15 Tips for Duck Hunters

DU members share their secrets about hunting tactics and gear

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Photo © Avery Outdoors

When it comes to conserving wetlands and other waterfowl habitats, Ducks Unlimited's greatest strength has always been its members and volunteers. DU supporters number more than 1 million strong across North America, and their dedication and support are critical to the success of the organization's conservation programs.

DU's ranks also are filled with the world's most experienced and dedicated waterfowlers, people who collectively possess an immense storehouse of practical hunting know-how. Here are some of the editors' favorite waterfowling tips that have been submitted by DU members from across the nation.

1. Camo Cord

Nothing beats natural vegetation for concealment in duck hunting. To hold natural camouflage materials on my duck boat, I use stretch cord that I purchased at a kayak supply store. Line the sides, bow, and stern of the boat with sections of cord spaced about a foot apart and secure them in place with four-penny nails, screws, or pop rivets. Next, weave vegetation such as cattails, bulrushes, or cornstalks between the cords to conceal the outline of the boat. If woven carefully, this material will remain in place throughout the season.
Turner Wilder, Grantham, New Hampshire

2. Fighting Ice

Creating open water holes in frozen marshes and lakes is a very effective late season hunting tactic. If possible, break ice into large solid sheets that can be neatly pushed under the surrounding ice to create a clear, open hole. Many times, however, the ice is too thin to break up into solid chunks and shatters into numerous smaller pieces that cover the surface of the water. This not only looks unnatural to the birds, but the floating ice also quickly freezes together again. An easy solution is to bring along a large landing net. After breaking the ice, sweep the water's surface with the net until you've picked up all the floating pieces.

If the ice is too thick to easily break into sheets, try something else. Using a heavy axe or maul, break open a 3'x 3' hole. Standing in the hole, stir up the bottom sediments with your boots and kick muddy water onto the surrounding ice, creating the appearance of open water. Place shell or silhouette decoys on the skim of muddy water covering the ice to complete the illusion. On bitter cold days, you may have to kick new water onto the ice periodically throughout the hunt, but it's well worth the effort. My hunting partners and I have taken quite a few mallards and black ducks this way over the years.
Andrew J. Rzicznek, Medina, Ohio

3. Stay Late

Waterfowl frequently migrate with or slightly behind cold fronts to take advantage of strong tail winds. On good migration days, don't leave the blind early. The best hunting often occurs late in the morning, when many migrating flocks stop to take a rest.
Mike Checkett, Memphis, Tennessee

4. Crossing Over

Although most waterfowlers hunt with the wind at their backs and their decoys set in front of them, this setup has many disadvantages. First, as ducks approach the decoys, they are looking directly into the blind, making it much more likely that the birds will detect movement by hunters and dogs. Another disadvantage occurs while shooting. After the first shot, ducks quickly flair downwind from you, making follow-up shots more difficult and increasing the chances of crippling birds.

As an alternative, I like to position my spread so that ducks will decoy at a crossing angle to my blind. This makes my blind much less conspicuous to decoying ducks, and the birds are forced to cross in front of my blind again as they flair downwind from shooting. In many cases, my second and third shots are just as close, if not closer, than my first, and crippled birds will fall well within range for a quick follow-up finishing shot.
Scott Dennis, Meraux, Louisiana

5. Easy Read

Many waterfowlers carry both duck and goose loads with them to the blind. After repeated handling, however, the printing on plastic cartridges can wear off or become illegible, making it impossible to tell which shot size is in the shells. To avoid confusion, I take a black magic marker and write the shot size or letters on the end of the brass casings on all my shells. This enables me to quickly identify and select duck or goose loads while they are in the shell loops of my hunting vest.
Brian Garrels, Emmetsburg, Iowa

6. Clean Call

Without periodic cleaning, all sorts of particles—including food, tobacco, dirt, and dead vegetation—can accumulate inside your duck call. Follow these easy steps to keep plastic and acrylic calls clean and in good working order:

1. Gently remove the stopper (holding the reed assembly) from the barrel of your call.

2. Place both the stopper and barrel in a bowl or coffee cup and soak for half an hour in a combination of water and mild soap.

3. Remove them from the solution and rinse well under the tap.

4. Set them aside to dry.

5. Using dental floss or a dollar bill, gently clear any stubborn particles that may remain between the reeds.

6. Reassemble your call.
Eli Haydel, Natchidoches, Louisiana

7. Calm Approach

Nothing spooks late-season ducks more than stationary decoys sitting in an open hole. On calm days I throw most of my decoys back in thick brushy cover and rely on calling to bring in the ducks. Circling birds only catch brief glimpses of my decoys while they're working, and, by the time they get close enough to get a good look, it's too late. 
Boggs McGee, Honey Island, Mississippi

8. Patience Pays

A common mistake made by many waterfowlers is to flush large numbers of ducks off a roost in the dark before dawn. If left alone, these birds will often fly out to feed at first light and then filter back to the roost later in the morning. Rather than spooking the birds in the dark, wait until sunrise or later before going in and setting up. Although you might miss out on some early shooting, you may have a better hunt overall as the birds will provide more shooting opportunities as they return in smaller groups throughout the morning. 
Dave Mepps, Billings, Montana

9. Wind Check

Knowing the precise wind direction is critical to correctly position decoys and blinds in fields for geese. However, this can be difficult on mornings with a light breeze. To determine the wind direction on nearly calm mornings, take along a small squeeze bottle filled with talcum powder. Before setting your decoys, simply squeeze the bottle a few times and watch what direction the powder drifts. This will clearly show the direction from which the breeze is blowing. 
Rock Kuhn, Northfield, Minnesota

10. Line Guide

Very few decoy manufacturers have successfully addressed the issue of adjusting decoy line for variable water depths. I solved this problem by attaching a metal shower curtain ring on the keels of my decoys. Alternatively, large fishing swivels can be used for the same purpose. When you set your decoys, simply unwrap line off the keel to the desired depth, open the curtain ring, place the line inside the ring, and snap it shut. This will prevent any more line than is necessary from coming off the keel. 
Lance Crawford, Delano, Texas

11. Painting Pointers

It's always a good idea to use a stencil for painting camouflage patterns on boats and blinds. I make my stencils out of dry-erase poster board—available at most arts and crafts stores. First, I place pieces of natural cover, such as leaves, tree branches, and cattails, on the poster board and trace around them with a fine magic marker. Then, I cut out the outlines that I made on the poster board to create a stencil.

When you are ready to paint, simply hold the poster board up against the surface of your boat or blind and spray paint over the holes. By overlapping different shapes and using different colors, you can create a highly realistic custom camouflage pattern that will match virtually any type of vegetation and background. 
Doug Barnes, Germantown, Tennessee

12. Nordic Track

For older hunters such as myself, a pair of old-fashioned cross-country ski poles is a great way to keep your balance while wading and setting out and picking up decoys in the marsh. The six-inch diameter baskets at the base of the poles provide you with excellent stability and prevent the poles from sinking into the mud. Loops on the handles keep them secured firmly to your wrists, freeing your hands for working with decoys and completing other tasks.

The poles also will extend your reach to retrieve downed birds and pick up errant decoys in deeper waters. You can even use them as supports to hold up camo netting and natural vegetation as a makeshift blind. Used cross-country ski poles can often be found at an affordable price at garage sales.
Warren R. Lindstedt, Portland, Oregon

13. Key Caddy

Keeping up with different sets of keys while duck hunting is a perennial challenge for waterfowlers. To simplify matters, I put all my keys—for my boat, truck, ATV, and hunting cabin—on a floating foam key ring purchased at a boating supply store. This not only keeps all my keys together in one place, it also makes them much easier to recover if I drop them in the water or on the ground in the dark. 
Michael Simmons, Jackson, Mississippi

14. Gun Wrap

Waterfowlers can almost completely vanish in fields and marshes covered with snow by wearing a white jacket, coat, gloves, and ski mask. However, it's equally important for waterfowlers to camouflage their shotguns while hunting in these conditions. Against a white background, shotguns become even more visible to ducks and geese, especially on sunny days. A cheap and inexpensive way for waterfowlers to conceal their shotguns in the snow is to wrap them in white medical gauze.

Secure the gauze to the end of your gun barrel with clear packing tape. Next start wrapping the gauze around the barrel, overlapping about half way each time. If you have an autoloader, continue wrapping over the forearm down to the receiver. Then cut off the gauze and secure it to the base of the forearm with more clear tape. Cover the stock in the same manner by starting at the pistol grip and wrapping to the recoil pad. This way, the only exposed area of the shotgun will be the receiver. 
James Campbell, Canton, Illinois

15. Tied Down

Putting up wood duck boxes is a great way to boost local waterfowl populations. However, nailing nest boxes to trees can be a hassle. An easier alternative is to tie wood duck boxes onto trees using plastic-coated laundry line. Simply drill a few extra holes in the back of the box and thread the line through. The line won't damage trees like nails or screws, and it's much easier to remove and relocate boxes that are unsuccessful. One word of caution, however: Always check the integrity of the line when you empty existing boxes in late fall or winter to ensure the line remains sturdy enough to hold hens and their broods. 
Fran Gough, Lehighton, Pennsylvania