How to Hunt the Wood Duck Magic Hour
Make sure you’re ready when the birds come to bed
Five wood-duck decoys, a spinner, a bucket, and a gun aren’t much to carry, but that’s all I need to shoot the wood-duck roost. All I’m missing is the most important thing: clouds. If this clear sky holds, I’ll sit until shooting hours end at sunset and unload my gun, and only then, as I retrieve my spread, will the ducks appear.
The weatherman has promised me that clouds will come in an hour before sunset. They won’t be black ones laden with rain—those are the best—but a solid overcast will darken the sky enough to send the ducks to bed early. Even then, I’ll probably see nothing until the last 15 minutes of shooting time when, as a friend once said, “All of a sudden, it’s like God poured a barrel of ducks out of the sky.” It’s that last flurry of squealing ducks zooming in from all directions and making wild, full–throttle landings that I’m waiting for.
The ducks have been roosting on a small dugout pond along the river. I’ve seen them leave in the mornings when I’ve hunted nearby, and I’ve scouted when they pile in here at night. Even a tiny pond like this one can be bedroom enough for a couple of hundred wood ducks. Woodies like to roost on ponds, and in corners of wetlands large and small, usually where there is some cover. They leave at first light to spend the day in ponds, wet cornfields, and creeks, but pinning down their exact spot is rarely easy. The best way to hunt them is to pass-shoot in the morning or wait for them to come back to bed.
Roost shooting is a touchy subject among waterfowlers. It’s taboo among goose hunters who want to pattern birds and hunt them in fields. It’s frowned upon by some mallard hunters, too, who believe ducks should be left alone in the afternoon. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with an occasional small-scale wood-duck roost hunt if you can kill two or three and get out so the rest can go to bed.
The sky is still clear as I throw out my five woodie decoys. Though I always bring a few dekes, they aren’t particularly effective on roost shoots, which is odd because wood ducks are so gregarious. Spinning decoys are a different story: They pull in wood ducks magically, with the catch being that spinners work best on sunny days when their wings flash. I tuck my bucket into the weeds and sit for a few minutes. Then, since there’s an hour and a half until sunset, I take a walk.
Never leave the decoys is a lesson I relearn every season—although you could argue that relearning it every season is the same as never learning at all. It takes me 20 minutes to walk to the next pond, look for ducks, and walk back. In that time, three drakes and a hen have dropped into my decoys.
They jump before I can sneak into range. The ducks give the spinner two or three passes in the next 10 minutes, never quite giving me the shot I want, and leave. That these birds came here an hour and a half before sunset on a bright afternoon isn’t necessarily a good sign for the hunt to come; it just means that they are very strange wood ducks.
Having relearned my lesson, I sit and stay put, watching for clouds as they begin to creep my way in the western sky. Time often passes slowly when you’re waiting for game, but with wood ducks, it’s the opposite: You look up, encourage the clouds, and glance at your watch, and five precious minutes of shooting time are gone.
With half an hour to go until sunset, there’s not as much overcast as I’d like, but the sun is hidden behind the clouds and it’s getting dark. The whoosh of duck wings overhead is one of my favorite sounds, but I like it a lot more when I’m ready for it. I grab my gun, and by the time I’m on the bird I decide it’s too far to risk a shot. Without much shooting time, I don’t want to spend any of it looking for cripples. Instead of shooting, I reach for the call around my neck. Woodies make a wide variety of whines and squeals but don’t respond to calls as readily as you might like. The most effective method I’ve found is to whine at them if they land out of range.
I call to this one for several minutes, and it’s making its way over when I hear another whoosh. This time, I’m alert. I shoot the duck that’s in range, watch it hit the water to make sure it’s dead, and let the other fly away. With only two birds left for a limit—and confidence now that I’ll see more before the end of shooting time—I can be picky.
Next comes a group of four. I shoot a drake, a beautiful mature bird with a crop full of corn that will taste every bit as good as it looks. A little later there’s a squeal and a splash in front of me. I stand to jump the pair, pick one, and I’m done. Perfect timing: I have my three-bird limit, and I can get out before the main bunches of ducks know anything went wrong.
I retrieve my Texas-rigged decoys and retreat to a distance where I won’t spook the birds. I stop to see just how many ducks tonight’s heavenly barrel holds. First they come in twos and fours, then in bunches of 10 and 15. Finally, they’re just black silhouettes, squealing, twisting, and swooping in tight formations as they drop into the pond. I watch them until full dark, which isn’t long in coming. The paradox of hunting is how you can feel tenderly about the same birds you were trying to kill half an hour ago. I wish these ducks a good, safe night, and walk out to the road.
Tip of the Month: Small Talk
Woodies are medium-size ducks, and when they’re piling into the roost at night, you want to be disciplined and take only close shots. Therefore, small pellets work well, and 11⁄8 ounces of No. 4 shot makes a good load for them. If you shoot it through an Improved Cylinder or Light Modified choke, the combination of open choke and smaller shot will give you some extra margin for error.