Early Season Duck Strategies
By Nick Johnson
The onset of duck season stirs many emotions in a waterfowl hunter. It often starts with super early mornings and mild weather and the hopes that any prior scouting missions will prove successful. This is a chance for hunters to knock the dust off their gear, which if you are like me has been in storage for the past 7 months. I always tell myself I am going to hose off the decoys in the summer, vacuum out blind bags and blinds but come opening day it never fails that I show up with dried mud on the decoys and various snack wrappers and corn stubble in every pocket of the gear bag. The ducks don’t care right?
Early season plays out a lot differently than hunting late season. You are dealing with lots of local birds comprised heavily of mallards, gadwall, wigeon and some pintail, along with early migrants like blue winged teal and wood ducks. As October slides towards November you will start to see more mallards, green winged teal, pintails, gadwall, wigeon and various divers migrating. There is often that rush of pressure on opening weekend that scatters birds around and in many places this pressure holds until the whitetail rut starts to pull deer hunters away with its soothing promise of Boone and Crocket bucks.
The early season ducks aren’t grouped up like they are later in the year and can be trickier to find. This is the time of year to be out scouting just as it starts getting light enough to see. Ducks like to fly and trade around early and it can sometimes help you pinpoint where they are heading or even as simple as where they are flying over. The vegetation in October is still pretty dense and it can be very difficult to locate numbers of birds on a marsh or lake with lots of cover without seeing them go in. If you’ve read my articles before you will know how much I harp on the importance of scouting.
Shoot Some Clays
I am as guilty as anyone when it comes to letting my wingshooting go rusty in the off season but I still make an effort to at least put a box of shells through the gun before the first couple outings. This not only lets you make sure the gun is in working order but also bring back the muscle memory of following and shooting a moving target. It would surprise you how much a few clays can help especially if it has been more than a couple months since you and the gun last saw action.
Thankfully for the budget conscious duck hunter, this is not the time of year to run 10 dozen mallard decoys paired with 7 dozen honkers. I mean, you can if you want but in all honesty less can often be more in the first couple weeks of season. You are by-and-large dealing with a lot of local birds, young birds and birds that haven’t been shot at for the past two months as they made their way up from gulf coast states. When dealing with heavily pressured ducks and ducks late season then yes, big spreads can really make a difference.
If you are where the ducks want to be and have good concealment and the wind right then a dozen decoys can be more than enough to fill a limit. This also opens up opportunities to hunt some hard to reach places on foot. Some of the best public land duck hunts Ive had involved hiking into areas where other hunters either didn’t know about or unwilling to put in the work.
Many male species of ducks this time of year are still fairly drab in color, not yet into their full breeding plumage. I will generally run more hen decoys than drakes in an attempt to look more natural. Ive not done any investigation on whether this theory is accurate but if it gives you confidence then that’s a win in my book.
You will notice that a lot of hunters wont stick it out much past 10 or 11 am which is generally when the hunting hits a slow point. On multiple occasions I’ve gone back in the afternoon to check out a public spot I hunted the same morning and noticed ducks scattered around where we had set up. I’ve never actually gone out and decoy hunted over water in the afternoon before but I have stayed through the morning into the afternoon and had some surprising results. Sometimes it just simply stays dead and the ducks don’t fly again until late evening but other times you will pick off one or two here and there looking to come back when they have learned it is safe. Have actually filled a few limits doing that once in a while. This trick also works during late season too!
Try Jump Shooting
I know this sounds non-traditional but it does work, especially on wood ducks. Throw a pair of waders on and stalk along a creek being as stealthy as possible and using the inside bends to hide your approach as you round a curve. Little creeks like these are all over the state and pretty easy to jump shoot if the cover isn’t too thick along the shoreline. Just be very mindful of other people that may be in the area and know whats behind your target before pulling the trigger.
If the weather is calm or you happen to be hunting in an area heavily sheltered from the wind then it can really pay to use motion in the decoy spread for both realism and attention grabbing. Nothing looks more fake than a bunch of motionless decoys on flat calm water. Even sleeping live ducks on calm water still make little ripples. Motion decoys such as Mojos, pulsators, ripplers and jerk-rigs can all be very effective at pulling in ducks to a spread.
Early season duck hunting brings a great opportunity to get someone new out to try it for the first time. The weather usually isn’t nasty yet, the duck hunting is fair overall and allows for someone learning to call a chance to try it when the ducks are a little more forgiving. Have a great waterfowl season and stay safe.