By Chris Jennings
This to-do list focuses on certain aspects of waterfowling that could use a little more attention, so, if you're just sitting around waiting on September, here are some tasks every duck hunter must do before opening day.
Decoy Assessment and Storage
Few hunters realize how many decoys they actually have until it's time to store them for the summer. Every hunter's storage situation is unique, but there are a few tips every waterfowler should follow when preparing to store decoys long term.
Luke Clark, an avid waterfowler, focuses on getting his decoys cleaned, crimps checked, and stowing them out of harm's way. Storing all his decoys in an old barn in southern Illinois, he utilizes ladder hooks along with a wide range of other hardware to hang the dekes and decoy bags, out of reach of mice and other pests.
"I hang everything. I am able to get three or four 12-slot decoy bags on one big ladder hook, which keeps the bags off the ground," Clark explains. "If you're dealing with Texas Rig or Rig'Em Right rigged decoys and you want to leave them strung up, I screw Y-shaped hardware into the rafters and separate them into sets of 12. By separating them into smaller bunches, it makes them easier to move if you need to get around them."
Clark also emphasizes getting your decoys clean and off the ground to avoid any potential deformation of the plastic once the temperatures rise. He knows some hunters remove the Rig'Em Right rigs from their decoys for storage, but points out that by hanging them with the cords and weights, you can keep the decoy cords from gaining memory and coiling.
"I have made the mistake of not storing decoys the right way before, but I won't do that again," Clark says. "I recommend taking advantage of spring weather and sitting outside with a garden hose or power washer and giving them a good rinse, then getting everything off the ground. I hang some full-body goose decoys individually if needed. It's all about protecting your investment."
Avoid Wader and Jacket Issues
The technology and quality of waterfowling gear continues to improve, but lackadaisical storage practices can lead to trouble for waders and jackets improperly stored for the off-season. To avoid having to replace your gear, follow these simple tips.
Brian Donovan is a McKinney, Texas-based hunter, and the areas he hunts are brutal on gear...think water, mud, and sand. Donovan recommends thoroughly cleaning, rinsing, and drying waders and jackets after duck season, but even more important is hanging them in a cool, dry area.
"You want to hang your waders by the boots in a cool place in your house," Donovan explains. "This will cut down on crimps and creases in the seams, but the temperature is the critical part. The heat of a garage or attic during the summer months can wreck havoc on waders."
He recommends cool, dry storage for your hunting jackets or pullovers as well. Donovan washes his hunting clothes in a mild detergent and air dries everything. He then stores all equipment in an inside closet to avoid any potential problems like heat or mice.
"Leaving dirt or mud on a jacket can harm the waterproof fabric, so washing it is a good idea," Donovan says. "I store all my gear in an inside closet because the heat can also break down the waterproofing and breathability of the material. Any belts, webbing, or straps attract mice because they like to tear the individual strands out for their nests, so keeping everything indoors and out of their reach is recommended."
Donovan has a method for preventative maintenance for hunting jackets as well, one that he uses midway through the season and after. He uses a spray-on chemical called Camp Dry, made by Kiwi. This waterproofing chemical doesn't inhibit a garment's breathability, but it helps maintain the waterproof quality that waterfowl hunters rely on for protection from the elements.
Duck Boat Protection and Maintenance
A duck hunting boat is the very definition of a workhorse, and waterfowling rigs have come a long way since grandpa's old rowboat was spray-painted hunter green. Extreme weather conditions, mud, sand, and other elements presented during duck season can create the perfect storm of potential problems. Spring is the time of year to perform upkeep, preventative maintenance, and get your rig ready for next season.
"Years ago, a duck hunting boat was nothing more than an old johnboat roughly painted with muted colors attempting to knock the down the glare, with a temperamental 9.9 strapped to the stern," says Clay Connor, marketing director for Xpress Boats. "Today, we have multiple boat categories for specific pursuit applications. Additionally, we have a mud boat designed for today's surface-drive motor, capable of navigating those hard-to-reach destinations. All these options have similar needs following waterfowl season as it pertains to maintenance and preparing for the possibility of using the boat for another application."
Maintaining a duck boat is an ongoing process, but Connor explains that it's important to go through the entire rig, including inspecting the hull, trailer, tires, wiring, and motor following hunting season.
"One of the most basic maintenance tips is checking for decay, corrosion, or any frays in your wiring," Connor says. "For storage, I recommend completely covering your boat when it's not in use. I see a lot of boats left uncovered, and you are opening the door for weather and debris to take their toll."
Surface drives and mud motors are providing new opportunities for waterfowl hunters in areas that have been off limits in the past. As the popularity of surface-drive motors rises, these simple recommendations may improve the performance of a motor, in both the short and long term.
"You should be running a fuel additive at all times, but it's important to add that prior to your last use," Connor says. "You will want to run the motor dry, empty and clean gas tanks, check the wiring for issues, and if possible grease the motor with waterproof grease. All these minor tasks help avoid major problems and extend the life of the motor."
Challenge a Retriever
The last retrieve of duck season is probably still fresh in your mind, but you better believe that's the case for your retriever. It makes sense to work with your retriever year-round, and most dog owners already have their dog back into a steady off-season regimen. Mike Stewart, retriever trainer and owner of Wildrose Kennels, emphasizes conditioning and challenging your retriever throughout the year.
"You want to mentally stimulate your retriever, and not let him get bored during the off-season," Stewart says. "Conditioning-maintaining a high level of exercise-is the most important off-season training, but being able to teach a new skill set, or strengthen his skills within different terrain, is beneficial too."
Stewart says that even when you are working multiple bumpers, whistle commands, and daily retrieves, your retriever may still get bored. By adding a new element to your training sessions, you will reinforce his handling while also challenging him enough to keep him engaged.
"During spring or summer you may be able to find a creek to work on moving water drills, or maybe just an open grassy field or a muddy field. Any type of terrain that the dog isn't accustomed to will add a new dimension to his training," Stewart explains. "Now the dog will be more interested in this new challenge and you can concentrate on any handling, steadiness, and whistle work."
Another excellent training tool is shooting clay pigeons. Keep your retriever steady while you are shooting, and introduce a retrieve at random. This will only strengthen a retriever's steadiness, and offers a training exercise with limited retrieves as the weather warms.
Gain Control of a Duck Call
Calling ducks effectively is a talent that many waterfowl hunters fail to master. Whether you're a novice or an advanced caller, the off-season provides ample opportunities to tweak your abilities and fine-tune the skills you'll need this fall.
Brad Allen, owner of Elite Calls and three-time world duck calling champion, knows that the majority of duck hunters hang up their calls once the season ends, but he stresses that the subtle techniques and the time it takes to master a duck call can come only with off-season practice.
"There are a lot of callers out there, many of whom are pretty good at calling ducks, who don't really understand the air regulation needed for them to improve," Allen says. "A common mistake is calling without opening your throat. Being able to regulate the air pressure and maintain control will improve any caller's abilities in the field. This is typically the first thing I work on with any caller who comes to me for advice."
Allen says it's best to focus on the basics-single quacks, hail-call cadences, and feeding calls-and not jump too far ahead. Once you know how to control the air flow, he recommends using the off-season to focus on more technical calling.
"Once a caller has a strong grasp of the instrument, this is when you want to get into the subtleties of calling ducks," Allen explains. "Spend a couple of weeks seeing how softly you can blow the call and still sound like a duck. Then spend a week on really high-volume notes. All this practice will improve your calling when the season comes around again."