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.
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.
Training started right the moment you gathered that little ball of fur up in your arms for the first time, and it will never end. It’s a continuum of more and bigger distractions your dog must learn to ignore while executing your commands, and “finished dog” is always a relative term.
You can’t go wrong with a few basics: Rick Smith, son of legendary trainer Delmar Smith, says your dog should stop, go away from you, and come back to you when you want.
Every dog progresses at his own pace, but here are some rough guidelines to follow on your first year (or so) together.
AGE 2 to 4 MONTHS
Acquaint your buddy with people,grooming, places, doctoring, and once vaccinations are complete other friendly dogs. This is the time for housebreaking, crate training, teaching your pup to respond to his name, and the meaning of “no.” Mild exercise only—his joints’ growth plates aren’t ready for sustained running or jumping. Acquaint him with a leash and collar , but no yanking; you get more cooperation with praise than with punishment.
AGE 5 to 7 MONTHS
Obedience is the main goal, getting the dog to come when you called and yield to a leash are the first success. Brave puppies can explore the field on a check-cord, learning the windshield-wiper pattern you’ll want them to employ in the field. When your pup sits on his own, overlay the command “hup.” Start gently holding your pointer while introducing “whoa,” on a training table if you have one.
Introducing dead birds during this age window will kindle the dog’s prey drive, and if you can keep up, you might check-cord your pup into the scent cone of hard-flushing live birds. Pointers might flash point, and with a firm grip on the cord they will start learning steadiness to wing. Spaniels and retrievers that know “hup” can be encouraged to sit on flush, but this exercise is really about getting them fired up about bird contact, not performance.
Have fun times in warm, shallow water are also important, but let pup decide when to swim. Introduce gunfire, starting at a distance with cap guns and then moving to blank pistols and small-gauge shotguns, always while pup is reveling in bird contact.
AGE 8 to 11 MONTHS
Introduce the electronic training collar, only using it when you are certain he fully understands a command. Pointing instincts are becoming prominent now. Retrievers and versatile dogs should bring retrieving bumpers back, at least most of the way. If he’s been properly introduced to guns, take pup hunting for short stints. Field dogs should be patterning back and forth (check-cord attached), close for the spaniels and retrievers, at natural range for pointing breeds.
AGE 12 to 16 MONTHS
Your buddy should have most obedience commands down pat. Pointers should stand a bird until it flies. Flushers should “hup” on the flush. Learning “blind manners”—sitting in silence and still while hunters call ducks—can now be a priority for any dog expected to work the marsh. Ditto for easy marks (watching falling birds to ensure accurate retrieves).
Dog training is a lifetime of devotion, fun, effort, heartaches and headaches, and occasional triumphs for each of you. It’s a series of baby steps and quantum leaps, plateaus and regression. Even the best pup will go off the rails, so plan on frequent remedial work. But when he points his first ringneck or churns toward a downed pintail, you’ll know it was worth every minute.
Far from the skyline, the wings of 30,000 migrating fowl turn a clear blue sky with specks of black. Dots hover around a cyclone of geese that carry the mass from the wintry South Dakota landscape all the way to the stratosphere. But the problem is here: The birds are not sharing the same field with us.
Those first frustrating hours spent tucked inside a ground blind next to 1,200 decoys were the exception. The norm was wave after wave of geese that offered shots until our shoulders ached. The best part? Anyone with a shotgun and a little extra money can get in on the action.
Getting snow geese to drop in on your spread means finding the flocks and getting as many decoys as you can on the ground before they come back. You will need help if you don’t use an outfitter so bring a dog who is willing to knock on doors and spend the better part of normal sleeping hours setting up a spread that will fool birds who have seen it all.
A simple rule, spread as many decoys as you can. But no matter how you set it up, there is a good chance that the lowest flying geese will be over the area of your spread with the most movement. Battery powered bouncers are a best choice but other non- motorized moving decoys can work effectively. The point is to get movement in your spread and place your portable blinds within 10 yards. Don’t forget that birds like to land with their wings into the wind but also remember to position yourself to shoot when geese are close.
When it comes to calling, nothing can beats amplified callers although when you are laying under thousands circling geese it is hard to hear anything. Do it yourselfers need to bring as much gear as possible and plan to spend few days locating flocks of geese in fields before setting up. Land owners, especially the ones with crops are normally happy to let you hunt. This holds true all throughout the migration routes of these birds that have reached nuisance status in much of the country.
Movable lay out blinds that blend in are necessary. With thousands of eyes looking at you it won’t be too hard to flare a few hundred birds with glare from the ground. One important you should know that geese will start flying north in late winter and you’ve got to intercept them on their way.
“Geese follow the snow line, where ever that is” says Dan Hogfoss, Owner of Goosehog Outdoors. And Dan should know, for over ten years he has followed the snow goose migration from Arkansas to the Canadian border and back every year.
If you and all your friends are too lazy, a reputable outfitter like Dan is the way to go. There are many outfitters who can put you on birds when they come through their area and then there are guides who will get you in front of geese all season long no matter which state they are in. If you’re dreaming of watching the sky rain geese affordable hunts are available but buyers beware, find an outfitter who is willing and able to follow the migration from state to state and has a reputation for keeping hunters in front of birds.
Good outfitters will have a reputation in the business and have a long list of references for you to call. If you can’t find references on the websites and the outfitter can’t or won’t give you some phone numbers I suggest calling a different outfitter. While you can’t always rely on photos as accurate depictions, one thing I look for is a good number of photos on the outfitters webpage. Those photos should have one or two guides who always seem to be in the mix with different hunters.
Even in this day and age of social media and video feeds nothing can beats a phone call to the outfitter. Ask your questions, hear the voice of a real person and develop a relationship with them. This is one of the most important aspects of choosing a guide that we are losing as sportsmen and that is a huge mistake. Pick up the phone.
All good hunts start with good spreads made where birds will see them. The real advantages to a guided hunt are apparent when all the scouting is done before you get there and expensive decoys covering an acre or two of real estate are set up right where they need to be. And if you’re lucky guides will be accompanied by eager dogs.
Whether you are a die-hard do it yourselfer with one thousand white garbage bags and stakes or a willing customer to a quality outfitter, laying under thousands of honking geese is an absolute rush. If you’ve never experienced it there’s never been a better time than right now to “call”.