Wood ducks are the most common duck in the bag for North Carolina waterfowl hunters. Here's how to hunt 'em. (December 2009)
Justin Marsh holds a wood duck taken on a walk-up hunt along a coastal creek. Good jump-shooting can be had on any waterway where the banks are high enough to hide the hunter's approach.
Photo by Mike Marsh.
We were walking home after a backyard dove hunt at the old J.P. Morgan hunting lodge in southern Guilford County. My companion was Paul Pell and we were just "tweenagers." In the early 1960s, youth hunters hunted on the licenses of their parents, without having to buy their own duck stamps.
"Look at those geese," Paul said. "Duck!"
Duck we did, right behind a big oak tree in the garden of the 4-acre yard. A trio of waterfowl banked around the tree and fell to a volley of No. 7 1/2 lead shot.
The waterfowl weren't geese, but wood ducks. As we picked our first waterfowl, the feather pile building high in a cardboard box, I marveled at their beauty and the warmth of their snowy undercoats.
Added to a double bag-limit of doves roasted in an oven, the wood ducks proved delectable. It was the start of my obsession with waterfowl hunting. The next order of business after the feast was investigating where the ducks originated.
The nearest pond was a mile away. But there was a harvested corn field on adjoining property where the dove hunt took place. Through the field ran a small stream that filtered into a hardwood pocket. The dozens of mature oaks in the yard of the old Morgan Place had potential nesting cavities, and the corn field and acorns were preferred wood duck dining.
Lack of standing water remained a puzzle until the following spring when a fledgling wood duck fluttered from a tree cavity, practically landing on the porch steps like a foundling child. Later, I jumped wood ducks from a stream so small I stepped across barely 100 yards away.
I learned wood ducks are backyard ducks. Although higher mountain counties may see wood ducks nesting in low numbers and leaving very early in the season, and although sea-level counties with mostly saltwater may host fewer wood ducks than other waterfowl species, on a state-wide basis, the wood duck is the most likely duck for waterfowl hunters to bag on any given day.
Wood duck limits varied over the years, as their numbers flourished with spreading beaver ponds, private waterfowl impoundments and nesting boxes erected by benevolent groups, from Scout troops to Ducks Unlimited chapters to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. The basic limit had been two ducks for decades. But when an early season was established aimed specifically at surplus woodies on the first of October more than two decades ago, the regular season duck limit of five was applied to wood ducks during the early season.
When the regular season limit diminished to four, then three, the early-season wood duck limit shadowed it -- until recently, when it reverted to two woodies under pressure from Northern states and provinces. But studies proved most of our early-season wood ducks are raised within Tar Heel State borders. So, for the 2008-09 season, a season-long wood duck bag limit of three was established, bringing smiles to the faces of Tar Heel State hunters.
Nicknames for the wood duck include French duck, for its gaudy plumage, and Carolina duck, for its stronghold. But most hunters refer to them in the familiar form, "woodie."
A big part of the charm of hunting wood ducks is the many ways in which they can be hunted. Name any hunting method -- whether it's pass-shooting, jump-shooting, drifting, decoying or calling -- plenty of bag limits of wood ducks have been filled by that method.
The first order of business, however, is locating the birds.
Wood ducks are notorious for flaunting legal shooting hours in the hunter's face. On a typical morning, their flight from the roost begins about 45 minutes before dawn. In a typical evening, they take wing in their densest numbers long past closing time of 30 minutes past sunset and continue to roost until it's black as a pitch kettle.
Nevertheless, finding a roost is high on the agenda of seasoned wood duck hunters. At roost, woodies are the most gregarious of waterfowl, packing tightly into waters so tiny it would seem there was landing room for no more. It could be the upper end of a flooded lake, greentree impoundment on public land, beaver pond, natural sinkhole, Carolina bay pond or overgrown farm pond. It's certain it will have flooded trees and it's guaranteed the same roost will have wood ducks every year.
Finding a roost can be difficult or easy. The easiest roosts to find are near larger waterways that can be navigated with boats or near roadways with bridge crossings. By traveling by boat or a vehicle and watching flocks of ducks winging, the hunter can establish a direction of travel. It may take several scouting trips to identify a roost location.
Although the hunter may not actually be able to drive or paddle to the roost, his ears will tell him where X marks the spot. Squeals of hen wood ducks are audible at a half-mile. Buzzing calls of drakes can only be heard at shorter ranges.
But if the roost proper cannot be reached by wading or paddling all is not lost. Pass-shooting a roost is actually best done from a distance.
Wood ducks are not especially fearful of gunfire during early segments of the season. Later, if they've been hunted regularly, a shotgun blast will send most of the birds away from the sounds of shooting.
Taking up a position 100 yards away along the exit route is a top tactic. Any closer and the shooting may sufficiently alarm the ducks so they veer along a different flyway. Hunt from much farther and dispersion can make shooting spottier. However, only by hunting the area will the hunter learn how close is too close, how far is too far. Some excellent shooting can be had hundreds of yards from a roost if features such as creek channels, high banks or low places in forest canopies create aerial pathways.
These hotspots can occur over dry land, which is a positive for hunters who don't have dogs. When they occur over water, a good retriever can be worth his weight in woodies.
A wood duck can run like a quail and hide like a rabbit. Add to those attributes the ability to hold its breath and swim like an otter and the odds of retrieving a crippled wood duck plummets fast if the duck hits a cypress swamp or a tangle of briers. Hunt
ers should follow up all downed woodies without hesitation. The number of seemingly dead-in-the-air wood ducks that escape dogless hunters is high if downed ducks are not deftly retrieved.
Seldom is hunting a flyway near a roost productive in the afternoon because the ducks arrive too late. However, rainy or snowy conditions can compel a few wood ducks to arrive on the cusp of legal closing time.
Most hunters prefer hunting roosts it in the morning. While the first family groups leave before legal shooting hours, there are usually enough late-sleepers to give excellent shooting. But extremely clear days can lure all the ducks away 10 minutes before legal shooting time, while foggy mornings may keep the ducks grounded until the fog lifts.
Typically, a roost will empty of ducks within five to 15 minutes, with the average being seven minutes. Arrive a few minutes late and you'd have been better off to stay home.
Most hunters who take a stand along a roost flyway resort to another hunting method if they don't fill their limit. Some have the better of two worlds if they've picked a pass-shooting situation that also has enough open water for setting out decoys.
During my tweenaged years, I read and heard wood ducks don't respond well to decoys and calls. Well, perhaps they don't respond as well as mallards, but I've discovered both ways of thinking are extremely erroneous. Perhaps use of these highly effective methods was lost in the dark ages when wood ducks were scarce. But any trip to a hunting gear dealer today should turn up a few wood duck decoys and wood duck calls.
Wood ducks will decoy to nearly any species. I've seen them decoy to spreads of diver, mallard, teal, gadwall and widgeon decoys among others. I've had them decoy to large spreads in big water or small spreads in backwater oxbows or creeks.
But for the best results, wood duck decoys should be used. All ducks decoy best to their own species, and most ducks decoy best to wood duck decoys set in areas where the ducks want to settle down for a visit. Of all duck species, wood ducks are probably the most precise about where they respond to decoys.
Observation is the key to consistent success when decoying wood ducks. I hunt a particular stream entering the Cape Fear River in the southeastern part of the state where decoys are extremely effective at taking wood ducks. However, there are only a few good places for placing decoys where the ducks will try to land.
Most of these sweet spots were learned through observation, followed by experimentation. As I paddled the creek while jump-shooting wood ducks, I noticed certain bends, logjams and shallow places where wood ducks routinely spent the day. Some were unapproachable with floating techniques because the ducks could see the canoe from too far away.
A few wood duck decoys set in these places before sunrise, combined with setting up early waiting the arrival of legal shooting hours, solved the problem. Even later in the morning, if other hunters were also moving along the creek, flushed wood ducks would decoy to my small spreads with consistency. I used no more than 18 decoys because that's all the one-man boat would hold. Over time, I used fewer decoys, with four a favored number. I'd even use just a single decoy if it was a motion decoy.
Wood ducks are suckers for motion decoys. Standing in a swamp and sloshing a foot works well at attracting them. A spinning wing dove or teal decoy is also extremely effective. But the best decoy of all is one that has a pull string attached. Simply take a fishing reel, tie the line to the decoy and play out the line to the hunting location. A tug on the line to make the decoy bob and wiggle is all it takes to entice wood ducks into landing right beside the decoy.
Calls are important and can be used with decoys or without them. I have blown some calls wood ducks aren't interested in and others they answer before they swarm down through the trees like the monkeys in the Wizard of Oz. The only way to determine which call works best is by trying several because each hunter/call combination sounds different.
I had a long out-of-manufacture call, which had fooled hundreds of wood ducks, when a custom callmaker, Ralph Jensen, hunted with me and witnessed its effectiveness. He "stole" the call to try to duplicate its magic against my rather boisterous protests when I searched for it and couldn't find it. Eventually, he presented me with the No. 1 Jensen Wood Duck Call, which had been carved from Riverwood, the trade name for the company that mines old growth saw logs that sunk a century or more ago in the Cape Fear River. It has a flying wood duck on the side. The first day I used it, I called two drakes and a hen to a single decoy set in a swamp. I shot a drake and squealed on the call as the other birds flew on. They set down and swam back, allowing me to take the second drake. The hen flew away, circled and then returned to the call. My dog whined as she swam around before I flushed her away. Ralph had created a "keeper" of a wood duck call, which is only a tube of some sort wrapped around a child's rubber ducky bathtub toy squeaker. A wood duck call can't really be tuned. If you get a keeper, cherish it. If it doesn't work well, toss it away.
Over-calling to wood ducks is a novice's mistake. Most hunters blow the two-toned squeal of an alarmed hen flying, which only scares them. A true highball is a slower cadenced version of the alarm call, and it will elicit an answer from flying ducks, make them set their wings and descend.
When a hen is rallying her brood for the dawn flight, she makes a single, two-note call. It is repeated at intervals. Another hen call hunters should learn is the feeding or contented call. It is a multi-note call, and is made in similar fashion to a mallard hen feed call. The tongue is "ticked" rapidly while the notes descend, ending on drawn-out, low note. Blowing these subtle calls and staying away from excited calls will fill your bag.
Jump-shooting wood ducks can be done afoot or adrift. The best creeks and ponds for jump-shooting on foot have high banks, which hide the hunter's approach. If you have a dog, train the dog to sit a distance away. Then walk to the edge and peer over with a camouflaged face net hiding everything but your eyes. Crunching leaves, snapping twigs and sloshing water will alarm wood ducks before you get the chance to see them, so sneak along quietly. Binoculars are handy for spotting ducks' foot ripples in the water and for checking deadfalls for resting wood ducks.
Canoes, pirogues and kayaks are the best watercraft for jump-shooting. But larger streams also host to jump-shooters in small johnboats. The best waterways for jump-shooting with boats have lots of tight twists and bends, along with smaller feeder creeks and swamps off the main channel.
A duo of hunters can park one vehicle at a downstream takeout and launch upstream. But a lone hunter can hunt effectively if he can call a spouse by cell phone for a pickup. In some streams it may be possible to simply paddle one way, then at the end of the hunt paddle back to the starting point.
Wood ducks often circle when jumped, and then land in the same stream. They may only go a short distance either up or downstream of the hunter and many times will return within a few minutes to the exact spot where they were resting or feeding before the hunter disturbed them. Therefore, when jump-shooting from a small boat, a hunter should take only sure shots. There's a good chance a wood duck that hasn't been shot at will offer another chance farther along in the same direction of the hunter's paddle or after the hunter reverses and heads back to his vehicle.
While other waterfowl will have long left the scene following a jump accompanied with or without a shotgun salute, the double-or-nothing odds of drift-hunting wood ducks is the final hands-down reason why Tar Heel hunters can't get enough of the Carolina duck, their favorite backyard webfoot.