by Tom Fulgham
When the early morning sun burns white-hot, it's hard to imagine there will ever be an end to summer. In the thick of it, the humid days drone on as relentlessly as the cicadas, but somewhere beyond the northern horizon lies the promise of a new season. A new autumn. A first cold front. Another opening day.
Though we can't see it coming for the summer haze, another duck season is fast approaching. There's much to be decided, and much work to be done. Blinds, decoys, calls, boats, dogs-all must be in top form by opening morning. It's no easy task, but nothing worthwhile ever is. In that spirit, here are a few suggestions, or more likely reminders, to help with all the planning and preparations. Surely, you have some preseason rituals of your own to add to our list as well.
Enjoy the work, or at least go at it with joyful determination. You'll know it was worth every bit of sweat and worry when that first flock banks to your call, and the season begins.
1. Make a Plan for the Season
For many of the key components of our lives, we have a plan. We plan a career, plan our family's financial stability, and ultimately plan the disposition of our wealth and possessions after we have hopefully moved on to an eternity of autumn winds and cupped wings. Successful duck hunting-certainly a key component of life-also requires a plan. A good one, thoughtfully devised.
Last season is the best starting point for planning this season. If you keep a waterfowling journal, review last duck season objectively. Try to determine which hunting spots produced under what weather conditions. Which spot is best on a storm front, and, conversely, where should you be when the weather is clear and calm? Which option is best when it rains, snows, or freezes?
What is the river stage reading that correlates with good hunting in your bottomland hardwood flat? Factor in all the variables, and you'll have a plan that will put you in the right spot at the right time most mornings during duck season.
If you have only one hunting spot, know the conditions under which it is most productive, and resolve to be there on those days. The goal of your preseason planning should be to maximize hunting opportunities as weather and water conditions change.
2. Dust Off Your Duck Call
At the end of last season, your calling never sounded better, and the birds responded as if mesmerized-at least, that's the way you remember it. To pick up just where you left off last winter, you'll need some practice prior to opening day.
As a starting point, clean your calls and inspect the reed. If you hunt three or four days a week, consider starting each season with a fresh reed or reed set. Expensive calls should be sent back to the call maker for new reeds. Otherwise, try installing and tuning the new reeds yourself (see "On Call" feature). If you intend to buy a new duck call from one of the major mail-order catalogs, place your order as early as possible; a backorder notice holds little value on opening morning.
With your old or new call now tuned to perfection, practice as often as you can prior to duck season. A good approach is to find a place outdoors where you can practice calling at normal volume levels and then tape yourself, comparing your calling to recordings of live ducks (Nature's Call, 888-254-7000; Game Call Technology, 800-801-0911).
When you practice, do so with purpose. Don't just call randomly. Instead, make your practice sessions as realistic as possible by calling as if you are working a flock of ducks. Imagine the birds turning to your highballs, locking up on your greeting calls and feeding chatter, veering off but turning back to a comeback series. Practice with a purpose, and you'll be more effective on opening day.
3. Give Your Shotgun a Checkup
At season's end, most waterfowlers break out their best gun cleaning supplies-a rag and spray bottle of gun oil-and treat their loyal duck guns to a good rub down before retiring them to the cabinet. By the end of duck season, however, most shotguns have endured considerable abuse and are due for a serious checkup.
A first step, of course, is a thorough cleaning. If you have access to a small compressed air tank, use it to blow powder residue and other grime out of the trigger assembly and receiver. Then treat all metal surfaces with a light coating of high-quality gun lubricant. (Some shotguns with complex mechanisms-the A5 and BPS immediately come to mind-should be fully disassembled and cleaned only by a gunsmith.)
While your shotgun is disassembled, check for excessively worn or damaged parts, and have them replaced by a gunsmith. If your autoloader's stock spent a considerable amount of time in water last season, ask a gunsmith to check the action spring for rust. A rusty, gummed-up action spring will cause some autoloaders to cycle slowly or malfunction in cold weather.
Lastly, before opening day, double-check to be certain your gun's factory magazine plug is installed, and if you have had repair work done, test fire your shotgun to verify that it is cycling properly.
Related: Shotgunning Tips
4. Hone Your Shooting Skills
Once your shotgun has a clean bill of health, you should put it to good use before the season starts. For duck hunters, sporting clays is a godsend, offering much more realistic targets than either trap or skeet. At many courses, a round of sporting clays or five-stand isn't cheap, but it makes for an entertaining afternoon with friends and will definitely improve your shooting skills.
If possible, try to shoot sporting clays with your duck gun. Remember, you're not shooting for a high score here; the idea is simply to get back on target. Also, let the range operator know if you are not an avid sporting clays shooter. Many facilities have different shooting stands at each station for novice, intermediate, and advanced shooters.
Practicing range estimation will also improve your wingshooting efficiency this fall. One easy way to practice involves taking a range finder with you while fishing or hiking.
Practice judging the distance of trees at typical shooting ranges, and check your accuracy with the range finder. A coincidence range finder, which costs as little as $40, is all you need for this exercise; laser range finders are a little easier to use, but more expensive.
Related: Shooting Tips
5. Touch Up the Rig
When it comes to decoys, duck hunters fall into two categories: those who enjoy repairing and repainting decoys, and those who simply buy new ones to replace the shabby or sinking decoys in their rig at the end of the season. Whichever camp you fall into, now is the time to get your decoys in working order.
If you're in the "buy new" category, place your order as early as possible; the big catalog companies sometimes sell out of decoys quickly and have trouble getting more in stock.
Hunters who repair and repaint plastic decoys should first remove weathered paint with a stiff brush. Then seal any pellet holes with epoxy, and paint the decoy with a good primer. Herter's sells decoy paint kits for most species, and Wing Supply (800-388-9464) offers Parker decoy paints, an old favorite of many waterfowlers.
In addition, be sure to inspect your existing rig for dry-rotted or frayed anchor lines. With new decoys, buy top quality decoy cord and take care in tying your knots. Some hunters prefer tying the cord to large snap swivels and then attaching them to the keel and anchor. With plastic decoy lines such as Tanglefree (800-982-4868), tie to the keel using a tight double overhand knot, or try the company's special plastic clips designed for this use.
Related: More Decoy Tips & Strategies
6. Revive Your Retriever
Hard to imagine that same yellow dog sprawled on your kitchen floor was just months ago an awesome force in the duck marsh. He will be this season, too, with just a little summertime work.
Retriever Training Tips & Strategies
Dog Training Videos
A primary concern should be getting your pup in peak physical condition. Long walks and lots of water retrieves will help keep him toned up through the summer. Water work not only serves as excellent exercise, but also keeps your dog enthusiastic about retrieving.
During hot weather, land drills are best done late in the evening. If you are working a trained, experienced retriever, focus on drills that reinforce steadying, lining, hand signals, and multiple retrieves. Try to build up the time you spend on land drills gradually; too much at once can dampen a dog's fervor for his work. Just 30 minutes of drills every evening are enough to put most retrievers back on the road to glory.
In many states, September seasons for doves, teal, and resident Canada geese offer great early opportunities for your retriever to get back in action. Summer temperatures often prevail well into September, so remember to take plenty of fresh water afield for your dog, and to allow him to cool off in the water or shade occasionally.
7. Whatever Floats Your Boat
In duck hunting, there's no such thing as a free ride. The fare for safe passage to your blind this season is a Saturday afternoon devoted to routine maintenance on your boat, motor, and trailer. First on your list should be an inspection of the boat. If the hull is aluminum, check it for stress damage near welds or rivets and for wear spots on the chines and bottom.
If your johnboat doesn't have plywood flooring, you may have to paint the deck every few years. When the paint wears off, the deck's bare aluminum will gleam in the sunlight, possibly flaring ducks. Some duck hunters are using the new polyurethane spray-on bedliners for this job. These products, available at auto parts stores, produce a textured, non-slip surface that is waterproof and helps dampen noise.
Run your outboard well before the duck season to assess if major repairs are needed. If it is running poorly, have a qualified mechanic service your motor. Otherwise, you can do much of the routine maintenance yourself. First, buy a flush kit from a marine dealer and flush out your motor. Then, drain and refill the lubricant in the lower unit. Install a new set of spark plugs, and lubricate fittings and moving parts.
Also, remember to inspect the gas tank for rust or leaks, and check the gas line and fittings for leaks. Make sure you start the season with fresh fuel. Try out your running lights and other safety equipment. Buy new life vests if yours are badly weathered. Test your trailer lights, lubricate your Bearing Buddies, and replace the winch line if it is frayed or damaged.
8. Secure Your Hunting Spots
At the end of every season, smart private-land duck hunters lay the groundwork for next season. They find an appropriate way to show their thanks to landowners, and let them know whether they hope to hunt on their property again next duck season.
Some finalize the details then; others wait until summer. Either way, it's important to keep in touch with the landowner throughout the spring and summer, not only to maintain a positive relationship, but also to keep informed of any land management or farming changes that might impact your hunting spot.
Say, for instance, one of your best spots, a beaver pond, sits in a large tract of hardwoods. During the summer, the landowner decides to harvest all the timber on one side of the pond. Ducks may not be attracted to the pond anymore, so spending some time over the summer investigating other beaver ponds might be wise. The sooner you know about land-use changes that could impact existing hunting spots, the more time you'll have to explore other options.
In some states, permanent blinds must be licensed before each duck season. Existing blinds generally receive priority status, but only if the hunter buys and displays the appropriate license by a certain deadline. Obviously, this is one deadline you don't want to miss. Put a reminder in your day planner, or affix a note to your refrigerator.
Looking for a place to hunt? Find a National Wildlife Refuge near you. Many of these refuges offer excellent public hunting.
9. Spruce Up Your Duck Blind
Building a better duck blind is all about having the right perspective-that of a duck in flight rather than your own earthbound view. Think back over last season. If circling ducks frequently appeared to shy away from your blind, you may want to make some changes.
If, for instance, birds often landed wide of your blind, maybe you should rethink your brushing strategy, modify the width of the shooting box, lower the overall height of the blind, or possibly even relocate it. (Sometimes ducks land around the next bend in the creek simply because that particular spot-even though only 80 yards from your decoys-naturally appeals to them.) Now is the time to decide what, if any, changes should be made, and to get on with the work.
If you hunt from a boat blind like the Avery Quick Set (800-333-5119), be sure to inspect the camouflage panels for damage, leaving enough time before opening day to purchase new ones. If stored properly after each duck season, these camo panels should provide many years of use.
10. Get in a Duck Hunting State of Mind
As the hot summer days grow a little shorter, a subtle crispness in the night air pushes your thoughts northward-to the pothole country. You imagine mallards by the thousands feeding in the barley, fattening up for the journey soon to come.
It seems an eternity ago when you watched the sun set on another duck season, but now the dawn of a new one is close at hand. And, just like last year, you're thankful to be a part of this again, waiting on the first cold fronts, anticipating the first flock-wings cupped, greenheads colorful as autumn-dropping into the decoys.
Slowly, you are returning to a duck hunting state of mind. Here are some suggestions to make the anticipation all the sweeter.
- Reread your favorite waterfowling stories. Gordon MacQuarrie, Gene Hill, Nash Buckingham, Norm Strung-they (and others) will refuel your passion for birds, decoys, dogs, and all things waterfowling. A few personal favorites: Strung's "Bayman's Solstice"; MacQuarrie's "Nervous Breakdown," "Pothole Guys, Friz Out," and "Make Mine Bluebills"; Hill's "Geese and Men" and "Martin"; and Buckingham's "What Rarer Day."
- Get involved in your local DU community. Ask the committee chairman how you might play a role in making this year's event the most successful ever. Volunteering your time and skills for the benefit of the resource not only engenders great personal satisfaction, but also opens the door to new friendships with others who enjoy the outdoors.
- One final way to get in a duck hunting frame of mind: Watch great waterfowling action in classic North American settings on DU TV. Of course, most of us will be working on duck blinds (or fishing), training retrievers (or fishing), or searching for new hunting spots (or fishing) on Saturday mornings over the next few weeks, so this might be a good time for the kids to explain how to program the VCR.