Duck Hunting School Now in Session

For the same reasons ball players take batting practice every day, you shouldn't forget about the basics of duck hunting. Being prepared is the key ingredient for success.

Don't look now - but the duck opener is just around the corner. In fact, by the time you read this, opening day may well be history in some parts of the Pacific Flyway.

If you have not yet ventured out, or you have never hunted ducks before, but thought you would like to give it a try, you still have time to get ready. New hunter or old hand, it never hurts to get back to the basics before setting off for the marsh.

One of the great things about the West Coast is the excellent waterfowl hunting opportunities that are available on public land. And, we have two distinct populations of birds to hunt on these public shooting areas - ducks produced by local nesting and ducks which migrate down from nesting areas in Alaska and Canada. For most of us on the Pacific Flyway, mallard, widgeon, teal and gadwall are the ducks we bring home, with mallards the duck we value most.

Northern shovelers, ringnecks, wood ducks, buffleheads and bluebills are secondary ducks that frequent the flyway and may be the quarry of choice, depending on terrain and water type. Canvasbacks, redheads and sprig (pintails) are found in quantity on portions of the flyway, but each species has such a reduced limit that they do not form a high percentage of the bag these days.

Public shooting areas exist on most state and federal wildlife areas. First established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, the National Wildlife Refuge System has been expanded extensively over the years. Augmented by state and municipal wildlife areas, hunters use reservations, lottery and sweat lines to access sections that are open to public hunting. If you look around, odds are you will find a public shooting area within an hour's drive of your home. Check local licensing resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and state fish and game offices and Web sites to locate them. Information and links to state specific areas can be accessed at the Game & Fish website at

Hunting waterfowl on public land is physically demanding. The learning curve can be steep and an investment in equipment is mandatory. But if you are willing to brave the cold and get dirty, you can't beat the experience.

Matt Kendall, Leo Asnault and black Lab Bailey came with the right gear to shoot ducks on a bluebird day. Photo by Marvin D. Bibby

From Upland To Dekes
You cannot talk duck hunting without talking decoys. You do not have to use them to be successful, but most duck hunters believe it adds to the sport. From elaborate rigs set out by boat, to permanent sets in front of heated blinds at private clubs, to a half-dozen decoy blocks floating atop a remote pond, this is the classic vision of what duck hunting is all about.

Ducks can be hunted as upland game; jump shooters and pass shooters frequent most public shooting areas. Equipment needs are minimal: A shotgun, shells, a pair of waders, and you are set.

A friend of mine has hunted ducks even longer than I have, and he has never used a decoy in his life. I bumped into him on a check late last season, two mallards and a widgeon leaking from the pockets of his hunting coat. Pushing 70, glasses with Coke bottle-thick lenses, he still prowls the checks every Saturday morning with his dog, chasing ducks.

Many public shooting areas have spaced blind areas where the use of decoys, if not required, are at least assumed to be part of the hunting experience. But the vast bulk of the acreage on most public shooting areas is farmed marsh designed to hold a large number of waterfowl with access for hunters by either foot or boat. Both methods require specialized equipment to be successful, because if you do not pack it in, you do not have it.

Getting To The Pond
Each year I begin laying out my equipment well before opening day. Each decoy is examined individually, the paint touched up and the decoy lines checked for problems. I fasten a rubber band to each of the decoy lines at the weight to secure the weight to the keel after the cord is wrapped. This speeds up the process of setting out and picking up. I replace the rubber bands every year.

After inspection, I spread the decoys out on the lawn or driveway in the groupings I will use when hunting, then pack them in their respective bags. Six mallards, three widgeon and a sprig are the basic set that I hunt over the vast majority of the time. Invariably, each year I do something different: take out several dozen mallards and a half-dozen sprig, and maybe add two dozen coots for confidence. I don't know that I get more birds or have better shooting, but it seems like that I just have to do this several times each year to keep my hand in.

Battery-powered motion decoys are something I do not use; never have, never will. Several years ago, I attached a Mylar pinwheel to a sprig decoy that I set out on windy days, more for the sake of trying it than any real belief that it would work. I had to haul the dang thing around in a biscuit tin to keep from crushing it. I'm not sure that it helped the hunting, much, and I tired of hearing the can clank around in the decoy bag. I got rid of it.

Over the years I have used canvas duffels, mesh decoy bags, duck straps, newspaper bags, backpacks and frames to haul decoys to the marsh. I had a cart, a second cart, and finally, the Cadillac of all carts. The latter converted to a blind, had a fold-down stool, floated well and almost flew. It sported a waterproof cover that you could sit under, a gun rack, room for two dozen decoys inside and carried another two dozen in a bag strapped to the outside. Somewhere along the line, the cart became more important than the ducks, locking me into open ponds with good road access and lots of other hunters. Now I use a homemade backpack with clips for a small decoy bag; now I can stay mobile.

Or Not Calling, As It May Be
At least half of the ducks and geese that I have taken over my lifetime were not victims of my calling, as not a note had passed my lips before they sailed into range. With the exception of sprig and the occasional widgeon, which can be whistled right in to a set, I would be greatly surprised if more than 10 percent of my ducks actually came from my calling. And it is quite possible those ducks would have come in anyway.

But, if you are going to use decoys, you probably ought to have a duck call. I seldom use the hail call, relying on the single quack, or

quack, quack, quack, of a hen mallard. This is not hard to do with most good calls: I simply blow a single quack, maybe plead a little, but I confess that I am never sure whether it is my imagination or the actual sound that ends up pleading. It does work on single drake mallards that circle out of range.

How Your Waders Hang
Good waders are critical to success. Boot foot or stocking foot, neoprene, Gore-Tex or nylon, the waders should be chest high, comfortable to walk in and help to keep you warm. When I was young, I favored boot-foot nylons and chafed at the time wasted as my father fiddled with his stocking foot Totes and Vietnam-era military boots. This may be an age thing, because as the years have worn on I have come to rely exclusively on neoprene stocking-foot waders and neoprene flats boots.

From the WWII surplus canvas coats of the '50s to the latest in Gore-Tex, I have used them all. My current coat is a faded shadow-grass pattern, wading length Gore-Tex that no longer sheds water. When it rains, snows or the wind is severe I use a wading-length neoprene in shadow-grass. With the neoprene you are never really dry, but you never get cold either, and it is one whale of a wind stopper. At the end of the day it looks like I was in a wet suit, but I stay warm.

Fleece is the miracle fiber for waterfowlers. It layers well, wicks perspiration and has minimum bulk under waders and hunting coat. Under it all I use polypropylene underwear, top and bottom.

More Than A Bucket
Blinds are great for hunting clubs and outdoor photography, but freelance hunters on public land need to rely on stealth and illusion. If you can sit still, there is nothing as effective as blending in with your surroundings. The trick is - you do have to be able to sit still. Keep your back to the sun; on a clear day watch the surface of the pond for the reflections of birds as they pass over. For sitting down in the marsh, try a plastic bucket, a tule seat or a folding stool.

An early hunting partner of mine could stand immobile for hours. Passionate about hunting dogs at the time, I would become impatient midmorning and take off with my dogs for the dense tules in search of mallards. Invariably I would return to the set empty-handed only to learn that my partner, who was still ensconced in the same tiny tule patch, had collected several ducks.

Do not forget a duck strap to carry the birds home on. You could put them in your decoy bag, but then no one could see them. It always helps the ego to stumble into the parking lot with 10 pounds of birds slung over your shoulder.

Tools, Anyone?
A field repair kit containing spare reeds for the calls, cleaning rod, screwdrivers, pliers, gun oil, copper barrel brush and cotton swabs stays in the truck on each outing. Seldom used, it has saved the day when a shell has fizzled, sticking a wad in the barrel, or a careless fall found my shotgun in the mud.

A marsh repair kit containing several rubber bands, two feet of decoy line, a half-dozen 2-ounce weights, two small fishing clips and a pair of stainless steel forceps goes out with me. When in a boat, I add a gun cleaning rod, screwdriver, pair of pliers and a small pair of hand pruning shears.

Nothing Fancy Here!
I shoot an ancient humpbacked Browning A5. I have three of them, each with a slightly different stock length to match the amount of clothing that I am wearing. Every other year I have a gunsmith go through them and tune them up. Before each season I take them apart, check for worn parts and give them a deep cleaning. Still committed to a wood stock, I coat the wood forearm and stock with lemon oil and then polish it out.

Advice on shot size is tough. Personally, I have had great luck with No. 4s and No. 3s. I drop many more birds dead with steel than I was ever able to with lead, as almost all of my birds are taken inside of 30 yards. Experts advise to pattern your shotgun to help with the selection. Remember: There is a geometric lead with steel shot as the bird gets farther out.

Checking Yourself
With one- and two-bird limits by sex and species, it is imperative that you are capable of identifying birds before you shoot. That takes practice. I spend many days in the off season studying ducks, taking pictures, keeping my eye sharp as to how they look. In August, my wife and I swing north to spend time on Vancouver Island and the mainland, watching ducks. Do not overlook city parks and local refuges as places to study ducks. A pocketsize waterfowl identification book can help you learn. It pays off during the season.

Finding Birds
Rivaling luck, scouting is the most critical factor to a successful hunt. Talk to any guides: They know their areas, know what works. They talk amongst themselves and spend their off hours watching birds and looking for the best places to set up.

If you arrive at an unfamiliar shooting area in the middle of the night and set off in a strange marsh looking for birds, you are going to need a lot of luck. Fifty percent of any shooting area does not contain birds. Less than 10 percent of any given shooting area is really good, and the hunters who know the area are hunting it. So increase your odds of finding ducks by looking over the shooting area before you hunt.

If that is not possible, be flexible. If what you are doing is not working, or there are no birds on your pond, try something else. On bluebird days when absolutely nothing is flying, spend your time exploring, looking for and finding different places to hunt. After all, you do plan on coming back next week, don't you?

Starting A Young Duck Hunter
Getting a youngster started hunting ducks is not easy, for the simple reason that a child is not a miniature adult.

Certainly, a handful of veteran hunters started out on their first hunt as cold, wet, miserable tagalongs under abysmal conditions, and they came back for more. They eventually learned to relish the hunting experience. But that treatment chases away more kids than it will ever attract, especially in this day of video games and computers.

If your goal is to develop a hunting partner for life, those first trips out should be enjoyable experiences - for both of you.

Two key ingredients go into shaping a new hunter's desire to continue hunting: initial success and physical comfort. Tailor that first trip accordingly, making sure that the young hunter is properly outfitted and has a decent chance of connecting with a duck. Here are some other guidelines:

  • Choose a shotgun/shell combination that minimizes recoil. A single-shot .410 using a maximum load can pack as much felt recoil as a 12 gauge. Many 20-gauge shotguns kick harder than a 12 gauge, because of equal chamber pressures and the 20

    's lighter frame.

  • Make sure the shotgun stock fits and the barrel length is in proportion.
  • Have the hunter practice handling the shotgun under supervision.
  • Start out with a midday hunt in good weather. Familiarize the hunter with the shooting area, then chase down some coots. They may not be the classic quarry, but they offer a live bird to practice on. Breasted out, they can make satisfactory table fare.
  • Move up to a shooting area that offers a spaced blind, ideally one with tanks or some form of shelter.
Whatever you do, remember that those first hunts are about ensuring success for the youngster, not you. Your goal is to gain a long-term hunting partner, not a limit of ducks.

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