Crosswinds: Wood Duck Complex

This beautiful, acrobatic species is the symbol of early fall for many hunters

© Kristie Baxter

Won’t be long now. We’ve moved from Hell’s Front Porch Summer to False Fall—that tease of the first cool mornings of September—and back again to Second Summer. Which won’t last. Soon the outside thermometer will claw its way into For-Sure Fall, when the leaves turn and the persimmons ripen and the wood ducks pile up in the swamps. It’s been a long time coming, but it won’t stay around for long, either.

In much of the country, a separate October duck season split has long been on the books. In my neck of the swamp woods, it’s called the “short season” or “woodie season,” and even now, despite the advent of the September teal season, these few, fleeting open-season days of October seem like a promise of what’s to come.

Wood ducks are to waterfowling what squirrels are to deer hunting. They’re often the first duck we shoot as beginners. For many of us, woodies were the birds we cut our waterfowling teeth on, the birds we chased in our younger years because they are numerous and easy to spot and even easier to decoy as long as your decoys are exactly where they want to be. They come from everywhere, sometimes all at once, and most times you can miss a few and have a crack at plenty of others, because these gregarious birds like to ride herd together.

And then, just like a squirrel hunter turns to bigger game, we move on from woodies. Boats, big decoy spreads, ever more complex animated decoys—we get the taste for gunning the bigger game: mallards and pintails and coastal divers and geese. We’ll still chase woodies when we can, when we have to, when there’s nothing else around. We seem to forget that feeling of our first morning in a wood duck swamp. The smell of the muck, the sheen of duckweed in a shaft of sunlight, the incoming whistles that juiced our heart rate.

Nothing about the wood duck has changed. The muck and the duckweed and the swamps are still there. The ducks are just as pretty, just as accessible, just as willing and just as confounding as ever. The only thing that’s changed is us.

Thinking about all this, you might wonder: Why don’t I still hunt wood ducks? 

There’s not a single good reason why. And your next best chance is coming up.