Call me a slow learner. I began hunting waterfowl about 25 years ago, and while I was learning the ropes, I was also buying the company line: more decoys were better than less decoys, more calling was better than less calling, duck hunting was always better in lousy weather, and so on.
Much of what I’d heard or read was more or less true … but only some of the time. The rest of the time things just didn’t pan out. It took me a while, but I eventually learned the “rules” that were made to be broken, and the tried-and-true techniques that don’t always work. Along with the rules, I figured out some solutions that might work when the “rules” don’t.
Myth No. 1: More decoys are better than fewer decoys
There’s some truth here. Although the sale of waterfowl licenses has probably declined over the past few decades (along with the sale of hunting licenses in general), access to duck hunting honey-holes has declined even more. That means more duck hunters are hunting on less available land, and that means our wary American mallard has become accustomed to standardized spreads of two-to-three dozen plastic blocks per blind. These ducks have become understandably reluctant to commit to anything that looks like everything else they’ve seen since the start of the duck hunting season.
Hunters are an ingenious lot, and through the years one of the ways we’ve learned to sucker decoy-shy ducks is by using even more decoys. Duck hunters haven’t gone to the extreme goose hunters have (yet), but spreads of five or six dozen blocks aren’t unusual, the theory being that the birds will see the huge spread and figure there’s safety in numbers.
Other solutions include using motion decoys or mixing in different types of decoys—adding teal, widgeon or pintail blocks for variety. I used to add a pair of Canada goose decoys to my mallard blocks and even tried a great blue heron decoy for a few years, hoping
to put decoy-shy mallards at ease. Sometimes it worked—at least I think it did—but even when it didn’t, doing something made me feel better.
Rarely, though, do hunters ever consider using fewer decoys. But think about it: If your goal is to present a spread to incoming birds that’s out of the ordinary, fewer decoys might be just the ticket. Most mallard hunting takes place on small bodies of water or on the backwaters of reservoirs, and if you’ve got your decoys in a place the birds want to be, it doesn’t take a lot of blocks to get them to commit.
Notice I said putting your decoys in a place the birds want to be. This is crucial. If you’ve found a spot the birds are already using, a dozen decoys (even a half-dozen) might be all you need. If you put your spread in a place the birds haven’t been using, on the other hand, six dozen decoys might not be enough.
Myth No. 2: Good calling is critical
Let’s put it this way: Good calling is a plus, but it’s rarely critical. I’ve never hunted mallards in a place like Stuttgart, Arkansas, where superb calling is de rigueur and the local mallards are serenaded by the best callers in the country. But I’ve hunted plenty of public hunting areas and called in my share of ducks, despite my admittedly mediocre ability with a duck call.
Sure, knowing all the different call variations is well and good, but you really need only one or two calls to bring in most of the ducks most of the time: a hail call and a single quack. Feeding chuckles, come-back calls and all the others are worth learning, but not essential.
The secret to effective calling is good timing. Hit distant mallards with a hard, long hail call, and if they turn, wait for them to come closer before hitting them again. Tone down the volume of your call and watch the birds. When they start swinging over your decoys, hit them with a single quack or a soft hail call as they turn away from you.
If that doesn’t work, then try not calling at all. Especially in hard-hit public areas, ducks might become leery of calling, no matter how well-executed it is, and sometimes the best approach is to put the call in your pocket and let your decoys do the talking.
Myth No. 3: Your camo has to be perfect
Once upon a time duck hunters didn’t have camouflage clothing. Instead, they put on their ubiquitous tan canvas jackets and called it good. Amazingly enough, the ducks didn’t seem to mind. Today, not wearing camouflage in a duck blind is like not wearing a Hawaiian shirt at a luau.
In any event, I’m not suggesting your forego camouflage, although you’d probably do just fine in the canvas jacket your grandfather wore. Instead, worry about how you hide, not what you’re wearing.
Movement is what scares ducks, not improper clothing. When you build your blind, make sure you have enough vegetation behind you to break up your outline. Then stay still. When the birds come in, resist the temptation to jerk your head around as they swing over your decoys. Mallards are amazingly adept at spotting shining white faces as they peer up from below. I’ve spotted other hunters several hundred yards away when they peered up at incoming ducks, and you can bet the ducks could see them if I could. Camo face nets or even camo paint like bowhunters use will certainly hide your face, but keeping your head down and under the bill of your hat works just about as well. Surprisingly enough, the no-movement rule doesn’t seem to apply to dogs. I once had a springer that would romp around in front of the blind when birds were coming in, none of which seemed to mind. I’ve even had mallards try to land in my decoys while he was retrieving ducks I’d shot. Go figure.
If possible, I arrive at the spot I plan to hunt in plenty of time to build a good blind. For years I’ve carried a roll of camo netting, which I string between tree limbs or willows. Then I brush it up a little to break its outline. Critical to a good blind, for me at least, is having a comfortable place to sit. I gave up squatting in the mud many years ago, about the time I had my first knee operation. Instead, I carry a folding stool. If I’m comfortable, I won’t squirm around, which causes movement that spooks ducks. If I’m really in a minimalist mode, though, I’ll simply throw out my decoys and back up to a tree or bush, and then sit quietly and wait.
Myth No. 4: Hunting at the crack of dawn is always best
OK, this one’s true more often than not. But those who leave their blinds after the first flurry of activity at daybreak do so at their peril. Mallards move early and late in the day, but they also typically have mid-morning flights and occasional mid-afternoon flights. If wind or a storm is pushing the birds around, they might move all day.
I know a man who used to hunt a public reservoir in southern Iowa just as everyone else was coming in off the water. He’d pull up to the boat ramp around noon, unload his johnboat, and have a leisurely late-afternoon hunt minus the crowds of hunters that hit the place first thing every weekend morning. He shot his share of ducks, too.
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched flocks of ducks pour into marshes just before dark. Rarely are the flocks as numerous as those during a typical morning flight, but with half as many hunters to contend with, I can live with that. Hunting late isn’t a guarantee—you can still get skunked—but it’s worth trying, especially if you’re hunting a public area.
Also worth considering is hitting the morning flight … and then sticking around until mid-morning. Staying put for a few more hours can pay off. Many puddle ducks, mallards and widgeons in particular, seem to have a mini-flight somewhere between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. They’ve been out in the fields feeding since daybreak and are now anxious for a drink of water and an afternoon of loafing with their quacker buddies. Here’s something else to consider: Ducks coming in to water (as in the late morning and late afternoon) are sometimes easier to call than ducks leaving water to feed (as they usually do at daybreak).
Myth No. 5: Cold fronts always bring in new ducks
Boy, do I wish Myth No. 5 were true. But counting on a cold front to push in new birds by such-and-such a date is almost always an iffy proposition. In the big picture, bad weather does move birds south, one storm at a time. The problem is that the ducks have their own ideas about what constitutes weather bad enough to move. Like people in a bar that serves free chicken wings, they’ll stick around where they’re comfortable and well fed until they’re forced to leave.
I spent years trying to juxtapose incoming flights and the weather with decidedly mixed results. Sometimes I’d hit it just right and have great shooting. Far more often, though, the flights I assumed would be coming never materialized.
Instead, if you really want to know when the birds are coming (or have already arrived), forget the weather channel and hop in your car and go scouting. I’ve seen reservoirs devoid of ducks one day and chock-full of greenheads the next with no discernable change in the weather. There’s a lake a few miles from my house that’s conveniently located next to an interstate; I can check on local duck populations just by driving by at 70 mph. Sometimes storms move ducks into that lake, and sometimes they don’t. Again, if there’s a pattern there, I must be missing it. The birds are there when they’re there and not there when they’re not.
The myths I’ve outlined became accepted dogma for a reason—there’s some truth to all of them. But relying on conventional wisdom to the exclusion of creative thinking and old-fashioned sweat equity can hurt you. If the “rules” aren’t working, try something else. What have you got to lose?