By Nick Johnson
Wood ducks are hands down my favorite duck species. Their curious behavior, the habitats they like to frequent, the male’s striking plumage, not to mention their meat is better than a lot of duck species in my mind. All of these things combined and more are what put wood ducks on the top of my list.
Hunting woodies can sometimes be a challenge. They often have a mind of their own and seem virtually unresponsive to calling or decoys. But then there are those days when a brick wall wouldn’t stop them from landing in your spread. Those are the days that make everything worthwhile.
Finding Wood Ducks
Wood ducks are fairly common throughout Iowa from the early duck season in September all the way through mid-November. Some even hang out well past the close of the season in December. From my experience the best wood duck hunting comes when colder air in October starts to trickle down from the north. When a hooded sweatshirt is required for keeping warm. This is the time when much of the wood duck population of the north begins to migrate south. The local wood ducks also start to move about a lot more seeking food and cover in other areas to prepare for winter.
Finding numbers of them can be difficult but good scouting and good knowledge of watersheds in the area can be extremely beneficial. I’ve shot wood ducks from big lakes, cattail sloughs, even field hunting for mallards but the places where I routinely have the most success are oxbows off of a river or large stream and also walking creeks especially with willows growing along the banks. Wood ducks love cover and winding creeks or wooded oxbows and ponds provide them with just that.
If you are scratching your head trying to think of a place to investigate, get on the computer and browse around Google maps. Follow river and stream channels and look for areas where an oxbow or some flood water created a water hole. It also doesn’t hurt to pick up a Sportsman’s Atlas and browse some of the public ground spots. To this day my best wood duck spot was found using that atlas and making a 150-yard hike back through the woods to discover a patch of flooded timber.
When scouting for wood ducks it pays to be quiet unless you are able to scout from a distance with binoculars. I’ve often walked in on a little timber hole, looked things over and observed nothing right away. I would then sit still for a while and pretty soon catch movement from wood ducks sneaking their way through some fallen timber along the bank. They don’t always flush like other ducks when spooked and when given a chance wood ducks would rather sneak away from danger.
I often feel like the number of decoys really doesn’t matter a whole lot to wood ducks. They are a social duck but also have a mind of their own. What I have observed however is that when wood duck decoys are deployed with other decoys, landing wood ducks very frequently land close to the woodie decoys. I have seen this happen many times. If I am hunting bigger areas of water I will typically throw out a little bigger spread of maybe a few dozen. In this case though I am not just targeting wood ducks. If I am just targeting wood ducks and looking to use decoys, I will generally use a half dozen mallards just in case a mallard or teal wants to swing in and then I’ll throw out a half dozen woodie decoys. The nice thing about a dozen decoys is that they are easy to hike into areas, they deploy and pick up quickly and twelve decoys works just fine for most wood duck hunts.
Using a Mojo when hunting woodies can be effective to capture the attention of passing birds in thick timber or from afar. For motion decoys though I find a jerk rig to be extremely effective especially in timbered areas that shelter your spread from wind. Hooking a jerk rig to one or multiple decoys can really bring life to the spread and entice a weary flock to commit.
I bought a wood duck call once a long time ago and I think it saw one hunt and has remained in my blind bag ever since. Some hunters have good luck using them but I have found that a simple mallard call works just as well.
When it comes to wood ducks, less is more. I use my call to grab the attention of passing birds and almost never to finish them into the spread like you would mallards or geese. The reason for this is that it really does not make a whole lot of difference. If they want to commit to the spread they will with or without calling. A call is most definitely important to have though. I’ve turned a lot of wood ducks towards my spread that had a different destination in mind.
If you are willing to put in the footwork, walking streams can be an extremely successful method for shooting a limit of woodies. All it takes is slow footwork and a quick gun, oh, and a pair of waders. I like streams that have a lot of sharp bends and good ambush points to conceal an approaching hunter. Wood ducks have good eyesight and it pays to have the element of surprise on them. If you come upon them in close range they will generally flush rather than swim into cover.
When I walk a stream I like to walk down stream. Walking with the current generates less noise from splashing legs, plus it is a lot easier to walk with the current than against it. Always take the inside of a bend as you walk. I like to look for streams that are more out in grassland areas that run through deep woods. When you have grassland type areas you will often times have willows that grow along the stream and something about this really attracts wood ducks.
Drifting a river in a small boat or canoe can also be a great way to harvest wood ducks and other species. In this style of hunting you can shoot ducks that flush and also ones passing overhead trading from one spot to another. Just like walking a stream, keep the vessel to the inside of bends to avoid putting yourself out in the open and spooking birds downstream prematurely. You would be surprised at how close some ducks let you get when you are just lazily drifting along in a boat. Remember though, you cannot legally shoot when the boat is under power unless you are rowing with paddles so keep the guns down when the motor needs to be turned on.
Wood ducks hold a special place in many waterfowler’s hearts. To many, a mature male wood duck is a trophy and one to be cherished. Wood ducks are fun to hunt considering the places they frequent but they are also a challenge to even expert waterfowlers at times which makes them a duck to be respected as well. If you find yourself looking to mix up your duck hunting this fall, give wood ducks a try.
Good luck this season!