Lessons Learned by a Beginning Waterfowl

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.

“Take them!”

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.

The Maven logo above a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.


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.

A German Shorthaired Pointer sits next to a group of dead ducks.

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.

How to hunt Sora rails

Sora Rails, while a small quarry, make an excellent game bird to chase during the lull between waterfowl seasons.

A bird catcher knows that once fall comes, we make marriages with our shotguns.

Beginning September 1, enthusiastic hunters, families and dogs from across the United States take to the fields to participate in the annual Labor Day mourning dove hunt. Shortly after this, waterfowl hunters rush into the swamps to watch teals arrive from the north. Once cooler weather pushes birds farther south and seasons close, birders face a lull in activity until duck, pheasant and quail seasons open.

But there is another birding season that stretches through these early fall months that tends to go unnoticed. The sora, a lesser-known game species, is a small brown and gray bird of the rail family (Rallidae). These stealthy birds are about the size of a sparrow and spend their lives in freshwater swamps and make their homes in emerging vegetation. Sora feed primarily on seeds during the fall migration and can be found in areas filled with reeds, grasses, wild rice, millet, and smart grass.

The sora has earned several nicknames, including sora rail, soree, meadow chicken, and Carolina crake. To hunters in particular, soras have been given the nickname “ortolan”, which comes from a small bird, called the pennant ortolan (Emberiza Gardenalisten)) that was considered a delicacy in France. European settlers hunted sora after arriving in the new world and found that they were more delicious than the prized ortolan of the old country.

Today, ortolan hunting is illegal, but luckily, sora hunting is still legal in 31 states. Sora hunting has lost its popularity in the 19th century and to this day remains an underused form of bird hunting. There are also three other species of rails that are hunted in the United States: clapper, Virginia, and king rail.

The author with her bird dog and a fallen Sora in a wetland.

Sora hunting rails on public land

When determining where to find these small game birds, explore public lands that have semi-aquatic habitats, such as wetlands, marshes, and flooded fields, with abundant seed-producing vegetation. The easiest way to determine the presence of soras is to listen for their vocalizations throughout the swamp.

Soras can be heard calling throughout the day, but active calls often occur in the twilight hours. Loud noises can startle these birds into calling, much like a tom turkey will gobble up in the spring. A hunter can be sure that there are soras in an area by listening for these strange chirps, hisses, and neighs. Also, these birds can congregate in the hundreds on migratory stopovers, so be ready to shoot fast.

Sora hunting involves scaring away birds by walking through shallow water with dense vegetation. When hunted, a Sora’s instinct is to run rather than fly, which creates a challenge when it comes to scaring away birds. Locate patches of dense vegetation where Sora may be feeding or hiding, then work to move birds away from dense vegetation to patches of open water, sparse vegetation, or higher ground, such as a dam. The birds will likely follow your escape route to find more cover, but will be forced to run, giving them a chance to shoot. Often the soras will close in and fly low, quickly landing back under cover.

Fallen Sora Rails Marking

Most of the time, the birds will drop into the thick vegetation and, even with a dog, they can be difficult to find. Marking birds as they fall is an effective way to retrieve fallen birds. Pick a target in the line of a falling bird. Keep your eyes on that target and walk directly towards it, without taking your eyes off it. Maintaining this strategy should increase the probability of finding birds.

A dead sora in the hand of a hunter.

Equipment and ammunition for hunting sora rails.

Sora hunting takes place in swamps or flooded fields, so wellies or tall boots are a must.

The Maven logo above a hunter with the sky behind him and a pair of binoculars to the right.

These can be your running galoshes, as camouflage is not necessary when hunting soras. Lightweight, breathable chest waders are best because sora hunting involves a lot of walking through mud, vegetation, and some deeper water. In addition, a small game or mountain hunting vest will make it easier to capture birds.

When it comes to cartridges, lighter is better. I use a 20-gauge Weatherby shotgun with an improved barrel choke loaded with No. 7 steel shot. A 20-gauge is light and easy to carry while walking through the swamp. Any shotgun works well for hunting Sora, but remember that this bird is the size of a sparrow.

Sora rails as table fee

The English settlers hit the nail on the head when they dubbed this bird for the Old World delicacy. Sora’s meat is lean, dark, and rich in flavor. Some hunters peel back the skin to remove the breast meat. I like to pluck whole birds.

If you are hunting birds at a stopover migration site, these birds will gorge on seeds and pack on tons of fat which are delicious. You will miss out on making this fat if you breastfeed the bird. A whole roast bird sprinkled with salt, pepper, and lemon juice is all you need to enjoy the full flavor of sora. I would not stop pairing this food with wine. A full-bodied dark wine, such as malbec, syrah, or cabernet sauvignon, are good choices to complement the rich flavors of sora meat.

Sora hunting may seem physically challenging and time consuming for such a small quarry, but these birds have generous bag limits, make incredible table fare, and can fill the lull as we eagerly await our favorite opener. So, grab a couple of friends, your hunting dog, and head out into the swamp. Don’t forget to check local regulations and brush up on species identification before heading out into the field.