Successful Iowa Duck Hunting

By Nick Johnson

Long at last, waterfowl season is upon us once again. This is a time of year that I have cherished since my early years as a hunter and something that reignites the excitement and passion, no different than October 1st for the bow guys and gals, or that first step into upland grass come pheasant season. Some of you are fortunate to have a slice of private marsh to walk into just before shooting light, others burn miles and even sleep in vehicles to ensure rights to a well scouted honey hole. Regardless of the situation, that first flock buzzing overhead, wings whistling in the fading dark is like a wake-up call to the soul. Grown men feel like kids again and kids solidify the experience into a lifelong memory.

My dad used to bring me along on duck hunts when I was little, and I was always fascinated with the sport, even though I was too young to carry a loaded shotgun. I grew up hunting pheasants mostly and duck hunting was more of a treat than a passion at that point for my family. This all changed in my teenage years when I was invited to hunt an opener with a coworker, long before teal season was a thing, but naturally teal made up the bulk of the harvest that time of year.

Before shooting light, we had what seemed like hundreds of teal buzzing our heads and decoys, cupping up, landing, taking off only to return again and this spectacle had me awestruck. The short five minutes until shooting light seemed like an eternity and I think when it was finally go time we had a four man limit of ducks inside of an hour. This to me sparked the beginning of a passion for waterfowl hunting and the only regret I have is that it happened so late in my life, relatively speaking for a 17-year-old at the time. It truly is a special time of year to capitalize on and one that I will ensure my very young kids get a chance to experience when they are old enough.

Iowa now has two primary opening seasons for ducks. A teal season in September where Greenwing, Bluewing and Cinnamon (aka unicorn teal) are the only legal duck to harvest. The chances of harvesting a Cinnamon teal in Iowa are about as remote as shooting a Barrows Goldeneye, maybe less, but it never hurts to dream, right. The second opener comes in early October and this opens up the playing field for all duck species in season for their respective harvest limits. To get a kid involved in the sport though, teal season is an excellent opportunity for them to experience the rush of yet unpressured birds decoying readily and generally mild weather conditions.

There are a few things that hunters can take advantage of leading up to the season to help put success in their favor. Much of the prep work pays off in the long run and offers a chance to engage the family and friends with excitement beforehand. I’ve never been a huge fan of going into a duck hunt blind, not knowing what to expect. Here are a few topics I feel are important, if not critical to making a successful start to the duck season. Some of these will be common sense or more-or-less reminders while a few topics will be tactical.

Gun Prep
Unless you are a frequent clay shooter, chances are the shotgun has sat for a few months without so much as being shown off to a fellow hunting guest to your home. Get the gun out weeks in advance, clean it up real good and take it out for a round of clay shooting to knock the rust off. This is even more important for young shooters new to the sport to engrain the responsibility of taking care of your weapon along with honing skills in safety and shooting on benign targets before the heart rate gets racing when flocks of ducks are coming in.

Boat and Blind Prep
Many of you reading this already spend ample time freshening up a blind or boat, digging out trash and mud from the past season. What some forget are the seemingly small things that can wind up bigger problems down the road. Start planning for these well in advance. Things like motor gearcase changes, or oil changes if you have a four stroke. Trailer bearing repacking is huge and something that should be done once a year, or at the very least pulling the hub to inspect. Trailer wires, boat wires, lights working properly. Maybe even rubbing a fresh coat of mud on your layout blinds if that is something you are into. Many of these details can be gone through and ironed out in a day or weekend and the peace of mind is a huge confidence boost when the time comes to hit the field.

If you’ve read my articles in the past you will know that the topic of scouting has been beat into submission three ways from Sunday but that is because this lone subject stands out to me as one of the most important factors in successful waterfowl hunting. It follows a very close third behind safety and taking care of equipment. Sure, you can pass shoot, jump shoot or float shoot ducks without scouting and even do well at this but for most watefowlers, the draw comes from decoying, calling and fooling birds.

Scouting does take time and that can be a limiting factor, especially with busy families. The way I’ve worked around this many times is taking our five-year-old along for the adventure and he loves to check out nature through his little binoculars. Scout at the right times too. Ducks like teal are often up and about well before sunrise and it can really help to locate these birds in their early morning locations.

Scout as close to opening weekend as you can. This lessens the chance of patterns switching up and places that may have been devoid of anything but a few locals in the weeks prior may suddenly load up. Keep a close eye on the weather and play the wind and sun to your advantage, ideally having the wind at your back or from a crossing direction and avoiding the sun directly in your face. Make mental notes of safe access points and areas where concealment is adequate.

If you’ve done some fresh work on the boat or boat trailer this is a great opportunity to get it out and make sure things are in proper order. Run the river, lake or marsh and use the boat as a scouting tool. We are blessed in this day and age to have Apps like On-X and digital tools like GPS on your fish finders. Use these to scour satellite imaging, mark waypoints and track cookie trails to mark safe access and navigation paths. Sometimes simple things like this can save your butt when trying to find a spot in the dark.

Decoying and Calling
Much of what makes duck hunting fun is using decoys and calls in an effort to fool birds into gun range. On the opening weekends and especially at first light when a lot of the duck activity happens, calling and decoy spreads are less of a factor than having the right spot. I generally pare down my decoy size and run a lot of hen decoys in the early season and rely less on calling until the ducks become visibly pressured. This is a great time to let a kid or new hunter test their calling skills as the birds are less weary to an untrained cadence. Focus more on being in the right location and getting the wind and sun right.

Be Courteous
There is nothing more frustrating hunting public ground when you get up super early, get the spot you’ve scouted and have a group of late risers come rolling through around shooting time or setting up in close proximity. Sleeping in is fine and you can actually shoot plenty of ducks mid-day after most of the morning crowd has packed up and the ducks start to trickle back in, but always be conscious of other hunters and give them a wide distance. Not only can this be unsafe, but it is disrespectful and may ruin the experience for a would-be waterfowl advocate such as young and new hunters.

Sometimes you can’t help but navigate past a hunter’s spread, especially on rivers but it’s always a courteous move to set up well away from another. If you are hunting solo or even a pair and the other group is small, you can politely ask to hunt with them otherwise move on. You’ll find a lot of waterfowl hunters in Iowa are pretty respectful and that’s part of what makes this sport enjoyable.

Opening weekends are a tradition that holds a special place for all hunters alike. Scouting is your greatest tool in waterfowl hunting and utilizing technology to watch the weather and plan ahead on locations and mapping is an added bonus we are blessed with in the new age. Something the up and comers will be very well akin to. Always keep safety in the forefront and use this time of year to introduce someone new to the sport. Have a great waterfowl season!