Waterfowlers constantly lust for fresh birds — ducks and geese that fly during daylight, commit willingly to decoy spreads and turn on a dime when they hear a greeting call.
Yet many days in the marsh bring another reality. Birds that have been spooked, harassed and shot at for a day or two begin to behave differently. They flock to refuges or other areas where hunting isn’t possible, often flying only before or after shooting hours. And they’re instantly suspicious of most decoy setups, often flying high or circling endlessly before heading elsewhere. We often call these birds “stale.” That’s really a euphemism for “tough to hunt” or “downright frustrating.”
Of course, ducks and geese usually get tough because of human pressure, which raises an interesting question: Can waterfowlers change their behavior to avoid creating uncooperative birds? Here’s what several top-level hunters had to say.
John Gordon, a former guide who handles public relations for Banded and Avery, said minimizing hunting pressure is the only way to avoid creating stale ducks.
“That’s it,” he said. “If you walked out your front door every day and were shot by a neighbor with a pellet gun, pretty soon you would be going out the back. Ducks need safe havens where they can rest. That’s easy enough to do on private lands, as long as you have plenty of rainfall. Dry years like this one take a toll on every property, as there are fewer places ducks can go and be unmolested.”
Regulations that limit pressure can help, Gordon said, especially in public situations.
“Most wildlife-management areas and refuges do a good job by allowing hunting only on certain days and times or by draw only,” he said.
Justin Martin, general manager of Duck Commander, good-naturedly took issue with the term stale ducks.
“Well I think the term stale should be referred to chips and bread and the like,” he said Justin Martin. “I think the appropriate term to use when looking at these birds is pressured. There are for sure things we as hunters can do to avoid making birds this way. For example, with the lack of water in northern Louisiana we have right now, we have a hard out-at-9-a.m. policy in effect. We do this to limit pressure on the few birds and little water that we have. It allows the ducks a time and place to come rest up and get away from other hunters. While we aren’t killing the numbers of birds that we should be, we are finding the birds we kill to be very workable and not too bad decoy or call shy. The times I have hunted places that don’t put in some sort of pressure management, we have had a hard time getting birds to fully commit, and they will skirt the decoys. We won’t hunt a spot back to back either right now. We are very fortunate that we have enough places to hunt that this is an option.”
Many folks have limited options, however, often sharing leases or public water with other hunters. Still, Martin said, they can limit pressure on birds by changing their behavior.
“Only shoot birds with their feet out in the decoys would be one way,” he said. “Limit your pass-shooting. Many times, when pressured birds are the only birds left, it’s often best to leave your call in your pocket for the most part. I lean heavily on single quacks and a pintail whistle during this time. Change your decoy spreads to not look like everyone else’s, too. Also, hunt high-percentage days. By this, I mean hunt days with plenty of wind and good duck weather conditions. Wind and sun are a deadly combo, as well as wind and pouring-down rain. If it’s a calm day, go deer hunting or crappie fishing. Both are arguably better table fare than ducks.”
John Pollmann, a well-known waterfowl hunter and writer from South Dakota, echoed Martin’s sentiments, saying hunters can reduce their pressure footprint by minimizing their impact on large concentrations of birds.
“In other words, try hunting the edges of a group of birds, avoiding the main roost or group, maybe by targeting secondary feeds or trying to traffic birds along a flight path used by the main group of birds as they move from roost to feeding areas,” he said. “If you have to hunt the main group of birds, make the hunt quick — an in-and-out type of situation where you aren’t pushing to shoot a limit and are content to pick up quickly after maybe only shooting into two or three flocks. This is why it is sometimes good to hunt solo or with only one other hunter when you’re trying to avoid educating birds, and use minimal amount of gear so it’s easier to get in and get out.”
Avoid Me, Me, Me
Jeremy Dersham, owner of Ridge and River Running Outfitters, guides hunters on the renowned and heavily hunted Pool 9 of the Mississippi River, between Iowa and southwestern Wisconsin. Like Pollmann and Martin, he said hunters must recognize scenarios that create stale birds and resist falling into behaviors that can worsen the situation, especially on popular areas.
“The reality is we and the generations behind us have done many, many things right when it comes to public rivers and wetlands birds call home,” he said. “We have a lot of options and opportunities to chose from.”
Dersham said hunters should resist selfishness and take a common-sense approach toward pressuring ducks and geese. He mentioned a situation from the previous fall, when a few hundred birds — teal, gadwall, mallards and some pintails — started using a small, secluded water off the main channel of a hard-hunted public river.
“I decided to hunt the outskirts and channel right next to the little water the following day,” he said. “At daybreak, the ducks were true to form and headed back into the little water, but a not before flock after flock cupped and committed to our big spread, resulting in limits of ducks. We never touched the area they wanted to be and left that area completely by 9 a.m. The next morning, we were able to get back to the secluded water and set up a micro spread. And at daybreak, it was craziness, with flock after flock of birds committing to the spread. Once again, we were out early in the morning. The next day, I left it alone, but on the fourth day, we hunted the smaller water again, with the same results, and by the fifth day, new birds were moving in. The point I’m trying to make is I could of had the attitude of hunting that little water hard every day until I drove the birds out, with the mindset that if I didn’t hunt it, someone else would. That mindset is so wrong. Yes, absolutely, somebody else could have hunted it later in the day or got there earlier in the morning, but they didn’t. If we all have the mindset of me, me, me, we’re going to (anger) other hunters and push birds out. It’s that simple.”
Experts agree that hunters can police their behavior and limit their impact on waterfowl to improve hunting success to some degree. Still, we’ll probably never completely solve the dilemma of stale birds.
“Bottom line, if ducks are hunted in an area long enough, they are going to become very difficult to harvest,” Gordon said. “There is nothing to be done about it.”
Click here for more Realtree waterfowl hunting content. And check us out on Facebook.
Get the latest waterfowl hunting news, tips and tactics in your inbox!