Your opening-day countdown for beating the crowds and limiting out
National surveys show that waterfowl hunter numbers are declining, but it sure won’t seem that way on opening morning in most public duck marshes around the country. You can expect a busy boat ramp, vie for the best spots, lots of bad calling, and, yeah, some sky-busting.
Opening day antics (unfortunately, even the sky-busting) are part of America’s waterfowling DNA, and a marsh loaded with duck hunters is a great celebration of the sport. But the extra hunting pressure can make for challenging conditions that require a different set of tactics if you want to actually shoot ducks.
So, here’s a game plan for the weeks leading up to the opener, and those first few hours that kick off the start of our favorite season.
THREE WEEKS BEFORE OPENER:
Pick your spots
Barring a freak weather event, most of the birds you see a few weeks before the season starts will still be around for the opening day. Depending on your latitude, some teal will have migrated south, but the other local puddle ducks and geese won’t be migrating and should be easy to pattern—at least until the shooting begins.
When it comes to summer scouting, you’ve got an important decision to make: You can either choose the big, popular marshes that hold the most birds (and will host the most hunters) or you can home in on out-of-the-way spots that other hunters will overlook or are unwilling to access.
If you are a big-marsh kind of guy, you should have a couple of backup spots, just in case someone beats you there. Even if you are the first one in, it’s good to have a couple of locations on deck that are good for different wind directions. Also, try to anticipate how the birds will react once the pressure kicks in. You don’t want the ducks to have to fly over a gauntlet of other gunners to find your decoy spread.
If hunting a secluded location is more your style, start your scouting with Google Earth. Find areas off the big marshes that are inaccessible by boat and require a long slog in. Walk to those little areas and see if they hold birds. Also, look for small lakes, rivers, or marshes that aren’t considered waterfowling spots. If you see a few birds working them, you’re halfway there. If you can Google the location name and the term “duck hunting” without getting any forum or chat room entries, then you might be on to a new hotspot.
ONE DAY BEFORE OPENER:
Besides double-checking all your gear, do a quick check of your hunting spot a day or two before the season starts. No, you don’t want to tromp in there early in the morning or late in the evening when ducks are roosted. But you do want to make sure that what looked so promising weeks ago looks just as good today. Water levels can drop, fields can flood, gates can get locked, and other hunters can build blinds. A quick afternoon drive or boat ride can save you from a whole lot of early-morning panic.
HOURS BEFORE OPENER:
Rise and shine
Get to your honey hole super early (some hunters even opt to camp in the marsh) and be ready to defend your ground if other hunters try to set up too close. Last year a buddy and I got to our well-known public-land spot at 2:30 a.m. and later in the morning had to wave off two different groups of hunters who wanted to set up in the same tiny slough. A lantern or a spotlight lets other hunters know where you are from a long way off. If you have a small number of hunters and so does the other group, offer to have them hunt with you. It’s better to have them in your blind than set up 100 yards away shooting at ducks trying to land in your spread. And you might make a couple of new hunting buddies in the process.
ONE HOUR BEFORE OPENER:
Set the spread and the hide
Set your spread and put the finishing touches on your hide. Early-season puddler spreads don’t need to be too fancy. A dozen floaters, a spinning wing or two (where legal), and a few goose decoys off to the side make a killer opening-day set. If the forecast is calling for minimal wind, a jerk cord can save the day. If you have them handy, mix wood duck and teal decoys in with your mallard blocks.
The hide is usually more important than the spread. Make sure that dogs and hunters are at least partly concealed from above, not just from in front and behind. Also, consider that many opening-day cattail marshes will still be bright green, and most waterfowl camo is brown or yellow.
Enjoy the hunt
You’ve done everything you can—now it’s time to kick back and enjoy the chaos. Work birds into the decoys with light calling (don’t be that guy blasting hail calls across the marsh). If you don’t have ducks right at first light, don’t panic and don’t move. Hunting pressure will push the birds around. Hunt all day if you can. When other hunters head in for lunch, they’ll kick up loafing birds. And when everyone else comes back out for the evening shoot, they’ll do the same thing. Shoot straight and smile. It’s finally duck season.
When ducks show interest but you’re not getting shots, it’s time to change your setup
If ducks come towards your spread and then suddenly flare off in different directions, I can guarantee there’s something wrong with your hide. But when ducks approach your setup and then give you the cold shoulder, buzz by out of range, or set their wings for the wrong spot, and it happens few times—the problem is likely with your decoy spread. And the fix is a little more complicated than throwing on some more face paint.
Instead of just hoping the next flock of ducks will finish, get out there and troubleshoot the spread. Here’s how to make tweaks for the most common fly-by scenarios.
Problem 1: Ducks set their wings but are landing way far out.
A decoy spread situated too close to the hunting blind or hideout doesn’t bring ducks in to a convenient landing zone that’s well within shotgun range.
Move the decoy spread farther away, offering a gap or slot between you and the decoys that shows the next flock an inviting place to land.
Problem 2: Ducks are locked up on the spread but then land just short of shotgun range.
This problem often happens in a crosswind, when ducks approach into the wind but put their landing gear down well short of the decoys that are right in front of you.
When hunting a crosswind, move the whole decoy spread farther upwind so that ducks setting their wings into the wind for a short landing are doing so right in front of you.
Problem 3: Ducks show interest, flutter, but then flare (and your hide is perfect).
If you are certain that you and your dog are hidden well, then the most likely problem is that there’s no place in your spread for the birds to land.
Go with a pod plan. Split your decoy spread into two groups, one to either side, with an inviting gap in the middle.
Problem 4: Heads turn, the ducks take a closer look, but then the flock continues on.
This is the most vexing of all decoy spread problems. You can sit and bird-watch, or you can get creative and do something about it.
Fixing this situation is an art, not a science. But there are several concepts to consider:
A common problem is that the decoy spread is not a spread at all, but more of a knot. When hunters set up in the dark, they often end up with a tight, unnatural look. Get out there and create some breathing room. Think about repositioning the decoys in loose pairs that don’t sit in any specific pattern.
Also, try adding goose decoys. Ducks trust Canada geese, and a pair or trio of honkers in the spread will comfort suspicious ducks.
If you have a spinning-wing decoy out, turn it off. Spinners are great for getting ducks’ attention, but they can sometimes spook pressured ducks at closer ranges. If your spinner has a remote, try hitting the kill switch as soon as the ducks have seen your spread and start to work closer.
On the other hand, lack of motion can be a deal-breaker for interested ducks. A simple jerk cord will create realistic motion on a windless day.
Problem 5: Pairs and singles are avoiding you altogether.
As morning wears on, flock size shrinks until it seems that it’s just pairs and singles looking for refuge. But these ducks have been getting shot at all morning by hunters with outsize decoy spreads.
It may seem counter-intuitive to remove decoys, but doing a partial pickup and leaving out only six or seven blocks can make enough of a difference to attract straggling doubles and singles. Also, carry a couple of full-body dekes and place them really close to your blind, as part of the new set. Ducks standing around on shore are ducks that feel safe.
“It’s always better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.” We’ve all probably heard some version of this prepper mantra in recent years. Sure, these are wise words, but do we really take the message to heart? Are each of us carrying enough supplies in our backpacks and survival kits?
Although i had planned everything carefully, I ran out of 550 cord on a recent camping trip. I had just enough to do what I needed to do, but there wasn’t a single thread left over. This reminded me that there are some items we just can’t over-pack. Don’t get caught without enough of these five critical items.
An oldie but a goodie, matches are a classic fire starting method. They’re also handy for lighting lanterns, stoves, candles, and the occasional cigar. I’m a big proponent of carrying multiple fire starting methods in the outdoors (at least three methods), and matches can certainly be one of those three. Just make sure you carry enough. The average pack contains 25 to 30 matches. If conditions are damp and windy, it may take several matches to get a fire lit, leaving you with the capability to only light a few fires per pack. Matches are so small and light, there’s no reason to limit your stock on the trail. Carry at least two packs, although three or four (stashed in different pockets) would be better.
You may be an amazing hunter and forager, but you can’t have ever have enough of this resource. Food is the fuel that keeps your engine running. It’s a tricky business, balancing high-calorie value with reasonable weight, but it’s worth the effort. Carrying extra food is a like an insurance policy against going hungry. A couple days of extra food will cover your caloric needs if your outdoor stay becomes extended.
Dry clothes are a lifesaver in cold wet conditions, so carrying a spare set may make all the difference someday. Your clothing choices should be appropriate for the season and terrain, while being lightweight and compact.
4. 550 Cord
I’ve run out of cord, and you probably have too. While there are many things in nature that we can twisted into improvised cordage, these materials are not likely to be as strong as paracord and they take a lot of time to gather and prepare. At least a hundred feet of 550 cord should be included in your gear, though that’s barely enough for a bear bag line and a few lines for your rain fly. A hundred yards would serve you better, especially if you might strip some down to the core strands for snares and fishing line.
Yeah, it’s heavy. But it’s also invaluable for hunting and self-defense, among other uses. Ammunition is a modern marvel that we really don’t appreciate until we get down to the last few rounds. Bring more than you think you need, and you can always bring the leftovers home again.
Killing ducks isn’t the only reason to be in the blind on opening morning, but we can all agree it’s more fun to make shots than to miss them.
If you’re a waterfowler, i bet you’ve circled the first day of duck season in red on your calendar, the day when all those birds that have been trickling down from the far north become fair game. Only a die-hard duck hunter would burn a sick day at work to rise at four in the morning, slog through the mud, and face a bitter northwest wind in the hopes of seeing a group of wayfaring mallards cup up and drop into a decoy spread. Only a waterfowler would consider that a good way to spend a day off. In order to make the most of that precious morning, make sure your shooting form is up to snuff and that your gun is delivering optimal performance.
1. TUNE YOUR GUN AND LOADS
Rifle shooters love to tune their loads, but you will rarely hear shotgun hunters discuss details about load choice. That’s because very few shotgunners realize the value of experimenting with different loads and chokes to find what works best in their gun. The simplest way is to buy several brands of shells and pattern each one with your shotgun, a practice that not only tells you which load performs best, but also gives you an indication of your shotgun’s true point of impact. possibly more important than load choice is constriction. Instead of randomly swapping chokes in the blind in a fit of miss-induced frustration, spend a little time at the range figuring out which choke constriction works best. Experiment with aftermarket choke tubes. They cost a little bit extra, but the results are typically worth the money.
2. SHOOT DOUBLES
Every duck hunter should invest time prior to the season shooting doubles on the clays course. Why doubles specifically? Because they will help you train your brain to focus on one target at a time. If you doubt the importance of this skill, keep score the next time you’re in the blind. Invariably, when larger groups of ducks approach, the hit percentage drops. The reason for this is that hunters tend to rush shots as they shift focus from one bird to the next instead of zeroing in on a single duck and remaining with it until the end. Killing more ducks is all about being target-focused. As an added bonus, after shooting the second clay, practice following the largest chunk of it as it falls toward the ground.
3. CHANGE THE FOCAL POINT
It’s absurd to think about a whitetail hunter aiming for the center of the deer and pulling the trigger, but that’s the approach most duck hunters adopt. But you don’t aim a shotgun in the traditional sense of the word; instead, you choose a focal point that becomes, in essence, your aiming point. Shooting for the front of the bird forces you to swing harder and helps you avoid shooting behind the bird, which is the most common way to miss.
4. ESTIMATE RANGE CORRECTLY
Not all of those annoying hunters that jump up to shoot before the ducks are in range are doing so simply to beat you to the bird. Many are really terrible at judging distance. Hopefully you are not one of them. But, in your defense, judging range to ducks can be very tough. Both horizontal and vertical range must be determined, and oftentimes—especially over water—there are few visual reference points. The key? Learning the relative sizes of the birds themselves, which don’t change. This is more of an art than a science, and experience is the best education. I find that on a clear or slightly overcast day, when I can see detail on the birds, they are in range. That means identifying the colors of a wing speculum or recognizing individual primary feathers. Another trick: Place a couple decoys 25 yards from your shooting position for reference.
5. SLOW DOWN
One another big mistake that most hunters make is shooting too quickly. This means they rush their first shot, then rush subsequent shots in an effort to make up in ounces of steel shot what they lack in patience. Odds are you have more time to shoot than you think you do, so make sure that your mount and swing is smooth, remain small-target-focused, and don’t lose muzzle movement. Rushing a shot leads to missing, as the fundamentals of good shooting form are jettisoned in a misguided attempt to fill the sky with pellets.
Going for a walk in the woods? Check out these items first
Before you launch out into the wild, and you want to make sure you’ve prepared yourself. Here are ten things to do before you go.
1. Have A Plan
Don’t just head off blindly into the wilderness. Create a plan for your outdoor excursion.
2. Learn The Lay of the Land
Study a map of the location you will be exploring, and Carrying the map with you when you go (along with a compass). Bring a GPS device or having a navigation app on your phone isn’t a bad idea either.
3. Share Your Plan
Make sure that at least one responsible person knows about your outdoor plans. They need to know where you are going, parking and hiking; your mobile phone number ; which vehicle you are taking; who’s going with you; and most importantly – they need to know when will you come back. This way, if you don’t contact them or return by the appointed time – they know that you’ve run into trouble and they have the information to help.
4. Bring Your Phone
A charged mobile phone should always be part of your outdoor gear. You can call for help, and turn a potential disaster into a mere inconvenience.
5. Carry A Kit
Bring a survival kit on every outing. It should include items for shelter, fire making, signaling , water procurement, navigation, first aid, water procurement, spare outer wear and food.
6. Bring a Friend
It’s more fun to be outside with a friend, and there’s safety in numbers. Even with one hiking companion, you have someone to watch your back, render first aid or go for help.
7. Keep an Eye on the Horizon
Get the most accurate weather forecast before you head out, and keep your own watch on the weather while you are in the wilderness. A sharp change in the weather can turn a pleasant camp-out into a dangerous situation.
8. Get Some First Aid Training
Once you have some knowledge and skills with first aid, you can perform first aid anytime and anywhere – even if you don’t have many supplies to work with.
9. Practice Survival Skills Before You Need Them
Learning facts can be handy, but they are no substitute for actually experience.
10. Dress The Part
Wear appropriate clothing and outerwear: layers, wool, and synthetic are all ideal. Skip the cotton in most conditions, unless you are trying to activate your life insurance policy.