Pro Tips for Duck Hunting’s Toughest Challenges

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Whether you can’t decoy them, can’t hide from them, can’t hit them — or all the above — you need to read this expert advice

Ducks and geese don't always follow the playbook. Get creative to turn the tables on them. Photo © Phil Kahnke

If you’ve hunted ducks and geese much, you know how this goes:

You try a setup, but it doesn’t work. You rearrange the spread. That doesn’t work either. You try a different setup. Same story. You keep asking yourself, "What am I doing wrong?"

Sometimes you can’t figure it out. But the experts can help. I recently posed several challenging scenarios to dedicated waterfowlers across the country to see how they would handle those problems. Their answers can make your hunting outings less stressful and more successful.

Finicky Late-Season Geese

Hunter: Travis Mueller, regional sales manager at Banded Brands, Iowa

The Problem: There’s a week left in the season, and the Canadas are concentrated in a riffle on a small river. Do you hunt it and risk a one-shot deal? They never seem to feed in the same field twice.

Mueller’s Solution: Chances are those birds are loafing on the small river and roosting on much larger open water, so I’d hunt the riffle. Depending on the weather, you’ll likely have traffic throughout the day, so you can get creative with your setup, including using sleeper shells, floaters, full-bodies and flagging. If the birds relocate, they’ll likely just move up or down the river, and you should be able to hunt them the rest of the season.

Pro Tip: Only shoot at smaller bunches of returning birds, if you can help it. Also, don’t overhunt this spot. Rest it between shoots. 

Ice Issues

Hunter: Tony Vandemore, co-owner of Habitat Flats, Missouri

The Problem: It’s a sunny day, and you break a hole in the ice and put out a great-looking duck and goose spread, but birds keep flaring.

Vandemore’s Solution: If birds are flaring with perfect conditions over an ice hole, it’s probably an issue with my hide. That’s what I’m going to address first. When birds circle but won’t finish, sliding the edges of the decoys, I believe it’s a decoy issue. Also, I’d look at the ice that was broken out of the hole. Did you slide it under the existing ice or just push it up on top? If you pushed it on top, it can glare like crazy. Always try to push the ice you’re removing under the remaining ice to combat this.

Pro Tip: When I hunt an ice hole, I mostly use sleeper Canada shells for ducks and geese. On-the-water motion, such as a jerk cord, is also vitally important.

Shots at Geese

Hunter: Dan Compton, product line manager at Federal Ammunition, Minnesota

The Problem: You have no problems decoying Canadas but can’t knock them down. You’re shooting 3.5-inch steel BBBs at 20 to 30 yards.

Compton’s Solution: Have you patterned your shotgun? Larger pellets often create tighter patterns. At that distance, you might have to be right on the bird with little forgiveness to ensure a hit. Patterning the gun will let you know how wide the shot is hitting at that range, how dense the pattern is, and where you should aim at the bird — high, low or right on. A 3.5-inch 12-gauge BBB would be considered a long-range load and might be overkill for decoying Canadas. I would try Black Cloud 11/4-ounce 3-inch BB or No. 1 shot and save the 3.5-inch loads of larger shot for days when birds are not finishing and you have to reach a little farther.

Pro Tip: I’m a huge fan of pattern density and high pellet count, meaning smaller pellets. Within reason, that is. If birds are finishing at 20 yards and I practice self-discipline, I’ll go as small as No. 2 or even 3 shot and concentrate on that vulnerable head-and-neck region.

Frozen Gun

Hunter: Travis Madden, Avery Outdoors/Banded pro, Utah

The Problem: Subzero temperatures lock your shotgun during a January hunt.

Madden’s Solution: Nobody wants a gun to malfunction, especially during a barnburner. To ensure that doesn’t happen, start with preventative maintenance at home. Clean your gun regularly. Oil tends to collect dust and dirt and can thicken, especially in cold weather. I prefer a silicone-based lubricant, as it will dry and not collect dust and dirt. I also carry a small can of lubricant in my blind bag. If my shotgun locks up, I can disassemble it in the field and apply the lubricant.

Pro Tip: When I lived in Iowa, we’d hunt geese in temperatures well below zero. Sometimes, nothing worked. However, if I know it will be that cold, I’ll strip my shotgun internally with brake/carburetor cleaner to get rid of any gummy lube and then lightly spray the moving parts with a Teflon- or graphite-based dry spray. Also, carry a small bottle of automotive lock de-icer in your blind bag. One spritz usually gets parts moving again.

Spinning Out

Hunter: Terry Denmon, president and CEO of Mojo Outdoors, Louisiana

The Problem: During cloudy days, your spinner flares birds a bit.

Denmon’s Solution: If it’s cloudy and ducks aren’t finishing, I would first attempt to determine the cause of the problem, understanding that it’s often the result of multiple factors, some of which you cannot control. If I believe it’s spinning wings on a cloudy day, I would first swap the wings for a set of Mojo Cloudy Day Wings. If ducks approach to within a certain number of yards of the decoys but no closer, move the spinner at least that same distance from the hole. I would not eliminate it, as you’ll give up your long-range attraction. I would always keep one spinner for long-range attraction, even if it’s 100 yards from the spread.

Pro Tip: I’d add other devices, such as the Flock-A-Flickers, to maintain the attraction concept, only in a more realistic presentation. Last, I’d recognize that some days, you might not decoy ducks because of various factors, some of which — again — might be outside of your control.

Land-Shy Bills

Hunter: Brad Bortner, retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist, Washington

The Problem: A lake holds plenty of bluebills, but they’re landing outside your spread and shore blind.

Bortner’s Solution: It’s always better to hunt waterfowl where they want to be. That’s a much better bet than trying to get them to come to you. If bluebills use the area in front of your blind when you aren’t hunting but won’t commit when you’re there, figure out why. Try moving the decoys to one side, or split them to both sides to give ducks a place to land. Try moving the spread closer. Maybe add some motion. If you can get on the lake, look at the blind to see if something’s out of place. Divers typically fly low over the water, so try to identify any glare that keeps them from seeing your spread.

Pro Tip: Stand back and really examine your setup with a critical eye. Something’s out of place. Also, watch how the next group of birds works the decoys. And the next. Identify a pattern to discover what you should fix.

Fly the Flag?

Hunter: Shane Moon, owner of North Flight Waterfowl, Washington

The Problem: Your goose flag seems to have a negative effect, making 90 percent of the flocks turn.

Moon’s Solution: If the flag’s not working or it’s flaring birds, it might be too shiny. Or maybe you’re using it when birds are too close. Hit the birds on the corners or while they’re at a distance. Every tool has its time and place, so change when and how you use it. If your flapping technique doesn’t work, flag more aggressively, or be more subtle with it — just a flick now and again to keep birds coming and on line. Above all, make it look real.

Pro Tip: Still not working? Put it away.

Wrong-Way Decoys

Hunter: Mike Callian, calling champion and guide at Big Guns Outfitters, Washington

The Problem: Geography requires you to set up with the wind in your face.

Callian’s Solution: In a head-on wind situation, I typically push my decoy spread out another 10 to 20 yards and put the hole right in front. Flip it so it faces your blind. This will feel uncomfortable at first, but if you time your calling and motion with a jerk cord right, birds should work directly over your back and finish between you and the decoys. Make sure you’re hidden well, as the birds will pick apart the cover as they approach from behind.

Pro Tip: Sometimes, you must play the cards you’re dealt. I hunt a place where that happens often. I cover up extremely well and let birds work from behind as they come from the bay. I crowd the opposite side of the shallow sheet water puddle — about 50 yards away — with duck and Canada floaters and try to force birds to land between the spread and my hide.

Need the Bead?

Hunter: Rafe Nielsen, director of marketing and communications at Browning, Utah

The Problem: You love the looks of the front fiber-optic bead on your new shotgun, but your shooting seems to have suffered

Nielsen’s Solution: Don’t panic. Whenever you change anything on a gun, it takes time to adjust to the new look or feel. Spend a few minutes at the range. Get used to the new look. Pattern the gun again to make sure the new sight hasn’t changed your point of impact. If the gun is patterning correctly but you still can’t hit birds like you used to after a few rounds of clays, get rid of the sight. Not all accessories help.

Pro Tip: A friend was in a slump after buying a new shotgun. After listening to him one day in the goose field, I pulled out a multi-tool and unscrewed the big green fiber-optic bead at the muzzle. “Try that,” I said. Problem solved. You can’t look at the bird and a green glowing orb at the same time. You must focus both eyes on the bird as you mount the gun and begin to form your lead.

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