Public Land Playbook is a column featuring tales of public land hunts, tips, tactics, and strategies.
Thinking back to one of my first duck hunts decades ago, I remember rusty T-posts, soggy burlap, and a level of ambition known only by a teenager building a duck blind in a hurry and on a budget. There was acrid mud, churned from the bottom of a beaver slough with every step, and water the same temperature as the summer sun spilling through leaky wader seams. There were four hen mallard decoys set in the dark, their perfect placement guided by a Maglite clenched in my teeth. And there was a chorus of wood duck squeals. Who knows how many birds there were, roosted in the dead timber and buckbrush around me. Maybe just dozens, but it sounded like hundreds.
The scene those little ducks created when they roared out of the cover and swarmed the slough like hornets at daybreak burned something into my psyche. It took more shells than I’d planned to fill my two-duck limit—but still, it didn’t take long.
I learned the fundamentals of duck hunting with September wood ducks, in waters close to home that weren’t great spots but were sure good enough. Many of them were public, and I still hunt them to this day. Driven to near extinction by market hunting and the destruction of the bottomland forests they called home in the early 20th century, the wood duck is one of North America’s greatest conservation success stories. Today, wood duck populations are stable and increasing, and so there’s as much opportunity as ever to hunt them. They’re among my favorite waterfowl species, too—partly because they’re so dependable, partly because of where they live, and partly because a limit of wood ducks, in their fading eclipse plumage of very early fall, represents the start of a new hunting season.
My home waters, in western Kentucky and Tennessee, have special September wood duck seasons that overlap with portions of early teal season. Farther north, wood ducks can be the bread and butter for general early duck openers, and in recent years, the limit on them has been increased to three per person in most of the Mississippi Flyway.
By early October, when hard mast is falling, hunting wood ducks along meandering creeks with shoreline oaks is especially productive. But in September, I’ve had the best luck hunting them in beaver sloughs, cypress brakes, and other swampy, snaky environs. Jeremy Dersham, who runs Ridge and River Running Outfitters in Wisconsin (https://www.rrroutfitters.com/contactus.php), guides extensively on Pool 9 of the Mississippi River. It’s a place where late-season hunters are focused on canvasbacks. But Dersham himself especially loves the early season, when he can focus on wood ducks. “They’re probably my favorite puddle duck, and I love targeting them specifically,” he says. He adds that many people in his area build and maintain wood duck houses in the spring, and that, combined with the upper Mississippi’s network of braided oxbows and chutes, makes the area choice for both breeding and migrating woodies.
Dersham says these early hunts are usually more than simple pass-shoots, too. Despite their aloof reputation, wood ducks will work the right decoy spread and calls. “Location and motion are key, but it’s nothing to put 50 or 60 wood ducks feet-down in your spread. You’re not doing that all the time, but it’s possible,” he says.
To find the right spot, Dersham runs oxbows and pools off the main river system, where water is shallow and still, and he glasses mud flats and stands of shallow aquatic vegetation. He’s looking for multiple family groups of feeding wood ducks, and studying their flight lines as they trade from one area to the next. The morning wood duck flight rarely lasts long, so it’s important to get the setup right from the outset.
Dersham hunts from a boat blind tucked into shoreline cover. And his spread is a minimal one—even by minimalist standards. “Sometimes I just put out a pair of decoys, and I rarely use more than six,” he says. “I want to look like a group of ducks that just showed up. I usually have a spinner of some sort, and a [water motion] decoy.”
Dersham says feeding wood ducks are noisy critters, and he calls to them accordingly. “A wood duck call is always in my bag early in the season,” he says. “When wood ducks are on the water, they have a content whistle that’s almost methodical. I’m making that whistle every few minutes. Set up in the right place, we get a blend of pass-shooting and decoy-shooting opportunities.”
This program works just about anywhere there’s a hunting opportunity for early-season wood ducks. When I was a kid, we waded or used canoes to hunt beaver sloughs. Vegetation is thick and green in September, so there are plenty of hiding places. You can also accomplish a lot just by standing still during the first 20 minutes of shooting light, when the shadows are still long and the wood duck flight is at its best. A handful of decoys never hurt, and a spinning-wing decoy is icing on the cake. I like a Mojo Teal for its weight, and the wings spin faster than on the larger mallard—an effect that’s deadly on wood ducks and teal alike.
I’ve missed plenty of blue-winged teal, but I’ve always thought the difficulty of teal shooting, at least compared with other duck species, was overhyped. To me, wood ducks are the toughest ducks to hit. They can be just as acrobatic as teal, but passing birds seem to “line out” at higher flight speeds. Factor in a maze of flooded dead timber, and you’ve got yourself a challenging target. Fortunately, shots at wood ducks are usually close. For that, I like a 12-gauge with an Improved cylinder and good no. 4 steel shot.
Whatever you’re shooting them with, and whether it’s over decoys or pass-shooting, be diligent in your recovery efforts when hunting woodies. Thick wetland vegetation is notorious for swallowing up wounded wood ducks. “The action can be fast, but just like on a dove field, you have to mark your bird and go to it immediately,” Dersham says. “I’ve got dogs now, but when we were kids, we carried fishing poles, or we’d strip down and swim to get them, in places where it was too deep to wade. Every bird we shoot gets counted, whether we recover it or not—I’m a stickler on that. And so I stop guys from shooting after we knock two or three down, so we can pick them up. One bird in hand is way better than three lost in the brush.”