By Wade Bourne
Many of these problems result from the long layoff between hunting seasons. What was second nature last year now requires careful thought and planning. The adrenaline and excitement generated by opening day doesn't help matters. For all these reasons, you should never wait until the last minute to get all your proverbial ducks in a row. Instead, use the off-season wisely to plan things out in advance. That way, when the new season arrives, you can greet it with the confidence that comes from knowing you are well prepared and that everything is in working order in your little corner of duckdom.
Following are some of the most common opening day mistakes committed by waterfowlers, and ways to avoid making them:
1. Hunting in the Wrong Spot
It was a shocking discovery back then. But now, in retrospect, it seems merely a laughable error. When we were teenagers, a friend and I spent two long summer days building a duck blind near a shallow flat on a newly impounded reservoir near our home in Tennessee. We waded in, toting boards, plywood, and wire. We used a sledgehammer to pound posts into the mud. We sawed, nailed, sweated—and sunburned—until finally our creation was complete. Before we left, we concealed our new blind with a thick layer of willow brush. Then we departed with high expectations of the fun we'd have when the season arrived.
We didn't return to our blind until the day before the season opened. We came to put out decoys, and that's when we got a big surprise. Our blind was high and dry—80 yards from the water's edge. We hadn't anticipated the reservoir's winter drawdown, which drained the water off the mudflat. What's more, all the leaves had fallen off the willow brush and only a few thin sticks muted our blind's boxy look.
The blind's lack of cover might have been easily fixed, but there was no getting around the fact that we had built it in the wrong spot. Despite all our preparations and hard work, we were not where the ducks were. Our opening day was a bust.
2. Neglecting Your Gear
Charlie Holder of Orange, Texas, owns Sure-Shot Game Calls and is a lifelong duck hunter. Several years back he learned a hard lesson about boat motor maintenance and opening day expectations. "I was taking two 12-year-old boys on their first duck hunt," Holder says. "Their fathers didn't hunt, but these boys wanted to give it a try. I volunteered to take them."
At the time, Holder had a lease on a 500-acre reservoir near the Gulf Coast, where he kept his boat docked. He hadn't started the outboard since teal season, more than two months earlier. "The two boys and I loaded our gear into the boat, and I went to start the motor, but it wouldn't fire," he says. "I tried everything I knew, and I nearly wore myself out yanking the starter cord, but nothing worked."
Holder ended up pushing the boat—loaded with the boys, dog, and all their hunting gear—a quarter-mile over open water to the blind. The water was nearly chest deep and the reservoir's bottom was gumbo mud. "Pushing the boat that far exhausted me," Holder says. "We got to the blind way past shooting time and long after the ducks had quit flying. The boys never got a shot. We were all very disappointed."
As it turned out, Holder's opening day was foiled by a fouled spark plug. The problem could have been prevented with just a little routine maintenance. This is true of many other equipment failures that occasionally sabotage an otherwise promising hunt. Take care to ensure that your gun, duck calls, waders, decoys, and other gear are in working order before the season starts, and chances are they won't fail you when the birds are flying.
3. Quitting Too Early
Will Primos of Jackson, Mississippi, is an avid duck hunter and call maker who knows the value of scouting to find where birds are congregating. Before the season begins, he typically puts in enough hours and road miles to uncover a "sweet spot" for a good opening day hunt. A few years back, however, he learned another important lesson.
On the day before the season started, Primos and his hunting partners found a concentration of mallards in an isolated slough. Prospects for the next morning looked promising. The hunt, however, turned out to be marginal. "We got a few ducks early, but by nine o'clock the hole was just dead," he says. "Nothing was coming." They soon gave up and headed into town for a late breakfast.
In the afternoon, they returned to see if they could fill out their limits. "When we returned to the slough, it was absolutely covered up with ducks," Primos says. "We flushed them and set up and quickly limited out on birds that came right back in."
The lesson Primos learned is to be patient. Hunters who have waited months for the season to begin shouldn't abandon their blinds at the first sign of a slow day. Weather conditions, feeding patterns, or the timing of migratory flights can bring in waterfowl at any time. And if you quit early, you won't be there when the birds arrive.