I started puddle duck hunting equipped with a dozen decoys, a 5-gallon bucket to sit on, and the erroneous belief that if I simply scattered my blocks upon the water and stared hopefully skyward, ducks would find me.
Several years later I shared a luxurious, heated blind with a world champion caller in a hole in the Arkansas timber that had cost him a king’s ransom. A perfect spread of decoys bobbed enticingly on the water. The few mallards that passed within earshot on their way to choicer spots ignored the champion’s calls. Build it and they will come is a flawed duck hunting concept, no matter how much or how little money you spend.
Hunting where the birds want to land is the single, crucial ingredient of duck hunting success. Being in the right place, however, amounts to no more than bird-watching if your calling sends ducks hurrying on their way, or if your decoy spread encourages them to land out of range. Likewise, your efforts are wasted if you can’t shoot straight when the ducks cup their wings to land. Here are 20 tips designed to put a few more puddle ducks in your blind this fall.
Jump ducks on small waters. Stock ponds, creeks, drainage ditches, and sloughs hold ducks until the water freezes. Sometimes you can spot and stalk birds; often you’ll have to crawl on your belly to the water’s edge, jump to your feet, and hope ducks flush in range. If you spook a big flock of ducks off a pond or marsh, don’t shoot. Hide. They should return in twos and threes.
Float a river in a canoe or duck boat. Early in the season, hunting pressure quickly scatters local ducks off the marshes. Drape some camo burlap over the bow, stay low, and use a short paddle. As you come around a bend, hug the inside shoreline, and you’ll float right up on ducks resting in the slower current.
Hunt big water. Puddle ducks raft up on lakes and reservoirs. Use a spread of 50 to 150 decoys. Set them in a cove, leave a landing area, and extend one long leg of the spread out into open water to attract cruising ducks.
Hunt where the ducks are. Weather patterns and water levels can divert main flights off their usual migratory corridors. Last year’s hotspot will be a dry hole if the ducks are on the other side of the state. Also, ducks migrate in advance of severe storms and cold fronts. Hunt on a flight day and you’ll see a sky full of new birds arriving from the north: They’ll be unfamiliar with these new surroundings and eager to plop down and rest with other ducks. Tired, migrating ducks make anyone look like a world champion.
Scout in cyberspace. What separates us from lower life forms? The Internet, of course. The online service Waterfowler.com carries current scouting reports and allows you to share information with hunters across your state.
Let your fingers do the scouting. Most state and federal refuges run a duck count once a week; call the refuge offices to keep tabs on duck concentrations.
Hit the back roads. Ducks disappear early in the season after they’ve been chased off the marshes. Scout ponds, sloughs, and creeks. Talk to bowhunters, who often hang stands near the secluded backwaters where ducks hide out during the early-season doldrums.
Keep a hunting log. Certain spots on a lake or marsh draw ducks year after year. If your records tell you ducks throng a particular hole on days with, say, a northwest wind, that’s the place to hunt under those conditions.
Go on tornado watch. If you see a cloud of ducks swirling over a grainfield in the morning, they will probably return to feed in the afternoon and again the next morning. Too many hunters overlook field shooting, but who wouldn’t like to take a limit of ducks without getting their feet wet?
Get in line. Often, ducks are intent on landing in one hole. On a public marsh you may be better off waiting for a party in the hotspot to limit and leave and then claim it yourself, rather than hunt where the birds don’t want to land.
Get their attention. The highball or hail call isn’t meant to sound like a duck; it’s supposed to grab a flock’s attention. Only use the hail call at long range (400 to 500 yards).
Call to “tips and tails.” Don’t call to ducks that are coming at you. If, however, you can see one wing tip and the tail, or both wings and the tail, the duck isn’t looking your way and it’s safe to blow the call.
Don’t blow them away. Point your call down so the sound reflects off the water. Blowing loudly right at ducks may scare them.
Three heads are better than one. Three callers can sound like a whole flock of ducks. One leads with quacks; the other two make feed calls.
Don’t shoot over the target. Decoying ducks are losing altitude quickly. Be sure to shoot below them.
You can’t compete with real ducks. If you find that ducks are landing out of range nearby, move your decoys and set up where the ducks want to be. You can’t outcall live ducks on the water.
Choke up. Despite what you’ve heard about steel, it doesn’t necessarily pattern tighter than lead. A Modified choke works well for shooting over decoys.
Think big. In steel, 2s and 3s make the best pellets for decoying ducks. BBs and 1s work well at long range. In bismuth and tungsten-polymer or tungsten matrix, try 3s, 4s, or 5s.
Three strikes and they’re out. If ducks don’t land after three swings over your decoys, odds are they probably won’t. Give incoming ducks three chances — four at the most — then take them when you can.
Think carefully about where the duck will fall. Only shoot at ducks that will drop where you can retrieve them. Better yet, bring them down in open water where you can shoot again if they’re still moving. Shoot the heads of cripples immediately with steel 6s or 7s.