By John Pollmann
Becoming a better waterfowl hunter isn't something that happens overnight, but involves a continual process of examining the various aspects of the hunt that help put ducks and geese in the bag. The key is to define these critical skills, and then focus on the details. Following is a collection of tips from veteran waterfowl hunters that helps narrow down the skills and techniques that are worth the refinement and will help you become a better hunter this season.
Drake Waterfowl Elite Team member and three-time world duck calling champion Barnie Calef has an easy answer when asked what will help put more birds in the decoys.
"Hands down, the five-note greeting call is the one call that a duck hunter really needs to be able to blow cleanly and confidently," Calef says. "Day in, day out, it gets used."
Calef first became sold on the importance of the greeting call after watching a hen mallard corral a flock of young ducks flying around a wetland near his home in Iowa.
"Those young birds would get 8 to 10 feet away and the hen would hit a five-note call, and they'd immediately fall back into line every time," Calef says. "Ducks are genetically programmed to respond to that call."
Calef recommends hunters begin by focusing on producing a single "quack" by humming the word "voot" into a call, then adding more quacks, building toward the string of five notes coming down the scale. Changes in tempo and volume will turn the greeting call into a comeback call.
"You really can forget everything else. Without the greeting call, you're just hoping to call ducks in," Calef says.
There probably isn't a single tool more important to a lifetime of waterfowl hunting than the shotgun, and time spent with this autoloader, pump or double-barrel outside the marsh is time well spent, according to veteran South Dakota guide Ben Fujan.
"It's all about maximizing those opportunities you have when you're in the field," Fujan says. "You're only going to get so many birds in range on a given day, so you want to make those shots count."
Fujan recommends patterning a shotgun using several brands of shells and choke tubes to find the combination that works best, and every effort should be made to replicate the distance and other shooting conditions a hunter is going to experience most often during the season.
"The more time you invest into your gun away from the hunt the more comfortable you're going to be in the field," Fujan says. "And being comfortable and confident is going to put more birds on the strap."
Scouting the Big Picture
When avid hunter and professional photographer Doug Steinke gets behind the wheel to drive through some of his usual hunting areas in central Nebraska, he's looking for more than ducks or geese.
"I call it reconnaissance," Steinke says. "It's taking scouting to an upper level."
Hunting conditions can change from one day to the next, so Steinke actively observes water levels and the availability of cover, giving him a head-start on where to be with his gun or his camera based on the arrival of a significant weather system.
"Even when there seems to be nothing to do or nothing to gain, I've learned that there is value in observation and gathering as much information as I can," Steinke says. "Like the line from an old war movie, 'Time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.'"
Creating Motion in the Decoys
When he was young, Rusty Creasey, manager of the Coca-Cola Duck Club near McCrory, Ark., sat and listened to the older hunters share bits of advice about putting ducks in the decoys. Among the tips they shared was the importance of adding motion to a duck decoy spread.
Using that motion in the right place and at the right time, Creasey has discovered, can create even more advantages for the duck hunter.
When it comes to spinning wing decoys, Creasey advises moving them out of the shooting hole and into the edge of the decoy spread, away from a group of hunters.
"This takes the attention and the focus of the ducks away from moving bodies or those novice hunters who are shifting and watching the birds," Creasey says.
There comes a time, too, when the spinning wing decoys lose their effectiveness. That's when Creasey leans even more heavily on the one tool that is with him on every hunt.
"I know it sounds trivial and simple, but I do not hunt without a jerk sting," says Creasey. "That swimming motion is something that real ducks are always making on the water, and I've never seen ducks flare off the jerk string. It works in the timber; it works in the rice fields; it just works. I never leave the lodge without it."
Of all the hats that veteran New York hunter and guide Mike Bard wears, the most important is that of father.
And when he thinks of the skills that he wants to teach his two children for a lifetime of hunting, Bard considers first those that maybe don't seem to have much to do with the actual hunt.
"You really need to have people skills, for so many reasons," Bard says. "Many of us rely on landowners for places to hunt, so building those relationships is so important, and so are those that we build with hunting buddies, who we share scouting duties and pool resources like decoys, boats and trailers. To be a successful hunter, it takes more than just you."
Bard adds that encounters with hunters on public lands and waters further emphasize the need to be respectful to others.
"I've really tried to show my kids the value in treating people like they would prefer to be treated, pointing out how our friends help us and the importance of taking the higher road," Bard says," all of this in relation to hunting."