Follow these six easy steps to enjoy your first duck hunt this season.
By Todd Smith
Duck hunting is one of the easiest hunting sports for new shotgunners to expand into. Ample public-land hunting opportunities abound for waterfowlers and the gear you’ll need to get started is not overly expensive.
Hunting ducks is also a great way to spend some quiet time with your kids or grandkids, while introducing them to gun safety and hunting. Best of all, you can get started with just a few simple tips. Follow these six easy guidelines to start enjoying gorgeous sunrises in the blind and the thrill of whistling wings coming in to your decoys this season.
Learning to become a proficient waterfowler takes time and experience, but you can begin enjoying the fun right now. If you have a friend or someone at your local gun club who can take you out your first time or two, that’s best. They can share their knowledge and you’ll pick up a lot of tips on your first trip out.
Hiring a guide can also get you started down the waterfowling path quickly as they have years of knowledge and all the gear you’ll need. I recently spent two great days hunting ducks at Beaver Dam Lake (see sidebar) in Tunica, MS. Their full-service operation featuring experienced locals guides and top-notch accommodations is a good example of how a well-run operation can bring the excitement and tradition of duck hunting to newcomers and veteran waterfowlers alike.
The beauty of waterfowling is that it doesn’t involve a huge investment. You probably have a lot of what you need to get started right now, but here are a few of the essentials to consider.
Shotguns: While nearly every major gun manufacturer makes waterfowl-specific shotguns, the autoloader or pump you’re using for trap and skeet may be just fine for your initial outing. Either 12- or 20-gauge guns will work perfectly well for waterfowling when paired with proper loads designed for ducks and geese.
Chokes: For ducks in close over decoys using steel shot, improved cylinder (or even skeet) is ideal. For longer-range pass-shooting opportunities, you’ll want to step up to modified.
Loads: Check your state regulations, but non-toxic shot is required for waterfowl in most areas. No. 2 steel is a good all-around choice, but you should pick up several different brands/types of non-toxic shot to see what patterns best in your gun. Splitting the ammo costs with a friend or two and patterning your guns together at your local range will help all of you get off to a good start.
Decoys: A dozen decoys will easily get you started making simple spreads that will bring ducks in close. Look for close-out sales at the end of the season or pick up a set of used decoys on Craigslist to minimize costs.
Camo: A simple waterfowl parka with a hood, worn over layered clothing will block the wind, keep you dry and let you blend into surrounding cover. I used insulated bibs and a wader jacket top with a zip-out liner from Banded camo on my recent hunt and it worked really well. Given that temperatures can be at freezing in the mornings (even in southern regions), make sure you bring warm gloves and an insulated hat that covers your ears.
Waders: In the early season when temperatures are still relatively warm, hip boots or the waders you like to fish in will work fine. As temperatures grow colder, you’ll want to transition to insulated knee-highs or waders. Again, shop online for bargains.
Calls: If you book a guide, they’ll do all the calling, but you don’t need a fancy call to do it yourself. Ask your local dealer what they recommend, but choose a model that’s easy to make a few simple calls with.
Hearing protection: Don’t forget earplugs as the report of guns in an enclosed blind is greatly amplified.
While decoy spreads can become an elaborate art form, they don’t have to be. A basic “fishhook” or “J” pattern with just a dozen or two decoys is all you need in many small pothole areas or shallow warm-water sloughs, to get plenty of ducks headed your way. It’s perfect to use on days when you have a strong wind blowing consistently from one direction. (A simple “C” or “horseshoe” pattern, with the open ends of the C extending out from the shoreline, works great on days when winds are lighter.)
Put a few “feeding decoys” right in front of your blind.
Extend the foot of the fishhook out and away from the shore on the upwind side of the blind. These visible decoys will be your attractors.
Let the tail of the hook trail down and out from the shoreline to the downwind side.
Ducks will normally come in heading upwind, see your attractor decoys and hopefully set down right in the open hole created by the hooked end of the spread.
Set your blind up on the open (downwind) end of the pattern.
Figure about 30 to 40 yards from one end of the hook pattern to the other.
Try to keep the sun at your back as much as possible. This will keep the sun in the birds’ eyes to minimize their picking up your movements.
Brush in your blind and keep your movements to a minimum.
Minimize movements: Ducks are sharp-eyed. Keep movements to an absolute minimum, especially when birds are on the approach to your decoy spread. Any false movements or upturned faces that catch the sun will cause birds to flare.
Be patient: Wait for ducks to fully commit to landing before you pop up to shoot.
Know the regulations: Regulations on bag limits and what kinds of ducks you can legally harvest vary by state. A quick visit to your state’s DNR website will familiarize you with the regulations for wherever you’re hunting.
Be safe: Gun safety is always of vital importance and is critical in crowded blinds and excited conditions when ducks come in. Go over the ground rules with your party to make sure muzzles are always pointed in a safe direction and safeties are always on unless you’re shooting. Make sure everyone unloads and actions are clear before anyone ventures out to pick up downed birds.
Like any moving target, ducks require lead. The biggest mistake beginners make in shooting any moving target is that they simply stop the gun. They see the bird, they swing to the bird and then they stop.
You must keep the muzzle of the gun moving out in front of the bird and train yourself to “follow through” even after you’ve pulled the trigger. When taking passing shots on ducks, the simple acronym “butt, beak, bang” can help. Here’s how it works:
A. As the duck crosses in front of you, bring your muzzle up from behind the bird.
B. Swing through his butt and past his beak, then pull the trigger.
C. Keep the muzzle moving out ahead of the bird after you’ve fired to finish your follow-through.
I asked veteran waterfowler and Beaver Dam owner, Mike Boyd, to share what he believes are the three biggest mistakes those just getting into waterfowling need to avoid. Here’s what he had to say.
This historic hunting destination provides visitors with a taste of what duck hunting was like in the heydays of waterfowling.
Hunting at Beaver Dam Lake is like taking a step back in time. The lake, made famous through the stories of Nash Buckingham, is one of the most historic duck-hunting destinations in America. And if you book a hunt here, you’ll find the woods and waters little changed from the way they were when Buckingham and his parties paddled their way among the ancient Cypress swamps to distant blinds a hundred years ago.
Today, hunts are conducted by Beaver Dam Hunting Services. Mike Boyd and his son, Lamar, have a combined total of more than 70 years of experience guiding at Beaver Dam and their experience shows. From their comfortable lodge facilities to their amazing blinds (complete with electricity and a stove for making fresh coffee), this father/son team provides a duck-hunting experience that is second to none.
“We don’t sell duck hunts, we sell opportunities,” Mike says. As I discovered, those opportunities extend far beyond merely harvesting wildfowl. Hunting at Beaver Dam is a total experience. It’s the opportunity to glide over dark waters with the hint of dawn in the eastern sky, taking in the quiet of the marsh as you gaze up through the gnarled fingers of ancient cypress limbs to view a canopy of stars. It’s the opportunity to experience the slow rising of the sun to reveal the beauty of the marsh all around you tinged in red-and-orange brushstrokes of light. The opportunity to see two calling virtuosos work incoming ducks to perfection. And the opportunity to share a special morning with friends or family members—in a place where time still moves at the slow tempo of the changing seasons.
While the lodge comes with a fully equipped kitchen and barbecue for those who like to ply their culinary skills, two local eateries are must visits.
Blue and White Restaurant: This place dates back to the early Beaver Dam days when Buckingham and friends would stop in for mountainous breakfasts. The B&W still serves breakfast all day (biscuit and gravy fans will be in heaven here) or try the daily buffet for huge helpings of southern comfort food. And don’t miss the fried peach and apple pie for dessert.
The Hollywood Cafe: This rebuild of the original blues café, which was previously lost in a fire, was made famous by Marc Cohn in his hit, “Walking In Memphis” and is one of the many landmark establishments along the Mississippi Blues Trail. Many of the world’s most famous blues artists have played here including Howlin’ Wolf. Try the fried green tomatoes and pickles, barbeque or Cajun specialties like friend catfish and grilled shrimp.
Be sure to visit the Mississippi River Museum at nearby Tunica RiverPark. You’ll not only get one of the best views of the “Big Muddy” from atop the museum’s observation deck, but the films and displays inside tell the fascinating story of how America’s mightiest river has shaped our culture and history.