Ducks: Go Old School to Get Your Quack On
December 04, 2019
Modern duck-hunting technology has changed how we hunt. What do we really need to be successful?
Believe you me, I enjoy the new stuff as much as the next guy or gal. A fresh pair of Chuck Taylor Converse tennis shoes. A hot-off-the-block pizza (hold the olives please). Or a shiny copper penny. Yep, I still like the look of a shiny penny.
But when it comes to duck hunting, I’m an admitted old-school kind of guy. Not that 21st-century technology isn’t good. And some of it’s downright effective. However, give me a ragged heavy canvas duck coat, an original Olt D2, a jerk cord, a good hide and the benefit of being in the right place at the right time, and I’ll be willing to bet on most days, there’ll be a nice strap of ducks enjoying a ride home in the back of Grandpa’s ’93 Chevy truck.
The reason behind my confidence, if you’re wondering, is quite simple. The old-school ways of waterfowling are still around because they work. Period. No, nothing works day in and day out, but as we ’fowlers head into the heart of the 2019/20 season, perhaps it’s time we give thought to setting aside the electronics, the gadgets, the gimmicks and the fancy stuff, and go back to the basics. You know, the methods and gear we used 30 years ago, and some still use today. Tried and true—they are absolutely worthy of another go.
OLD-SCHOOL ON-THE-WATER MOTION
Look at any fall waterfowling catalog—Mack’s Prairie Wings or Cabela’s to name but a pair—and you’ll see pages upon pages of things, we’ll call them, designed and built specifically to impart motion and movement to places and situations where none naturally exist.
Spinning wing decoys (SWDs) are perhaps the most well-known; however, there are plenty of wobblers, gurglers, bobblers, pulsators, jigglers, flashers and any number of electronic devices meant, for the most part, to create ripples, that is, the illusion of duck-spawned motion, atop the surface of the water.
Do they work? Sure, but they’re not without their drawbacks. Batteries go dead, wiring and water often don’t mix, and, with few exceptions, they’re heavy. Too, battery-operated decoys aren’t legal everywhere.
What is legal everywhere are jerk cords. For those unfamiliar, a jerk cord, aka “jerk rig,” consists of a small anchor, often a grapple-style weight, and roughly 100 feet of strong #550 paracord to which is attached two or three lightweight decoys. Tug (jerk) on the string, and the decoys bounce on the water, essentially bringing to life the spread.
It’s simple. It’s easy. And on days with no wind or waves, it’s deadly effective. What’s more, a jerk cord, aside from being legal across the board, is easy to pack, quick to setup, and doesn’t rely on a source of power other than muscles. And there’s this. Buck Gardner, world champion and champion of champions duck caller, told me years ago: “If I had to choose between a duck call and a jerk cord, I’d take the cord every time.” From a man who makes his living building duck calls, that says a lot.
On the topic of calling, here’s another quagmire into which ’fowlers step and find it difficult to extract themselves. Oftentimes, when ducks prove tough, it’s due to what they’ve seen repeatedly (think two to three dozen mallard decoys set in roughly the same way) as well as what they’ve heard. And what they’ve heard is quacking, and, frequently, off-key quacking. Too loud. Too much. Poorly executed. Or poorly timed.
“One of the best old-school pieces of advice I was ever given in regards to calling is that less is more,” said Bill Saunders, a championship caller and call maker from eastern Washington whose work (billsaunderscalls.com) is known and blown nationwide.
“A lot of hunters, especially young guys just getting started, believe you have to call non-stop. Like a wild man. Like the guys they see on YouTube. What they forget is that often, those guys are trying to sell you a duck call.”
Saunders suggests ’fowlers step back and re-evaluate their calling style. “You want to go old school,” he said. “Then learn to be quiet. Or do very little calling. Particularly later in the year when the birds get wise, it’s all about making that perfect note at the perfect time. When the birds turn toward you. When they turn away. Now it becomes a matter of reading the birds. Understanding what they’re telling you. But it’s still all about that perfect sound at the perfect time.”
And a whistle. Get a whistle, be it Gardner’s 6-in-1 or a traditional referee’s whistle. Sometimes, ducks, even mallards, want to hear something natural yet different, and a whistle, with it’s ability to duplicate a variety of species including widgeon, pintails, teal, wood ducks and lonely greenheads, can provide all the convincing necessary. It’s all about the illusion, sight and sound both, and the more complete and the more realistic, the better and more effective.
Back in the day, my father and I did a lot of jump shooting. And we did a lot of pass shooting. And we floated the Mahoning River in a little 12-foot aluminum Sears boat during Ohio’s split between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Ah, the cold-weather mallards and black ducks we used to bring home.
Sadly, these three most traditional ’fowling methods have been to a large extent forgotten, if not a little bit looked down upon by those who might believe that feet down over the decoys is the only way to kill a limit of ducks. Be that what it may, there’s no denying any of the three—jump shooting, pass shooting and float hunting—can put birds on the strap on those days when the plastics seem invisible and even the finest calling falls on deaf avian ears.
“Jump shooting is all in how and where you do it,” said Brad Stephenson, waterfowl manager at Greentop Sporting Goods in Ashland, Va. “If you’re busting big rafts of birds (on a public area), it might be frustrating to folks. But if you’re jumping a hidden backwater or stream where you’re not going to bother anyone, then you very well might stand a better chance of filling your strap by jump shooting.”
And there’s a lot more involved in successful jump shooting than merely grabbing a shotgun and a pair of mud boots and hitting the local creek. “It can be like a big-game stalk,” said Stephenson. “Or moving to within 100 yards of a big gobbler in order to get set up. You have to know the terrain. Use the cover. Know how to move and where the birds (are most likely) to be. It’s rewarding,” he continued, “to be that stealthy.”
Pass shooting and floating, too, very much have their place in the 21st Century ’fowler’s repertoire. “Paddling something like a kayak,” Stephenson said, “can improve your odds. You can sit all day over decoys and see five birds. Or you can cover five or six miles and see 20 small groups. And never see another hunter. As for pass shooting, (you’re looking for) flight lines. Maybe gaps in the trees between Point A and Point B. Or birds flying up and down a creek bottom. Find the right spot,” he continued, “and shots inside of 30 yards can be consistent.”
Some time ago, I interviewed a young man name of Luke Clark on the subject of using smaller-than-usual decoy spreads for late-season Canada geese. Well-versed in the ways of waterfowl, Clark provided me with information on this rig and that rig. These decoys specifically, and how to arrange them in November and December and January.
As we reached our denouement, Clark grew quiet and finished with these words of wisdom. “You can run the prettiest decoys on the planet,” he said, “be that two, or 100. But if you’re not hidden well, they might as well be painted blaze orange. If you want to be successful,” he continued, “hide first. Decoys are important. Calling is important. Scouting reveals the answers. But if you’re not hidden, you’re not shooting.”
And that’s the truth, plain and simple. Ducks, big and small, greenheads to green-wings, spend much of their lives looking for things that might do them harm, and that, Mister ’fowler, includes you.
It will pay off in spades to routinely check your hide for flaws. If it needs brushed, brush it up. If it needs blended into Mother Nature’s idea of abstract, blend it in. Lazy duck hunters kill few ducks. Complacent duck hunters kill few ducks. The bottom line? It’s not technology that fills straps. It’s attention to detail. And that’s as old school as it gets.
MOTION IN A BAG
When it comes to jerk cords, it’s tough to beat the Step-Up Jerk Rig from Rig ’Em Right (rigemright.com). The 1.5-pound folding grapple anchor holds tight in a variety of bottoms, yet collapses neatly into a nice small package.
One-hundred feet of rugged #550 paracord comes wrapped around a user-friendly line winder and includes heavy-duty swivel clips for quick and simple attachment to up to four decoys, all of which slips neatly into a durable floating stuff sack. Setup takes a minute, pickup, the same. And it works incredibly well.
For several seasons now, my go-to jerk rig has been the Step-Up; however, instead of four large decoys, I’ve opted to run two water-keel green-winged teal. They’re lightweight, bounce easily and move plenty of water around the spread without being heavy, bulky and taking up too much space in the bow of the kayak or Aquapod. And the whole package can fit in my blind bag.
Modern technology has touched almost every aspect of our daily lives, including how we hunt. But what do we really need to be successful duck hunters?