By Wade Bourne

The early season can be a rewarding time for duck hunters. The birds haven't experienced a lot of hunting pressure yet, so they can be susceptible to the trickery of decoys and calling. Enthusiasm runs high. Expectations are soaring.

Still, you have to do your homework if you want to make the most of your hunting opportunities. That means learning the different behavior patterns of ducks at the start of the season, adjusting your hunting tactics accordingly, and making sure your retriever is prepared for his first forays afield. Here's advice from four experts on how to make your early-season outings more successful.

1. Hunt Light for Puddle Ducks

Mark Brendemuehl of Kerkhoven, Minnesota, is a territory manager for Avery Outdoors. He often hunts in neighboring North Dakota, where the duck season usually opens in late September. Because the big flights don't arrive until about a month later, Brendemuehl and his buddies spend the first few weeks of the season hunting mostly local birds. This requires a different approach than hunting later in the season.

"Our philosophy for the early season is to hunt light," Brendemuehl explains. "This means we don't throw the kitchen sink at the ducks. We use small spreads-from six to 30 decoys, depending on the size of the wetland-with minimal motion. We don't hunt roost areas. We change hunting locations frequently to minimize pressure on a given pothole or marsh. We do what we have to do to keep our local birds hanging around."

When the season opens, few grainfields have been harvested, so the ducks are feeding mostly in potholes. Brendemuehl and his hunting partners find these places by driving the back roads in the morning and following ducks from their larger roosting sites to these smaller feeding ponds. "It's amazing how many ducks can pack into one small pothole that has good food available," he says.

The hunters make a number of other adjustments to manage hunting pressure. "We call sparingly," Brendemuehl says. "If ducks are coming, we let them come on. Also, we never shoot at large flocks, and instead focus on singles, pairs, and small bunches. Again, we've got to keep from pushing our local ducks out before the northern birds show up."

For Brendemuehl and his pals, hunting light also means shooting lighter loads. "Early-season ducks are smaller, and a lot of our shots in potholes are close," he says. "For those reasons, I start the season shooting size 3 or 4 steel shot. These loads offer better pattern density, and they're very effective when ducks are decoying at close range. As the season progresses and northern ducks show up, I'll switch to 2s for more knockdown power at longer distances."

Brendemuehl's last piece of advice centers on what to wear while hunting. "Most waterfowl patterns are dull brown, but the early-season marsh can be a vibrant green," he says. "Hunters who wear clothing that matches the green color of the reeds will blend in better and get closer shots."

2. Get Your Retriever Ready

Bob West, director of sporting dog programs for Nestle-Purina, says that many hunters err by not properly preparing their retrievers for the rigors of the early season. "Too many hunters fail to get their retrievers in good shape before the season opens, and too many allow their dogs to lose their training edge during the summer," West asserts.

A lack of conditioning can put a hunting retriever at risk of heat exhaustion-or worse-if the weather is warm and the dog works too hard. Similarly, a lack of training in the off-season can cause a retriever's hunting skills to slip, which is not what you want when the ducks start falling.

"The start of the season is not the time to begin a retriever conditioning program," West says. "You should exercise your dog regularly during the preseason. If he's out of shape, take him to the vet for a checkup, and then start a gradual conditioning and training regimen. A brisk walk every day is a good way to start. The important thing is to get the dog out and moving to build his stamina and to shed those pounds he put on in the off-season."

Incorporate retriever training sessions into your dog's exercise routine. "Just keep the training fun and applicable to how you will hunt," West says. "For example, you may want to run a few marking drills and multiple retrieves. If the dog has been well trained, all you need to do is reinforce skills he's already learned so he's ready for opening day."

Retrievers come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few ways you can determine if your dog is overweight. "Stand over your retriever and look down at his body shape," West advises. "It should resemble an hourglass. If you look from the side, you should see some tuck up in the flank and also see his last two or three ribs."

West's final tip is true no matter what part of the season you happen to be in. "Just take care of the dog, and he'll take care of you," he says. "Keep him conditioned and trained, and he'll enjoy the hunt more. And so will you."

3. Focus On Weather & Food

To understand where the ducks are likely to be at the start of the season, hunters should have a good working knowledge of waterfowl biology, says DU Chief Scientist Dr. Scott Yaich. In the case of early migrants, the birds are particularly responsive to fall weather fronts.

"Blue-winged teal, pintails, and shovelers are among the first migrants," Yaich explains. "These birds will typically leave the nesting grounds and head down the flyways several weeks before mallards and other later-migrating species. If you watch the weather, you can anticipate when new ducks are likely to show up and time your hunt to coincide with these flights. Early migrants are often very responsive to calling and decoy spreads."

According to Yaich, finding the food sources that the birds are looking for during this time of year is also important. For example, when the season opens, many ducks-particularly late-hatched birds-are still going through the molt. Ducks need protein to produce feathers, and the birds look to natural wetlands as the best source for meeting their nutritional demands. "Wetlands are good places to hunt early on because they provide protein-rich foods such as invertebrates and some seed-producing plants," Yaich says. "These habitats provide a more balanced diet, which the ducks prefer when the weather is still relatively warm."

As the time to migrate approaches, many ducks will switch to high-carbohydrate foods to build their energy reserves for the flight ahead. "These foods are typically grains found in agricultural fields," Yaich says. "As the season and grain harvests progress, waterfowlers might consider shifting from potholes to dry fields, or even better, flooded ones if they can find them, where birds are feeding in large numbers."

4. Hunt Divers on Staging Marshes

Dr. Scott Stephens is director of regional operations in DU Canada's prairie region. An avid diving duck hunter, he loves to pursue canvasbacks, redheads, and other divers that congregate on staging marshes in Manitoba during the latter half of September.

"These staging areas typically cover thousands of acres of semipermanent marsh broken by cattails and bulrushes," Stephens says. "The marshes are loaded with aquatic plants that the ducks feed on to build up energy reserves for the impending flight south. The divers feed in open water. At peak concentration, it's not unusual to see several hundred birds on one bay or large pond. Also, a lot of ducks trade back and forth across these marshes, so hunting pressure has less of an effect on them than it would on a small marsh."

Peak numbers of divers occur on many northern staging marshes from late September through mid-October. According to Stephens, the challenge isn't finding the ducks-it's finding good cover close to where they're feeding. "I like to set up as close to their exact feeding spot as possible, usually on an extended point or an island of cattails. The water in these big marshes is typically knee- to waist-high, so we wear waders and hunt from marsh seats in the cattails," he says.

Once he's selected a hunting spot, Stephens puts out about 50 decoys, the bulk of which he sets on longlines. His spread is modest by diver hunting standards. He sets two-thirds of his decoys on a longline that runs directly downwind from his hunting spot. He angles a shorter line crosswind, leaving 50 to 60 yards between the two decoy lines. "These two lines intersect just in front of my hiding spot, and here I toss out several individually rigged decoys to simulate a feeding group," he says.

As a finishing touch, Stephens mixes in some coots with his canvasback decoys for added realism. "There are always coots feeding with the canvasbacks, eating the remnants of vegetation that the cans pull up from the bottom," he explains.

The idea is for the divers flying upwind to hit the main longline, turn, and follow it up to the feeding group. Stephens also coaxes birds in by blowing a diving duck "purr" on a mallard call. "This system works well and provides a lot of close shots," he adds.

Stephens says that the best thing about hunting divers on the prairies during the early season is the lack of competition. "I've never run into another group of hunters doing what I do," he says. "It seems as if all the other hunters are focusing on dabblers and geese. They leave the divers to me!"