by Wade Bourne
Many duck hunters are generalists. They toss out mallard decoys and blow mallard calls, and then take what comes. This generic approach often yields a mixed bag of dabblers. Ducks are sociable birds by nature, so it's common to encounter other species feeding and loafing alongside greenheads.
Sometimes, though, it's better to use specific tactics to target individual species. This is true whether you're hunting bluewings during the early teal season, wood ducks on beaver ponds, or black ducks along the Atlantic coast.
Following are tips designed to help you fine-tune your waterfowling methods to bag more puddlers in these and other species-specific hunting scenarios.
Pointer 1: Whistle to Early-Morning Wood Ducks
EXPERT: SKIP SHORT
LOCATION: CUMMING, GA
Skip Short has years of experience pursuing wood ducks and other species along Georgia's rivers and reservoir tributaries. "Specifically, I hunt sloughs that border the rivers and hold water year-round," he says. "Many of these sloughs, which typically feature beaver dams, cypress trees, and abundant patches of smartweed, are on public land. Woodies love this swampy habitat. You can find these areas through on-the-ground scouting and by using Google Earth. Sometimes you can simply zoom right in on a good hunting spot using only your computer."
To hunt such habitats, Short selects an area with a good-sized opening in the timber. He drops a half dozen mallard decoys into the open water and up to a dozen wood ducks around the perimeter. For movement, he adds one spinning-wing decoy and one "bubbler" to agitate the water's surface. Then he stands behind a tree or some other natural cover to wait for shooting time.
"A lot of mornings when it starts getting light, I'll hear woodies talking on the water. I'll answer them with a whistle that lets them know I'm here," Short says. He uses a Haydel's WW-90 Wood Duck Whine to make these initial calls.
When the woodies take flight and start "squealing," Short squeals back with a Primos Wood Duck Model 807 call. "I blow this pretty hard to get their attention," he says. "It's very common for them to veer toward the call and come straight in on the deck. In the first half hour of shooting time the average flock size is four or five ducks. Later on the birds tend to arrive as singles and doubles."
Short says he's always careful not to overhunt an area. "I shoot a spot only on weekends and never in the afternoon," he adds. "Woodies won't tolerate too much pressure before they'll go somewhere else."
Pointer 2: Be Patient with Pintails
EXPERT: JEff KERRY
LOCATION: SAN LEANDRO, CA
Jeff Kerry owns two duck clubs in the Grasslands of California's San Joaquin Valley. The pintail is the most highly prized puddle duck in this area. Kerry, who has decades of experience hunting sprigs, describes them as skittish ducks that will flare at the first hint of disturbance or anything unnatural.
"Pintails are ducks of wide open spaces," Kerry says. "They're hard to hunt early in the morning because there's often a lot of shooting at dawn, and that spooks them. We usually have to wait until the shooting subsides, around midmorning, before pintails will work."
Kerry and his friends hunt from sunken tanks in the middle of large flooded fields. "We try to make these blind islands as small and insignificant as we can," he says. "We rig thick cover over the tank openings, and a lot of the guys wear face camo. We also keep our retrievers in sunken, covered dog boxes. It's vital to be completely hidden when targeting pintails."
The hunters typically deploy around 100 decoys-mostly pintails, with a few wigeon and shoveler decoys mixed in. Kerry likes to scatter several green-winged teal around the edges of the spread as well. Regarding the configuration of his spread, he says, "We don't surround our blinds with decoys, like a doughnut. Instead, we put a big pod of decoys to the north or northwest of the blind, with the closest decoys about 20 yards away. Pintails will usually circle around the edges of the spread. They don't like to work the center, like mallards. We set up so they will pass over the blind while looking at the decoys. When they do this, we come up shooting."
Kerry's calling is usually very minimal. "We don't do any mallard calling," he says. "We may do a little whistling, but over the long haul we've been more successful not calling."
Kerry adds one final word of advice. "When targeting pintails, we let spoonbills and gadwalls land in the decoys," he says. "This natural movement in the spread can be the final convincer to get wary bull sprigs to come in."
Pointer 3: Go for Gadwalls on Gray Days
EXPERT: Mike Boyd
LOCATION: Tunica, MS
Mike Boyd runs Beaver Dam Hunting Services on the Mississippi River oxbow made famous by outdoor writer Nash Buckingham. Beaver Dam Lake encompasses dense stands of tupelo and cypress timber, and Boyd and his clients hunt from permanent blinds built among the trees.
This lake attracts large numbers of gadwalls early in the season, and indeed "gray ducks," as the locals call them, make up a significant share of the bag. "Gadwalls and mallards are the two main species we shoot, so we set up for both," Boyd explains. "We deploy about 10 dozen decoys-half gadwalls and half mallards. We mix them together throughout the spread. In the early season we may also set little groups of four or five gadwall decoys off to the side to create more realism for passing birds."
Boyd adds motion to his spread by rigging as many as four spinning-wing decoys, which he operates from a control panel in the blind. "We scatter these wing-spinners back in the timber," he says. "That not only provides movement, but also makes the spinning motion less obvious so it won't spook the birds."
Boyd calls gadwalls pretty much like he does mallards, with a few subtle differences. "Sometimes I'll call less to gadwalls," he says. "They can be very wary ducks, and each day I test how much calling they need. I've also experimented with a true gadwall call, which makes higher-pitched sounds than a mallard call. It worked well, but I still mostly stick with a standard mallard call."
Boyd adds that sometimes gadwalls will make two or three passes over his spread without committing. "That's when it's time to start getting concerned," he says. "I'll have my clients take the shot on the next pass if the birds get close enough."
But gadwalls aren't picky about the weather. Unlike mallards, they don't seem fazed by dreary days in flooded timber. "Mallards don't work very well in the timber on cloudy days, but an overcast sky doesn't seem to bother gadwalls," Boyd attests. "Those ducks have saved a lot of hunts for us over the years when the clouds were thick and the wind was slack."
Pointer 4: Stay Low for Wigeon
EXPERT: GRAHAM PETERS
LOCATION: INDEPENDENCE, OR
Graham Peters is a refuge manager for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Peters is also a hunter who knows what makes American wigeon tick. He's studied these birds professionally and pursued them passionately for years in the coastal and inland marshes of Oregon and Washington.
"Early in the hunting season, wigeon congregate in the bays and estuaries along the Pacific coast and around the mouth of the Columbia River," Peters says. "Then later in the season, many shift inland as seasonal rains flood temporary wetlands and make new food available in interior river valleys."
Extensive scouting is often necessary to find concentrations of wigeon. "The birds love to graze on short green grass in water just a few inches deep, and they move around a lot as food availability changes," Peters explains. "Hunters must keep up with these movements to stay in on the action."
Peters and his buddies do most of their hunting from layout boats. When running big water, they use a large tender boat to tow their layout boats to and from hunting sites. "Wigeon typically decoy low to the water, getting more of a head-on look than an overhead view of the spread. If hunters stick up above the landscape, the ducks may spot them and flare out of range. The layout boats help us hide low on the water."
Whenever possible, Peters and his hunting partners set up with the wind at their back. They camouflage their boats with natural vegetation and deploy three to four dozen decoys. "Wigeon decoys make up about three-quarters of our spread.
We also toss out a few green-winged teal and pintail decoys. We'll drop the teal closest to shore, scatter the wigeon across the pond, and put the pintails on the corners of the spread, where their light-to-dark contrast offers more visibility at longer distances."
Peters calls with a wigeon whistle. "Each day I let the birds tell me how much to call," he says. "If they're noisy, I'll call a lot. If they're quiet, I'll be quiet too. And when I do call, I'll mix in some pintail and teal calls for realism's sake. When everything is working right, wigeon decoy really well. It's a great morning when we bag seven wigeon drakes apiece."
Pointer 5: Target Teal Early & Often
EXPERT: TIM HORST
LOCATION: EDGAR, NE
Tim Horst is Ducks Unlimited's land manager for the Cornhusker State. He's also an avid teal hunter, focusing his efforts on the Rainwater Basin during the special early teal season and in other areas as well during the regular duck season.
"We normally have all bluewings the first couple of weeks of the early season, and then we start getting some greenwings as fall progresses," Horst says. "Teal hunting isn't rocket science. The main thing is to find the X, where the birds are feeding and loafing. They usually hit the shallower edges of wetlands, where annual plants such as smartweed, barnyard grass, and toothcup provide choice food sources."
In September, when teal are still in their drab eclipse plumage, Horst uses only mallard hen decoys to give his spread a "brown duck" look. "I'll scatter my decoys where I've found teal working, and set out a Mojo teal [spinning-wing] decoy with my floaters. Then I'll hide in whatever cover is available," he says. "It doesn't take a lot of cover to hide from teal, just enough to break up your outline."
Horst doesn't rely much on calling to lure bluewings into the decoys. "Either they're coming, or they're not," he says. "I let my decoys and the Mojo do most of the work. Occasionally I might blow a teal hen call to coax a flight closer if they're trying to land long, but usually they'll come to the decoys without any calling."
Later in the fall, when the regular duck season is under way, Horst sets out a mixed spread of mallards, pintails, gadwalls, and green-winged teal. "By now, most of the bluewings have flown south and the greenwings have come in with the bigger ducks," he says. "When I have a flight of greenwings banking downwind, I may use a teal whistle to keep them turning. But mostly I let them work themselves. For whatever reason, ducks are pretty spooky in the Basin, and you have to be subtle and sneaky to get them to come in."
Pointer 6: Ease Up on Black Ducks
EXPERT: CAPTAIN LARRY METZGER
LOCATION: FREEHOLD, NJ
Captain Larry Metzger runs Limit Outfitters guide service along the Jersey Shore. The area holds the largest concentration of wintering black ducks in North America, and Metzger and his clients frequently target these "wariest of ducks."
"Black ducks certainly live up to that reputation," Metzger says. "They are super cautious. They'll frequently make four or five passes before coming in."
For this reason, Metzger treats black ducks with kid gloves. He goes to extra lengths to conceal hunters, puts out small, realistic decoy spreads, and calls minimally. "You can't pressure these ducks," he says. "You've got to hunt where they're feeding. That's the main thing. Then you have to be patient and let them almost work themselves."
Metzger likes to set up in the marsh with the wind at his back, deploying a mix of black duck and mallard decoys, about a dozen in all. "Black ducks work better to their own kind, so I'll set a little group of five to seven black duck decoys on one side of a marsh pond and another small cluster of mallards on the other side, leaving an opening between the two groups," he explains.
For added realism, Metzger will sometimes deploy a pair of wigeon or brant. And when all else fails he turns to his secret weapon. "If the black ducks still aren't cooperating, I'll drop a pair of snow goose floaters in the hole. I don't know why, but black ducks really like to work to snow geese."
Regarding calling, Metzger says, "I've had a lot more success just being quiet. The marsh where we hunt is open, so we depend more on visibility than sound to attract ducks. We may make a little feeding chuckle or some drake mallard calls, but we almost never use highballs."
Given the wariness of black ducks, good cover is a must. "We hunt mainly from Barnegat Bay boats, and we grass them really well," Metzger explains. "We also keep our faces covered, and we stay absolutely still while black ducks are circling. If they see anything abnormal while they're working, they'll leave."
Pointer 7: Mix it Up With Mallards
EXPERT: TOMMY AKIN
LOCATION: GREENFIELD, TN
Tommy Akin shot his first greenhead 64 years ago and has pursued them passionately ever since, from Canada to Louisiana. Today he hunts primarily in the Missouri Bootheel region and says there are many things you can do to specifically target mallards, the gold standard among puddle ducks in the eyes of many hunters.
"When you're hunting mallards in open country such as flooded fields, rivers, and lakes, a big part of your success depends on your decoy spread," Akin says. "Attracting mallards that are flying cross-country is all about visibility. The easier it is for ducks to see your spread, the more likely they are to turn and work it."
For this reason, Akin sets up a big, permanent spread composed of hundreds of decoys. He increases the visibility of his setup even more by mixing in decoys with some white on them, such as pintails, shovelers, and divers. Not surprisingly, he also relies heavily on motion, deploying multiple wing-spinners on sunny days and when new ducks are moving in. Akin and his partners blow their calls loud and hard to capture the attention of passing flocks. "When they turn our way, we'll tone down to just one caller to work 'em close," he adds. "But if they start veering away, we'll all start blowing again to get them to turn back."
Akin takes the opposite tack, however, when hunting mallards on a pothole or in a small opening in flooded timber. "When you're boating into a tight spot where you know the ducks are working, a dozen decoys might be plenty," he says, adding that backing off on the calling is the best approach in close quarters. "Why risk scaring them away when they're already coming?" he asks.
Over the decades, Akin has hunted from big permanent blinds, layout blinds, cattails, standing timber, and boat blinds. He says each situation is different. "You can't put too much camouflage on a blind, and you can't let the sun shine on your face. Other than these two things, there are many variables in hunting mallards," Akin says. "You've just got to match your tactics to your spot and conditions, then make adjustments as necessary to pull those greenheads in."