By Wade Bourne
Many of these problems result from the long layoff between hunting seasons. What was second nature last year now requires careful thought and planning. The adrenaline and excitement generated by opening day doesn't help matters. For all these reasons, you should never wait until the last minute to get all your proverbial ducks in a row. Instead, use the off-season wisely to plan things out in advance. That way, when the new season arrives, you can greet it with the confidence that comes from knowing you are well prepared and that everything is in working order in your little corner of duckdom.
Following are some of the most common opening day mistakes committed by waterfowlers, and ways to avoid making them:
1. Hunting in the Wrong Spot
It was a shocking discovery back then. But now, in retrospect, it seems merely a laughable error. When we were teenagers, a friend and I spent two long summer days building a duck blind near a shallow flat on a newly impounded reservoir near our home in Tennessee. We waded in, toting boards, plywood, and wire. We used a sledgehammer to pound posts into the mud. We sawed, nailed, sweated—and sunburned—until finally our creation was complete. Before we left, we concealed our new blind with a thick layer of willow brush. Then we departed with high expectations of the fun we'd have when the season arrived.
We didn't return to our blind until the day before the season opened. We came to put out decoys, and that's when we got a big surprise. Our blind was high and dry—80 yards from the water's edge. We hadn't anticipated the reservoir's winter drawdown, which drained the water off the mudflat. What's more, all the leaves had fallen off the willow brush and only a few thin sticks muted our blind's boxy look.
The blind's lack of cover might have been easily fixed, but there was no getting around the fact that we had built it in the wrong spot. Despite all our preparations and hard work, we were not where the ducks were. Our opening day was a bust.
2. Neglecting Your Gear
Charlie Holder of Orange, Texas, owns Sure-Shot Game Calls and is a lifelong duck hunter. Several years back he learned a hard lesson about boat motor maintenance and opening day expectations. "I was taking two 12-year-old boys on their first duck hunt," Holder says. "Their fathers didn't hunt, but these boys wanted to give it a try. I volunteered to take them."
At the time, Holder had a lease on a 500-acre reservoir near the Gulf Coast, where he kept his boat docked. He hadn't started the outboard since teal season, more than two months earlier. "The two boys and I loaded our gear into the boat, and I went to start the motor, but it wouldn't fire," he says. "I tried everything I knew, and I nearly wore myself out yanking the starter cord, but nothing worked."
Holder ended up pushing the boat—loaded with the boys, dog, and all their hunting gear—a quarter-mile over open water to the blind. The water was nearly chest deep and the reservoir's bottom was gumbo mud. "Pushing the boat that far exhausted me," Holder says. "We got to the blind way past shooting time and long after the ducks had quit flying. The boys never got a shot. We were all very disappointed."
As it turned out, Holder's opening day was foiled by a fouled spark plug. The problem could have been prevented with just a little routine maintenance. This is true of many other equipment failures that occasionally sabotage an otherwise promising hunt. Take care to ensure that your gun, duck calls, waders, decoys, and other gear are in working order before the season starts, and chances are they won't fail you when the birds are flying.
3. Quitting Too Early
Will Primos of Jackson, Mississippi, is an avid duck hunter and call maker who knows the value of scouting to find where birds are congregating. Before the season begins, he typically puts in enough hours and road miles to uncover a "sweet spot" for a good opening day hunt. A few years back, however, he learned another important lesson.
On the day before the season started, Primos and his hunting partners found a concentration of mallards in an isolated slough. Prospects for the next morning looked promising. The hunt, however, turned out to be marginal. "We got a few ducks early, but by nine o'clock the hole was just dead," he says. "Nothing was coming." They soon gave up and headed into town for a late breakfast.
In the afternoon, they returned to see if they could fill out their limits. "When we returned to the slough, it was absolutely covered up with ducks," Primos says. "We flushed them and set up and quickly limited out on birds that came right back in."
The lesson Primos learned is to be patient. Hunters who have waited months for the season to begin shouldn't abandon their blinds at the first sign of a slow day. Weather conditions, feeding patterns, or the timing of migratory flights can bring in waterfowl at any time. And if you quit early, you won't be there when the birds arrive.
4. Making Rash Decisions
Scott Glorvigen of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, knows that old-hand duck hunters aren't immune to making imprudent mistakes, especially on opening day. A couple of years ago, he and his son Adam made plans to open the season on a wild rice lake north of town. They had intended to set up on an island they'd hunted before where ring-necked ducks and other divers liked to work.
"Our first mistake was me hitting the snooze button on the alarm, so we started off late," Glorvigen says. "Then when we got to the lake and motored out, we discovered that somebody had beaten us to our spot. So there we were. Shooting time was close, and we had to do something fast. I quickly motored around to the east side of the island, and we started tossing out decoys without much thought about how we were setting up. Then we hid the boat and crouched behind some cover on the shore to wait for the ducks to fly."
The ducks began coming in at dawn, and Glorvigen quickly realized his mistake. "We had a west wind at our back, and we were looking straight into this big bright fireball that's rising above the trees," Glorvigen says. "Those ringbills were screaming in like kamikazes, straight out of the sun. Shooting was brutal. After a few incoming flights, my son gave up and went walking up the shore, looking for another spot where he could pass-shoot. It was just a total mess."
Glorvigen compounded his first mistake of arriving late by making rash decisions when plans started falling apart. "If things don't go the way you expect, don't start floundering and making hasty decisions," he warns. Instead, stop and analyze where you need to set up. Consider the wind direction, the sun, available cover, and other important factors. Then take the time to set your decoys and hide properly. The extra time you spend doing these things will usually pay off in better shooting and a more enjoyable experience.
5. Not Having Adequate Concealment
Veteran hunter Tommy Akin of Greenfield, Tennessee, was a college student when he made an opening day mistake that he still chuckles about today. "We'd had a very dry fall, and water was scarce in the bottoms where my buddies and I hunted," he says. "But a few days before the season opened, we found a place where beavers had dammed up a ditch and backed about five acres of shallow water into an adjacent field."
The landowner hadn't farmed this spot because it was too wet, so it had grown up in smartweed. "Several hundred mallards and other ducks were coming there early each morning to feed," Akin says. "We wanted to hunt there, but there was no cover; it was totally open. So we came up with a game plan."
Three days before the season started, Akin and his partners slogged into this pothole before dawn and erected a post-and-chicken-wire blind by flashlight. The idea was to finish the blind before the ducks started arriving at dawn so as not to disturb the birds. "When we left there, it looked great," Akin says. But when they returned before dawn on opening day, they received a rude awakening. "There wasn't a stick of brush on our blind—not one. It was totally bare. Just posts and chicken wire. The beavers had found the fresh willows we'd put on the blind, and they'd carried every one off to their lodge."
This was a rare occurrence, to be sure, but it underscores the importance of concealment. As with other waterfowling equipment, blinds should be routinely inspected and maintained. Hunters should also make sure that their camouflage clothing matches the natural cover in their hunting area. This could mean wearing a green camo pattern in the early season, when there is still a lot of green leafy vegetation around.
6. Overlooking the Fundamentals
Lamar Boyd of Tunica, Mississippi, operates Beaver Dam Hunting Services on the oxbow lake made famous by the writings of Nash Buckingham. Boyd sees duck hunters repeat the same obvious mistakes, on opening day and otherwise. Among these is the failure to familiarize themselves with their shotguns well before opening day. "If you're new to waterfowling or if you have a new gun, study the owner's manual to learn how to properly load the shells, change chokes, and ensure there's a plug in the magazine," he says. "Then take the gun to the range for some hands-on practice."
Boyd also advises waterfowlers to purchase a duck stamp early, sign it, and affix it to their license so they'll be ready when opening day arrives. He offers up a cautionary tale to illustrate his point.
"Last year, my sister-in-law called two days before the season opener looking for federal duck stamps for her two sons," Boyd says. "Her local post office and Walmart were sold out. So I started looking in our area, and it was the same deal—everybody was sold out of duck stamps and didn't know when they'd get more. Those boys missed opening day because they hadn't bought their stamps ahead of time and couldn't find them on short notice."
Even waterfowlers who wait until the last minute to purchase a federal duck stamp shouldn't miss the season opener. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is piloting a program that allows customers to purchase a federal stamp online. These e-stamps can be used immediately and are valid for 45 days from the date of purchase, after which hunters will have to carry their actual federal duck stamp sent to them in the mail. Currently, eight states are participating in this pilot program, but anyone, regardless of where they live, can purchase an e-stamp through any of these states. Visit fws.gov/duckstamps
for more information.