By Gary Koehler
My personal suspicion-meter went off almost immediately after my boss called me into his office to discuss a story idea. "Mistakes," he said. "I want this feature to focus on the most common mistakes duck and goose hunters make." It was as if he had been sitting next to me in the blind the past 40 years, taking notes.
Could he possibly have the evidence on film? How else could he have learned that I was the resident expert? Yes, I've made all the mistakes, from A to Z. Take, for example, the tried-and-true "one more swing" strategy. As in: "Let 'em get a little lower, one more swing, then we'll take 'em." In this case, the circling ducks can be counted on to magically disappear, never to be seen again.
While managing to commit any number of blunders on my own, too many of these mistakes occurred with witnesses present. My former Illinois River Valley cohorts would likely vote for making this piece book-length, a confession of sorts. The truth hurts. To say nothing of the recurring nightmares.
Instead of providing incriminating personal evidence of my own waterfowl hunting shortfalls, however, I opted to enlist the aid of experts, guys who have been there, seen that, and are quick to detect the little things that can make a big difference in the field. Rick Dunn, a former world duck calling champion, makes Echo Calls, and regularly prowls flooded Arkansas timber.
Dave Smith creates incredibly realistic decoys from his home in the Pacific Northwest. Sean Mann, a call maker and world goose calling champion of champions, hunts the Canadian prairie and the Atlantic Flyway every season. And then there's the relative youngster, Tyson Keller, a member of the Avery pro staff from South Dakota who has built an impressive rep pursuing Central Flyway snow geese. Following is their list of the most common foul-ups made by waterfowlers.
We've all heard it before, but being well hidden remains one of the waterfowl hunter's most important considerations. Birds are quick to detect movement on the ground. Not taking heed is mistake Numero Uno. Be still, no gawking, and cover up.
"Hiding properly is huge," Smith says. "The main thing is you have to do something to make the birds focus on the decoys and not on your blinds. Most people don't realize that even a well-camouflaged layout blind can be easily seen from the air—they're not invisible. Instead, put the blinds well outside the decoy spread. If there is any contour or break in the landscape to help the blinds blend in, take advantage of it, even if you're in the middle of a huge field."
Keller, who has enjoyed success attracting huge flocks of snow geese to his decoy spread—seldom a simple task—believes that gunners diminish their chances of success by being careless about concealing themselves.
"Whether in layout blinds, pit blinds, or permanent blinds, one has to blend into the environment," Keller says. "Not being hidden can ruin a great hunt. Any objects that are out of place in the field will be noticeable to birds."
Keller also suggests seeking an edge, literally. "If you can tuck in behind an edge or small indent in the field, you can minimize your shadow or be in the shadow. Shadows are easily picked out from the air. If you can eliminate your shadow, you will be more capable of hiding."
Mann considers being properly hidden as a part of his scouting regimen. When he is seeking places to hunt, he takes note of the terrain and accompanying vegetation.
"Hunters should ask themselves how they are going to hide while scouting birds," Mann says. "Your goal is to become part of what is already there. If you are hunting with ground blinds, how do you become part of the ground? Don't become a ‘beaver hut' in the middle of the field, become the ground with no more or less foliage than the surrounding area has on it."
Failure to scout before a hunt is another common mistake made by waterfowl hunters. Finding a place to hunt often requires considerable homework and driving. You want to be in an area the birds are using. Mann says hunters should pinpoint exactly where waterfowl are feeding.
"Scouting mistake number one is hunting off the ‘X,'" he says. "That happens when you do not put the birds to bed. Too many people stop scouting when they see birds in a field. They say, ‘There they are; we'll hunt that field tomorrow.' Instead, stay and watch the birds leave, and then find the exact spot where they were feeding last. Lock in the location on a hand-held GPS and hunt on the X. You won't wander around in the dark looking for the right spot, and your hunt will turn out much better."
Dunn says that his pursuits in the flooded timber and elsewhere have taught him that watching the ducks pays off. "Hunters need to remember that the two ways hunters usually give themselves away is face shining and body movement. If you're not hidden well enough, the ducks will tell you; all you have to do is watch them," Dunn says.
In their pursuit of the wary snow goose, Keller and his crew have been known to cruise the countryside for hours looking for birds. But with gas prices having gone through the roof, that approach has been modified.
"To help make the most of scouting time and minimize costs, it is often effective to find some high ground in an area the birds are using," Keller says. "With binoculars or a spotting scope, you can observe flight patterns and areas where the birds are going from several miles away. If you can pinpoint the high traffic areas as well as the fields or waterholes of choice, you will be much better off.
"Another effective strategy is to scout while you are hunting. If you bring a set of binoculars, you can pinpoint the areas the birds are targeting while you are in the field," Keller says. "Keeping an eye on the birds while you are hunting can greatly reduce the amount of driving and scouting later in the day."
Dunn agrees. "We have found that the best time to scout for ducks is when the hunting is good, so if you finish hunting early one day, take that extra time to look for more spots," he says. "Using your time wisely can help you find great new places to hunt.
"Keeping a log book also helps us record useful information about these potential hunting areas like the date, water depth, food sources that are present, and the best wind direction for hunting that particular spot," Dunn adds.
Improper Decoy Placement
Once you find a field or wetland that birds are using and obtain permission to hunt the site, how you deploy your decoys can have a big impact on your success. Bad decisions will cost you birds.
"Common mistakes are setting decoys in a distinctive pattern, setting them all facing into the wind, and setting them the same distance apart," Smith says. "This is all old-school goose hunting, and times have changed. Geese have long since wised up to the way our dads did it. It's time to get natural and random in most areas of the country."
Mann concurs. And he is adamant about one critical component. "The number one all-time decoy mistake, in my experience, is not spreading the decoys out far enough from each other," Mann says. "Why do you think they call it a spread? Provide adequate parking!
"When birds come to your decoys and hover and dance in the air, or circle and circle, you haven't provided adequate parking space," he adds. "When your spread is right, birds don't circle as much, and they do not hover looking for a spot to put their feet. They come right in and land. When in doubt, spread it out."
Dunn says that a good rule of thumb is to set the decoys about six feet apart. Large spreads are placed in large areas; smaller, tighter spots require fewer decoys. "And on calm days, it's almost impossible to finish ducks without decoy movement," he says. "That is when a jerk string comes in handy, and sometimes multiple jerk strings are needed."
Keller and his accomplices have been known to set up to 1,500 full-body decoys for snows and blues. That is not feasible for everyone, however, and although big numbers are often preferred by goose hunters, the overall look may be just as important as the volume of decoys.
"My word of advice is to be natural and creative," Keller says. "Set up your spread like you see birds in the field. I usually have no set decoy pattern in mind when hunting. Birds will key in on areas where decoys are grouped and adjacent holes are close by. I often set several tightly packed groups of decoys throughout the spread to simulate heavy feeding and aggressive behavior."
Count on your decoys to do their job, but more often than not you will have to pull out your duck or goose call to get the birds' attention at certain times. Learning to call takes practice. There is also a learning curve in what calls to use and when to call in specific situations. So, what are the most common calling mistakes waterfowlers make?
"I used to say the biggest mistake was not calling at all," Mann says. "Today, I'd have to say calling without a clue is the number one mistake. What I mean is that, today, so many people are using calls with no concept of how they fit into the hunting scenario. They just try to call ‘like the guy on the CD' or try to give every bird a calling contest routine. When calls are overused, they become ineffective.
"Hunters should try to learn their calling ‘chops' from the birds themselves, not from other callers," he continues. "Other callers can teach you how to operate the call, but they can't give you the cause-and-effect knowledge that top callers need. That can only be learned through constant observation of birds. Pay close attention to what is happening when you hear the birds make certain sounds. Then you'll have a clue, and be more effective in the field."
Smith, who also often hunts in heavily pressured areas, pays close attention to what other hunters are doing around him. And he's noted a pattern of calling errors that often flare birds as opposed to enticing them.
"In our area, the geese have become extremely call shy, but few of the hunters have," Smith says. "My success is coming from calling very, very sparingly, and at just the right time when birds are ready and willing to listen. Often, this window of opportunity comes after the flock has checked out the entire spread and the birds are in need of one small enticement to convince them to land. If they are coming all the way in without any calling whatsoever, so much the better."
Keller, too, listens closely to his in-the-field competition and has learned what techniques produce and those that do not. "Unnatural cadence is the most common mistake I see callers making," Keller says. "It seems they sometimes try to do more on the call than what they are capable of doing. Point being, hunters should stick to the basics that sound real and natural."
Call volume makes a difference too. "The most common mistake that duck hunters make when calling ducks is calling too loud when the ducks are close," Dunn says. "If you are trying to get the attention of ducks at a distance, you must call loud. You can also call loud at new ducks at the beginning of the season and get excellent results. But if you want to call ducks consistently throughout the season, you need to learn how to read ducks and call to them at a volume that will not scare them. Watch the ducks closely and they will tell you when you've called too loud."
Mistiming the Shot
Which brings us back to that "one more swing" dilemma that has plagued waterfowl hunters for years. When does one call the shot?
"I usually use the first flock or two of the day to set the pace for the remaining hunt," Keller says. "If the first birds dump right in without hesitation, calling the shot is going to be very easy. If the birds are wary, or it's late in the season, calling the shot can be more difficult.
"When hunting educated birds, try to pay close attention to the lead birds in the flock," he continues. "Usually the leading birds will be the most vocal and will also give you a pretty good indication of how they will finish just by watching them."
Mann considers others in his hunting party before making a decision on when to call the shot. "The toughest job in waterfowling is calling the shot right. You have to call the shot for maximum effectiveness. Too many people wait for the shot to be good for themselves when this might lessen your success as a group," Mann says. "Call the shot so everyone in your group has a chance to contribute to your success."