by Rod Haydel
Dad picked me up from school early that day and I knew something was up as he had his camo on. In those days, this meant an old gray flight jacket from his days in the Air Force. There was a chill in the air and a smile on his face when he said, "Hurry, the flight is on." I was excited at the anticipation of actually killing my first duck.
Indeed I did that afternoon, and dad even let me call it in with him. After a little instruction he had taught me to produce a decent quack on an old Faulk's call that he had for emergencies, as it had a split reed. Together we sat him on the water and I made my first kill. Old "Smokey" brought him back and delivered to hand a pretty drake. I spent some time admiring the many colors on my trophy and tried to figure out why dad referred to it as a "gray duck."
That was more than 30 years ago and today I still love to bag a few of these controversial birds late in the season. This is when they are in full plumage. To many it seems to be an inferior duck and almost something to be ashamed of. While times have changed, the sound they make sure hasn't. I still remember telling dad, "I hear a mallard," and his reply was, "That's just a grey duck, boy."
With the explosion in the population over the past few years I'm sure this species has helped fill the bag on many a marginal hunt. Gadwall do indeed have a language that is all on their own and not easily mistaken once you've heard them. The hen makes a low-pitched series of three to four nasally quacks similar to a pintail hen that imitates a kid on a duck call just learning. The drake produces a single monotone "tat-tat" quack, which sometimes, as in my case, gets mistaken for a mallard.
Most hunters underestimate these curious birds. They say they're crazy. Some work a call and others want no part of it. In my experience, all it takes is speaking their language and studying their habits. Most birds want to associate with their kind, hence, birds of a feather flock together. While I admit that I have personally watched many pairs not even trust one another, only to land 200 yards apart. I also have witnessed them turn on a dime to a gray duck sound with which they are familiar, working as a mallard would.
You need to pay attention to their habits to understand this bird. They prefer aquatic vegetation to grain when feeding and tend to "raft up" late in the season, especially in open water. It is not even uncommon to find them in flooded timber with wood ducks. This versatility has probably led to their abundance. I have had the best success late in the year with plenty of decoys (while gadwall decoys help, they are not a necessities; no mallard talk and just enough calling with a whistle or even the Haydel's gadwall call (GW-01) to keep their interest). These birds are unpredictable at best, but that's the sport.
Last year while filming our new instructional video, everyone that participated was amazed at the response that we received. The birds locked on to the decoys and, coupled with the right sounds, we found them barreling into the spread from the heavens. The sheer sight of a big group of gads coming through the trees is something hard to describe. I am only sad to say that it was the last day of the season. I'll be back this year, I guarantee (as Justin Wilson would say).
I might add that I doubt anyone can tell the difference in table fare from gadwall to mallard. So don't think any less of a man for taking a few grey ducks in his bag. Many boys over the years have named the gadwall their favorite duck. Even a few men, for that matter, can manage to stomach this one. Myself included. Just look at my stomach.