Here it is: your ultimate duck hunting guide. We've compiled pages of tips, tactics and advice explaining the basics and have added loads of links to in-depth articles and videos that will help first-time hunters and four-flyway veterans. Our goal is simple: to teach you how to hunt ducks more effectively.
Simply reading this and perusing the links won't make you a better duck hunter, of course. Ducks continue to thrive because they deftly dodge predators — especially hunters. That challenge is what makes duck hunting so rewarding.
Get out in the marsh and apply these lessons on North America's ducks. You'll soon learn what works in your area and what doesn't. And you'll likely pick up some great duck dinners along the way.
Table of Contents
- Learn Duck Species: Snapshots of North America's Ducks
- Where to Duck Hunt: Find Birds in Marshes, Fields and Big Water
- When to Hunt Ducks: Early Morning, Late Afternoon and Between
- How to Decoy and Call In Ducks: Critical Skills Pay Dividends
- Gear Up for Duck Hunting: Equipment You'll Need to Succeed
- How to Shoot Ducks: Wing-Shooting Basics for Waterfowl
- Duck Hunting Dogs: Retrievers Find and Save Game
- How to Cook Ducks: Enjoying Your Birds on the Table
Snapshots of North America’s Ducks
This isn’t a scientific text, so we won’t delve too deeply into duck physiology, habitat specifics and other details. Also, because most folks reading this will probably hunt in North America, we won’t cover duck species from other continents or the Southern Hemisphere.
Most people divide ducks into four loose groups: puddle ducks, also called dabbling ducks; diving ducks; sea ducks; and whistling ducks, also called tree ducks. You can hunt birds in the former two groups throughout North America. The latter two are confined to somewhat limited geographic areas.
These birds typically inhabit freshwater wetlands, including marshes, river backwaters, shallow bays and prairie pothole lakes. They usually tip up — heads and torsos underwater, rumps and feet in the air — to feed, typically in a foot or less of water. Many puddle ducks often feed on land. They are omnivorous, eating vegetation, aquatic invertebrates and, across much of their range, agricultural crops. Because of their diet, puddle ducks generally make great table fare.
Puddle ducks function much better on land than their diving duck cousins. Their legs are centered more toward the middle of their bodies, so they walk easily on land. Dabblers have smaller feet than divers, and their toes aren’t lobed.
Further, when taking flight, they use their powerful legs and wings to flush upward and become airborne immediately.
Although dabblers vary greatly in size, they have relatively large bodies. Because of that, their silhouettes appear different on the water than divers. Old-timers often said, “Head high, diver; body high, puddler.”
"Because they’re wary and great to eat, mallards are prized by hunters above almost all other ducks."
- Mallard: Undoubtedly the world’s most recognizable duck, mallards are common throughout North America. They're large, typically measuring about 2 feet and weighing up to 3 pounds. Drakes are often called greenheads because of their glossy green noggins. Throughout their range, mallards eat almost anything, including invertebrates, and submergent and emergent aquatic vegetation. When migrating, many mallards focus on agricultural crops, including corn, beans, wheat and barley. Mallards have a massive breeding range, from the northern one-third of the United States north to Alaska. They typically migrate late in fall and winter throughout the southern United States, with the largest concentrations in the Mississippi Flyway. Mallards are fairly vocal, and their vocabulary provides the basis for most duck calling. Because they’re wary and great to eat, mallards are prized by hunters above almost all other ducks.
- Wood Duck: Perhaps the world’s most beautiful duck, wood ducks differ from other puddlers. Although they frequent shallow-water habitat, woodies nest in tree cavities and spend lots of time perched in trees. They’re common throughout the eastern United States, and many Southern-nesting woodies don’t migrate. Wood ducks feed heavily on acorns and aquatic vegetation, such as duckweed. They eat crops from time to time, especially during years with poor mast production. Because of their diet, wood ducks are among the best birds on the table. When taking flight, hen wood ducks utter a distinct “hoo-eek, hoo-eek” squeal. Many wood ducks migrate very early, but some will stay in the North till late October or even early November.
- American Black Duck: Also known as black mallards, these large puddlers look the part. They share the same dimensions as mallards and often frequent the same habitat. Black ducks are most common in the Atlantic Flyway, common in the Mississippi Flyway and somewhat rare farther west. They’re late migrators, and often stay in the North as long as food and open water remain. Sadly, black duck numbers have decreased in recent years. Blacks commonly hybridize with mallards, and some scientists believe competition from mallards might have hurt black duck numbers. Black ducks are extremely wary and among the toughest birds to decoy.
- Northern Pintail: Also called sprigs, pintails are skinnier but slightly longer than mallards. Their graceful appearance, long necks and gull-like wings distinguish them in flight. Pintail breeding habitat and, thus, populations have fallen on hard times in past decades. Still, the birds maintain a large breeding area throughout North America and northern Eurasia. Hens have a coarse quack, but drakes utter a short, trilling whistle. Pintails typically migrate early, though not as early as blue-winged teal. They prefer very shallow water with good submergent vegetation, but they will also join mallards and other puddle ducks to feed in fields.
- American Wigeon: These beautiful ducks, also called baldpates, are shorter and appear slightly stockier than mallards. They have short bills, narrow wings and pointed tails. You can often distinguish wigeon in flight by their white bellies and easily visible white wing shoulders. Wigeon feed heavily on aquatic vegetation, and sometimes steal wild celery and other plants from canvasbacks and other diving ducks. They often feed on land, but typically eat grasses or other plants more than crops. They’re fairly vocal. Drakes use a distinct three-note whistle, the middle note of which is higher than the others. Typically, wigeon begin migrating in early to mid-fall, later than teal or pintails.
- Gadwall: Gadwalls, or gray ducks, are similar in size to wigeon. Their numbers experienced a surge in the late 1990s, and they are among the most abundant ducks in the prairie regions of the Central Flyway. Much like wigeon, gadwalls feed heavily on aquatic vegetation. The species are often seen together, though gadwalls don’t feed on land as much. They typically migrate at about the same time as wigeon. Hen gadwalls sound somewhat like a hen mallard, but drakes utter a “blat” sound. They often decoy willingly.
- Blue-Winged Teal: These tiny ducks measure only about 16 inches and weigh less than a pound. They’re the earliest migrant, often leaving breeding grounds in August or September. They migrate farther than any other duck, often to South America. Bluewings are among the most acrobatic waterfowl. They feed heavily on shallow aquatic vegetation and are usually good to eat. Drake bluewings peep softly, and hens have a rapid, nasal four- or five-note quack similar to but higher pitched and more rapid than that of a mallard.
- Cinnamon Teal: Common only in the West, cinnamon teal are similar to their bluewing cousins. The drake features gorgeous cinnamon-colored breeding plumage, and the hen looks much like a bluewing. Cinnamon teal migrate early and prefer shallow wetland areas.
- Green-Winged Teal: The smallest puddle duck, greenwings migrate far later than bluewings, often not leaving the North until freeze-up begins in late October and early November. Drakes utter a short, high-pitched peep, and hens have a soft, nasal quack. Like bluewings, greenwings are extremely agile in flight, twisting and darting like shorebirds. They prefer shallow wetlands but feed heavily along exposed shorelines.
- Northern Shoveler: Also called spoonbills, smiling mallards or Hollywood mallards, shovelers are common throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Shovelers are named because of their broad, flat, shovel-like bill, which lets them strain food from the water. They eat more plankton and aquatic invertebrates than other ducks, so they are not considered good table fare. They’re swift fliers. Shovelers migrate fairly early. They usually prefer shallow wetlands but will sometimes congregate on big water when migrating.
As their name implies, diving ducks dive under the water — sometimes to great depths — to feed. During spring and fall migrations, they congregate on big water, including large lakes, major rivers, vast impoundments and the Great Lakes. Most divers eat submergent vegetation or aquatic invertebrates, specifically mollusks. Their value on the table varies depending on diet.
Diving ducks have smaller wings and shorter, stouter bodies than puddlers, so — except for ringnecks — they must run across the water to take flight. Their wingbeats are much more rapid than those of puddlers, which lets hunters distinguish them at a distance.
The feet of divers are proportionately larger than those of puddlers, and their legs are set farther back on their bodies, so they’re clumsy on land. However, those features make them superior swimmers and divers.
Ruddy ducks and pochards — the group of diving ducks that includes canvasbacks, redheads, scaup and ringnecks — usually feed in 10 feet of water or less. Buffleheads, goldeneyes and sea ducks often go deeper. In fact, all divers sometimes feed at greater depths.
"Though canvasback populations have struggled the past few decades, the birds remain among the most highly regarded ducks."
- Canvasback: The “king of ducks” is one of North America's most prized waterfowl. Though can populations have struggled somewhat the past few decades, the birds remain among the most highly regarded ducks. Canvasbacks feed heavily on aquatic tubers and vegetation, especially wild celery. They also eat aquatic mollusks. They typically begin migrating in mid-fall, usually after ringnecks and redheads but slightly earlier than bluebills. Cans typically decoy well, but after being hunted for a while become wary. They’re among the best-tasting ducks.
- Greater and Lesser Scaup: Most Central and Mississippi Flyway hunters are familiar with lesser scaup, commonly called bluebills. Greater scaup, also called broadbills, are somewhat more common in the Pacific and Atlantic flyways. Greaters and lessers are very similar, with the former being slightly larger than the latter. Old-timers maintained that greater scaup had more green tint in their heads and that lessers had more purple. The best way to distinguish lessers from greaters is their wing feathers. The secondary flight feathers of both feature a white band. In greater scaup, the white band extends into the primary feathers, almost to the wingtips. In lessers, the white band stops before the primaries. Scaup raft in large groups on big water during fall migrations. They feed heavily on aquatic invertebrates, including scuds, or freshwater shrimp, and increasingly common zebra mussels. Lesser scaup hens utter a "brr," but greater scaup hens aren’t vocal. Greater and lesser drakes utter a “scaup, scaup” grunt that gives them their name.
- Redhead: About the size of wigeon or gadwalls, redheads are beautiful, swift-flying ducks. Their coloration is similar to that of canvasbacks, though their necks are shorter, their backs are grayer, and their bills are light blue-gray with black tips. They appear blockier in flight compared to cans. Redheads congregate on large waters during migration but will also frequent smaller marshes and prairie pothole lakes. They typically begin migrating fairly early. Redheads eat submergent vegetation and aquatic invertebrates.
- Ring-Necked Duck: Often called by its more-appropriate nickname, ringbill, this duck is about the size of a lesser scaup. Probably because they can fly without first running across the water, ringnecks often visit smaller waters, including marshes, sloughs and small lakes. Many old-timers called them “marsh bluebills.” Ringnecks are among the earliest-migrating diving ducks, usually starting in early October, at about the same time or slightly earlier than redheads. They favor aquatic vegetation. They are swift fliers and willing decoyers.
- Bufflehead: Also called butterballs, these swift birds only measure about 15 inches and weigh 1 pound. Buffleheads nest in trees, and they typically migrate south in late fall, usually later than bluebills but earlier than goldeneyes. Some remain in the North as long as open water persists. Buffleheads don't congregate in huge numbers like bluebills, but flocks of 15 to 30 aren’t uncommon. Also, along with goldeneyes, they tend to fly along shorelines more than other divers. They typically eat aquatic invertebrates.
- Common Goldeneye: Also called whistlers because of the high-pitched whistling emitted by their wings in flight, goldeneyes are the latest-migrating duck, often flying south just ahead of freeze-up. Goldeneyes are about the size of redheads. They feed heavily on mollusks and other aquatic invertebrates, but they’ll eat some vegetation. Because of their diet, they typically make poor table fare. However, they're strong fliers, and many late-season hunters enjoy shooting them. The Barrow's goldeneye is very similar to its common cousin. However, it’s mostly restricted to the West. The white cheek patch of a Barrow's is crescent-shaped, and that of a common goldeneye is round.
- Ruddy Duck: These tiny ducks have stiff, fan-like tails. Ruddies migrate early in fall and sometimes congregate in huge numbers on big water. They are typically not wary, and would rather swim or dive from danger instead of fly. Therefore, many hunters do not shoot them.
- Mergansers: Not often sought by hunters, mergansers come in three varieties: the large common merganser, the medium-sized red-breasted merganser, and the small, ornate hooded merganser. Mergansers are also called sawbills because they feature long, narrow, serrated bills designed to capture their favorite food: fish. Because of their diet, mergansers make poor table fare. They typically migrate in late fall, usually earlier than goldeneyes but later than scaup.
As their name implies, sea ducks are marine-oriented birds and fairly uncommon inland. However, freshwater hunters, encounter some each year. Actually, many scoters and long-tailed ducks winter on the Great Lakes. The most common sea ducks include the aforementioned longtails, formerly called oldsquaws, and three varieties of scoters: surf, white-winged and black, also called common. The beautiful harlequin duck is considered a bucket-list bird by many. It has two populations: Pacific and Atlantic, and the former is much larger.
Eiders come in four varieties: common, which has four distinct races (Pacific, Northern, Atlantic and Hudson Bay); Steller’s, which are distinct to the Pacific Flyway; spectacled, also distinct to the Pacific Flyway; and king eiders, which winter in the Pacific and Atlantic flyways. Steller's and spectacled eiders are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The West Indian whistling duck is endemic to the Caribbean. Black-bellied whistling ducks are long-legged and breed from southern Texas through coastal Mexico and Central America. Fulvous whistling ducks range from southern California through Texas to the Louisiana Gulf Coast and Florida.
Find Birds in Marshes, Fields and Big Water
Duck species differ physiologically and have varying requirements, so you can find birds in many types of habitat.
As mentioned, puddle ducks are geared for shallow-water feeding, so they flock to marshes, swamps, lake shorelines, river backwaters, temporary wetlands and similar areas (think puddles). Many, especially wood ducks and sometimes mallards, feed and loaf in small creeks or rivers. Also, most puddlers — especially mallards, pintails and black ducks — feed heavily in harvested agricultural fields. Habitat preferences change with availability, too. Mallards that hatched in the Canadian prairie pothole region readily flock to flooded timber and rice fields when stopping over in Arkansas and points south.
Divers, meanwhile, prefer much bigger water. During migrations, they congregate in large flocks on lakes, rivers, impoundments, large sloughs, the Great Lakes and even coastal estuaries and shorelines. That's why some folks call them "bay ducks" or "lake ducks." Areas that provide safety and preferred foods — vegetation, mollusks, other invertebrates and even fish — attract the most birds. For example, up to 70 percent of the world’s canvasback population might pass through Pool 9 on the Mississippi River every fall because the area features vast beds of wild celery and has large refuge areas where birds aren’t bothered.
"Because ducks inhabit various areas, locating them might seem difficult. Actually, you only need observational skills and a willingness to work."
Because ducks inhabit various areas, locating them might seem difficult. Actually, you only need observational skills and a willingness to work. Sure, you can usually find plenty of places to hunt by asking acquaintances or scanning internet chatter, but those well-known areas usually attract lots of hunting pressure, which equates to spotty hunting. You’re better off breaking from the crowds and finding your own birds.
Locating diving ducks can be relatively easy. Find good vantage points on large waters, and glass for resting or flying flocks. Often, birds might appear as distant dark spots in an ever-moving oil slick. Wind will get them moving, though, which lets you identify birds. If shoreline scouting fails, fire up a boat, and investigate likely feeding or roosting areas. Keep your distance from large flocks on the water, though, as hazing birds can make them relocate.
Likewise, finding puddle ducks in ag fields can be fairly simple. Identify likely feeding areas — corn, bean, oat, wheat, barely or other fields — near large water roosts, and then glass them during early morning and evening. Often, ducks hit fields at first light and then again right before dark. Look for birds flying overhead or milling about grain stubble. Fields that attract geese will also likely attract ducks. Glass these spots carefully to check for the smaller ducks amongst honkers or snows.
Locating puddlers in shallow-water environments can be more difficult because you often can’t glass these spots from the road or other vantage points. In such cases, burn some boot leather, or motor, paddle or push-pole into swamps, potholes, backwaters, creeks or flooded timber to find birds. Note where ducks flush or land — a protected point in a large bay, for example — and try to identify potential setup spots.
Above all, keep an open mind. To paraphrase a cliché, ducks are where you find them. After a while, you’ll get a knack for areas that attract birds during various weather conditions and times of year. Keep your eyes to the sky, and ducks will reveal themselves.
Early Morning, Late Afternoon and Between
"Duck migration patterns seem to shift and change constantly. Some constants hold true, however, and duck hunting seasons revolve around those."
Ducks undertake massive migrations every autumn, vacating Northern areas as winter nears to find food and open water farther south — and making many stops along the way. As you can imagine, seasons vary greatly depending on latitude. Further, duck species migrate on different schedules, and while some are lounging in the Gulf of Mexico, others are huddled in an ice hole thousands of miles north. In fact, waterfowl migrations remain somewhat mysterious. Some birds follow similar schedules every autumn — blue-winged teal and many diving ducks, for example. These “calendar ducks” seem to arrive like clockwork season after season. Conversely, other birds remain at migration stopover areas until major weather fronts move them south. Many hunters question if weather or photoperiodism (the response of an organism to seasonal changes in daylight) drives migration. It’s probably a combination, but every year is a bit different, and migration patterns seem to shift and change constantly. Some constants hold true, however, and duck hunting seasons revolve around those.
Blue-winged teal begin migrating from Northern breeding areas in August, and many states — including those in the Deep South — hold special September teal seasons. General duck seasons through much of Canada and even the northern United States open in September, and hunters typically shoot locally nesting birds or duck staging for migration. Farther south, more seasons open in October and November, and destination states where ducks winter remain open through December and January. It should be noted that the federal government keeps tight control on waterfowl season structures and limits, so states receive a strict limit on the number of days they can hold duck seasons. Many states try to maximize opportunities by creating several zones and split seasons. Wisconsin, for example, has three zones, two of which have split seasons, to allow good early, peak-migration and late-season hunting.
Climates and conditions also vary greatly throughout the flyways. Early-season hunting in the North, for example, might involve summer-like conditions. Six weeks later, those marshes might be frozen. Meanwhile, hunters in Arkansas might wait weeks for seasonably cold weather to move a good push of mallards their way. And Florida waterfowlers can usually shoot ringbills and redheads in 70-degree comfort.
Timing Your Hunt
Some folks also question the best time of day to hunt ducks. That’s simple: Go when you can.
"Ducks are especially active during cold or windy days or when weather conditions change. They don't fly as well during periods of unseasonably warm weather, much like humans wouldn’t like to don parkas and run a 5K when it’s 80 out."
Ducks are usually most active during early mornings, when they move from roosting areas to feeding or loafing spots, and late evening, when they go back to roost. Generally, you’ll have good opportunities a half-hour before sunrise till an hour or two after, and then again during the final hour of daylight. (Check shooting hours in your area, though. Legal times vary.)
Weather adds another element. Ducks are especially active during cold or windy days or when weather conditions change. They’re not as active during periods of unseasonably warm weather, much like humans wouldn’t like to don parkas and run a 5K when it’s 80 out. Likewise, they don’t fly as well when the wind is light, as they can feed, rest and loaf on calm water almost anywhere.
Changing weather contributes to another element: migration. As mentioned, weather fronts often move ducks along the flyway, bringing fresh, less-savvy migrants to eager hunters. Often, the transformation seems to occur overnight, as a stiff northwest wind followed by a cold, clear morning often improves bird numbers markedly.
So hunt early. Or late. If the wind blows, the barometer falls and birds continue to fly throughout the day, keep at it. Let the ducks tell you when to hunt. Many diving ducks seem to fly best during midmorning, actually. You have to be out there to take advantage.
Critical Skills Pay Dividends
Duck hunting methods typically fall into three basic categories: jump-shooting, pass-shooting and decoy hunting.
Jump-shooting is pretty self-explanatory. Basically, you try to sneak up on ducks and shoot them as they flush. You can jump-shoot ponds on foot, wade through winding creeks, or slip a skiff or canoe along a winding river. This is a great tactic for midday puddle ducks, which love to feed and loaf in small, secluded areas. In fact, jump-shooting wood ducks might be one of the purest, most traditional forms of outdoor recreation.
Two caveats: If you’re jump-shooting without a dog, be careful not to drop birds in thick shoreline cover, which makes retrieves difficult. Also, be aware of property boundaries, and respect them. Many states allow public access and hunting on navigable waterways, but shorelines remain private. Don’t drop ducks in those areas and be tempted to trespass.
Pass-shooting often gets a bad rap, as it conjures up images of greedy mopes sky-busting at birds far out of range. That’s too bad, because ethical pass-shooting can be a great tactic. The key, as with any fowl shooting, is to limit your shots to birds within your effective range — ideally 40 yards or closer. Locate areas birds fly through but don’t necessarily want to land, and hide within shooting range. Creek corridors or high spots between prairie pothole lakes are good examples. Then, simply shoot ducks as they pass within range. Just remember, they probably won’t slow down.
The Decoy Game
Decoy hunting is the most traditional duck hunting method, and for good reason. It lets you combine the attraction of faux ducks (the decoys) with a concealed setup at, hopefully, an area ducks want to go anyway. Further, decoy hunting lets you be mobile, as you can hunt from shorelines, while wading or in open water from a boat.
"Your spot is usually more important to success than your decoys. In a good area, you can get away with fewer blocks. Conversely, if you’re hunting a marginal spot, larger spreads help."
Hunting over decoys is pretty straightforward. Identify areas where ducks like to congregate, and find cover in which to hide nearby. Note the wind direction, as ducks usually land and take off into the wind. Also, try to keep the sun at your back. Then, set out decoys to mimic real ducks, and hide within range. Try to position yourself to one side or the other of your spread, as you don’t want ducks looking directly at you as they approach.
You’ve no doubt noticed the statement “set out decoys” is pretty ambiguous. What kind? How many? In what configuration? That depends on myriad factors.
- Your Quarry: If you’re hunting puddle ducks, mallard decoys work in almost every situation, as every puddler and many divers will land with mallards. It doesn’t hurt to mix things up, though. During special teal seasons, it obviously makes sense to use bluewing and greenwing decoys. If you’re hunting the prairies and might have opportunities at pintails or wigeon, it might help to add a few of those to your spread — especially because the white on those birds increases visibility. When field-hunting, Canada goose decoys work for almost every type of puddle duck. Add some mallards if you like, but you don’t have to. For diving ducks, bluebill or canvasback decoys work in most situations. These species are common and feature lots of white, which lets ducks see them at long distances. Goldeneyes often prefer to associate with their own species, so it’s wise to throw out some whistler decoys if you want to target goldeneyes. Buffleheads also act this way at times, so a few butterball fakes never hurt.
- Numbers: The size of your spread will vary greatly depending on your locale and the situation. If you’re hunting a small pothole where you’ll likely encounter small family groups of ducks, a half-dozen fakes might suffice. You’re simply trying to make the spot a bit more inviting. When hunting marshes or prairie potholes, your decoy spread might be limited by the carrying capacity of your watercraft or shoulders. Usually, rigs of about two-dozen blocks work fine in such situations. That’s enough to catch the eyes of passing birds but not so many that the spread looks unnaturally large. Larger water or fields usually demands more decoys. For large marshes or small lakes, you might throw out up to six-dozen decoys to attract ducks from a distance and let them think there’s safety in numbers. For big-water diver hunts, you might want 200 decoys to imitate a large, inviting raft of ’bills or cans. Likewise, in large ag fields, huge spreads of honker decoys can often convince wary mallards or blacks to take a look. Remember, your spot is usually more important to success than your decoys. In a good area, you can get away with fewer blocks. Conversely, if you’re hunting a marginal spot or “running traffic” — that is, trying to convince birds to land somewhere other than their intended destination — larger spreads help. Just don’t use so many decoys that your rig looks unnatural or doesn’t give birds a spot to land.
- Shape and Pattern: The configuration of your spread affects how ducks will approach your setup, where they’ll try to land and whether they feel comfortable committing to land (commonly called finishing). Puddle ducks generally prefer to land in holes (openings between decoys) and don’t usually like to fly low over other ducks — or decoys — on approach. Therefore, veteran hunters usually configure puddle duck spreads so they feature a large, open landing area and an open approach route. Common spreads include a loose group of a few decoys, which works well for streams or small ponds; two or three groups of decoys with a large landing area between them; or J- or U-shaped spreads, with most of the decoys packed upwind and arms extending downwind. It’s usually wise to incorporate a few duck-butt decoys into your puddler spreads, as these give the impression that ducks are feeding in that area. Divers love to fly over their brethren on approach, so many diving duck spreads feature a large mass of decoys upwind and then a long tail extending downwind like a runway. J-hook spreads work well, as do multiple-line setups with one or two strings of decoys stretching far downwind. If you might encounter divers and puddlers during a hunt, mix your spread, placing a J-hook of diver decoys by your hide and then setting a stool of puddle duck decoys upwind or to the side. Whether you’re hunting puddlers or divers, give birds plenty of room to set down. You don’t realize how much area a flock of 15 mallards needs to land. If birds seem shy about finishing, adjust your spread to open the landing hole.
- Motion: Many folks incorporate mechanized spinning-wing decoys into their spreads nowadays. These aren’t a cure-all like they were years ago, but the motion they produce helps in many situations, especially when hunting ducks in fields or divers on big water. Most field experts suggest using models with remote-controlled on-off switches so you can stop the wings when ducks get close, which seems to help them commit. On-the-water motion setups — such as mechanized feeders, swimming decoys or jerk-string rigs — also work, especially during calm conditions.
Buying decoys is easy nowadays, as many manufacturers make relatively inexpensive plastic models made from great molds and adorned with ultra-realistic paint jobs. These modern fakes are light, ride well in the water and won’t break the bank. Full-bodied standing decoys cost more, but good goose and mallard models add realism in field situations. Some hardcore diver hunters spend extra bucks on polyurethane or burlap-wrapped models that withstand lots of punishment from finishing groundswats and won’t sink.
Everyone rigs decoys differently, probably because they must tailor their blocks to hunting situations. Every decoy needs a line connected to a weight, both of which you can find at many retailers. For individually rigged decoys, use specialized nylon decoy line with a high tensile strength. Tarred line seems to last longer. Make sure you allow plenty of line for the area you’re hunting. You want some slack in the line so the decoy anchor can securely hit bottom and then dig in when the wind pulls the line taut. Also, that slack lets the decoy swim naturally in the wind, creating motion that mimics live ducks. Generally, allow 50 to 75 percent more line than the depth of the water you’ll hunt. For example, decoys rigged for a 3-foot-deep slough should probably have 4-1/2- to 6-foot lines.
Decoy weights come in many styles, including sinker-type weights, mushroom anchors, cup-shaped scoop weights and grapple-hook style anchors. Almost any kind will work in small-water situations. Models that dig in — such as scoops or grapple hooks — better secure decoys in sand or big-water applications.
Texas-rigging has become popular recently because it lets hunters place decoys quickly without tangling them. Each decoy is fitted with a leader of high-test fishing line and usually secured together with a carabiner for transport. Then, hunters place individual weights on the decoy leaders as they deploy them.
You can also use multiple-decoy lines. Many diver hunters do this because of the number of blocks they use. These feature a leader of decoy line that attaches to a long mother line via a snap or lobster clip. Hunters then place very heavy weights — often old window sashes or large grapple hooks — onto each end of the mother line and drag it into place.
Calling: Talk to the Birds
Decoys can attract ducks and entice them to approach. Calling adds another dimension to a realistic setup. By mimicking duck vocalizations, you create the illusion of a waterfowl party — complete with safety and great eats — ducks want to join.
The most common duck calls mimic mallards, which make sense because they’re the most common duck. Most feature a tube- or barrel configuration with a mouthpiece and one or two reeds. Simply blowing on these calls produces a funny kazoo-like sound, but by huffing air from your diaphragm and grunting or humming, you can make deeper, raspier hen mallard sounds. Here's a quick tutorial:
- Quack: First, master the simple mallard quack, upon which everything else is based. Practice grunting or humming “huuut” into your call, and use your tongue to control the air flow at the start and finish. When you hit the “t” in “huuut,” the tip of your tongue should be up tight against your palate, as if you were going to say “ten.”
- Highball: After you can quack competently, work on the highball, or hail call, which is a longer series of higher-pitched quack-like notes. Again, remember to get your tongue up between each note to make them distinct.
- Feeding Chuckle: Ducks make this sound while feeding on the water. Grunt a steady stream of air into the call while mouthing “tick, tick, tick” or “ticka, ticka, ticka.” Break these notes up with slight pauses to create a broken, uneven cadence.
- Get Realistic: To fine-tune the length, pitch and cadence of your calling, listen to wild ducks, and try to re-create the sounds. Avoid the trap of mimicking competition calling instead of ducks. That is, don’t utter high-pitched, 25-note hail calls or extraordinarily long feeding chuckles. Most competition callers are fine duck hunters, but their goal in contests is to drive their instrument — the call — to the limits. Your goal afield is to sound like real ducks so you can shoot them.
"Always call at the tails of birds or when they’re 'on the corners.' Don't hammer at ducks when they're coming in."
Veteran callers typically hail-call at distant flocks to get their attention. Sometimes, they use longer sequences than the standard five- to seven-note greeting, but that’s just because ducks might only hear a few notes from the run, not the entire call. If a greeting call gets the attention of a flock, many folks switch to soft quacks or intermittent chuckles. Some, however, continue with highballs to keep the attention of ducks. See which approach works best during specific days.
If ducks pass over your spread and don’t appear convinced, throw in a comeback call, which is just a fast, urgent five- to seven-note “quack, quack, quack, quack, quack" in descending cadence. And remember to always call at the tails of birds or when they’re “on the corners.” Picture a box surrounding your decoys and hide. When birds hit the corners of that box, give them a comeback or greeting call, which might stop them from drifting away or landing out of range. Don’t hammer at ducks when they’re coming in or hovering above you.
Whistle calls for teal, wigeon and pintails also produce good results for those species, as do specialized gadwall calls. Run those along with mallard calls when working mixed flocks.
Above all, remember that less is usually better. And if ducks are coming in, shut up.
Ya Gotta Hide: Concealment Basics
You’ve read a few mentions of hides or blinds throughout this discussion of decoys and calling. Concealment is one of the most critical aspects of waterfowl hunting. If birds can see you, they won’t come in.
Many hunters use traditional duck blinds they construct from wood and other materials. These work well in many scenarios, such as lake shorelines, rice fields or large marshes, provided they’re legal where you hunt. Just make sure the blind sits low enough so it blends into the background. Commercial boat blinds work extremely well on lakes, marshes or even open water. You can also make your own similar models.
If blinds aren’t an option, hide in natural cover, such as cattails, bulrush, timber, wild rice, prairie grass or other vegetation. This often works best, as it looks completely natural to birds. Stay low, and don’t disturb too much vegetation so it looks unnatural. In fields or some slough-hunting applications, hunters might lie on their backs or use commercially manufactured layout blinds to conceal themselves. Either method works well. Make sure your camo or blind matches the field, and brush yourself in with natural cover. In any situation, wear full Realtree camouflage and a facemask or face paint.
Some diver hunters use special low-profile layout boats to chase open-water ducks. These almost eliminate your silhouette above the water and let you lie among the decoys, providing great in-your-face shooting. Also, hunters at commercial operations sometimes use large pit blinds in fields. These spacious, comfortable blinds are a joy. If you know someone lucky enough to have one, invite yourself this season.
Equipment You Need to Succeed
You’ll need more than decoys and calls to kill ducks. First, you must get to where the ducks are, which usually requires a watercraft. These take many shapes and styles, from tiny wooden pirogues in Southern backwaters to monstrous ocean-going big-water rigs. As with everything else, match your boat to your hunting area and style. Small fiberglass skiffs and canoes work fine for streams and marshes. Specialized modern jon boats equipped with surface-drive air-cooled mud motors are extremely popular for marsh or backwater hunting, and it’s easy to see why: They work. Mud motors let you access shallow, mucky areas ducks love, and the stable jon boats provide a great shooting platform. Plus, you don’t have to break your back paddling or push-poling these rigs. Add a boat blind to these babies and you have a great all-around rig. Big-water diver hunters usually need larger crafts with big motors and higher gunwales for safety. For true big-water hunting, you want a deep-V-hulled rig that’s at least 18 feet long. The longer and heavier, the better. Rig your boat with the largest motor for which it’s rated, and consider adding a trolling motor or kicker outboard for emergencies.
Specialized apparel also makes duck hunting easier. First, you’ll often need to wade, especially when hunting streams, marshes or sloughs. Buy a quality pair of chest waders or hip boots. Waders obviously let you traverse deeper areas, but hippers allow greater freedom of movement. Breathable waders are ideal for active or early-season hunts when you’ll work up a sweat. Heavier insulated or neoprene models keep you warm during frigid late-season outings.
"Layer your clothing appropriately during cold weather, and make sure your outer layers carry Realtree waterfowl camo patterns."
Follow the same philosophy for your duck hunting garb. Apparel manufacturers have given us miracle materials that keep us warm and dry without adding too much bulk. The huge, hefty parkas of yesteryear are history, and we can now stay comfortable afield and actually move to swing our shotguns at incoming birds. Wear light, breathable garments during warm weather, but layer appropriately as temperatures cool. Start with moisture-wicking long underwear — avoid cotton — then add wool outer socks and fleece pants and a shirt, or similar middle layer, and top it off with a wind- and waterproof shell. Add more middle layers during very cold weather. Make sure your outer layers carry Realtree waterfowl camo patterns, such as Max 4 or Max 5.
You’ll want a fairly heavy pair of waterproof gloves for cold-weather hunts. Many hunters wear baseball-style caps early in the season, but insulated beanies or stocking caps provide more comfort when the weather gets nasty. Again, facemasks are never a bad idea.
Choosing Your Gun and Ammo
Of course, you need a shotgun to shoot ducks. Any good 12- or 20-gauge model will work, provided it functions in the nasty conditions often associated with duck hunting. Many hunters prefer semi-automatic models with synthetic stocks and fore-ends and baked-on camouflage finishes for concealment and rust protection. Others go with pump guns, which won’t fail to eject and load shells even in the worst weather. Double-barreled guns work fine, too, obviously. There’s something retro chic about taking an old side-by-side into the marsh.
Shells go hand in hand with guns. Waterfowl hunters must use nontoxic shot. For most, that means steel. Others go with more expensive denser-than-lead materials, usually based on tungsten. All work. Practice with various loads at the range and patterning board to see which perform best with your gun. Switch chokes to see which constriction produces the best patterns with certain loads. Hint: Steel and tungsten-based loads usually like more open chokes, such as modified or even improved cylinder. Specialized after-market chokes can produce better or tighter patterns with many guns and loads. Experiment with some to see if they help your setup.
Typically, duck hunters use steel pellet sizes from No. 4 to BB. Nos. 2 and 3 shot provide a nice compromise, as they perform similarly to Nos. 4 and 5 lead shot. Heavier-than-lead loads perform differently depending on their density. Some approximate the performance of lead shot, but others produce similar down-range energy with smaller shot. Research performance levels before you buy.
Most duck hunters use 1-1/8- to 1-3/8-ounce loads for ducks. Some like heavier payloads and more pellets, but others prefer higher muzzle velocities. It’s really personal preference, and if a specific setup works for you and kills ducks, go with it.
Wing-Shooting Basics for Waterfowl
"The real keys to good wing-shooting are practice and repetition. Hit the skeet range, trap field or sporting clays course."
The best gun, load and cartridge won’t help you shoot birds if you can’t hit anything. Duck hunting involves challenging wing-shooting … with a few twists. Folks read long books and attend shotgun schools to improve their shooting skills. These help, but the real key is practice and repetition. Hit the skeet range, trap field or sporting clays course. Which game helps most? All of them. Skeet forces you to lead hard crossing shots and follow through with your swing. Trap lets you master straight-away shots and tricky quartering angles. Sporting clays covers everything, including springing teal-like targets and clays whistling through the timber. Mix it up, and shoot as much as possible. You’ll have to be proficient at overhead floaters, streaking crossers, incoming decoying shots and many others to consistently kill ducks cleanly. Plus, consider that ducks rarely fly straight. Many twist and turn in the air. Others flare or bank hard, or put on the afterburners and zip past your spread while you fire a three-shell salute behind them.
One word about killing ducks efficiently: Even some hard-hit ducks hit the water alive, and these seemingly mortally wounded birds can escape in a heartbeat. Don’t be shy about finishing them on the water. Yeah, it will cost you a shell or two, but that’s far better than losing a bird. Divers are especially tough because, well, they dive. You do not want to chase a wing-clipped goldeneye through rough surf while trying to swat it. Won’t work. If a wounded bird pops its head up or shows other signs of life, shoot it.
Retrieves Find and Save Game
No duck hunting discussion would be complete without mentioning the best aspect of waterfowling: dogs. Many hunting breeds will swim through muck or waves to locate downed birds with their impressive marking abilities and incredible noses, and then retrieve those ducks to hand. They are the greatest conservation tool in hunting, saving countless lost birds every season.
"Spend time with your duck dog to develop an unbreakable bond. And take him hunting."
Many breeds make good duck dogs. Popular choices include Labradors, golden retrievers, water spaniels, Chesapeake Bay retrievers, flat-coat retrievers and countless others. Hunters often purchase pups or "started" dogs (slightly older, partially trained pooches) from reputable kennels or associates whose dogs have hunt-test or field-trial achievements. Others simply pick any available pup from a local breeding or shelter. Do what your budget allows. Some experts maintain that your chances of getting a good hunting dog are better when you go through a kennel or get a pup with titled parents, and there’s probably something to that. However, plenty of good duck dogs have come from humble origins.
Entire books can’t cover the nuances of choosing a puppy and training it for obedience and hunting. Here’s the bottom line: Learn as much as you can about training. Read instructional texts, watch training videos and consult with experts. Better, train your dog with more experienced folks so you can learn to do it correctly. Be strict and demanding but patient and understanding. Dog training involves teaching a student to whom we can’t talk. We have to show them the way. Above all, spend time with your duck dog to develop an unbreakable bond. And take him hunting. Duck dogs are built by retrieving ducks. Even if your pooch isn’t perfect, he’ll still recover scores of birds you would have lost without his help. And your journey together will be worth all the hardship.
Enjoying Your Birds on the Table
If you spend much time in the marsh, you’ll probably have some ducks to cook. Most make excellent table fare. All puddle ducks save perhaps the shoveler taste fantastic. Diving ducks get a bad rap sometimes, but canvasbacks are among the best-eating ducks. Redheads, bluebills and ringbills taste wonderful if you carefully remove all fat from the meat and brine them in salted water for a day or two, changing the water often. Even much maligned buffleheads, goldeneyes, ruddies and shovelers taste good when cooked like this, or marinated or used in stews.
No matter how you cook your ducks, remember this: This is wild meat with very little fat. You can dry them out easily. When grilling, roasting or pan-frying birds, cook them hot and fast to no more than medium rare.
Check out this selection of tips and recipes for cleaning and cooking your ducks, and click here for more waterfowling content at Realtree.com.