by Chris Larsen
Waterfowl hunting is perhaps the most difficult of the hunting sports to enter. There is a lot of equipment involved and complex regulations can be intimidating to a beginner. Calling is also an obstacle for duck hunting neophytes. How do you set the decoys? How do you know the species of a particular duck before you shoot? These are all questions that every duck hunter as pondered at some point. And of course, the same issue many hunters of just about all species face, getting access to good hunting locations.
If you’re willing to learn, most duck hunters are more than happy to teach. But if you don’t know anyone who hunts and you’re interested in getting started in waterfowling, read on.
The price of decoys has come down exponentially in the past ten years. If you’re not sure what species you will be hunting, buy mallard decoys. Just about any duck will at least take a good luck at mallard decoys. Greenhead Gear offers Hot Buy Series decoys at around $20 a dozen. Flambeau and other companies also offer decoys for budget minded hunters. You will need decoy string and anchor weights for each of the decoys you buy. These items are usually near the decoys at your local sporting goods store. You can also browse the online classifieds for used decoys.
You can buy $60 waders or you can enjoy duck hunting. But you can’t do both. Buy a sturdy pair of neoprene chest waders for $125 - $150. For more info on buying waders check out this article. Avoid hip waders for duck hunting. Chest waders are obviously better for deep water but even in shallow water applications, chest waders will keep your butt dry and your body warm.
The 12 gauge shotgun is standard issue for waterfowlers. Some hunters like semi-automatics, some like pumps. A semi-automatic is nice because all you need to do is pull the trigger to shoot. However, the advantage with pumps is they almost never misfire even under the most extreme conditions. Double barreled shotguns are rarely used for waterfowling because they have one major drawback, two shells. This leads to another important point. Check your pump or semi-automatic to be sure there is a plug in the magazine. The best way to do this is to load shells into the magazine. If you can get more than two shells into the magazine, chances are there isn’t a plug in your shotgun. Federal waterfowl regulations mandate that only three shells (two in the magazine, one in the chamber) can be loaded in a waterfowler’s gun. While the 12 gauge is the choice of most waterfowl hunters, 20 gauge guns are often used by youth and lady hunters and 10 gauge shotguns are popular for goose specialists.
Things begin to get a bit dicey when we start talking about ammunition. First off, lead shot is off limits. Steel shot or any one of the several other non-toxic shot shells are acceptable. Most of the non-toxic varieties such as bismuth and tungsten boast higher velocity and more impact than steel shot and in most cases those claims are legitimate. However, the high cost compared to steel shot makes steel the number one choice for most waterfowl hunters. If you allow birds to work within effective range of 35 yards or less, steel will do just fine. A modified choke is a good choice. For more effective patterns, an aftermarket choke will perform better.
When it comes to shell size, 3 inch shells are the standard. If your gun will chamber a 3 ½” shell, they will come in handy for hunting geese. But again, if you shoot birds within range, a 3 inch shell will do the job. As far as shot size goes, in my opinion #2 shot is a good all purpose load. I’ve killed just about every species of waterfowl with #2 shot. However, if you know you’ll be hunting teal or wood ducks, #4 shot is a good choice. If you plan to target geese, I would go with BB. After you hunt a few years, you may find a particular shot selection you like better. But these are good baseline suggestions.
If you plan to hunt primarily marshes, a brown grass-like pattern is best. If you are hunting wooded areas, a bark or leafy pattern may be the way to go. This pattern would be similar to a bow hunter’s camouflage. I recommend a long sleeve T-shirt worn under a layered, waterproof parka system. This allows you put layers on or off and remain concealed when weather changes. You will also need waterproof gloves and a waterproof hat. Get a hat with a bill/visor. This will come in handy for fighting glare on sunny or snowy days. Don’t forget a camo face cover. If you are head to toe in camouflage but your face is bare, ducks will spot the glare off your face and flare.
For most newbies, a call works best when it’s left in the truck. If you’re scouting is good, you won’t need a call. Ducks and geese will want to come to your spread. If you want to learn to call, pick up an audio disk or download an mp3. This will allow you to practice calling while going to and from work. Some people will look at you like your nuts. Fellow waterfowlers will give you a thumbs up. If there is a pond in your area that holds ducks, stop by and listen. Get an idea of how real ducks sound and try to mimic them.
Where To Hunt
Every state has public hunting lands available. Some have vast amounts of good public duck hunting areas. Look for public hunting areas with water and scout them out. In my home state of Wisconsin, you can hunt nearly any shoreline away from houses provided you keep your feet in the water. Check the regulations in your area. When it comes to private land, locate birds and ask permission. Plat books are invaluable. Your success will most likely depend on your location. In Wisconsin, deer hunting is king and if you are asking for permission to hunt waterfowl, more times than not the answer will be yes. But in traditional waterfowling states, it can be tougher. Be sure to be kind and courteous no matter what the answer is. If you are hunting locally, ask permission during the summer months. Autumn is harvest time for farmers and they are often tired and stressed out during hunting seasons. If you can help out with a few hay cuttings or other services, your chances of getting on private land will be much better.
Know The Regulations
This is the best piece of advice I can give. Read the regulations thoroughly and if you are not sure about something call your state wildlife agency. I have called wardens several times and asked for clarifications and they have always been gracious and appreciative of someone calling ahead of time. If you wait until after you break a law, they are not usually as gracious. The main points to look at are harvest limitations and hunting hours. These will be different depending on the state and area you are hunting.
Bird identification is critical to a duck hunter. Study bird identification books or online resources such as the Ducks Unlimited website. Learn what birds look like while flying and what types of sounds each species makes. Just about everyone knows what a mallard looks like. In most states, shooting hen mallards is far more restrictive than drake mallards, so it’s important to avoid flock shooting and clearly target green heads. In my home state, you can shoot one hen mallard per day and three drakes. So if you shoot a hen right away in the morning, you need to be incredibly careful of what you shoot the rest of the day.
If everything comes together and you shoot a bird, you will need to retrieve it. Obviously, a dog is great for this but if you don’t have a well trained hunting dog, the dog is more likely to be a hindrance. If you are hunting in a shallow pond or stream, your waders will most likely do the job. If the water is deep, you will need a boat or canoe. Just because you can put the decoys out doesn’t mean that you can retrieve a bird. If the bird sails into deeper water you must be able to pursue it.
This is the greatest pet peeve of veteran waterfowlers. Skybusting is shooting at birds that are well out of range. It’s vital to know what 35 yards looks like before going hunting. Shooting at birds out of range can cripple birds and ruin hunting for others. My mentor taught me this rule of thumb: “If you can see the eye, the bird will die.” Wait to shoot until you can clearly see the eye of the bird. Personally, I enjoy shooting ducks at incredibly close ranges. That is where the sport is for me. I have never understood why someone would want to pass shoot ducks. In the legendary standing timber hunting of Arkansas, most hunters allow ducks to land and then flush them before shooting. That is truly fooling a duck.
As is the case with any new endeavor, finding a mentor is the best way to learn. But if that isn’t possible, it’s not as difficult as advertised. Personally, I believe the learning curve can be faster when hunting alone. You’re not reliant on someone else and if you honestly evaluate your hunting, learning from mistakes is probably the best way to improve. The great thing about duck hunting is it’s not a solitary venture. If you can’t find an experienced quack addict to go hunting with, go with a fellow beginner. You will both learn together.