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Top Tactics for Early-Season Ducks

Make the most of your hunting opportunities when opening day finally arrives
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By Wade Bourne

The early season can be a rewarding time for duck hunters. The birds haven't experienced a lot of hunting pressure yet, so they can be susceptible to the trickery of decoys and calling. Enthusiasm runs high. Expectations are soaring.

Still, you have to do your homework if you want to make the most of your hunting opportunities. That means learning the different behavior patterns of ducks at the start of the season, adjusting your hunting tactics accordingly, and making sure your retriever is prepared for his first forays afield. Here's advice from four experts on how to make your early-season outings more successful.

1. HUNT LIGHT FOR PUDDLE DUCKS

Mark Brendemuehl of Kerkhoven, Minnesota, is a territory manager for Avery Outdoors. He often hunts in neighboring North Dakota, where the duck season usually opens in late September. Because the big flights don't arrive until about a month later, Brendemuehl and his buddies spend the first few weeks of the season hunting mostly local birds. This requires a different approach than hunting later in the season.

"Our philosophy for the early season is to hunt light," Brendemuehl explains. "This means we don't throw the kitchen sink at the ducks. We use small spreads—from six to 30 decoys, depending on the size of the wetland—with minimal motion. We don't hunt roost areas. We change hunting locations frequently to minimize pressure on a given pothole or marsh. We do what we have to do to keep our local birds hanging around."

When the season opens, few grainfields have been harvested, so the ducks are feeding mostly in potholes. Brendemuehl and his hunting partners find these places by driving the back roads in the morning and following ducks from their larger roosting sites to these smaller feeding ponds. "It's amazing how many ducks can pack into one small pothole that has good food available," he says.

The hunters make a number of other adjustments to manage hunting pressure. "We call sparingly," Brendemuehl says. "If ducks are coming, we let them come on. Also, we never shoot at large flocks, and instead focus on singles, pairs, and small bunches. Again, we've got to keep from pushing our local ducks out before the northern birds show up."

For Brendemuehl and his pals, hunting light also means shooting lighter loads. "Early-season ducks are smaller, and a lot of our shots in potholes are close," he says. "For those reasons, I start the season shooting size 3 or 4 steel shot. These loads offer better pattern density, and they're very effective when ducks are decoying at close range. As the season progresses and northern ducks show up, I'll switch to 2s for more knockdown power at longer distances."

Brendemuehl's last piece of advice centers on what to wear while hunting. "Most waterfowl patterns are dull brown, but the early-season marsh can be a vibrant green," he says. "Hunters who wear clothing that matches the green color of the reeds will blend in better and get closer shots."

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