Tips for Success: Wood Ducks
Some may disagree with me, but a Drake Wood Duck is one of the prettiest birds on the planet in my opinion. Aside from being one of the best tasting ducks due to their acorn and berry (they do eat other things as well) diet; their feathers are ideal for fly tying. All of these reasons seem to be enough to justify pursuing this beautiful duck during waterfowl season, right? Here in the Midwest there are plenty of Wood Ducks and if you are looking for a new challenge this season, give Wood Ducks a try.
Wood Ducks have a special spot in my heart as a waterfowl hunter because while attending graduate school at Iowa State University I would hunt almost daily with my friends. We had access to several properties next to the Cedar River in Nashua, Iowa and we would see an abundance of Wood Ducks. At the time, we were beginners when it came to hunting Wood Ducks and I can remember being so frustrated the first few weeks while we continued to fail. I wished someone had told me a few important facts about Wood Duck hunting that ultimately would have made the difference between a duck in the pot, or an empty duck strap at the end of the day.
Do not overdue it on the decoys
Wood Ducks are not known for being heavily drawn to decoys, however if the setup is right, they will drop right in without circling. They do not need several dozen decoys grouped together; in fact sometimes less is more. Overall the species is not known for grouping together in large concentrations. Even in an area where hundreds of birds are roosting, groups larger than a dozen are rare. For that reason, in slough type settings you may only need six or eight decoys. You can have success using mallard decoys, but Wood Duck decoys will bring certain realism to your spread. Try to mix up the amount of hens and drakes. In bigger, more open water, you may want to use a dozen decoys or so. If there are mallards or other species commonly in the area (based on your scouting) then it is acceptable to mix in small groups of mallard or teal. The biggest mistake my group was making early on was using way too many decoys. We would sometimes have three or four dozen decoys out in the river and the spread must have looked very unnatural to the ducks. For us, less would have been more.
How you set the spread can help or hurt you
Ducks will bunch up into crowds when they are nervous. With that in mind, keep your decoys spaced appropriately to give the impression that the flock is safe, secure and not threatened. Typically six feet of spacing between decoys is perfect, but also make sure to be about 20 yards (minimum) away from your blind assuming you are hunting a shoreline of some kind. Flooded timber or very well concealed marsh blinds may allow closer proximity between your blind and spread. Ducks will land against the wind, so while setting your spread try to consider how the bird will land in or near your spread. If possible, try to avoid situations where the birds will fly directly over you or look at your blind while landing. We have to strive for a spread that can be seen, but also funnels birds into a landing path that we can remain concealed and shoot effectively.
Location, Location, Location
No, I am not talking about the restaurant business. However waterfowl hunting does have something in common with restaurants; your success is largely determined by how good of a job you do selecting your location. For obvious reasons, understanding the kinds of places that Wood Ducks like to feed or roost will significantly increase your chances for success. When Wood Ducks roost, they prefer bigger, deeper water that has emerging cover. The idea being that they are safer from predators and cannot be attacked suddenly. Picture a large area of cat tails on a larger pond, river or slough. This is a likely roosting site for wood ducks. It is important to identify roosting sites so that you can then locate where the birds are going to feed. Hunting a roosting site is a bad idea; pressure on the birds in their roosting site will cause them to relocate and clear out of the area.
Instead, you may want to hunt feeding areas in the morning, or setup somewhere along their route to and from their roost to feed in the evening. Woodies prefer direct flight paths, so if you can setup in the late afternoon or early evening in a spot where trees or natural cover can funnel the ducks out, you may get some exceptional pass shooting opportunities. Morning hunts in the feeding areas will be in areas where the water is not deep at all. At depths like eight inches or less, the ducks can easily feed along the bottom of the water or easily feed on insects or crustaceans. These ideal locations tend to be hardwood bottom areas where there are beaver ponds, creeks, flooded woods or pot holes. Wood ducks are known for resting on top of logs in these areas, in fact you might flush them up when you explore and scout them. If you see logs covered in duck droppings or see feathers floating, chances are ducks are hanging out there regularly.
Contrary to popular belief, you CAN call in Wood Ducks
Many hunters like to target the roost; they find it, and setup there in the evening to shoot at the heavy traffic of birds. I’m not here to debate tactics or preferences but the problem as I stated earlier is that after a few days, you have either shot most of the ducks or pressured them to a new location. Trying to target feeding areas, or setting up along the birds flight pattern to and from roosting allows you to enjoy hunting the wood ducks all season, and also allows you to use your decoy placement and calling on the birds. Woodies have a very widespread vocabulary, but the “wheet wheet” sound is probably what they are most known for. The wood duck call is very distinctive, and with most calls being fairly loud, the call can get the attention of passing birds. Learning other sounds will help your effort, because if you can follow up the “wheet” sound with a “wood duck whine”, you may have some luck in getting a favorable response (also stated in Call in the Wood Ducks by Rod Haydel).
Wood ducks are one of the most common duck species throughout the country. Likely, in many places they are the most common, so having a firm understanding of where they roost, where they feed and how they behave will certainly give you the best chance of success in your hunts. Sure, this sounds like common sense, but many of us hunt these ducks the same way we do other species and that is likely the mistake. You do not need a lot of decoys, and effective scouting to locate their flight patterns will help you be in the right place at the right time for pass shooting (also ideal for those of you not willing to call). Getting a wood duck call and learning a few basic calls will allow you to use distinctive sounds that will definitely help you get the attention of passing wood ducks. Good luck this season!