Notes from Duck Country

Expert advice for hunting ducks in a variety of classic habitats


Photo © Anthony Ward

By Will Brantley

No matter where you live in the United States, there's probably a duck hunting opportunity close by. Indeed, variety is one of the best aspects of waterfowling. With that in mind, we've spoken with veteran duck hunters from around the country and compiled a list of notes, tips, and secrets for improving your hunting success in a variety of habitats. No matter where you hunt—marshes, flooded fields, potholes, streams, rivers, lakes, or flooded timber—there's sound advice here you might be able to use this duck season.

Marshes and Sloughs

It's difficult to imagine a more classic setting for a duck hunt than a marsh. Marsh hunting can be feast or famine, but when it's good, the hunting can be up-close and exciting. Ducks often use marshes as resting areas, but the presence of aquatic vegetation, as well as various invertebrates, can make them primary feeding areas as well. 

Adjust your spread for the weather: Many salt marsh hunters use small decoy spreads. But at times, Tom Cornicelli, who guides waterfowlers in the salt marshes of Long Island, New York, does not hesitate to set a hundred mallard, black duck, and wigeon decoys. "If weather conditions are poor for puddle duck hunting, I want a big spread," he says. "I know I'm not going to see many birds, so I want those I do see to look at a spread that stands out."

Choose your duck dog carefully: It's easy to lose a crippled duck in a dense cattail marsh, so a good retriever is essential. "I want a dog that is very quiet in the blind but also has good marking skills, a great nose, and the ability to handle crippled birds," Cornicelli says. "If my Chessie is searching for a downed bird, she'll keep hunting until she finds it or I call her off."

Hide away from the boat: Michael Holman, a waterfowl guide and marsh hunter from Bryan, Texas, has a boat blind on the 18-foot rig he uses to run the backwaters of the Trinity River. But he prefers to get out of the boat and hunt from natural vegetation whenever possible. "Hunting that way is much faster, and I don't have to worry whether the motor is covered or something on the boat is shining," he says. "It can be uncomfortable because it's muddy and you have to pack a blind bag, but I have better success by hunting away from the boat whenever possible."

Hunt the midday hours: Holman says the best time to be in a marsh is often between 9 o'clock and 2 o'clock, after the birds have fed in the morning and before they head out to feed again in the evening. "Most ducks use a marsh as a sanctuary," he says. "They'll often decoy better there than they will on a big lake because they've been coming to that spot for a while and are comfortable there."

Match what you see: Holman notes the birds he sees while scouting and tries to imitate them with his decoy spread. "If I go in a marsh and see a hundred mallards, I'm going to use quite a few mallard decoys," he says. "But usually there's a mixed bag, so I'll put several species out in small groups or pairs. I don't arrange them in any certain pattern, but I will put a pair of decoys in the middle of the landing hole. I think this simulates two ducks that have just landed and haven't moved out of the hole yet, and it gives decoying birds more confidence."

Flooded Fields

Every duck hunter should experience the sound of a thousand ducks flushing off a flooded crop field in the dark, knowing they'll return shortly after daylight. Flooded field hunting is available in some form or another from coast to coast. It's hard to imagine a more ideal setting for shooting puddle ducks.

Single out a mallard: Many times, particularly late in the season, a few mallards will circle a flooded field with a flock of wary pintails. Eric Conrad, a veteran field hunter from West Monroe, Louisiana, says it's important to focus on the mallards, which can often be pulled away from the pintails. "Pintails will often circle and give you two or three looks, but not get within gun range," he says. "But if there's a mallard in the bunch and you see him rubbernecking, hit him with a comeback call. Sometimes he'll turn inside out trying to bomb into the decoys. If he's looking at the spread anyway, what do you have to lose?"

Be versatile with a permanent spread: Conrad arranges his semipermanent spread of several hundred decoys to accommodate any wind direction he might encounter during the season. Although his spread is too large to adjust every day, he makes gradual adjustments as the season progresses. "I leave a hole in the middle and arrange the decoys around an open-water cross, giving the birds four directions from which to approach," he says. "I like putting pintail decoys on the edge so birds can see them from a distance, and mallard and teal decoys closer in. Later in the season, I often break the spread into smaller groups and pairs."

Look for the eyes: It's very easy to misjudge distance over a flooded field, but there's one sure way to know if a bird is close enough to shoot. "If you can see his eye, he's in range," says Conrad, who favors a swing-through style of shooting, rather than a sustained lead, for open fields. "I like to start at the bird's tail, swing through his bill, pull the trigger, and keep on swinging."

Learn when to ease off the call: Loud calling can often be a necessity over a flooded field, but subtle calling or even no calling at all can also be effective at times. "We've found the less calling you do, the better off you are," says Kyle Neeser, an avid rice field hunter in California's Sacramento Valley. "The club where I hunt is about five miles from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, where many hunters hammer on the call constantly. But nine times out of 10, we just blow a pintail or wigeon whistle, and we often have better success. Once birds start working our spread, we just shut up and don't move." 

Mix up the movement: Use of motorized spinning-wing decoys is restricted to the late season in California, but these decoys are popular with local hunters when they are allowed. As a result, Neeser believes some ducks become wary of them. "Now that everyone is using them, we're doing better by not using wing-spinners," he says. "We're finding other ways of putting motion in the decoys, like jerk strings and quiver magnets. We usually just cut a hole in a decoy and put a quiver magnet inside. And we set our jerk cords right in front of the blind to simulate birds that have just landed."

Open Water

Few things in waterfowling are as demanding as hunting major rivers and lakes. But open-water hunters take the labor with the rewards, as the sheer number of ducks on big rivers and lakes can be staggering, and the opportunity for a mixed bag—from goldeneyes to gadwalls—is never better.

Learn to scout flight paths: In addition to looking for ducks on the water, Brian Bowers of Sammamish, Washington, makes note of where ducks are flying while he's scouting the Columbia River. "Good binoculars are crucial for scouting big water," he says. "You have to watch ducks in the air and learn their flight paths. It's hard to always hunt on the X when you're on big water, so it's important to know the birds' natural travel routes. It's also important to get in the boat and scout at different times. Often, there'll be a good flight in the middle of the day."

Think big with decoys and weights: "Ducks out here want to sit in the middle of the river, unless it's super windy," Bowers says. "So you need an attractive spread. I primarily use oversize mallard and pintail decoys, and never fewer than five dozen. I prefer eight to 10 dozen." Bowers rigs his big-water decoys with at least eight-ounce weights.

Try a goose spread for ducks: "Five or six years ago, I started using an all-goose spread on big water," says Sean Evans, who hunts the Missouri River and various reservoirs near his hometown of Spring Hill, Kansas. "I throw out 10 to 12 dozen goose floaters and sometimes half a dozen duck decoys. We started decoying a lot of ducks over this spread. I think ducks are just as comfortable coming into a big goose spread on the water as they are in a field. It's important to open the spread up. Mine may be 80 yards across. I feel the more the spread is opened up, the less opportunity circling birds have to concentrate on a specific part of it."

Hide downwind of the spread: Evans likes to get his boat blind well away and downwind from the decoys. "I never set decoys around the boat because it draws too much attention to us," he says. "I put the boat downwind of the middle of the spread, and the ducks will usually work right in front of us." He's also meticulous about brushing his boat. "I use Avery RealGrass, but that's not enough by itself. I totally cover the boat with tree branches. This has really increased our success."

Ponds and Streams

Many of us can trace our duck-hunting roots back to small streams, potholes, and ponds. These often overlooked places can still be settings for epic hunts. Many times, they're remote enough to require a lengthy hike, so minimal equipment and mobility can be the keys to success.

Hunt outside bends: When looking for hunting spots on a stream, Troy Bailey of   Firth, Nebraska, concentrates on outside stream bends, especially those with sandbars. "We find birds on the bends where the channel is usually a little wider," Bailey says. "Ducks can get out on the sandbars and sun themselves, and there's often a little vegetation around as well. These are great places for a few full-body decoys."

Mobility fills the bag: Because streams offer ducks a lot of resting areas, Bailey says it's important not to get too set in your ways when hunting them. While he prefers decoying ducks, he'll sometimes return to his roots and jump-shoot. "Often, especially if we're on a stream we haven't hunted before, birds will have a preferred spot we don't know about," he says. "So if we see birds go down around the next river bend, we'll use the terrain to sneak up on them for jump-shooting. This helps fill the bag, and then we can set up again in that new spot. It's tough to compete with live birds sitting on the water just around the bend."

Understand the "amphitheater" effect: "You really have to watch your calling in a pothole," says Eric Fortenberry, an Oklahoman who guides duck hunters in South Dakota. "With surrounding cattails, it's almost as if you're in an amphitheater. Your calling projects much louder, and it gets a much different response. I tell people to call away from the water and toward the reeds so it doesn't echo as much." That same effect can also block wind from sweeping across potholes, so Fortenberry relies heavily on a jerk string to create movement. "At most I'll put out 15 or 20 decoys, and a jerk string is crucial," he says.

Keep your dog comfortable: While hunting around ponds and potholes, it's important not to forget about your retriever's comfort. "Make sure you bring a stand for your dog to sit on," Fortenberry says. "Hunting a pothole can be just as wet and uncomfortable for him as hunting flooded timber."

Potholes are hard to find in the dark: "Imagine going into a building at night with no windows and turning off all the lights," Fortenberry says. "That's how dark it can be on the prairie in the fall. A GPS is an absolute must for finding a pothole because you're looking for a three-acre spot in 1,000 acres of prairie. And once you get into those cattails, everything looks the same."

Flooded Timber

When flooded green timber is the topic, one place comes to mind—Arkansas. When the backwater is out, the best timber hunting in the country is found in this state, much of it on public land. But don't think these birds come easily. It takes a lot of knowledge and effort to hunt here. Expect competition, but if you do things right, 10-yard shots at fat, hovering greenheads are common.

Give working ducks a wide downwind berth: Rick Dunn, a former world champion duck caller and owner of Echo Calls in Beebe, Arkansas, says having several skilled callers working together is the best way to get the attention of passing ducks in the timber. But once the birds are looking, one caller should take the lead and carefully work the ducks into range. "The wind is very important," Dunn says. "When the birds fly upwind, you want to keep them fairly tight, but when they head downwind, you need to allow them enough room to get oriented and land. I think a lot of guys make the mistake of trying to turn birds too soon on the downwind swing, but I like to let them get 75 yards or so away before calling to them again."

Carry a GPS for scouting: When the backwater is out, Dunn and his partners find concentrations of public-land birds by running the river and watching for ducks. Once they see a flock, they kill the motor and wait. If another flock flies across the channel within 15 minutes, they follow them into the timber. "We motor in, and when we think we're getting close, we stop and listen," Dunn says. "Once we know we're close, we start looking for an opening to hunt the next morning. We'll pick a landmark, such as a fallen tree, and enter that as a waypoint into a GPS. There are no trails to most of the places we end up hunting, so you need a GPS to find them."

Add some motion: Dunn regards a jerk string as one of the most important tools for hunting the timber. "We always use a jerk string," he says. "It is the most effective thing we have for getting the water moving. Late in the season, if the ducks are looking down and don't see any movement in your spread, they're not coming in."

Hunt the "feather edges": Jody Pagan, a waterfowl biologist and guide at Five Oaks Duck Lodge near Stuttgart, Arkansas, likes to find food sources in early fall that are likely to concentrate ducks once the backwater is out. Oak flats rife with acorns and clearings with thick grass, such as old logging roads, are great places to hunt when under shallow water. "Some guys miss timber-hunting opportunities by hunting water that's too deep for ducks to forage," Pagan says. "Always hunt the ‘feather edges' of the backwater when it's on the rise. Ducks are going to follow that rising water and find those acorns and things you found during the summer. When the water starts receding, the birds will quickly follow the river out."

Pick a load and stick with it: Although most hunters know the importance of patterning their guns to find the perfect load/choke combination, many are still guilty of loading up with whatever is handy. Pagan says this is a mistake. "Once you are successful with one shell, stick with it," he says. "If you've been shooting a particular load of 2s and cleanly taking birds, a lot of times you'll start missing or crippling more birds if you switch loads or shot sizes."