Seven mallard ducks in flocks slithered over our heads and disappeared behind us. My two companions and I crouched in our blinds, eyes glued to the sky.
“They’ll be back,” my friend whispered.
The other blew a few more times into his mouth call. I, the beginner in the group, sat still, absorbing every last bit of information I could from my experienced hosts. They were right, the birds returned. This time, we were able to identify that there were four chickens and three ducks. Once again, they disappeared from sight behind us.
“Only take the green-headed ones,” my mentor told me.
Moments later, the mallards turned again, wings cupped and feet down. Just before they reached the surface of the water, I heard a scream.
After a flurry of action punctuated by shotgun blasts, four mallards took flight, leaving three green-headed ducks floating in the swamp.
It is true that my education in waterfowl hunting has been brief: only two seasons. I am far from being in a position to teach others. That said, I have been fortunate to spend these seasons hunting amongst some exceptional and very serious waterfowl hunters. Spending time with hunters of this caliber has taught me more in two seasons than I could have learned in 10 alone. Therefore, it would be nothing short of selfish of me not to share at least a little of what I have learned with other beginning waterfowl fanciers. So, let’s take a look at some of the bigger picture items I’ve collected.
All types of hunters benefit from scouting. For most, the term conjures up mental images of a big game hunter. For me though, I will always associate the term with waterfowl hunters. For waterfowl lovers, exploration is a year-round endeavor that never ends.
There are migration routes, food sources, roosts and resting areas; there are storms and other weather events that dictate when and where birds move, and wind direction and cover will dictate the best place to hide. The depth and amount of real-time knowledge someone needs to be an effective waterfowl hunter is intimidating at best. Fortunately, though, the real fun is in the process.
Being an ethical hunter means understanding and complying with wildlife laws. You are not hunting just one species of duck.
On most hunts, you will find several species. Wildlife laws must be built around best management practices for individual species. This can make things a bit difficult if you are having a hard time identifying your birds. For example, here in Arizona, we are allowed a limit of seven ducks. Only one can be a ruddy duck, only two can be female mallards, etc. Combine this with juvenile, adult, seasonal, and sexually dimorphic plumages; things can get complicated. Despite all this, it is your responsibility as an ethical hunter to do your homework and learn how to correctly identify your birds.
birds are tough
Not every kill will be a clean kill. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help alleviate this.
First, let the birds work. Don’t shoot them when they are flying fast and high. Let them roam around and engage with the lures. While shooting birds that are at the limit of your shotgun’s range can be tempting, it rarely results in a clean kill and has a high potential for injury and loss.
Heavy, high-quality loads can also help here. While inexpensive steel charges can help you out in pigeon fields, ducks and geese need something that packs a bigger punch. Spending a little more on high brass bismuth or tungsten charges is money well spent and will result in fewer crippled and lost birds.
Finally, mark your birds. That is, when a shot bird falls to the ground or into the water, mentally mark the location and be ready for a follow-up shot if necessary. A struck bird can apparently fall from the sky completely lifeless, only to get up and fly, swim or dive to escape which only results in a lost bird that will perish later.
it’s a team effort
Most of the hunting I do is a solo effort. Solitude is one of the things I love most about hunting: the time spent alone in the mountains with just my thoughts and silence.
Waterfowl hunting can certainly be done alone, but it is still a relatively noisy event with many calls. Most of the time, it is a shared experience with others. This type of hunting, while different from what I’m used to, is something I’ve come to love. Sharing a thermos of hot coffee in a cold blind at dawn is what makes memories.
When hunting alongside others in a confined space like a duck shelter, safety should always be on everyone’s mind. Practicing good muzzle control, staying within your line of fire, and never releasing the safety on your firearm until you are ready to pull the trigger are disciplines that must be followed at all times.
Common courtesy is also essential. This list is long, but it can be summed up simply by being respectful of the people you share the shade with. For example, keeping your dog under control, not shooting birds that are in someone else’s lane, etc. Courtesy is not difficult, it requires minimal effort, and its rewards are enormous. Sharing a duck blindly exchanging stories and laughs between the bouts of excitement that come with incoming flocks of ducks is not only the best time, it can form lifelong friendships.
While serious waterfowl hunting can be drudgery that requires a lot of labour, time and equipment, this should not deter the would-be hunter. In its simplest form, all you need is a shotgun, a call, a handful of decoys, and a ducky-looking area to hunt. That said, waterfowl hunting, like many things in life, can become increasingly rewarding with the extra effort you put into it. And don’t forget that pulling the trigger is only a small part of the experience; the real fun is in the journey that takes you there.