By Richard Simms
From the outside looking in, the world of duck hunters is a seemingly closed fraternity full of secret handshakes, hidden passwords and countless unwritten rules.
Hardcore waterfowlers are molasses-slow in issuing invitations to novice hunters. Sometimes the beginners don’t have the necessary expensive gear, like waders or licenses.
In other cases the competition for quality hunting places is already too great.
Or for some, duck hunting is a near-religious experience and it seems taboo to share with a neophyte.
Which means somebody that wants to learn how to hunt waterfowl better not wait for an invitation.
Unlike deer hunting with days on end spent sitting alone in a tree, duck hunting can be a social event. Two or three people sharing the day in unison. And experience is the best teacher so find a buddy and learn together. What follows is a bare bones guide entitled, “Duck Hunting for Dummies.
Where to go - (Forgive me... this was written primarily for us poor folks in East tennessee where wetlands, swamps or rice fields are as rare as a bull sprig.) - Thanks to TVA and the Tennessee River, we really are blessed with plenty of duck hunting places. You can hunt almost anywhere on the Tennessee River. The shoreline of most TVA reservoirs is public domain. Nickajack Lake is an exception since it was built pre-TVA and the government didn’t actually buy the land it flooded. And Tennessee law forbids hunting anywhere within 100 yards of an occupied dwelling without permission. Otherwise, there are hundred of miles of water. It's not the duck mecca you'll find in West Tennessee or other states, but there are ducks to be found for those who are willing to hunt (pun intended).
Ask many experienced waterfowl hunters, especially from Southeast Tennessee, where to go however, and they’ll point to the North Alabama portion of the Tennessee Valley. The area basically between Stevenson and Scottsboro, Ala. offers an impressive array of flooded swamps, bottomlands, aquatic vegetation and an intensive management program by the Alabama Wildlife Division.
“I'd point newcomers to the main lake,” said Keith McCutcheon, the District Biologist over the Guntersville area. “Folks need some boating safety skills out here in the winter. But early in the season the main river offers more and a greater variety of ducks. It’s also a good place for beginners. They can make some mistakes, but they’re still going get some shooting and increase their identification skills without interfering with other hunters.”
The same is true up and down the East Tennessee Valley all the way to Knoxville and beyond.
Waders: Waders are a duck hunting essential. Hip waders will get you by in a few places, but chest-high waders are better. Even if the water isn't dep. they'll keep your butt dry when you sit down. You can get a pair of chest waders for $60, but you'll be cold, miserable and you'll give up duck hunting before you get started good. A decent pair of well-insulated chest high waders will cost $100 to $150. If you don't want to spend that much, stay home and watch TV. Don't think you'll only use them duck hunting. If you are fishing in cold weather or foul weather, waders will keep you warmer and drier than any rainsuit.
Decoys: You can start out with a dozen (mallard) decoys no matter where you hunt. I figured out long ago that as long as I'm hunting a spot where ducks want to be, it doesn't matter if I've got 10 decoys or 110. Add on as you wish once you decide you really like this stuff.
Of course the rage among most duck hunters these days is the so-called “robo-duck,” a battery-operated decoy with rotating wings. Some even dip and dive creating ripples on the water just like feeding ducks. The robo-ducks are very effective, so much so that some across the country have suggested they be banned.
But don't think you have to have one. If you've done your homework and scouted out a good area where ducks want to be, a roboduck won't matter.
Guns & Shells: Many hunters these days brag about their ten gauge shotguns and 3-and-a-half inch shot shells. But a 12-gauge chambered for 3-inch magnums is the waterfowling standard. If you stay calm and patient, allowing the ducks to get into reasonable range (35 yards or less), almost any high-power shotgun shell will be sufficient. And if you must choose one choke, go with modified. Remember to buy steel shot shells only – no lead allowed.
Camouflage: McCutcheon says a major mistake he sees is hunters who build blinds that don’t match the natural surroundings. "Things like using green cane to build a blind in a brown cornfield," said McCutcheon. "Ducks are smart and they know when something doesn't look right.
As far as clothing, anything is fine as long as it's brown. Duck hunters who go out and buy army-style green camo have generally made a mistake. The need for green camouflage is rare in most spots.
And in places that offer good natural cover, hunters who will stay still can simply use good camouflage to blend into the existing scenery. Always wear a facemask. It might not seem like much, but a hunter’s face peering toward the sky is just like a loudspeaker screaming “stay away!”
Duck Calls: For most hunters, a duck call works best when in it is in your pocket. McCutcheon says, “use your call sparingly. If more people approached it that way it would be better on them, and on other hunters as well.”
Be Mobile: I've been duck hunting for 35 years. And I'll be the first to admit I can't blow a duck call worth a flip. However I'd put my success rate up against just about anybody who hunts the same areas.
In West Tennessee, Arkansas and such places, you can count on new birds moving through the area. Which means you can hunt the same spot day after day after day.
Except when extreme weather hits, East Tennessee ducks won't let you get away with that. Try to hunt the same birds two or three days in a row and you'll find a box of shells will last you a long time.
Be willing to seek out new territory. That might mean spending some afternoons hiking or running a lot of gas through the boat. But be mobile, find new spots rather then returning to the same dry hole all the time, and your work will be rewarded.
Don't Skybust: McCutcheon says that's the biggest mistake he sees. Skybusting is shooting at ducks that are simply too far away, resulting in wasted shells, wounded birds, and ruined hunts for others in the area. “People just don't know how to judge distance,” he said. “They just don’t realize how big ducks really are, and that they can look at lot closer than they really are.”
Twenty yards to thirty yards is ideal shooting range. When a duck gets within that distance, the eyeball will be clearly distinguishable. Until then, it’s probably out of range. Some people will measure off 45 yards to place their furthest decoy and use that to mark the maximum shooting distance.
In nearly every case, ducks will circle your decoys many times before they actually decide to try and land. They’re using their own skills to spot potential danger, and each pass over the decoys means another rush of adrenaline for the hunter.
“That’s what’s so captivating, “ said McCutcheon. “The way ducks manipulate their flight. The set wings, the pitching and diving, the sound their wings make and the sheer acrobatics. That’s what really gets people.”
If you’re a regular waterfowler, you know all that and maybe it’s time to share. If you’re not, maybe it’s time to find out for yourself.