Patience Pays Off for Ducks & Geese

When it comes to bagging sharp-eyed waterfowl, patience is truly a virtue that will help you to bag more birds this season.

By Mark Crowley

"Let 'em work." How often do we hear that while sitting in a duck blind? How often do we actually do it? When it comes to shooting ducks, patience is what brings more ducks to the bag than just about anything else. It can also be the most difficult part of duck hunting.

As a professional waterfowl guide, I know all too well how antsy hunters can be. This is especially true when you've got working flocks of ducks or geese buzzing your decoys just outside of effective gun range. In my case, I'm often faced with clients who are eager to shoot their guns regardless of whether the birds are harvestable.

This is also a problem on public-owned areas where competition between blinds is fierce. Unfortunately, the end result of not letting the waterfowl come into range is empty shells, empty bags and educated birds.

When it comes to being patient in the duck hunting game, this virtue extends far beyond the gun barrel. So many duck hunters lament when skies are barren or just contain a few ducks. Just because the ducks aren't here today doesn't mean they won't be here tomorrow or next week. After all, duck hunting is a game of weather just as much as it is a game of decoys, calling and knowing when to pull the trigger.

Some areas of the Midwest are natural duck magnets. The birds show up as anticipated and the shooting is good. Other areas, however, need just the right mix of water and weather. Without these ingredients, the action can be slow.

Take, for instance, the 2002 season. In my neck of the duck pond, water was in short supply and the birds few and far between. We actually had quite a few ducks, but they were all grouped up where there was water. In our neck of the woods, two major rivers were the keys that held our ducks until the rains came. Once the rain did come and all the potholes and sloughs began to fill up, the ducks began to disperse. It wasn't long before hunters stopped seeing flights of 200 to 500 birds all headed to the same spot. Instead, what we saw were small flocks, each headed different directions. It wasn't long before the action heated up, bringing good kills throughout the region.

Photo by Tom Migdalski

Like waiting for the rain, patience in terms of cold temperatures is another factor so many hunters seem to have little tolerance for. This is especially true when running a commercial waterfowl hunting operation. Each year there's a rush by clients to book those days early in the season. While the first three days or so can be hot, it's not long before the action cools down. The ducks that arrive prior to the first day of shooting quickly learn that wariness is a trait that keeps them alive. It's not long before the skies empty out.

What we try to instill upon clients is that when it comes to fantastic action, late in the season is generally much better than early. The weather is what drives this philosophy.

There really is very little doubt that weather patterns in the Midwest have changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Rare are the days of near-freezing temperatures in early and mid-November. Granted, freeze-ups do happen from time to time, but for the most part, temperatures in the 40s and into the 50s now seem more normal than temperatures in the 30s. But come mid-December, this scenario can change almost overnight, when those long-awaited cold fronts begin to blow through bringing with them new birds, often in great numbers.

As stated earlier, patience is the key to successful duck hunting. Even with the most convincing decoy spreads and true-to-life calling, if the birds aren't in range, they're not going to drop. While guiding hunters, I always get a kick out of watching them tremble with anticipation as the birds work our spreads. As popular as electronic collars are for controlling jumpy retrievers, a human model would be handy at times. It's not uncommon for this guide to let birds work for 10 minutes or more. Years of experience have taught this guide on how to read working groups of birds, although not always as accurately as I would like.

Take, for instance, the group of ducks that buzz your decoys once and then never bank back for a second look. Those ducks weren't interested from the "get go." For this guide, it's the birds that buzz the decoys and then swing back for a second and third look that triggers the need for patience. These are the birds truly interested in the setup. However, these are also the same birds that have been looking at decoys and hearing calls for at least two months as they make their way south.

Wary birds necessitate patience on the hunter's part. These birds are scrutinizing every little detail and we as duck hunters have to be acutely aware of that. Any movement whatsoever can spell failure and lead to never firing a shot. I'm a firm believer in the 15-yard shot. It's not because 15 yards is close, but it's due to the fact that when the shot is called at 15 yards, by the time the gun is shouldered and the trigger pulled, 15 yards quickly becomes 25 yards. And, with any wind at all, "quickly" isn't the word - "instantly" is a better description.

Granted, not all hunters have the luxury of hunting private lands where competition between blinds doesn't exist. But even on public land where blinds are situated just a few hundred yards apart from each other, patience is still a virtue. Not only is sky-busting bad etiquette, it's most ineffective as well. As hard as it may be to wait the birds out, the end results are most often worth it.

So what can be done to make the waiting game less stressful? The first and utmost important factor that leads to birds in the bag is low-profile blinds with concealment - total concealment.

Once the hunting season rolls around in the Midwest, ducks and geese have already seen it all. Anyone who has spent any time at all in a duck blind has discovered that when birds are working decoys, they're not so much working the decoys as they are the area. With every pass over the spread, the birds study every clump of grass and every muskrat mound looking for things that don't seem right. Most often their flight path will bring the birds right over the top of blinds with their heads craned downward looking straight down. If you're exposed from the topside, no matter how well your blind blends in from the view of the decoys, you're going to be spotted. So cover up.

Decoy setups are also a factor in becoming more convincing to the ducks and to reducing the waiting time. How do we determine the proper decoy setup? First, look at the number of ducks in the air. If you're seeing massively large groups in flight, then large setups may be the order of the day. If, however, the birds are coming in sm

all bunches, then large decoy setups often signal that things are not as they appear. Small groups of birds in the air require small decoy spreads because that's what the birds are seeing as they move about looking for feeding and resting areas.

And what about those mechanical decoys with the spinning wings? In a nutshell, I've seen them work and I've seen them do nothing but spook birds, too. My experience with spinning-wing decoys is that they often give you too much motion. After all, just how long does it take for a duck to hover and land? I have found that remote-controlled spinning-wing decoys work far better than those that you leave on and spin constantly.

Calling is another factor that will lead to excruciating pain when waiting on ducks to commit. We've all heard that sometimes no calling is better than good calling - and it's true. But if ducks come over your decoys and call, then you'd better call back, but sparingly.

Perhaps one of the biggest deterrents to being patient these days is the proliferation of new shot being introduced to get away from steel. With the claims of better patterns and increased down-range effectiveness, shooters using bismuth, tungsten and Hevi-shot now think that the 45-yard shot is an easy reality. How untrue. Contrary to the criticism of many hunters, steel is very effective, not to mention cheaper than the new shot being brought to the market. Perhaps these new materials do deliver what they promise in terms of increased effectiveness at longer ranges. But the overriding factor is just how effective are we at taking those longer shots?

Remember, patience is truly a virtue when it comes to allowing ducks and geese to come within range. Taking those short 15-yard or so shots will definitely put more birds in the bag. Just be patient and you'll get your share of waterfowl this season.

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