Next season starts now

Successful hunting begins with proper gear care and storage in the off season

—Joe Balog

This hunting season is ending, but preparation for next season starts nowDuck hunting is a unique sport, due largely to the fact that the season is so short and structured. Outdoorsmen can cast a line for bass almost all year. Bow hunters often four months to chase deer. But most duck hunters have 60 days or less to pursue their passion. Such time constraints can lead to hardcore hunting, especially as the end of the season approaches.

Now that it's all over for this season, it's easy to throw all your gear into a big pile in the shed, rinse off the dog and go to sleep. But before you hit the sack for a week, address that pile of gear—you'll be glad you did when opening day arrives next fall. To keep things orderly and working in the future, we need to go to work now.

Make a list

The first thing to do after the season ends is to make a list of all of the season's shortcomings. The best way to become a better hunter is to account for all the things that went wrong this season and work on improving them during the off season. Believe me, you'll forget the problems if you don't make a list. Maybe the boat camo wasn't the best. Maybe your dog broke repeatedly at the shot. Whatever the issue, it may not need to be immediately corrected or replaced, but it should be on the list. Once you know what you need to buy and work on before next opening day, you can start working toward a more successful hunt.

Wash and dry your gear before storing

Duck hunting has to be one of the dirtiest, wettest sports around, so getting your gear clean and dry before storing for the off season is essential to keeping it in good condition from year to year.

Wash, rinse and dry all your gear - even the smallest items - before putting them away this springWash and rinse the items that got brutally dirty during the season, including camouflage clothing. Use your washing machine's gentle cycle and mild detergent to avoid removing waterproof compounds. If your dog wears a vest, don't forget to wash it as well. That smell he carried around all season may have been from the vest, so scrub it with a brush and detergent.

Decoys, boat gear, camo (especially waders) and the rest of your gear should be dried thoroughly before storage to prevent mildew and sustain the life of the products. Once it's dry, make sure your storage method is airtight—like a large Rubbermaid tub—to keep outside moisture from creeping in.

Take inventory

While preparing your gear for storage, you'll probably notice if pieces are damaged, worn or in need of replacement. Dispose of these items, add them to your off-season to-do list and wait for the big sales at major outdoor retailers in the late summer and early fall.

If you think a different camo pattern might be better for the areas you hunt, add those items to your list as well. You'll want to keep your current items around for back-up, but check the stores for low-priced alternatives for next season.

Keep your decoys afloat

Before you put up decoys for the season, pull out any that are taking on water. The best and fastest way to solve this problem is simply to drill a hole at the decoy's lowest point (the breast or the tail, typically) with a small bit, let any existing water out, allow the decoy to fully dry inside and epoxy the hole. Clean up and fix up your decoys before storing them for the off seasonAfter you've filled the hole with epoxy, put a little extra on the decoy around it to create a better seal. Touch up the decoy's paint as needed, including any other blemishes you see.

Once you've fixed up your flock, it's time to store them. I hang my decoys from the rafters in my attic using Rig ‘Em Right decoy anchors, which have a tangle-free cord attached to a sliding weight. I hang them in groups of a dozen or so, keeping them off the ground and out of bags, avoiding kinked lines and bundles of cord next opening day.

If you use motion decoys, be sure to charge the batteries before storing them. Charging decoy batteries immediately after use will prolong their life.

Everything has a place

I swear by large Plano gear boxes to store my everyday gear. They have been an asset to me when it comes to organization. Spinning-wing decoys, Higdon Pulsators, tools, emergency equipment, gun oil, the dog's first-aid kit, hand warmers, pruning shears—everything that may have been in a pocket or a blind bag goes in the gear box. Keeping everything organized in one place will make your next opening day much smoother. From flashlights to spare keys, all of last year's misplaced items will be found easily once again.

Get (and keep) your motor runnin'

If you have a boat, it's probably the biggest item in your hunting inventory by far. So make sure you give it the attention it deserves. Here are some tips to get the average boat ready for the off season:

  • If you can get the motor off the boat and stored inside, do so. Even if the space isn't heated, protecting the motor from the elements will prevent rust and many other problems.
  • Keep your motor in top condition between seasonsRemove the battery from your rig and immediately charge it. Maintain the charge throughout the winter to prolong the battery's life.
  • Add fuel stabilizer to gas tanks.
  • Remove everything you can from inside the boat. GPS units, seats—I go as far as removing the floorboards—should be pulled out, dried and stored.
  • If your boat is aluminum and light enough, flip it over on the trailer to prevent pooling water.

In northern climates, outboard motors must be winterized if stored outside. Follow these tips if you live in the northern states:

  • Drain as much water from the boat as possible by raising and lowering the motor several times.
  • Mud motors are a little more maintenance free, but each gear fitting should be greased and the throttle cable lubed.
  • Run all fuel out of the fuel lines, pushing through a little stabilizer-enhanced fuel through the motor before bleeding it dry.
  • Remove the prop (or any motor) and check for built-up decoy cord or fishing line behind it. Replace the prop immediately so you're not searching for it in September.

Once all this is done, sit back and reflect on the season. Make sure your off-season prep list is complete, update your log book, reflect on what went right and what went wrong and get your brain in gear for next season—it will be here sooner than you think. Then take my wife's suggestion and get some sleep.