Lessons learned from a lifetime of hunting
An associate of mine and his hunting partner are newcomers to hunting ducks and geese, and with only fear and good judgment holding them back, they've ventured afield in western Manitoba's pothole duck country the past two seasons—replete with all the equipment necessary to outwit the wily mallard, or any of its less astute cousins. They haven't been particularly choosy, nor have they been particularly successful, and his humorous stories overflow with references to carsick dogs, hours upon hours of patiently waiting for ducks that were never to arrive, botched sneak attacks on hidden ponds, urgent cell phone orders for roboducks to be delivered to the field via Greyhound bus, and handwoven blinds that would have garnered top prize at a local arts and crafts competition.
From his stories, it's pretty clear that he and his friend have at least been having great fun learning the ups and, well, more so the downs of hunting for waterfowl—and at the end of the day, whether or not you've bagged your quarry, hunting should be nothing else if not good fun. His stories also demonstrate, however, that all the gear that money can buy will not ensure success if you don't understand some of the subtle, and at times not so subtle, aspects of waterfowling. They'd done many of the things that are fundamental to successful duck hunting, but their lack of experience rendered fruitless their best-laid plans.
There is no total substitute for experience—or, should I say, for learning from experience—but a few words to the wise from seasoned hunters never hurt. To that end, here are some helpful lessons I've learned over the years, many the hard way, and others through the mentorship of those I've had the pleasure of sharing a blind with.
The main prerequisite for a successful waterfowl hunt is a ready supply of available birds, yet too many hunters head out without first doing their homework. Homework for waterfowlers consists primarily of scouting, and as I learned back in the days when I guided for ducks and geese, effective scouting contributes 75 per cent of the value toward a successful outing.
1. If you're looking to hunt ducks or geese on the uplands, in the grain fields and other agricultural crops where some species prefer to feed, your hunt still starts on the water. At night, waterfowl roost on traditional, medium to large bodies of water, where they feel secure from predators; concentrate your spotting activities near these water bodies. Some hunters will actually park where they can watch birds lifting off the water at daybreak or in the early evening, then follow them to their feeding fields. This can be an effective tactic, though I find it more successful in the morning than in the evening, as some birds, particularly ducks, roost elsewhere during the day and don't return to their primary roosts until after dark.
2. The alternative to following the birds as they leave the roost is to simply cruise the uplands within a 20-kilometre or so radius of the roosting lake, watching both the skies for birds on their way to feeding fields and the ground for birds that may have already settled in.
3. Knowing the location of specific field crops beforehand can greatly improve the efficiency of your scouting. Whether birds in your area prefer a diet of field peas, barley, corn or any other crop, identifying the location of these crops that are in close proximity to traditional roosting wetlands before the season will significantly cut down your search time in the fall.
4. Scouting also provides a great opportunity to stop in and visit landowners before the season opener. Establishing this early relationship can go a long way to ensuring you'll receive hunting permission later on.
5. When scouting fields for feeding ducks, pay particular attention to any small potholes. Ducks will invariably land in these wetlands before feeding, and will flip in and out to water during feeding. Whenever possible, I always opt to set up on these tiny wetlands rather than in the field. Cover for blinds will typically be better, and the birds will be much more predictable. In this scenario, even wetlands small enough to shoot across will offer superb opportunities.
6. Scouting on large bodies of water follows much the same principle: locate feeding areas first, by finding vegetation such as pondweed, wild rice or other potential food plants. Look, too, for the proximity of ideal blind locations between feeding and roosting areas. These include natural points, islands or beds of emergent vegetation, such as bulrushes.
7. When the going gets tough and you can't seem to find birds in your area, stick your nose into some of the more out of the way places that waterfowl might venture to. Slow-moving broadenings in creek systems are often stacked with undisturbed birds when all else appears void.
8 Keep an eye on the weather as well. Cold fronts will typically bring new birds into an area. And when shallow ponds start to freeze up, birds will concentrate on deeper open water, such as dugouts, reservoirs and supply ponds.
Much has been written about various decoy layout patterns, so I won't expound upon the options, but a few thoughts on related variables are in order.
9. As a general rule, the more the merrier when it comes to decoys; if you've got them, put them out. I once shot over 2,000 decoys on a snow goose hunt, and it was worth the effort to place and later collect every one of them when it came to fooling these notoriously unpredictable birds.
10. Shell or full-body decoys are getting to be very expensive, so don't be afraid to throw in a few dozen silhouette decoys to fill out your spread. They're light, inexpensive and can really beef up an otherwise thin layout.
11. The exception to the more-is-better rule, in my experience, is when hunting late-season Canada geese, which become shy, having been fooled over the course of the season on more than one occasion by large, inviting spreads. In this case, I've found more success by reducing the number of decoys. In fact, I've enjoyed exceptional shoots with as few as two dozen shell decoys, when nearby hunting parties with 10 or more dozen couldn't get a sniff.
12. It's commonly believed that all of your decoys should be facing into the wind, but that's certainly not the best set-up. I normally face about 50 per cent of my spread into the wind, with the rest facing in every other conceivable direction. Watch field-feeding birds and you'll quickly realize that when they're confident and comfortable, they lose much of their order. Birds all facing in one direction are nervous, and approaching birds quickly pick up on this behaviour.
13. Remember, too, that where practical when setting up in fields, position your blind as low as possible and your decoys, or at least some of them, on adjacent higher ground.
14. In selecting decoys, don't get caught up in believing that they all have to look identical. Just as birds within a flock are of different sizes and appearances, so should your decoys. I've had much better luck with mixed spreads than with uniform ones.
15. I prefer magnum-sized decoys over standard-sized shells for both ducks and geese. I think they stand out much better thanks to their higher profiles, and thus attract the attention of flying birds more consistently.
16. And don't be afraid to mix your species within a spread, either in the field or on the water. Different species of waterfowl will regularly feed or roost together. I do recommend, however, that you generally place them in species-specific groups within the context of your larger spread.
17. Including motorized decoys in your layout has been all the rage in the last few years. There's simply no denying their effectiveness, as you'll soon discover if you ever shoot over one. If you can afford a motorized decoy, and have no personal ethical barriers to wrestle with, get one. If you can't afford one, try adding motion to your spread with kite-style decoys, windsock decoys or by flagging. Movement within your spread adds a touch of realism and helps keep the attention of approaching birds on something other than your blind.
18. Confidence decoys add a nice touch and are effective in many water set-ups. I often throw in a couple of floater goose decoys to my open-water duck spreads with good results. Other hunters I know like to use great blue heron or gull decoys. The benefits of including a completely different species in the spread became clear to me last season while on a canvasback and bluebill hunt on my favourite wetland. The action had been pretty slow when a pelican swam into our blocks. Immediately the ducks started cruising through. Surprisingly, the pelican wasn't the least bit disturbed by our shooting, and we limited out within a half-hour of its arrival. Whether I can attribute our change in fortune solely to the pelican's presence, I can't say for sure, but I have no doubt it helped our cause.
19. Finally, though I said I wouldn't touch on spread patterns, I will suggest that you mix them up a little; I believe that waterfowl, especially geese, come to recognize many of the standard field patterns that hunters tend to use. To ensure increased success, therefore, avoid perfect symmetry in your design, and vary your pattern from hunt to hunt.
There's been a dramatic evolution in blinds over the past two decades. Years ago, most of us who hunted fields had the arduous chore of digging pits. But the labour involved, coupled with increasing concerns from farmers over the danger to livestock and equipment, led to a move toward willow blinds. These continue to be effective in many situations, though I find them lacking late in the season, when birds become more blind shy. Along with willow blinds, meanwhile, came an array of homemade and commercial blinds designed to look like hay bales. Most, while somewhat effective, proved to be costly and rather cumbersome to move and assemble. Next came goose chairs, which have become increasingly comfortable—and popular with hunters. Likewise, the latest blinds to gain popularity are the low-profile or so-called coffin blinds. They're extremely effective, rising no more than a foot or two above the ground and offering great concealment. I own a couple of these blinds and seldom hunt the fields using any other kind. On more than one occasion, I've had geese on the ground so close I could honestly have reached out and grabbed them by the legs.
20. If there's a downside to individual blinds, it's related to safety: those hunting in a group must remain constantly aware of where their companions have set-up. Otherwise, the only downside to low-profile blinds is that hunters are forced to do a sit-up as they emerge to shoot, which can be problematic for some physically challenged hunters.
21. One of the advantages to individual blinds, such as goose chairs or coffin blinds, is that they can be adjusted slightly to accommodate your preferred shooting angle, whether you're right-handed or a southpaw.
22. A typical blind location has shooters facing downwind, directly in the face of approaching birds. This offers hunters the best shooting angle, with the chests of landing birds exposed.
23. When geese and ducks become blind shy, however, as they are prone to do as the season progresses, I will often set up my blind at right angles to the wind. This lessens the chances of them spotting me on final approach and, as a result, fewer birds flaring at the last instance.
24. Natural cover is always the most effective blind. Whenever possible, especially when shooting over water, I select natural cover such as rock piles, emergent vegetation or shoreline grasses for my blind location. There's just no beating the real thing.
25. Despite the best of preparations, at times the birds just won't cooperate. Don't make the mistake of sitting there watching them fly in another direction. Move! Long ago, I took a cue from pro anglers, whose patience for unproductive spots is almost non-existent. If your perfect hunt is going awry because the ducks or geese want to be somewhere else, then pick up and get underneath them. I've salvaged many hunts over the years by not allowing myself to stay put simply because I'd invested time and effort into getting set up. My hunting time is just too precious to sit tight when the birds aren't behaving as predicted.
Calling birds is a real art, and those adept at it will often bring in birds that the less proficient will never see up close.
26. There's no substitute for practice in honing your calling skills. And for guidance, I recommend you get one of the many quality instructional tapes or videos now on the market.
27. I think it's always an advantage to have more than one hunter calling; creating the impression of more than one vocal bird offers increased realism.
28. Let the birds dictate when and how often you call; if they're responding, keep it up. But remember, over-calling is much more of a problem than not calling enough. While some hunters say you should keep calling until the birds are on the ground, I stop calling once birds are locked up, wings set, and getting ready to settle among my decoys. This also allows me to be more prepared to shoot once they're within range.
29. No calling is generally better than poor calling.
30. The advantages of calling are more pronounced the farther south you go. Much of a bird's vocalizations are related to pre-breeding behaviour, and in many parts of Canada ducks and geese are not that far along in their pair-bonding during our hunting seasons. As such, they're less likely to respond to calls, and will refuse to commit if the sounds they hear aren't convincing enough.
Do everything else right but miss the shots offered and you'll still go home empty-handed.
31. Shooting is a learned skill and, as such, can be improved through practice. That means spending as much time at the range as you can during the off-season.
32. Experienced shooting instructors often suggest that gun mounting is one of the leading causes of poor shooting. Consistency can easily be developed at home through repetition; practise bringing your shotgun to your shoulder until it becomes automatic.
33. Another common factor contributing to missed shots is the failure to keep focused solely on the target. Many hunters have a tendency to think about their guns and their swings, to the detriment of their accuracy. Have you ever noticed that you're often more successful when a bird surprises you and you have almost no time to react? That's because you're focused on the bird, nothing else. Watch a bird coming in from 100 yards, however, and many hunters think too much about their mount and their anticipated lead, and miss what should have been an easy shot. Your gun mount and swing needs to be instinctive, and only practice will accomplish that.
34. Switching to a more open choke can do wonders for your shooting success. In fact, I can't remember the last time I screwed in a full choke for waterfowl. When hunting ducks over decoys, I'll generally use an improved cylinder choke, as I expect shooting ranges to be inside 30 to 35 yards. For pass shooting—when I anticipate long shots of 35 to 45 yards—or when shooting geese, I'll switch to a modified choke to tighten the pattern.
35. As for shotshells, there are many options on the market, and all can be effective if you know their ballistic properties. Books have been written about what loads are best suited for specific hunting situations, but the best advice I can give is to pick a couple of different loads, get to know their properties and effective ranges, then stick with them. You'll be more consistent if you're not continually switching loads.
36. I've lived the misery of being in the field with unreliable equipment, and have learned from those experiences. It's not much fun to sit in the blind with an inoperable shotgun because you failed to properly maintain it. Before the season begins, and periodically throughout the season, thoroughly inspect your shotgun—not to mention boats, motors and the like—to ensure that everything is in good working order. An ounce of prevention, as they say.