What They Learned: Experts Share Wisdom From the Marsh

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Time in the Pit or Blind Reveals Some Unshakable Truths

Some of waterfowling's best lessons are free. You just have to pay attention to let them sink in. Photo © Bill Konway

Some of life’s most valuable lessons are learned through experience. Hunting is no different. Just ask any waterfowl hunter with a few years under his belt.

On second thought, don’t bother. We did that for you. Here’s what four veteran hunters have learned from spending much of their lives in the marsh.

Do Something Different

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results.” That quote is attributed to Albert Einstein, but it might as well have been uttered by almost any veteran duck hunter, including Brad Womble. He should know. The 47-year-old California waterfowler used to curse the days when flock after flock of ducks would reject his spread as they swung by for a look. Not anymore. Instead of cursing those fickle birds, Womble does something about it.

“I change things around,” said the Avery Outdoors pro-staffer. “I’ll pull a bunch of my decoys or turn off the spinning-wing decoy, or I’ll call less or maybe even more. The main thing I learned is that if what you are doing isn’t working, do something different. What do you have to lose?”

The change needs be sufficiently drastic that passing ducks can tell. For example, Womble will decrease the number of decoys in front of his blind by half or even more. Sometimes, he’ll decrease to less than a dozen if the ducks are flying in small groups.

Don’t wait until the birds stop flying, though. Womble will make a change after just a few groups of ducks reject his spread, even if other ducks are in the air.

“You never know if changing things around will work, but you have nothing to lose,” he said. “You might not even know what to change or how much to change it, so you just have to keep trying until you figure it out.”

Move

The only thing worse than watching ducks fly by your spread is watching them pile into a spot 100 yards away — except, of course, doing nothing about it. It took Jacob Wallace a few years to determine a simple solution to that dilemma: Pick up and go where the ducks want to be.

“If they don’t want to be where you are, you have to go to where they want to be,” said the 31-year-old Boone, North Carolina, resident and Banded pro-staffer. “It’s that simple. Don’t sit there and hope you can change their minds, because there’s a good chance you can’t. They want to be over there. You can’t go to the ducks if they are landing on private property, of course, but we see that a lot when we hunt public flooded timber in Arkansas. We mark the spot and hurry up and get over there.”

Picking up and re-setting four or five dozen decoys and your other gear can eat up a lot of the morning, but that decision has paid off for Wallace and his friends many times.

Just Go

One of the most valuable lessons Womble learned early in his duck hunting career is there’s no better time to go duck hunting than the next time you can. He used to wait for perfect conditions or favorable scouting reports — or both — before he went. Not anymore. Womble hunts at every opportunity, even when conditions or hunting reports don’t sound that positive.

“The wind can shift,” he said. “Somebody might bump ducks off a hole somewhere, or factors that you can’t see might get the birds flying. You just never know what might happen, even on a bluebird day. Besides, you can’t kill them sitting on the couch.”

Ditch the Gadgets

There was a time when it took nothing more than a few decoys, a gun, a pair of waders and some shells to kill a limit of ducks. These days, it seems like a successful hunt requires a garage full of high-tech, battery-powered equipment. It doesn’t, of course, but it took Kyle Richards almost a decade to learn that. The 38-year-old Virginia insurance agent was no different than many other hunters when spinning-wing decoys hit the waterfowl scene.

“I had to have one,” he said. “Make that, I had to have three. I bought every gadget that came out, and I put them out every time I hunted, because I was certain they were the only way to kill a limit. After about 10 years, I finally figured out I wasn’t actually killing more ducks. I think they did help at times, but I don’t know how much time I spent fixing them and how many times I went to turn them on and they didn’t work. I finally got tired of messing with them.”

Those electronic decoys are still in his garage, but instead of pulling them out when he hunts, Richards reaches for a device that doesn’t require batteries: a jerk cord.

“You need some sort of motion when there is no wind,” he said. “Six decoys on a jerk cord is all it takes. I wish I knew that before I spent all that money on electric decoys.”     

Be Respectful

Some of the most valuable lessons are free. Wallace began hunting with a group of mentors that did things right, including showing respect and courtesy toward other hunters. That lesson seems to be lost on many public-land hunters nowadays.

“Lack of respect and courtesy has really turned into a big problem on public land these days,” he said. “The more crowded it gets, the worse things some hunters are willing to do to other hunters. They will set up right next to you, they will try to push you off a spot and they shoot at birds that are clearly working your decoys. None of those things are necessary.”

Wallace will first talk to hunters who might attempt to set up too close under the premise they simply were not taught proper hunting etiquette. He might even invite them to hunt with his group.

“I’ve met some good guys by doing that, but more important, I think it helps reduce any possible conflict, and it helps get the message across that you don’t have to be inconsiderate to have a productive hunt,” he said. “I’m afraid too many of my fellow hunters haven’t learned that lesson yet, but we should all try to be nicer to each other.”

It’s Not You

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how nice you are to fellow hunters. The ducks just don’t want to play, and there is nothing you can do to change the outcome, said Kenny Gray, a 43-year-old construction company vice president from Chestertown, Maryland. Some spots attract ducks and geese day after day and year after year. Others just suck eternally.

“I know of some blinds out over open water that are duck magnets, while another blind across the creek hardly ever kills any birds,” he said. “It might be more or better food, or it could be something that you or I might never be able to figure out. Whatever the reason, some places just don’t draw ducks like other places, even when they seem identical. There is nothing you can do about it.”

So how do you know? Simply, if you try every trick in the book and the birds still refuse to swing by your spread, the most important lesson is that it’s probably time to find a new place to hunt.

It’s Just A Duck

There was a time when Richards would do about anything to shoot a duck, even if meant flirting with death. Long rides in overloaded boats across rough, finger-numbing water (while not wearing a life vest), chasing dead ducks as they floated down rain-swollen rivers and walking on ice over deep water were just part of the hunt. One event changed his outlook.

“A guy who was my age and had kids drowned after his boat capsized in rough water near where I hunt,” he said. “That made me stop and think. That could have been me. I’ve done things that could have gotten me killed if one little thing had been different. I’m much more cautious now. Do I really want to risk my life for a duck? My basic rule now is that if I have a gut feeling that things could go wrong, I don’t go, or I fix it so that I have a better feeling. Have I missed out on some good hunts? Probably, but duck hunters die every season because they did something foolish. I’d rather err on the side of caution than leave my wife and children without a husband and father. It’s just a duck.”

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