By James Card
Like many outdoor sports, waterfowling has plenty of slang words, nicknames, and jargon. Some of these words are related to gear; others describe hunting techniques or the birds themselves. All of these terms make a waterfowler's vocabulary as colorful as a wood duck. Here's a beginner's guide to the language of waterfowling.
When your hunting buddy refers to some ducks as new birds he's not talking about their age. He means the ducks are new to the area. These recent arrivals are sometimes easier to bring into the decoys than ducks that have been in the area for a while. Fresh flights of waterfowl might arrive on a migration day or a flight day, when ducks and geese are actively moving south in the autumn skies. If you are unlucky and the weather is warm and sunny it's a bluebird day, which typically isn't good for waterfowl hunting. If you're lucky, there will be a blizzard or arctic blast just to the north that creates a mass migration of waterfowl. This phenomenon is called a grand passage, and it's one of the finest spectacles in waterfowling.
Waterfowlers have many colorful names for decoys. Among the most commonly used—and oldest—nicknames for decoy is block. This term is a throwback to a time when decoys were carved by hand out of blocks of wood. A common abbreviation for decoy is deke. The Nobel Prize-winning author and avid outdoorsman Ernest Hemingway used this word in his 1950 novel Across the River and into the Trees. "I offered to put the dekes out with him," he wrote. DU's official mascot is a black Labrador retriever named Deke.
A full complement of decoys is known as a spread, rig, or set. Fifty years ago, especially along the East Coast, waterfowlers often referred to a decoy spread as a stool. But you'll seldom hear this word used in this context anymore.
If your hunting partner mentions fully flocked decoys, you may not know what he's talking about. Actually, this has nothing to do with a flock at all. Flocking is a method of adhering fibers onto decoys to make them look more like living birds. You can buy decoys that are already flocked or purchase a flocking kit and apply the material yourself.
Ducks that don't want to come to a decoy spread are known as decoy shy. Similarly, ducks that don't react well to calling are call shy. When ducks exhibit these behaviors, some hunters resort to using what are known as confidence decoys. These unorthodox decoys include herons, crows, sea gulls, and coots. Including a few confidence decoys in your spread supposedly helps create a more natural-looking scene that makes ducks more confident that it's safe to land there.
Waterfowl hunters have also developed their own terminology for duck calls. The two most common types are single-reed calls, which produce sound via a single vibrating internal reed, and double-reed calls, which typically have two stacked or staggered reeds. Waterfowl hunters make all kinds of sounds with duck calls. In duck calling, a highball is a loud series of ringing quacks blown one after the other. This call, which is also known as a hail call, is used to catch the attention of ducks that are far away. Then there is the greeting call. This is a shorter and softer version of the highball. When ducks are circling the decoys, hunters may blow a series of single quacks known as the lonesome hen call. Or they may make a chattering sound known as the feed call. And what if ducks start to leave? Many hunters blow a comeback call, which is a rapid series of pleading quacks intended to change the birds' minds.
The art of bringing waterfowl into gun range is known as tolling. It's an old word that means "to lure by arousing curiosity." The Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever was bred specifically for this purpose. These tolling dogs were trained to attract waterfowl by frolicking along the shoreline. When curious waterfowl swam in close to investigate these playful dogs, hunters were ready for them.
Waterfowlers use a variety of words to describe ducks and geese in flight. If incoming birds circle and appear as if they might land they are working the decoys. If they detect danger, they will flare, rapidly changing direction to get out of harm's way. Sometimes flocks of ducks don't even look at your spread and keep going. These waterfowl are known as traveling birds.
When waterfowl set their wings and make a gliding pass overhead, they are said to be locked up. As they fly closer and are about to land in the decoys, they are cupped up or feet down. To finish a flock is to convince the birds to fully commit to the decoys. This is the greatest challenge in the sport, and when you can finish a large flock of ducks or geese, you've truly arrived as a waterfowler.