Wood Duck Hunting Dos and Don'ts

By author of The Duck Blog

Use Specialized Tactics for These Swift, Tasty Birds

Do: Set Up Where They Want to Be at First Light

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1 | Do: Set Up Where They Want to Be at First Light

At daybreak, wood ducks almost always have a destination in mind, and they waste no time getting there. Typically, they lift off from roosting waters before shooting hours and fly straight to a preferred feeding or loafing area. You need to identify those spots and be set up before they get there.

That isn’t too tough. Observe wood duck movements in marshes or lakes at first light to see where they land. Locate oak-lined stream corridors, flowage arms or farm ponds that attract woodies to succulent acorns. Identify travel corridors such as streams or ditches that woodies follow between roosting and feeding spots.

Then, set up in the dark, and be ready the instant shooting hours open. Morning wood duck flights can be intense, but they’re brief — sometimes lasting only a minute or two. Identify your target and select quality shots to collect your birds. Just remember, woodies don’t often decoy in classic fashion, so you should take the first good opportunity they provide instead of waiting for a feet-down, wings-back candy shot.

Photo © Tom Rassuchine/Banded

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Don

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2 | Don't: Overshoot Roost Areas

You can set up at roost areas before last light and enjoy great woodie action as ducks return just before dark. However, birds will not put up with that for long. In fact, at smaller roost waters, they might abandon the area and roost elsewhere the rest of the season. Even if they hang around, they’ll adapt their travel patterns, usually leaving the roost well before shooting light and returning in darkness.

It’s usually better to hunt flight paths between loafing or feeding areas and roosts. That might be as simple as staking out a likely travel route along a creek or river, or perhaps setting up along a narrow channel or promising shoreline on a flowage. Sure, throw out a few decoys, but again, be ready to take the first good shot streaking wood ducks provide. Trust me, they won’t circle back for another look, especially when they’re on their way to their bedroom.

Photo © Yvon Trep/Shutterstock

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Do: Look for Woodies in Cut Ag Fields

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3 | Do: Look for Woodies in Cut Ag Fields

Yep. Contrary to what some folks say, wood ducks love to feed in harvested grain fields, including oats, beans and corn. This is especially true during lean acorn years and in fields that border creeks, rivers, marshes or impoundments.

No secrets to success here: Drive back roads at dusk and dawn, and look for birds on the ground and in the air. I’ve found that fields with lots of Canada goose activity often attract lots of wood ducks, so you might stumble on to a great dual-species shoot. When you locate the X, secure permission, and, just as in the marsh, get set up well before shooting light. Then, be ready the second legal shooting time arrives. The best wood duck action will occur during the first 30 minutes, though you might attract a stray flock later.

Photo © Tom Rassuchine/Banded

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Don’t: Spend Too Much Money on Wood Duck Decoys

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4 | Don’t: Spend Too Much Money on Wood Duck Decoys

Yeah, they’re pretty, and sure, I own a bunch of them, but you really don’t need many wood duck decoys. As mentioned, woodies are extremely place-oriented. If you’re where they want to feed, loaf or travel, they’ll probably plop down into a spread of two decoys just as readily as they’d commit to a 100-block rig.

For water hunts, I throw out six to 12 wood duck decoys to attract the attention of birds and perhaps slow them down for a split second. Spinning-wing decoys work sometimes, especially early in the season. During field hunts, I leave the duck decoys at home and use all full-body goose decoys. If you’re on the X, woodies will dive-bomb a goose setup. Later in the morning, honkers will dig it, too.

Photo © Bill Konway

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Do: Jump-Shoot Woodies at Midday

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5 | Do: Jump-Shoot Woodies at Midday

Walking or floating a color-lined stream during a golden autumn day might be one of duck hunting’s greatest pleasures. Best, it lets you target resting or feeding wood ducks without having to get up at dark-thirty.

Ideal creeks or rivers are difficult to access and feature lots of bends and curves, which let you slip undetected within range of ducks. If possible, use a canoe or skiff to glide silently and cover water quickly. However, don’t overlook smaller waters where you must wade. Just go slow, and focus on being silent and stealthy.

Often, you’ll see woodies on banks or under overhanging trees or brush just before they fly. Get ready to shoot, because those ducks will flush and get out of there in a heartbeat, often giving you just a brief parting shot. Sometimes, if you don’t shoot at escaping wood ducks, the birds might return later that day, so waiting an hour or so in ambush never hurts. But again, be ready. They’ll zip in and out of range quickly, and you won’t get a third chance.

Photo © Mircea Costina/Shutterstock

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Don’t: Let That Fresh Bounty Languish

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6 | Don’t: Let That Fresh Bounty Languish

News flash: Wood ducks make great table fare. News flash No. 2: They always taste best fresh, so don’t throw those ducks in the freezer and let them sit for six months.

Honestly, I cannot put wood ducks in a freezer. Every one I shoot is cleaned after the hunt and thrown on a piping-hot grill soon after. Often, some bluewings and maybe a few dove breasts accompany the woodies. Seared rare to medium rare, those fresh wood duck breasts are my favorite meals of early autumn.

If you’d prefer a more complex way to prepare wood ducks, that’s cool. Check out Michael Pendley’s Timber 2 Table ultra-creative and scrumptious duck recipes. You will not be disappointed. Just don’t let that bit of waterfowl heaven sit around in the icebox.

Photo © Tom Rassuchine/Banded

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Do: Use a Great Dog to Recover Wood Ducks

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7 | Do: Use a Great Dog to Recover Wood Ducks

I’ve shot quite a few wood ducks while hunting without a dog. However, I advise against that. Woodies aren’t especially hardy, like a goldeneye or long-tailed duck, but they have a nasty knack of escaping if they hit the water alive. In fact, no other duck hides in undercut banks or streamside vegetation as well as a woodie. Further, many early-season wood duck haunts are loaded with cover — bulrush, cattails, lily pads and flooded timber — that makes it especially difficult to see downed birds. I’ve shot some that seemed to disappear before the ripples subsided.

Easy fix here, folks. Use your retriever. Work with your pooch to mark and recover birds in cover. You might not need a dog for every retrieve, but you’ll be darn glad to have one when a crippled drake woodie splashes down in a creek and starts swimming.

Photo © Tom Rassuchine/Banded

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If you hunt east of the Mississippi River, wood ducks have probably played a big role in your waterfowling career.

They might be the everyman’s duck, common on sloughs, creeks, backwaters, flowages, lakes, marshes, rivers and ponds throughout the North, East, Midwest and South. Heck, many of the wood ducks in the Pacific Flyway and Deep South are year-round residents that never migrate. So, most folks who have purchased a duck stamp and picked up a shotgun have experienced the enjoyment and excitement of wood ducks.

But although woodies are seemingly ubiquitous, hunters must use specialized tactics and a somewhat different mindset to take them consistently. Here, in no particular order, is a list of dos and don’ts to enjoy wood ducks more this fall.

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