declined in some areas, and bluebills have adapted well to new, exotic eats, such as zebra mussels. And generally warmer falls typically have led to an increase in fishing and recreational boating traffic, which harasses diving ducks and hazes them like nothing else.
Again, I’m not complaining. I’ll take the bluebill challenge as long as the government offers a season. But the game is more involved now.
Opening weekends in production states such as Wisconsin always offered great opportunity, with incredibly high duck numbers and just enough pressure to keep birds moving throughout the day. In fact, the season’s second morning was usually great, too.
Nowadays, however, that second morning can be dicey. It seems like local teal, wood ducks and especially mallards learn quickly from the carnage of opening day and adapt immediately. Sometimes, birds fly well for the first five or 10 minutes of shooting light on Day 2 and then vanish, leaving nothing but warm sunlight shining on motionless decoys. On many waters, action is essentially finished for the year. I’m not kidding.
The obvious solution is to identify where those ducks go and figure out how to intercept them there. It’s not a shoot; it’s a challenge. Many hunters opt out, however, and instead suffer through long, dull mornings while recalling great shoots from previous seasons and complaining that their state game agency has inflated reports of duck numbers.
The New Scene
You’ve likely identified two takeaways from this blog. First, Lovett is old, and he loves to bore readers with tiresome yarns about yesteryear. Second, the behavior exhibited by these ducks is obviously an adaptation to human hunting pressure.
You’re correct on both counts, of course. Prairie gadwalls won’t continue to decoy in endless flocks only to be shot up by eager hunters. As much as they love to work decoy spreads, bluebills will not put up with constant boat traffic and gunning pressure. And although opening weekend catches many young ducks by surprise, no bird will long endure the din of gunshots and mud motors so common on public water these days.
Yeah, the past was great, especially when it included lightly hunted ducks. However, I have no intention of living there. I hope that noticing these and similar trends will force me to react to changing waterfowl behavior and increasing pressure and become a better, more innovative hunter.
If not, I’ll truly become an old-timer content to glorify the past, lament the present and miss out on great opportunities in the future.
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Realtree waterfowl editor Brian Lovett has been an obsessive duck and goose hunter for more than 30 years, chasing his passion on the Dakota prairies and the marshes and open water of his home state of Wisconsin. He's been a writer and editor in the outdoors industry since 1991.