Part of what makes waterfowl hunting so exciting is the variety of species and the diversity of habitats they occupy. There are more than 40 species that can be legally hunted in North America, and several dozen more across the globe. These birds call many different environs home, from the depths of the Bering Sea to the dry grain fields of the Midwest.
The hardest part of writing this list was winnowing it down to only 10. While I love the challenges that come with gunning the tidewater, there’s just something about wood ducks rocketing through a woody swamp as daylight begins to emerge. And no matter how many times I set a layout blind in cut cornfield, the sight of Canadas setting their wings always gets my heart racing. Every waterfowl hunt is a great one, but here are a few that you might want to add to your bucket list.
1. Body Booting in Maryland
When sink boxes were outlawed with the signing the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918, innovative hunters on Maryland’s Susquehanna Flats took to hiding behind oversized silhouette decoys to bring the region’s canvasbacks into gun range. The hunters staved off hypothermia using primitive surplus Navy diving suits that allowed them to stand neck-deep in the near freezing waters for hours at a time. The ducks were so blindsided by this approach that it is still practiced a century later.
If the idea of standing in 34-degree water on a tidal flat with birds decoying right in your face sounds like a good time, you need to give body booting a shot. To bag geese and ducks in this fashion, you’ll need a special silhouette decoy known locally as a “stickup.” Typically painted to resemble a Canada goose, these oversized dekes are placed atop poles that allow them to pivot and stay between you and incoming flocks, and they feature shelves to keep your gun and other essentials above water. A dry suit is the best bet for keeping water at bay and staying warm, but you can get away with waders if water depths are moderate.
2. Layout Boats on the Great Lakes
Sink boxes may be illegal, but layout boats are not—and they can be just as deadly. Unlike sink boxes that conceal hunters below the water’s surface, these low-profile craft hide hunters right on the water’s surface, shrugging off errant waves despite their low decks. Protruding less than a couple of feet above the water, these boats blend with waves and keep hunters obscured from the keen eyes of waterfowl. With the boat placed within a large raft of decoys, shot distances are often measured in feet, not yards.
The Great Lakes have a long and storied tradition of layout gunning, with the modern version of the craft being perfected on these inland seas. Here, hunters set vast rigs of bluebills, redheads, and golden eye rigged for the deep on long mother lines in arrangements that funnel ducks right to the hunters over the open water. In recent years, an irruption of sea ducks has occurred on the Great Lakes, adding more diversity to hunters’ bags. The volume of ducks decoying perfectly makes this a hunt that everyone should experience.
3. Tundra Swans in the Lower 48
If teal can be described as fighter jets, tundra swans are the cargo planes of the waterfowl world. The 20-pound birds have a nearly six-foot wingspan, giving the impression that they are lumbering through the air, though they are accomplished flyers. The big birds breed along river deltas in Alaska and Canada and migrate as far south as the Carolinas, wintering on estuaries and lakes near agricultural areas where they feed on crops like winter wheat, rye, and barley.
Tundra swan populations are enjoying an uptick, with eight states now offering swan seasons: Alaska, Montana, Nevada, Utah, North and South Dakota, Virginia, and North Carolina. Tags are required; with limited numbers offered via a lottery system. Most swans are taken by pass shooting, but they will decoy readily to large spreads of white decoys. The larger size of swan decoys is perhaps the best way to draw them in, but they will turn toward a land- or water-based snow goose spread.
4. Conservation Snow Geese in the Mississippi and Central Flyways
There’s just something about a big tornado of snow geese spiraling into a decoy spread that gets the blood pumping. The white geese seemingly descend from the heavens, taking an eternity to reach gun range. Once the flock is at an ethical distance, “Take ’em!” is called, and the unplugged guns rain steel until all the birds are on the ground, or climb out of range.
In the late 1990s, snow geese were quite literally eating themselves out of house and home, consuming the tundra they nest on out from underneath them. To combat this, the Light Goose Conservation Order (LGCO) was issued, eliminating bag limits and extending seasons. To make hunting a more effective population control measure, the use of electronic calls are permitted and shell restrictions were lifted.
The late snow goose season created by the LGCO gives hunters the opportunity to pull the trigger well after duck seasons have closed. They usually account for one of the highest volume waterfowl hunts one can experience. Though snow geese populations have increased throughout their range, the best chances at triple digit days occur in the Mississippi and Central flyways. Note that you’ll need lots of decoys, as in thousands, to pull the birds down from the stratosphere.
5. Divers and Cinnamon Teal on Great Salt Lake
Spanning about 1,700 square miles, Great Salt Lake is home to pintails, widgeon, mallards, gadwalls, teal, and northern shovelers by the scores. The massive wetland varies in depth, with dabbling ducks favoring the shallows and divers such as redheads, ruddy ducks, and canvasbacks preferring the deeper stretches. The salt basin serves as one of the most important breeding areas for America’s least abundant teal, the cinnamon, though they are usually gone when the season opens. All told, some 35 species of waterfowl spend the winter here.
Despite the abundant ducks, hunting isn’t easy. Alkali rushes dominate the cover, providing an ideal food source for ducks, but their low height makes camouflaging hunters difficult. To stay hidden, hunters rely on the low profiles of coffin blinds, though open water layout boats are becoming popular of late. Because the vast expanse of marsh is so shallow, airboats are the preferred mode of conveyance, and are almost a necessity when pressure pushes ducks to the interior. But those that put in the effort are rewarded with diverse bags of beautifully plumed ducks.
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6. Puddle Ducks in the Prairie Pot Holes
The prairie pothole region is known as America’s duck factory. Comprised of parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba in Canada; and Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa in the U.S., this area produces the bulk of the puddle ducks in North America. Here, the prairie is dotted with a series of kettle lakes, also known as potholes, which provide the ideal mix of upland and water to raise a brood of ducklings.
When the season opens up, these gullible young-of-the-year birds are more than willing to decoy. As the migration kicks off, incredible waves of ducks start to wing their way south. Hunters in both the fields and sloughs can experience fast action, but scouting is key. With so much available habitat, ducks can be just about anywhere. Hunt in the morning, and spend the afternoons glassing to ensure the next day’s hunt is productive.
The states in the prairie pothole region are a freelancers dream, where access to many farms can be accomplished with no more than a handshake. Be polite when asking for permission and treat the land like it’s your own, and it will remain that way for years to come. If you’re going to hunt water, look for smaller ponds that the birds are loafing on; don’t set up on the roost or you can blow all the ducks out of the area for days.
7. King Eiders in Alaska
The sight of a king eider in the Lower 48 is enough to set off rare-bird alerts, mobilizing an army of birders armed with spotting scopes and camera lenses that cost more than a used pickup truck. While it’s true that a couple are taken on the East Coast every year, those are few and far between. If you’re serious about adding a king to the wall, your best bet is to head to the Pribilof Islands. The volcanic island chain, made famous by the crab fisherman of Deadliest Catch, is located between Alaska and Russia and is home to the largest concentrations of king eiders just about anywhere.
Getting to the Pribilofs isn’t easy, requiring multiple commercial flights and a weather window big enough to allow a small plane to fly over the Bering Sea. Though the temperature during duck season hovers around the freezing mark, the intense winds combine with the salt spray to deposit a curtain of ice over nearly everything. This hunt isn’t for the faint of heart, and only draws the most diehard waterfowlers. Despite the kings relative abundance, a non-resident is only allowed to take four of the birds per year.
8. Specklebellies in Southern Louisiana
Officially known as white-fronted geese, these six-pound birds have earned the specklebelly moniker thanks to the unique marbled coloration on their undersides. Unlike the honks that Canada geese produce, specklebellies’ calls can be best described as yodels. Despite their genetic make up, white-fronts respond to calls more like mallards than geese. These unique geese also work decoys like mallards, circling a spread just like the dabbling ducks.
Though they nest near the Arctic Circle from Alaska to central Canada, many specklebellies winter all the way down in the rice fields of southern Louisiana, where they are traditionally hunted in pit blinds placed in the field’s levy. They often travel with snow geese, so to lure the white-fronts in, large mixed spreads of speck and snow goose decoys are set. The rice fields also hold loads of ducks, making this an excellent mixed bag hunt. Hunters can expect to see mallards, pintails, and plenty of teal.
9. Mallards in Arkansas’s Flooded Timber
As the day breaks, a flock of mallards maple leaf into a hole in the flooded stand of Nuttall oaks, side-slipping their way through a labyrinth of branches. Before the head of the flock has barely touched down on the water, the call to arms is let out and the shotguns unleash their staccato chorus.
Many folks will tell you that hunting green heads in flooded timber is the ultimate duck hunting experience. And a good number of those folks reside in Stuttgart, Arkansas. Considered by many to be the modern home of waterfowling in America, Stuttgart is steeped in duck hunting tradition and is home to the World Calling Championships. It’s also one of the best places to hunt flooded green timber with stands available on both public land and private hunt clubs. A word of warning if you plan to hunt here: You’ll need your calling to be top-notch to draw ducks into your stand of oaks. The competition is fierce.
10. Sandhill Cranes in Texas
Sandhill Cranes stand three to five feet tall and weigh as much as 10 pounds—which is in sharp contrast to the other birds on this list. Sandhills are not actually waterfowl, belonging to the order of Gruiformes instead of Anseriformes like ducks, geese, and swans. Nonetheless they are managed as waterfowl in the 15 or so states that permit hunting them, with all of the licensing and harvesting reporting requirements. Depending on the state, hunters may be permitted to take only a few cranes a year by lottery or have daily bag limits like most waterfowl species.
Texas is a great state for Sandhill hunters, wintering an estimated 500,000 cranes. Limits are liberal, though fooling the wary birds can be tricky, often requiring large rigs of taxidermied cranes to draw them in. Many Sandhills winter on the Texas Panhandle, which is home to a series of playas: shallow wetlands that form after rainfall. This oasis also draws pintails, mallards, widgeon, green wing teal, gadwall, and rafts of redheads, rewarding hunters that make the trip with a diverse bounty.
As a bonus, Sandhills are often referred to as “ribeye in the sky” because of their excellence as table fare.
Bonus: Emperor Geese in Alaska
The emperor goose is one of waterfowl conservation’s success stories, coming back from the brink of extinction. Hunting seasons for this striking goose have been closed for 30 years, but thanks to the efforts of state, federal, and non-government agencies hunters may pursue the bird once again. Because of their low population, hunting is by permit only. Alaska’s Fish & Game authority only issues about a thousand or so permits to residents, and only 25 to non-residents by lottery. For most, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Most of the world’s population of Emperor geese reside in Alaska’s Izembek Lagoon, perched out in the Aleutian Islands. Getting here is difficult, but those that make the journey are rewarded with one of the most beautiful natural areas on the globe. Izembek Lagoon was the first wetland in the United States listed as a Wetland of International Importance by the Ramsar Convention, and a Globally Important Bird Area by the National Audubon Society. The abundant eelgrass beds provide sustenance for the majority of the world’s pacific black brant, which may also be hunted here.