By Wade Bourne
Early-fall breezes are like high-octane fumes that rev up duck hunters' engines. Mix in a passion for waterfowling. Excitement over migration reports. Enthusiasm for the way the Dog is working. Is it any wonder that so many of us find it hard to sit idling behind the starting line?
It's okay to get fired up for the coming season, but be careful not to jump the gun. As you eagerly anticipate all the sights, sounds, and thrills of the opener, make sure you've done your homework.
Here are some tips that will help increase your chances of bagging more waterfowl on opening day.
Find the Right Spot
Nothing contributes so much to duck hunting success as being in the right spot. The best blind, decoy spread, calling, and other factors won't matter if there are no birds around. It's not enough that an area looks good to you. What matters is how it looks to the ducks.
You can start by checking water levels in local marshes, lakes, and management areas. Have recent rains flooded fields or caused rivers to spill over into adjacent bottomlands? Will tides be running in coastal areas? What are feeding conditions like? Answering these and other questions is a form of intelligence gathering. Other good sources of information include online posts about duck counts on local refuges and reports gleaned from networking with fellow hunters.
But the best way to find a good hunting spot is to hit the road right before opening day to discover where ducks are feeding, roosting, and loafing. Nothing is more reliable than your own firsthand scouting. Follow ducks from roosting to feeding areas. Learn where they're loafing at midday. Try to discover their flight lanes as they move between these locations. Then pick a place or two, and build an opening day strategy around the best opportunities you've uncovered.
Target Early Migrants
Hunters in several Atlantic, Mississippi, and Central Flyway states actually have two opening days: one for the early teal season and another for the regular duck season. Blue-winged and green-winged teal are typically more plentiful than other ducks during the start of both these seasons, simply because these birds tend to migrate earlier. Hunters who target these and other "early birds" with precise decoy rigs and hunting strategies are likely to get more shooting than those who opt for later-season tactics.
Bluewings and greenwings really are the focus during the early teal season. When these ducks head south in September and early October, they tend to gather in the same swamps, marshes, farm ponds, shallow mudflats, and rice fields from one year to the next if water levels are similar. The birds work eagerly to teal decoys and are particularly susceptible to wing-spinners. They respond to teal calls such as whistles, as well as to raspy highballs on your standard duck call.
When the "big duck season" opens, concentrate on species that are more likely to show up first, including pintails, gadwalls, and wood ducks. Set up in habitats that these species prefer and adjust your tactics accordingly. For example, you might want to use species-specific decoys or a mixed spread instead of a traditional mallard setup. The same is true with calls and calling. Don't be afraid to replace your mallard call with a pintail whistle, gadwall call, or wood duck squealer, depending on the species you're targeting.
Anticipate Hunting Pressure
What's better than having a good hunting spot? Having a so-so spot all to yourself. This is especially true on opening day, when too much hunting pressure can spoil your chances faster than anything else.
I had an experience several years ago that illustrates this point. Word got out that thousands of ducks were using a local wildlife management area. When opening morning arrived, I found myself among swarms of hunters who had squeezed into the area. At shooting time, a thunderous volley rolled through the flooded fields and woods. It took only a few minutes for the ducks to be frightened away. As the morning went on, the few birds that returned were greeted by an orchestra of callers and an army of "skybusters."
As it turned out, my partners and I would have been better off "far from the madding crowd," perhaps hunting over a nearby pothole or hidden beaver pond where a few ducks might have sought refuge from the ruckus of the management area.
Since then, I've always considered hunting pressure when scouting a place to hunt. And I've typically fared better where the ducks were fewer but pressure from other hunters was nil, because the ducks that did show up were all mine.
Assemble a Cache of Extras
There are a number of reasons for keeping a supply of miscellaneous items in your blind or hunting vehicle. Equipment breaks. Batteries run low. Hunters get scratches. And some guests invariably show up without a duck stamp. You never know when an unforeseen need might arise.
Assemble your cache of "extras" before the season and keep them handy. I stow such items in a canvas tote bag in my truck's toolbox. They can also be stored in a watertight plastic box. You can customize your collection by anticipating what you might need. Consider including some of the following items: spare batteries, basic tools, shotgun shells, gun oil (spray), plastic zip ties, matches (in a waterproof container), emergency veterinary supplies, chemical hand warmers, resealable plastic bags, a first-aid kit, an extra duck stamp or two, duct or electrical tape, decoy string, and toilet paper.
Get Reacquainted with Your Shotgun
Many hunters clean and store their shotguns at season's end and don't retrieve them until the next fall rolls around. Truth is, shooting is an athletic endeavor, and you can easily lose your edge without practice. Working on your shooting is like visiting the practice range before playing golf. You've got to get your swing back. Better to do so before duck season opens.
Make a couple of trips to the skeet or sporting clays range before opening day to help regain your hand-eye coordination and shooting form. Better yet, go dove hunting. Not all states have open seasons on these birds, but if you happen to live in or near one that does, take advantage of it. Shooting at these fast fliers is an exciting, effective way to regain your form. Just be sure to use the same shotgun you'll be taking to the duck blind.
Make Your Retriever a Priority
Most runners wouldn't attempt a marathon without getting in some pre-race conditioning. Retrievers need conditioning as well. You can't expect your dog to perform at his peak on opening day if he's been laid up in the kennel all summer.
Exercise him regularly throughout the summer, preferably early or late in the day, when temperatures are cooler. This will help build the endurance and stamina he'll need not only for the duck opener, but also for the rest of the season.
Nutrition is another key factor. It's important to feed your retriever a high-protein dog food year-round. Eating enough protein and fat will help keep your dog's metabolism operating efficiently and get him back to peak condition faster at the start of the new hunting season. If he puts on extra weight during the off-season, when he's less active, simply cut back on his caloric intake. You can feed him more kibble again when the season starts and his energy needs increase.
Providing your Lab, golden, or Chessie with some refresher training prior to the start of the season is a good idea as well. Reinforce commands that he already knows, such as sit, stay, come, mark, and so on. Toss him some training dummies to sharpen his marking skills. Your retriever may have become rusty during the off-season, but with the right kind of practice, his skills should return in short order.
Don't Overlook Concealment
I've known hunters who were absolute sticklers for camouflaging their blinds. They covered all the bases, and then some. And usually their obsessive- compulsiveness resulted in more ducks and geese in the bag.
All waterfowlers should be just as careful when camouflaging their blinds. Pay special attention to overhead cover. Pile it on thick. Make sure that it casts shadows, which add to the deception. Add brush and stubble to break up straight lines and help your blind disappear into its surroundings. When you think you have enough camo on a blind, add more. You can never be too well hidden from the prying eyes of ducks.
After your hiding place is completely covered, gather extra brush and keep it nearby. Later in the season, when your blind begins to lose some of its camouflage, you can refurbish it without too much effort. Be sure to gather extra brush early in the fall, when it's more readily available and easier to haul around.
Go Early, Stay Late
Opening day normally draws the largest crowds of the season. If you're hunting on public land, competition can be stiff. Getting to your spot well before shooting time could mean the difference between having a good hunt and being shut out.
Here's a recent example. Last fall a friend planned to open the season on a slough off the main body of a local reservoir. He had scouted it during the preseason, and the area had been thick with ducks. Not wanting to be beaten to the punch, he arrived at the slough the afternoon before opening day, tossed out his decoys, and camped under the stars. Another party of hunters showed up around midnight. They were surprised to find this spot already taken, but they had to leave to hunt elsewhere. When dawn finally came, my buddy bagged a limit of ducks in short order.
That's certainly an extreme case, but my friend was more than willing to go the extra mile for a good hunt. To him the reward was worth the sacrifice of sleeping in his boat and swatting mosquitoes all night.
There's also much to be said for persistence. Sometimes staying late when others have gone home can help you turn around a slow hunt. Ducks don't always fly when you think they will. If they don't show up in the morning, they may come in the afternoon.
Hunters who give up too soon miss a lot of good times. But other hunters who come early and stay late get some unexpected surprises. Indeed, when the ducks show up and everything falls into place, the payoff is sublime. And that's what fuels hunters' anticipation for the next opening day.
Let the season begin!