Lessons Learned by a Beginner Waterfowler

By Michael Cravens

Seven flocked-up mallards glided over our heads and out of sight behind us. My two companions and I squatted in our blind, eyes glued to the sky.

“They’ll come back around,” my friend whispered. The other blew a few more times on his mouth call. Me, the beginner in the group, just held still, absorbing every last shred of information I could from my experienced hosts. They were right, the birds did come back around. This time, we could identify that there were four hens and three drakes. Again, they passed out of sight behind us.

“Only take the greenheads,” my mentor told me. Moments later, the mallards came around again, wings cupped and feet down. Just before they reached the water’s surface, I heard a shout.

“Take’em!” After a flurry of action punctuated by shotgun blasts, four hen mallards flew off, leaving three green-headed drakes floating on the marsh.

Admittedly, my education in waterfowl hunting has been brief: just two seasons. I’m far from being in a position to teach others. With that said, I have been fortunate to spend these seasons hunting amongst some exceptional and very serious waterfowl hunters. Spending time with hunters of this caliber has taught me more in two seasons than I could’ve learned in ten going at it alone. Therefore, it would be nothing short of selfish of me not to share at least a little of what I’ve learned with other beginner waterfowlers. So, let’s have a look at just a few of the bigger picture items I’ve picked up.

Scouting 

All types of hunters benefit from scouting. For most, the term usually conjures up mental images of a big game hunter. For me, though, I will forever associate the term with waterfowl hunters. For serious waterfowlers, scouting is a year-round endeavor that never ends. There are migration routes, food sources, roosts and loafing areas, there are storms and other weather events that dictate when and where birds move, and wind direction and cover will dictate the best place to make you hide. The depth and amount of real time knowledge someone needs to be an effective waterfowl hunter is intimidating at best. Fortunately, though, the real fun is in the process.

Identification 

Being an ethical hunter means understanding and abiding by wildlife laws. You’re not out there hunting just one species of duck. On most hunts, you’ll encounter several species. Wildlife laws need to be constructed for the best management practices for individual species. This can make things a little difficult if you struggle with identifying your birds. For instance, here in Arizona, we are allowed a limit of seven ducks. Only one can be a pintail, only two can be female mallards, etc. Combine this with juvenile, adult, seasonal, and sexually dimorphic plumages; things can get complicated. Despite all this, it is your responsibility as an ethical hunter to do your homework and learn to properly identify your birds.

Birds are tough

Not every kill will be a clean kill.  Fortunately, there are several things you can do to help alleviate this. First, let the birds work. Don’t go blasting away at them when they are flying fast and high. Allow them to circle and commit to the decoys. While taking shots at birds that are at the limit of your shotgun’s range can be tempting, it rarely results in a clean kill and has high potential for injury and loss.

High quality and heavy hitting loads can also help here. While inexpensive steel loads can get you by in the dove fields, ducks and geese need something that packs a bigger punch. A little extra spent on high brass bismuth or tungsten loads is money well spent and will result in less crippled and lost birds.

Finally, mark your birds. That is, when a shot bird falls to the ground or water, mentally mark the location and be ready for a follow up shot if necessary. A hit bird can seemingly drop from the sky completely lifeless, only to get up and fly, swim, or dive to make an escape that only results in a lost bird that will perish later on.

It’s a team effort

Most of the hunting I do is a solo endeavor. Solitude is one of the things I dearly love about hunting, time spent alone in the mountains with only my thoughts and the silence. Waterfowl hunting can certainly be done alone but, even then, it’s a relatively noisy event with lots of calling. More times than not, it’s an experience shared with others. This type of hunting, while different than what I’m used to, is something I’ve grown to love. Sharing a thermos of hot coffee in a cold blind at the break of day is the stuff that makes memories. 

When hunting alongside others in a confined space like a duck blind, safety should always be at the forefront of everyone’s mind. Practicing good muzzle control, staying within your shooting lane, and never releasing your firearm’s safety until you’re ready to pull the trigger are disciplines that must be followed at all times. Common courtesy is a must as well. This list is long, but it can be summed up by simply being respectful to those you’re sharing the blind with. For instance, keeping your dog under control, not shooting birds that are in someone else’s lane, etc. Courtesy is not difficult, it takes minimal effort, and its rewards are huge. Sharing a duck blind swapping stories and laughs in between the bouts of excitement that come with flocks of incoming ducks is not only the best time ever, it can form lifelong friendships. 

While serious waterfowl hunting can be a heavy lift that takes a great deal of work, time, and equipment, this should not dissuade the prospective hunter. In its simplest form, all you need is a shotgun, a call, a handful of decoys, and a ducky-looking area to hunt. With that said, waterfowl hunting, like many things in life, can become more and more rewarding with the additional effort you invest into it. And, don’t forget, the pulling of the trigger is only a small part of the experience; the real fun is in the journey that gets you there.