By Wade Bourne
Waterfowl hunting is more than a pastime; it's a way of life. And while duck season may be over, there are plenty of things you can do to stay involved in your favorite pursuit year-round. Typical off-season activities include volunteering at a local DU event, sharpening your shooting skills at a clay target range, maintaining and repairing your hunting equipment, building a blind, and scouting for hunting spots, to name a few.
Consider trying something new as well. Novelty has a way of making time fly by. Fill your spring and summer schedule with a few exciting projects, and before you know it the first cool weather of September will push teal down the flyways and the hunting season will start all over again. Here are 10 productive waterfowling-related activities that never go out of season.
Project # 1: Join a Local Retriever Club
Duck seasons come and go, but retrievers are our constant companions. It's up to us to make the most of this canine-human partnership by keeping our dogs healthy and active year-round.
Retrievers need regular exercise to stay physically and mentally sharp. They also benefit from refresher training and drills that help them maintain their retrieving skills. A good way to keep your dog in top form is to get involved with a local retriever club.Most clubs meet regularly and hold hunt tests or field trials throughout the summer. Field trials are highly competitive and feature top canine athletes, while hunt tests are more laid-back and geared toward amateur retriever owners. You can find a retriever club near you by visiting the websites of the American Kennel Club (akc.org), United Kennel Club (ukcdogs.com), and North American Hunting Retriever Association (nahra.org).
Project #2: Give Your Shotgun a Thorough Cleaning
When it comes to care and maintenance, duck guns usually get short shrift during the hunting season. Sure, you might wipe down your shotgun before putting it away and swab out the barrel after every few outings. But that's hardly enough to remove the powder residue and grit that builds up from cycling hundreds of shells in wet, cold, and muddy conditions.
To get down to the nitty-gritty of properly cleaning your gun, you'll need to take it apart. In the case of pumps and semiautos this may involve removing the barrel, magazine tube, bolt, and trigger group. Double guns are fairly easy to break down, but pumps and semiautos can be trickier. If the owner's manual doesn't provide proper instructions for disassembling your gun, or if you don't feel up to the task, you might want to consider having it cleaned by a professional gunsmith. If you do clean it yourself, be sure to use the proper solvents and oils, and always in moderation. Too much oil can attract grime and gum up a gun's working parts.
Project #3: Learn How to Shoot Video of Your Hunts
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what's the value of a series of moving pictures? Try capturing your hunts on video and you just might find out. "Digital videos are a great storytelling vehicle," says Kevin Tate, who serves as vice president of media productions for Mossy Oak. "You can post them on Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo and share some of the excitement of the hunt with your family and friends. A few hunters have even been able to turn this pastime into a lucrative side business."
The off-season is an ideal time to learn the art of video making if you want to produce something better than simply raw smartphone footage. For starters, you'll need to purchase a quality entry-level digital video camera. Tate recommends the Canon EOS 6D, a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera with a 24-105mm lens. He also says you'll need a Rode microphone, which mounts on a DSLR hot shoe. And last, he suggests using a GoPro or other compact outdoor camera to shoot additional footage at different angles to augment the video shot by your main camera.
Project #4: Build a Wood Duck Box
Here's a small do-it-yourself project that produces big rewards-for wood ducks, youth, and the future of waterfowling. Enlist some youngsters to help you build a wood duck nest box. Now is a good time to get started if you want kids to experience the thrill of seeing a brood of woodies hatched in something they built with their own hands.
When the nest box is finished, place it in a suitable location in a forested wetland or other productive wood duck habitat near your home. Place fresh wood shavings in the box to give the hens some nesting material. Visit the nest site periodically to check on the ducks' progress in laying eggs and hatching their young, as well as to clean out the remains of unsuccessful nests. You can start your wood duck nest box project by visiting DU's Wood Duck Box Resources page online at ducks.org/woodduckbox.
Project #5: Carve Your Own Decoys
You don't have to be an artist to appreciate the beauty of the marsh, the colors of a sunrise, the grace of waterfowl in flight, or the poetry in nature's seasonal progression. You don't even have to be artistic to carve your own decoys. The experience, however, can enhance your appreciation not only for waterfowl, but also for truly talented decoy carvers.
Master decoy carver Charles Jobes describes the process of transforming a block of wood into a piece of art as simply "cutting away everything that doesn't look like a duck." He recommends carving decoys from white pine, basswood, or tupelo. Basic tools include a band saw, carving knives, a draw knife, a wood rasp, a wood file, and various grades of fine sandpaper for rubbing out a smooth finish. You can make your own decoy pattern or use one of the many that are available online. Paints can be purchased at virtually any hardware store and applied by referring to photos of waterfowl in this magazine.
Jobes advises beginning decoy carvers to focus more on fun than perfection. "Your decoys don't have to be perfect to be effective," he says. "When you shoot your first duck over your own hand-carved decoys, you'll be the happiest hunter in the world. There's just a special pleasure in taking ducks over decoys that you've crafted through your own handiwork."
Project #6: Be a Marsh Watcher
Sure, the fall flight is the main event for duck hunters, but the spring migration is thrilling in its own right. The sights and sounds of so many ducks and geese making the journey back to their breeding grounds can be an awe-inspiring experience. Don't forget to bring along a pair of binoculars and a camera. This is the best time of year to take waterfowl photos. Ducks are typically in full breeding plumage, with the drakes dressed in their most vivid colors.
At the height of the spring migration, the birds can gather in spectacular numbers on major staging areas. Among the best places to view waterfowl during the off-season are national wildlife refuges and state wildlife management areas.
Many refuges have visitor centers with displays and viewing platforms where you can see large numbers of birds at close range. To find a national wildlife refuge near you, visit fws.gov/refuges and click on your state. You can also contact your state fish and wildlife agency and ask about wildlife viewing opportunities in your area.
Project #7: Learn a New Waterfowl Recipe
Many of us have a few favorite waterfowl recipes that we cook over and over. While it's nice to be able to whip something up in a hurry during hunting season, the spring and summer months are ripe for experimentation. Trying new recipes is a great way to bring a bit of variety and spice to your dinner table.
If your freezer is well stocked with birds, you shouldn't have any problem turning them into the tastiest of table fare with just a little effort. Waterfowl recipes have never been more abundant. Scott Leysath's cooking column in this magazine offers a sumptuous supply of delicious waterfowl recipes, and plenty of others are available online at sportingchef.com. With so much information available, there's no reason to get stuck in a recipe rut.
Project #8: Plan a Dream Trip
Going back through our journals and reliving memories of the past season is a time-honored tradition during the winter months. By spring, however, many of us are already looking forward to the coming season. What better time than now to start planning a trip to the waterfowling destination of your dreams? Taking a waterfowl hunting road trip is one of the true pleasures of the sport, and being able to research and plan every aspect of the trip in great detail will help you make the most of your adventure.
Maybe you'd like to get a jump on the season by hunting the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, or Alberta in September. Or perhaps a trip to the prairie potholes of North Dakota is more appealing. Other legendary destinations such as Chesapeake Bay, eastern Arkansas, South Louisiana, and the Central Valley of California may also beckon. Whatever the destination, put your plans in motion while the broadest range of opportunities are still available. The earlier you make reservations, especially if you plan to hunt with a guide, the better your chances of booking the dates you want.
Project #9: Spruce Up Your Spread
This is a perennial task that is worth mentioning if only because decoys are so vital to a hunter's success. Sprucing up your decoys can make a big difference, especially later in the season, when waterfowl are less apt to be fooled by substandard spreads.
Start by washing your decoys thoroughly to clean off any mud and grime. A high-pressure hose works best on stubborn dirt. Inspect each decoy for leaks caused by stray pellets or cracks in the seams. Set aside the damaged blocks in a separate pile and patch them with a silicone adhesive. Repaint decoys that are scratched and faded. Another way to restore the luster of old decoys is to wipe them down with Armor All. Replace lost lines and anchor weights as needed, and toss out any decoys that have broken keels or are otherwise damaged beyond repair. For more information on repairing and refurbishing old decoys, you can order a copy of my book Decoys and Proven Methods for Using Them at amazon.com.
Project #10: Teach a Young Hunter to Call
One good way to pass the legacy of waterfowling to the next generation is by teaching a young hunter how to blow a duck call. The summer months provide a golden opportunity to mentor youngsters in this important skill. Kids are out of school, and believe it or not, most of them are eager to experience something other than the virtual reality of their computer screens.
The late Harry "Butch" Richenback, founder of RNT Calls, set the standard for inspiring young hunters by teaching them how to blow a duck call. A Champion of Champions contest caller, Richenback tutored hundreds of youth in the art of duck calling. Several of his students eventually became calling champions in their own right, and many others went on to become passionate, lifelong waterfowlers. A little commitment on your part can go a long way in opening the door for tomorrow's duck hunters. Richenback's calling lessons are available on a number of instructional DVDs and CDs, including the classic "Foundations for Success," which can be ordered at www.rntcalls.com.