Photograph courtesy of Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Flickr
Duck hunting is a curious enterprise. Most of the time, you’re not alone. Instead, you’re shoehorned into a tiny box of a blind, and you’ve already spent half the night with your buddy cursing in the garage over tangled decoy lines and apologizing to his wife for stepping on the cat’s tail. Which woke the dog. Which woke the kids. Which means it’s time to go. These partnerships evolve over time, like marriage. After a few years, you can complete your partner’s thoughts. You bring an extra flashlight because he’s so forgetful. He knows just how you like your coffee. If you start sharing the same toothbrush, don’t tell me. Duck hunting is different because your sidekick is usually 3 feet away, a witness to your screwups and a silent sufferer of your behavioral quirks. We’re all guilty of a few minor blunders, but we’ll all have a better time-and shoot more ducks-if we strive to avoid these most egregious tactical mistakes and social faux pas.
1. Fidgeting. A big reason that hunters don’t see ducks is that ducks see hunters. Why construct a decoy set designed to attract the attention of birds and then telegraph your presence with an ill-timed fidget? Shuffle around the blind, grab binoculars, dump out your pack in search of the jerky-while you’re messing around with stuff, the wary birds are skirting your position. You don’t have to be deer-stand still in the duck blind, but you’ll kill more ducks by minimizing your movements.
2. Shooting into the sun. Sometimes there’s no choice, but on a cloudless day, an east-facing setup will force you to shoot into the glaring sun during the critical first half hour of legal light. A front-lit blind also stands out from its surroundings more than a blind set in the dark shadows. Some hunters argue that drawing a bead on birds silhouetted against the light in the eastern sky is easier, but you’ll disagree after five minutes of frying your retinas once the sun has topped the horizon.
3. Flapping your trap. A bird that has evolved to communicate with soft quacks, whistles, and chuckles can easily hear your boisterous jokes, and it can hear them at surprisingly long distances. Last year I hunted a large, open slough shared by only one other party several hundred yards away. The air was dead calm, and I was amazed at how clearly I could hear their normal conversation, not to mention their frequent bouts of laughter. After a couple of hours of slow-to-no action, they left-and suddenly the ducks appeared.
4. Showing your face. Or hands. Or blue jeans. With so much pressure on birds from the 49th parallel to the Gulf of Mexico, head-to-toe camouflage is critical for all but the earliest flights of the season. In a salt marsh or over open water, a shiny human face peeking over the blind is visible to ducks for a half mile or more. In timber, ducks are doubly wary, and anything that looks out of place will send puddlers into the stratosphere. Why didn’t they commit after a couple of passes? Take a good look at yourself. Cover every inch, every time.
5. Failing to adjust the dekes. Too many duck hunters toss out the decoys in the dark and then refuse to adjust the spread to changing weather conditions. Ducks must land into the wind. If the wind direction changes, so should your spread. Watch willing but skittish birds for hints that your decoys need fine-tuning: Ducks that constantly circle and circle, “wanting” in but never committing, or birds that consistently pitch into the dekes 10 yards out of range are telling you that your setup isn’t in tune with the real thing.
6. Doubling up on one bird. It’s the mark of the rank amateur-and it’s a mistake I still make far too often. You and your partners need to discuss a strategy to avoid pulling the trigger on the same duck. The gunner on the left might agree to take birds on the left of thee flock or to shoot the trailing bird in a pair. Based on wind conditions and your decoy spread, figure out where the birds are most likely to fly, and then hand out the shooting assignments accordingly.
7. Hogging the sweet spot. You know it, and your buddies know it: One side of the blind is the King Daddy seat, the coveted upwind edge where the shooting is easy as the ducks drift in with wings spread a mile wide. Don’t hog it. Seat placement can make the difference between fast shooting and hard feelings, especially when three or more gunners are in the blind. If there’s an obvious hotspot in the blind, rotate the seating.
8. Shooting Too Soon. Timing is everything. Actually, the proper lead is everything, but that’s another story; timing, however, is critical to knocking down birds. Nothing spoils the sight of a dozen quackers coming in on a string faster than the sight of your buddy going solo-and too early-with his 12-gauge pump. Take turns, draw straws, whatever-but make it clear who’s calling the shot.
9. Getting there late. Nothing makes me consider taking up golf more than setting my alarm clock at half-past-insanity to claim a little piece of public marsh only to have some Rip van Winkle show up right at first shooting light, start throwing out decoys, and spoil it for everyone else. Show some respect: If you’re hunting public land and can’t arrive by at least a half hour before shooting light-an hour is better-then kindly bypass spots where others have already set up.
10. Two-timing your partner. A duck-hunting buddy finally caves in to your ceaseless whining and takes you to his new honey hole. It’s on the back side of public land, so of course you cross-your-heart never to set a wader boot on the pond without him. And you don’t-at least until you line up another hunt with someone else. There is nothing illegal about such promiscuity, but it is patently immoral. I sinned thus years ago, and though I’ve been forgiven (I think), my disloyalty has never been forgotten.