You practice wing-shooting regularly, and use a gun, load and choke that perform well together. Further, you combine calling and decoys to sucker birds sure-kill close and only take ethical shots.
Yet some days, that doesn’t always pay off. In fact, during many hunts, some ducks or geese are wing-tipped, chest-shot or otherwise wounded and can escape if you don’t act quickly.
We hate to admit it, but crippled birds are part of waterfowl hunting, and as a conscientious, ethical hunter, you’re obliged to dispatch or recover those fowl, even in thick cover or across long distances.
Use these tips to add more of those marginally hit ducks and geese to your strap this fall.
Dogs are King
Obviously, the best way to recover the highest percentage of ducks and geese is to hunt with a retriever. Even a dog with modest training will help you find many more birds. A well-trained retriever will amaze you.
I can’t begin to cover the steps you must take to bring a puppy to the status of a polished hunting dog or even touch on everything involved in hunting with a retriever. People much more skilled than I am have written volumes of books on the topics. Suffice to say, your ultimate goal should be a dog that is steady, marks fallen birds well and handles well in the field, even with numerous distractions. You want to work as a team, with you helping the dog get in the area of the downed bird and then letting your pup’s amazing nose and athletic capabilities take over.
Remember, the dog’s performance afield will reflect its training. You can’t expect Fido to mark a wood duck that sails 200 yards away in timber and then take a straight line to that bird if you’ve never trained for that scenario. After a dog has the basics down, train it to hunt in cover and make land-water-land retrieves. Make sure your pup will stop at a whistle blast and then take hand signals from you, whether on land or in water. And work on casting your dog far downrange with the back command. If you only send your retriever back 100 yards during training, it will typically stop at that distance in the marsh and begin searching back and forth for the bird. It’s not the dog's fault; it’s all he knows.
We make this sound complicated, but it doesn’t need to be. Read training manuals, watch instructional videos or, best, work with an experienced trainer to push your pooch to new heights. That work will pay off directly with birds in the bag.
Without Dogs: Dry Land
Many guys use their dogs when hunting geese or puddle ducks in ag fields. That’s fantastic, provided the dog is steady and can remain still. Some dogs can’t, so their owners leave them at home. Or, other folks figure they can retrieve any bird they knock down in an open field, so a dog might just get in the way. And going dog-less in a field carries challenges.
Again, not every bird will drop stone dead in the decoys. Many are chest-shot or hit “farther back,” to steal a bowhunting term, and sail for long distances before dropping. Often, these birds are dead, but not always. Get on them immediately. Do not wait until the next flock decoys. Mark every bird that’s down, walk quickly to that area and recover them as fast as possible. A wounded goose can run like a pheasant, and I’ve seen them disappear into fence lines, tall grass or even bean fields if given a chance. Close the gap, and dispatch them immediately.
Be especially aware of birds that don’t appear to be hit after you cut into a flock. Any goose that flies away low or seems to have slower wingbeats might have taken some pellets. Watch these birds carefully, as they might float to earth a quarter-mile or farther away, or even circle and land awkwardly in nearby water. Make every effort to locate and recover those cripples, even if it means interrupting your hunt to take a long walk or get permission from a neighboring landowner. You owe it to the birds.
Without Dogs: Water
Open-water diving duck hunters often leave their dogs at home, and for good reasons. First, dogs get in the way when a boat is crammed full of decoys, guns and other gear. Second, you can use a high-powered motor boat to chase down and recover birds. Still, any wounded bird in open water can cause trouble.
The first step to recovering every duck is to make absolutely sure they’re dead. If a bird hits the water and pops its head up, do not hesitate — shoot it. Continue to shoot it until it’s done. And don’t assume that a bluebill or bufflehead that splashes down and goes belly-up is finished. I’ve seen them float that way for two minutes or more and then suddenly right themselves and begin diving. Keep an eye on them until they’re in the boat.
When a crippled duck begins diving, things get more interesting. If you’re hunting from a boat blind, you’ll likely have to pull up anchor and give chase. Layout hunters must hail the tender boat and then inform the tender pilot where the duck is. Then, it’s up to the tender captain to locate and kill the bird. (Make sure you’re legal when doing this; regulations vary by state.)
Often, the most challenging aspect is finding a duck that’s diving for long spells. Sometimes, a wounded bird will pop up only long enough to catch a breath and submerge again. During calm conditions, you can usually get a good idea of their direction and try to cut the bird off. When it’s windy or, worse, white-capping, this is difficult, as you often cannot see the white on a diver amid the white-topped waves on the water. Typically, badly injured divers don’t have the strength to fight stiff wind or steady waves, so they’ll usually dive downwind. Start your search there. Or, if you’re close to a shoreline, birds often head there to seek cover in weeds, downed trees or other areas. It helps to have two people in the tender boat; one looking one direction, another the opposite way.
However you locate the bird, get on it as quickly as possible, and keep pounding shells at it until it’s dead.
Full disclosure: You probably won’t go a full season without losing at least a bird or two. It happens, even to the best hunters and dog trainers. But by training, preparing and then making every effort in the field, you will boost your percentage of recovered birds substantially. And that’s a worthy goal no matter where or how you hunt.
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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.