Illustration by Ryan Kirby
Mike Bard has been killing wood ducks for 20 years. A New York state pro staffer with Avery and Field Proven Calls, he's dropped woodies over every possible kind of cover. While most waterfowl hunters focus on beaver swamps and farm ponds, you shouldn't overlook big, fast-moving rivers that can support serious bird numbers, according to Bard. "Everyone knows scouting is crucial for ducks," he says. "But with woodies you have to be even more precise. If you're off the X, even with decoys out, you'll watch them land 50 yards out of range." Here's how to find and hunt those fast-water woodies.
It helps to think like a flyfisherman. "Look for a backwater, bend, or eddy off the main channel—anything where the water slows down and is shallow," Bard explains. Knee-deep to waist-deep water is best. Deadfalls that slacken current can also make calm water. "If the river floods up into grass or a wooded area with acorns on the ground, that's money. The ducks want to be there."
Wood ducks prefer oak stands where acorns make an easy and plentiful food source. So if there are hardwoods tight to the water's edge, look for mast. If there's a cut cornfield near the slack water, pay extra attention. Wood ducks will often roost in the water by the woods, then hop over to the cornfield for meals, before returning to the roost to loaf around midday.
Less Is More
"I have close to 10,000 decoys between snow geese, Canadas, and ducks," Bard says. "Of all the decoys I own, I have 12 wood ducks, and I never use more than six." He typically throws a pair of mallards, then four or five woodies a couple of dozen yards away. Toss more hen decoys than drakes. "If the girls are there, the boys will want to bomb in and impress them."
There are plenty of wood-duck calls on the market, but Bard suggests saving your money. Woodies whistle, sure, but in flight—that is, when they're cruising past your decoy spread at 40 mph. "Has anyone ever called a wood duck into the water with a wood-duck call?" Bard asks, jokingly. "Not that I know of." In other words, stay quiet and let the decoys do their job.
"Wood ducks are about my favorite-tasting duck," Bard notes. "You don't want to tear them up and lose any meat." To ensure that he comes home from the river with his birds intact, Bard stays away from Hevi-Shot, Black Cloud, and other high-impact, high-speed loads. Old-reliable, 3-inch No. 4 or No. 5 steel, choked open or Improved Cylinder, will do the job.