Cold winter mornings with fog casting over the water, your dog and decoys in tow. These are memories I cherish from my years of hunting ducks.
Last winter, my wife, a good friend of mine, and I headed to a farm pond we recently acquired permission to hunt. It was dark and cold, and we relied on a headlamp to throw our decoy spread out into the water. The dog was just as anxious as we were, and the anticipation of that first flock of mallards was almost more than we could bear. Once the sun started to peak the horizon, the game was on. Flock after flock fluttered down into our decoys. There really is nothing quite like ducks “locked up” coming into a spread of decoys. Not long after, we were all smiles with a limit of greenheads slung over our shoulders.
Hunting ducks can be as exhilarating as chasing a trophy-class whitetail. Yet unlike deer hunting, which is typically done solo, duck hunting is full of friends and camaraderie. Although gear can make a dent in your pocketbook, you can start small in the beginning and still be successful, and it will get you on your way to many more years of hunting ducks. With a few of these tips, you too will become a proficient duck hunter.
Where the ducks are
The first and most important tip we will talk about is scouting. Just as it goes for any other type of hunting, scouting is very important. Yet unlike scouting for deer, turkey or other species, ducks spend a lot of time in the air and flying about. To be successful, be prepared to spend a lot of time behind the wheel. The more ground you can cover the better — don’t be afraid to venture out to search for ducks even out to an hour or more away from home. If you want to be successful, sometimes you have to search for them like a needle in a hay stack. I typically spend twice as much time scouting as hunting. Bring along a decent pair of binoculars on your scouting adventures.
Ducks, like humans, are creatures of habit. They will do the same thing day in and day out, as long as they are not disturbed or their food source hasn’t run out.
There are three things I like to look for when scouting ducks. (1) Where are they roosting? Ducks roost on water, and that could mean a large farm pond, lake, or even sometimes a river. They go back to the same spot each night to roost, typically right before dark. This is important to note because you want to leave these areas undisturbed so they have a safe place to rest. (2) Where do they feed? These spots can be found in the early morning or in the later afternoon. Depending on where you live, they can be found on a number of different crop fields such as corn, beans, wheat, or even a marshy area that holds some type of food source. Once it is light enough to see, ducks will leave their roost and head to these areas to feed. Typically they are in close proximity to where they roost.
These areas make great morning hunts or afternoon hunts and will give you great success when you find them. And finally, (3) where do they loaf? During midday, ducks like to spend time on loafing ponds. This is where they typically sit for the majority of the day after they feed. Instead of flying back to a roost that could be a farther distance away, they find a nearby piece of water to rest throughout the day until they head back to the fields to feed at night. Sometimes they will even gather at a loafing pond before they head out to feed.
In my experience, loafing ponds are one of my favorite spots to hunt. The reason for that is because ducks usually will come in to loaf midmorning, which gives you more time to get things right before the show starts. Another reason is because they trickle into the pond and are usually in smaller flocks which are easier to handle, plus less birds to educate once you start shooting. If you use these tactics in scouting, you will find your hunts become much more enjoyable, because you are where they want to be and not trying to convince them to be somewhere they don’t.
A valuable tool you need in your arsenal is a good pair of insulated camo. According to Ducks Unlimited, waterfowl can see two to three times farther than humans, which makes it their most powerful sense. They can see much farther than they can hear. So, make sure that your camo is relatively similar to your surroundings. Remember, you are hunting somewhere they spend time, so if they see something out of place, then the gig is up. They are masters of picking up glimmers such as the barrel of your shotgun or a white face gleaming in the sun. As ducks fly overhead, they are looking down in your direction and at your decoy spread looking to make sure the coast is clear. A common rookie mistake is to look up at them when they are directly above you. You will find out shortly not to make that mistake again.
Another absolute game-changer for ducks is a good set of decoys. Decoys have been used from the beginning of duck hunting, starting with wood and moving to foam and now to high-definition durable plastics. Decoys not only attract waterfowl into the range of your shotgun, but they also are used to help make them land in a certain spot.
Now, as the years go on and you become an avid duck hunter, you will come to find that you just can’t have enough decoys. Yet, the honest truth is if you are in the right spot, then a lot of times less is more. I have had many successful days sitting over six to a dozen decoys. There are those times that you might need to have several decoys, but typically that is not necessary. If there is a place to spend a little extra money, decoys are the thing to spend it on. The more realistic decoys you can get your hands on, the better off you are. What you have to remember is ducks migrate from north to south throughout the season. So by the time they get to me in Kansas, those birds have seen many different decoy spreads throughout each state they travel.
A few suggestions on making your decoy spread: Above all, remember ducks always land facing into the wind, so keep that in mind when you set up. You want to place decoys where you don’t want ducks to land and leave a pocket where you want ducks to land; could be U-shape, whatever the case may be. Secondly, don’t crowd your decoys too much to the point they are touching or banging into each other, give them plenty of room.
The duck call
Calling, now this is why most people get into hunting ducks. Who doesn’t like to blow on a duck call?! It is very enjoyable, fun to practice, and can sometimes be the difference between a good hunt and an awesome hunt. Buying a duck call, in my opinion, is kind of like buying a car. You don’t buy a car without test driving it, and you shouldn’t buy a duck call without blowing it. My best advice is to go to a store such as Cabela’s or Bass Pro where you can blow many different types of calls and pick out what fits you.
When you are first learning to call, start out with an inexpensive call, and then as time goes on and you become more proficient, you can upgrade if you feel the need. The most important part of calling is knowing when, and when not, to call. I have spent many mornings in a marsh listening to guys calling nonstop at every bird they see. I used to be guilty of this as well. Yet, as we talked about with the decoys, the same applies for calling: Most of the time less is more, so learn to read ducks and know when to call. If you are in the right spot, you more than likely won’t have to call at all. Yet if they are hanging up, you might have to coax them in.
What I like to do is call them “on the corners.” What I mean by this is to call them when they are at a profile to you or flying away. Use your duck call to steer them back into your decoy spread. If they are headed at you, there is no need to waist your breath, or at most a couple quiet quacks.
Let’s briefly discuss ammo. I know what you are thinking, a shotgun shell is a shotgun shell, right? Well, over the years I have learned this is wrong. To hunt ducks, you are required by law to use steel shot instead of lead like you would for upland birds. The problem with this is that steel shot does not have near the knock-down power as lead.
The best thing you can do is to experiment on your own. I like to shoot with a modified choke, but I know of other people who shoot full chokes. Regardless of what choke you shoot, you need to spend time in patterning your shotgun. You do this by shooting different size shots and loads to find out which gives you the best kill percentage. When I was younger, I always bought the cheapest ammo I could get. Did they kill ducks? Sure they did, I am not saying they won’t kill ducks. What I am saying is the right setup for your gun and you will have less crippled birds, which is more humane. And it’s cheaper in the long run because you won’t be shooting at wounded birds.
For bigger ducks, such as a mallard and most all ducks besides teal, I like to go with 2-shot for the size of pellets. There are many companies, but with a little time you will find out what works best for you and what brand you like.
Another tool that I use on almost every hunt is a layout blind. Essentially they look like a coffin with pop-open doors. These blinds work great in many different applications. Instead of spending hours building a blind from brush or surrounding materials, you can throw your layout blind on the ground and throw in some vegetation through the many straps that cover the blind, and presto, you have almost disappeared. These come in handy, and you can really get away with a lot while inside. You have the mobility of your hands to change calls or grab your gun, because you are completely hidden. They also work really well in field hunting where you have zero trees around. Plus, they help keep you warm, and it sure beats laying on the ground in a frozen field trying to hide under a decoy.
Duck hunting can be hard work, but one thing you will get out of it are great friends. There is nothing like spending time with friends and family sitting in a blind talking about past hunts or even just life in general. This fall and winter, grab a friend and take a wild adventure into the wonderful world of duck hunting.
Enjoy your best hunting season yet with our expert advice on hunting deer, turkeys, ducks, and more.
Todd Foxx took the Kansas hunter education course at age 9, started hunting ducks at 12, and he’s been an avid outdoorsman ever since. He spent three years filming hunts and tuning duck calls for Buck Gardner, a duck call manufacturer.