By John Pollman

Like an early-morning wood duck buzzing the decoys, hunting season will be here before we know it. Taking the proper steps now will make opening day that much more enjoyable. While the to-do list is long, these seven steps will prove essential to a successful waterfowling season.

1. Preventive Maintenance for Your Shotgun

Dave Reckoff, gunsmith at Kjergaard Sports ( near Lake Benton, Minn., sees a lot of waterfowl hunting guns come through the shop each year. Most problems, he says, are ones that could have been prevented.

Reckoff says that a good place to start is to make sure that your removable choke tube is just that: removable. He recommends applying a choke tube lube or other anti-seize compound to the threads and occasionally throughout the season, loosen the tube to make sure that it has not locked up.

"I can't tell you how many guns come in here in the middle of the season with stuck choke tubes," says Reckoff. "And with probably half of them, they're not coming out without doing some damage to the barrel." Reckoff also says that he has discovered a pattern with problems involving the two most popular kinds of shotguns used in waterfowling. When a hunter comes in with a semi-automatic shotgun that won't cycle correctly in the field, Reckoff says the problem is usually related to using the wrong kind of lubricant."Especially later in the season, guys are using a lubricant that, when it gets cold, the gun freezes up or it gets so stiff it won't cycle a shell," says Reckoff. "Or sometimes they'll use too much, and the recoil mechanism in the stock or under the forearm of the gun will hydrolock."

2. Clean Gear Is Productive Gear

New York waterfowler and Avery Pro-staff member, Mike Bard is a stickler for making sure his hunting gear is in proper running order, especially those that he pulls behind his truck. When it comes to trailers and boats, surprises are not a good thing.

"Prior to the season I always like to run through everything on my enclosed and boat trailers, making sure to check all of the lights, wiring, brakes, jacks hinges, tires - including the spare - and grease the bearings," says Bard."I'll do the same thing in my hunting boats, and I also replace the spark plugs and top off the oil reservoir on my outboards." As for those decoys that haven't seen the light of day since the close of last year's waterfowl season - Bard says to clean "tilde;em up.

"Clean decoys are more realistic and show up better, in my opinion," he says.

3. Take Care of Man's Best Friend

As a veterinarian in South Dakota, the majority of Dr. Joe Spoo's four-legged clients are of the hunting variety. Spoo says that the number-one problem with the hunting dogs that come in to his office for their pre-season check-up is that they are out of shape. "We expect these dogs to go from couch potatoes to world-class athletes overnight," says Spoo. "This isn't practical and definitely isn't safe for the dog. Hunting dogs love what they do to the point that they will literally run themselves to death."

Spoo says that heat, treacherous water conditions, and a number of long retrieves are just a few of the situations that can get a dog in trouble, and the hunter needs to be the thinking, rational member of the team. Spoo says that pre-season training sessions and routine exercise are the only way to make sure that your retriever is in proper shape come opening day. But if your dog is not a hunting performance level, Spoo highly recommends taking things slowly during the first few weeks of the season.

"This may mean that your first outings aren't as long or as productive," says Spoo. "However, it could mean the difference between life and death for your hunting partner."

4. Introduce New Gear to Your Hunting Retriever

Surprises are great if you're talking about birthday gifts or Halloween pranks, but not so much when it comes to new gear for your waterfowl retriever.

"If you've picked up any new hunting gear for your dog, be sure to introduce him to it prior to the season," says Clint Roby, an Avery Pro-Staff member, dog trainer and waterfowl hunter from Missouri. "This will eliminate any confusion when hunting season rolls around."

Roby says introducing a new layout blind or dog stand to your retriever can also be the perfect time to reinforce commands essential to maintaining peace in the duck blind.

What you don't want, Roby says, is to have opening morning turn into a training session.

"There are enough other distracting activities going on in the field that you don't want to be fighting your dog over something new," says Roby. "These are issues that can be eliminated before the season begins."

5. Build Confidence with Sporting Clays

Dogs aren't the only ones in need of a refresher course; Roby recommends hunters use the weeks leading up to opening day to visit a sporting-clays course.

Targets on a sporting-clays course tend to replicate realistic hunting situations, says Roby, and the more comfortable you get with shooting a small, 4-inch target screaming across the course, the more comfortable and confident you will be in the field.

The "aim small, miss small" attitude adopted by many shooters translates well to a waterfowl hunter who focuses on the head of a decoying bird, Roby adds.

"By focusing on the green head of a mallard or the white cheek-patch of a honker you are concentrating more on a target rather than on the bird as a whole," says Roby. "And if your aiming point is the head of the bird, you are increasing your lead by 6 to 12 inches, which lessens your chance of shooting behind or crippling the bird."

6. It's Never Too Early to Start Scouting

You don't have to wait for the season's opening bell to start scouting for birds. In fact, a little time spent scouting in the off-season can save a lot of time come fall.

For New York hunter and Avery Pro-Staff member Mike Bard, a quick trip during the summer months to visit with farmers who typically allow him to hunt gives him an idea of what their plans are for the land. That information helps Bard make a plan of his own for fall.

"I like to know what crops are planted-whether beans, silage corn, picking corn, sweet corn, small grains, wheat, barley or alfalfa-and when they are likely to be taken out of the field," Bard says. "It gives me an idea as to when I should watch a farm or specific field within the season, based on weather conditions and the migration."

During his trips to visit with landowners, Bard also keeps tabs on the progress of locally hatched waterfowl, especially Canada geese. Based on past observations of where those birds will end up in late summer and into early fall Bard can narrow down which fields he should watch when the season opens in September.

"This is a big time and fuel saver," says Bard.

7. Use Patience When Choosing Permanent Blind Locations

If you're planning to set up a permanent blind on a new hunting lease or property, Tony Vandemore, guide and part owner of Habitat Flats in central Missouri, recommends taking your time.

"One of the biggest things in selecting a location for a permanent blind is to not get in a hurry," says Vandemore. "I'll rarely put a new blind up in an area that we have just developed; you really need to wait and see which spots the birds like on that farm."

Instead, Vandemore will watch a new property for a year while hunting it with MOMarsh layout boats or ground blinds. After the season is over, he can make a decision for placing a permanent blind based on which area the birds favored.

Vandemore adds that when setting the blind, he is ever cognizant of the sun and the cover surrounding the blind. In a small timber hole, Vandemore will set the blind on the east side so the sun is always at his back in the morning. For pits in open areas, Vandemore runs blinds north to south, which allows groups to hunt the west side of the blind in the morning and the east side in the afternoon.

"For me, there is nothing more frustrating than looking into the sun while I am hunting," says Vandemore.