Over the years, waterfowl hunters have been exposed to hundreds of expert opinions and old-timer tales on how to get more ducks in the decoys. There are no radical revolutions in the world of waterfowling, unless hunters include all the battery-powered devices that fill the duck hunting catalogs nowadays. Gadgets come and go, but traditional techniques to hunt ducks are what produce — and what will continue to produce — more hunting success.
The truth of the matter is ducks are ducks. And hunters don’t quite have them completely figured out and probably never will. As my dad often says, “That is why it is called duck hunting vs. duck killing.”
Waterfowl’s dependency on food, weather and water is generally predictable, but there are plenty of days during a season where conditions appear to be perfect and the ducks are nowhere to be found. Other times, there appears to be little hope due to a bad forecast or lack of water, and the ducks show up in bunches.
Just like there are 27,437 ways to hit a golf ball straight, there are a lot of strategies to hunt ducks. Hunters can go buy every gizmo out of the newest waterfowl catalog and have some success, until the ducks get smart. Or they can get back to the proven fundamentals that will lead to more consistent results in the spirit of traditional waterfowling.
Wildlife is heavily influenced by the phases of the moon, and ducks are no different. If hunters aren’t tracking the moon and basing hunting strategies on how bright or dark the moon is, they are missing a big piece of the puzzle as to why ducks do what they do.
Typically, when the moon is near or at full and brightens the night sky, the ducks are going to eat all night and make their movements during the early morning hours well before sunrise and at or near dark in the evening. In other words, tough hunting conditions, especially for field hunters.
The place to be during a full moon is typically in the timber. Not proven by science (at least where I can find), but the duck’s tendencies lead one to believe its internal clock is all out of whack during the full moon and ducks tend to hang around their favorite loafing spot. The only thing that really motivates them to move during daylight is extreme cold temperatures and a need to eat. On the rare days ducks do move back into the fields during daylight, they tend to move mid-morning to early afternoon — not their standard modus operandi.
There are exceptions to every rule, as this “full moon, go to the timber” edict isn’t 100 percent reliable. But more times than not, field hunting during a full moon is poor. Even if the clouds cover up the moon overnight, the ducks still seem to be under some kind of spell and act very differently.
Keeping tabs on the phases of the moon can offer some bit of predictability for duck movements. Moon phase activity is not fail-proof by any means but definitely worth tracking to help with strategy. Get yourself a moon phase calendar; and if you are primarily a field hunter, knock your honey-do list out on the weekends where the full moon comes into play.
Collect Data, Study Stats
Ducks are highly unpredictable, but with a little bit of effort to build a log of days afield, hunters can identify some consistencies in waterfowl behavior and remove some of the guesswork out of picking a hunting spot. Numerous clubs and hunters track information using everything from a piece of notebook paper to sophisticated computer spreadsheets. Many more waterfowlers just wing it and put a lot of guesswork into their day-to-day strategies. Guessing what the ducks did the last time it was cloudy, 38 degrees in mid-December and with a southwest wind isn’t necessary with some simple statistical analysis.
The first step is to decide what data you want to accumulate each day. Obvious information to collect would be date, location (it could range anywhere from the general area of the hunt or detailed all the way down to the blind/hole hunted), number of hunters, water level, wind direction, temperature, moon phase and a count of birds harvested. Leave room for additional comments on the day’s hunt such as any peculiar duck behavior, what direction/location your ducks came from, change of wind/weather, etc.
There is some additional data that hunters can track along with the previously mentioned information. One helpful thing to record is, if the ducks weren’t where you hunted, where were they? Maybe they used one of your other fields or timber holes. Other data to make note of would be how many decoys you hunted over or whether you used a “robo duck” or not.
A season-to-season database of this information can serve as a backup to hunter’s intuition on where to hunt. As previously stated, what ducks do one day doesn’t mean they will do it again, but they do tend to be very habitual with consistent conditions. Being able to reference what the ducks did the last time conditions matched your next hunt might put you in the right spot with the right setup vs. staring at empty skies.
Think Small for Big Results
Duck hunting has become quite the gear game. I can’t help but chuckle at all the “stuff” one can drag to the duck blind. The number of flippy-floppy, dunking, gurgling, swimming, spinning-wing decoys on the market today is incredible. A popular waterfowl catalog website has more than 50 “motion” decoys available for sale.
I am all for advancements in technology, but the devices used to trick ducks have gotten out of control. What happened to the good ol’ days of a jerk string and some good calling?
One of the more memorable hunts from the 2009-2010 season was over a single, standard mallard drake decoy. One. Our original location that morning wasn’t where the ducks wanted to be. Mallards would give our set a look, then light on the other end of the field. After watching this for the first hour, I ventured out with one decoy in hand and set up in the area where the ducks had been working. I didn’t even entertain the idea of moving our entire spread several hundred yards while duck activity was high.
Within 15-20 minutes, I had killed a limit of four greenheads all within 30 yards of my lonesome decoy. It didn’t take long before the rest of my hunting party joined me and quickly wrapped up the hunt with four full limits.
Right time, right spot? Maybe so. But our 18 decoy spread produced nothing that morning in an open water pocket that held hundreds of mallards overnight.
Granted, this won’t work every time or even most of the time, but some days the “less is more” principle works in waterfowling. Some hunts call for a handful of decoys, limited calling and fewer hunters. Duck hunting is a very social sport, but it’s hard to drag eight buddies on a hunt and effectively hide everyone. Hunting small allows you to be more flexible and increases your ability to adapt to what the ducks like that day.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
If your duck seasons aren’t producing the results you desire, maybe it’s your ability as a duck hunter, not the ducks. The tips and techniques in this article won’t work everywhere or every day but waterfowlers must challenge themselves to learn new strategies that may lead to improved seasons.
Duck hunters must step outside their base skillset and expand their knowledge of the game they chase and the methods to go about hunting them. Hunters aren’t going to achieve that by flipping a switch on the latest fad decoy. Challenge yourself to educate, enhance and adapt your proficiency as a waterfowler. The result will be a more rewarding and successful duck season.
Brent Birch began duck hunting at age 8 in the White River Bottoms near Crockett’s Bluff and has spent the last 25-plus years chasing ducks and geese on Hildebrand’s farm at Geridge, Ark. For a day job, Brent serves a dual role with Arkansas Business Publishing Group as chief information officer and director of its Web development division, FLEX360.