By Will Brantley
A creek bend, falling beechnuts and a cool October morning are heaven for a teenage boy with a borrowed shotgun. Years before I really considered myself a duck hunter—one with decoys, calls and waders—I was hunting wood ducks in places like this.
Today, I have a host of waterfowling adventures under my belt, but there remains something so pure and honest about jump-shooting a wood duck from a creek. If you live virtually anywhere in the Mississippi or Atlantic flyways (and quite a few places in the other flyways), chances are there's a place nearby where you can shoot a few wood ducks in the fall. One of the best things about wood duck hunting is that it can be done successfully in a variety of places without much gear.
Wood ducks often roost in great numbers in beaver sloughs, river oxbows and similar backwater wetlands. Woodies going to roost can provide fast-and-furious shooting opportunities, but hunters should be careful how they pursue them. It's mighty tempting to hunt the heart of the roost, where hundreds of wood ducks may pour in just before sunset, but such a move can ruin a great wood duck spot for the rest of the season, possibly even for years to come.
The better bet is to spend a morning or two watching the ducks and where they go before the hunt. Find a preferred flyway, perhaps a turn in a creek or a narrowing in a slough a couple hundred yards from the roost and set up there. Wood ducks are predictable, especially during the early season, so this is a high-percentage way to hunt them.
The limit on wood ducks is only a few birds, so it can be tempting to bring several buddies along. But more guns mean more pressure and fewer quality days of hunting. It's usually best to pass shoot woodies with only one or two other buddies.
Decoys and Calling
Yes, you can actually decoy wood ducks. These quirky birds are notorious for snubbing decoys and calling, but that's often the result of where, rather than how, you're hunting. If you set your decoys along a flyway where you normally pass shoot, wood ducks will likely ignore your spread while en route to a preferred feeding or roosting area. But if you're waiting for woodies at their final destination, they might fall right into your decoy spread like a flock of mallards.
Two Septembers ago, while scouting before the Tennessee wood duck/teal opener, I found dozens of wood ducks feeding along a mud flat with blue-winged teal. At daylight the next morning, the first 20 birds to drop into my dozen decoys were woodies. Toting a 20-gauge, it took a few more shells than it should have to take my two-bird limit and switch my focus to teal, but the action the woodies provided at dawn was impressive.
The bottom line: if you've found a spot where wood ducks are gathering to feed or roost, they'll work decoys the same as any other puddle duck. And it certainly doesn't hurt to have a wood duck call on hand to add another degree of realism to your spread.
This is my favorite way to hunt wood ducks. It's a great fallback when other forms of hunting is slow, and you don't need an abundance of ducks to be successful. Sleeping in and heading out at mid-morning is perfectly reasonable, and you don't need any more gear than your shotgun, a pocket full of shells and camouflage clothing (although a few extra items like hip boots and binoculars definitely help).
The easiest place to jump-shoot woodies is on a wooded, meandering stream or small river with plenty of slack-water pools. If the banks are lined with mast-producing trees such as red oaks and beech, you're almost certain to stumble onto a few birds.
There are basically two ways to jump-shoot woodies. Slipping along the bank is a highly effective way to hunt a short stretch of stream or beaver ponds, while drifting in a canoe or other small boat is a better option for covering water. Either way, focus on river bends, eddies and sheltered coves where woodies are likely to gather during the middle of the day. Loafing wood ducks will usually give themselves away with ripples on the water and occasional squeals. When you suspect birds are nearby, locate them with binoculars if possible, then plan your stalk.
Whether you're on foot or in a boat, jump-shooting is great fun with a buddy. Boat hunters can take turns paddling and shooting. Bank hunters can split up to flank and flush a flock of ducks. In a perfect world, both hunters should have plenty of shooting.
Wood Duck Loads
While some hunters prefer a 20-gauge for wood ducks, a 12-gauge is a much more capable choice. Wood ducks are often hunted in areas with thick cover where a wounded bird can be virtually impossible to recover, and using heavier loads can help ensure clean kills. I prefer 2 ¾- or 3-inch loads of steel No. 4s and a modified choke for woodies. This combination produces a tight pattern that will deliver multiple pellet strikes on target, which is what you need to anchor woodies in thick cover.