When you look at figures and statistics regarding how many ducks the average duck hunter kills in a season you might be surprised. I am willing to bet the numbers are much lower than many of you would suspect. Why? Because hunting waterfowl successfully is difficult to do! It is even more difficult to be successful on a consistent basis. Living in Iowa, we are fortunate to have two flyways relatively close and are also in close proximity to farm fields, lakes, marshes etc. While the natural habitat becomes less and less abundant, we still do see a fair share of ducks and geese here in Iowa.
Like anything else in life, as you gain experience you begin to learn subtle “tips” that can ultimately make or break your success. Waterfowl hunting is no different. There are small things you can do, or don’t do that will impact your success overall and help you finish more birds in your spread on a consistent basis. I’d like to take a look at “10 Things That Can Cost You Ducks”; things we should try to avoid while in the field.
10. Lack of Scouting
You need to know what kind of activity your hunting spots are seeing on a day to day basis. If you are not scouting your locations, or other potential locations then you cannot possibly have a handle on where birds are feeding, where they are going and most importantly when are they doing these things. Scouting is one of those things that is not difficult, but requires time, effort and some gas money! It will help your success, I guarantee it.
9. Setup Early
Unless your scouting suggests otherwise, make sure that you have your spread set, blinds grassed and you are ready to hunt before the sun comes up. You are far better off waiting for shooting time than watching birds fly by as you finish setting decoys and getting your blind(s) ready. Keep in mind when hunting public locations, especially early season, that this is a must. Competition for the best public spots is typically tough earlier in the season, so the earlier the better!
8. Control Your Dog
If you are going to bring a dog it is not only polite to your fellow hunters but imperative that the dog be under control at all times and not in the way. Trying to setup a decoy spread as well as your blind(s) with a dog splashing all over the place can not only be annoying, but could potentially deter birds whether they are early flyers you may not see or birds on the water that you did not know were there. Either way, this is a disadvantage to you. Keep the dog on the truck if they are not obedient enough to be trusted on the boat and bring them out after setup is complete. This of course applies to the hunt as well. A noisy and overactive dog in the blind is not pleasant to hunt with and can in fact flare birds. If you have to leash your dog to keep them in one spot, then do so.
7. Using Motion
Using motion in your spread can be a great thing. Bringing life to a spread is a logical tactic, however I have seen them have negative effects on my hunt as well. If you suspect that your motion devices are flaring birds, turn them off (I recommend remote versions so that you can stay in the blind). Keep in mind, there are several elements to motion that can help or work against you. The light movement of your motion decoy can visually catch attention of birds, but too much motion could look un-natural and therefore deter the birds. One motion decoy can go a long way for you if implemented into your spread correctly. This is trial and error, but be ready to assess the situation and change things “on the fly” (no pun intended). Do not be afraid to use decoys only; there are times when it still works best. Early season tends to be more successful with motion. As the season progresses, pressured birds see their share of motion decoys.
6. Blind Spacing
If you are hunting out of layout blinds you will need to set up your hunting location accordingly. In a smaller group (4 or less hunters) it may be best to group your blinds close together and do a good job of not only concealing the blinds, but filling the space between each blind with native cover. Appearing as one mound rather than 4 separate mounds is likely better. In some cases this may not be ideal, each situation is different. Be conscious of the sun; try to keep your blinds away from situations where they can cast large shadows as a result of sunlight. These shadows can deter birds. Hunting in larger groups can be challenging because hiding more blinds in a field is difficult. The same concept applies to the sun and shadows, but also more blinds means more “mounds” or “bumps” in the field. Too many of these definitely make birds wary of landing or committing. If you can, bring shovels and dig your blinds into the ground; this will make your blinds have a lower profile.
5. The Sun is NOT Your Friend
Overcast skies are definitely preferred (we mention shadows above in #6), but there will be times when you have no clouds and the sun is beating down on your spread and your blind. The sun is not only responsible for casting shadows in your spread but is the best way to expose your concealment. Even small patches of your skin exposed to the sun can shine very bright and be visible to birds. Keep this in mind when grassing your blinds, as well as selecting attire. Try to avoid anything being exposed by excessive sunlight, including exposed skin, personal belongings, metal objects, etc.
4. Insufficient Concealment
#5 is a perfect segway to an even deeper explanation on poor concealment. We talked about how sunlight can expose even a good “camo-job”, but inadequate concealment is possibly one of the biggest mistakes ever made. Whether you are hunting a box blind in a lake, a boat blind, or a pit blind you need to make sure that from the outside there are no “holes” in your cover. Many hunters leave too much space open to see out of. While I understand how important your line of sight is, try to see everything from the smallest views possible. Do not have assorted personal items lying about or around the blind. This could be duffle bags, zip lock bags, food wrappers, etc. When in doubt, add some more cover! You can never go wrong with being well hidden.
3. Calling the Shot
Communication is key. Always have a person established as the “call guy”. This person will cue the shots and decide when to take the birds. This is important; mistiming shots can be the difference of missing a whole flock, or allowing birds to finish into your spread giving you as close of a shot as possible (which of course is a higher percentage shot). It is an age old debate among hunters on when to “take the ducks” (or geese). There is no set answer here; depending on your experience level, your hunting location, factors such as wind, your field or water, there may be times where the birds simply may not cooperate and you have fewer opportunities to select your shot. There are other times where giving the birds more time to work would have made a substantial difference in the success of your shot volley. The best measure in my opinion is by watching the behavior of the first couple groups of birds on that given day, and game plan accordingly!
Calling can be one of the most important elements in the success (or lack of success) of a hunt. When I say that, I am not only referring to the ability to call at a high level. Most hunters are not elite duck or goose callers, but knowing when and if you should call is a skill in and of itself. There are times where little to no calling would have allowed the birds to finish 15 yards from your blind, and yet so often we bombard the birds with excessive (and often unnatural) calling. It can take years to become a “decent” caller, but in the meantime try to learn the birds in your respective areas (this ties in with #10: Scouting).
If you know that the birds are not terribly vocal when new birds work the area, then stick with minimal sounds to be as natural as possible. I do this a lot; when a simple “cluck” will do, then that is all I do. There is no need to over-call! Assuming you have done your scouting, and have your decoys setup correctly (#1), then not being a pro-grade duck or goose caller will likely not cost you as many birds as you might think. I do need to clarify; calling is important. There are always situations where the ability to add realistic sounds to your spread and capture attention of birds is a clear advantage. For the average hunter without calling expertise, I am suggesting that less can be more and we should focus more on proper concealment and decoy usage.
1. Decoy Placement
I can only go by personal experience when I say this, but decoys are where most people go wrong on a hunt. It may be how many decoys they use, what kind of decoys they use, how they use the decoys or a general mix of all of the above. Your setting will determine most of this. What type of location are you hunting? What time of the year is it? What are you seeing when you scout? Today, we cannot always use tactics from 50 years ago. Setting decoys in very distinct patterns where all of their bodies are facing the same way is unnatural, and likely will flare more birds than it attracts.
The number one thing to do is make things look natural. How does a group of ducks look when they are in the pond? How are the geese setting up in that corn field? Try to mimic this. Do not put your decoys too close together either. It’s a “spread”, so spread them out! If a bird can see a space to land, they will not work as much, they will commit sooner. If they cannot find space, they tend to circle and work more, reducing your chances to get a shot. If your decoys are 5-6 feet apart that is fine, do not be afraid to create space (this would be fitting for full body goose decoys in a field). Try to be as natural as possible, know the wind, and rely on your scouting to replicate a very realistic group of decoys. You will see twice as many shot opportunities!
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, waterfowl hunting is difficult and rightfully so! However, if we as hunters can minimize the common mistakes that occur on any given hunt we can increase our chances of a successful hunt. When you hit the water or fields this year remember some of these tips and up your odds of connecting with more birds this year.