There are three basic methods of hunting waterfowl: hunting over decoys, jump-shooting, and pass-shooting and It should also be pointed out that there are virtually limitless numbers of variations and combinations of the three, depending on the species you’re hunting and the minute-by-minute changes in circumstances that are an integral part of waterfowling.
Hunting over decoys
Hunting ducks and geese over decoys is in some ways a much more complicated endeavor than jump-shooting or pass-shooting (described below), but, done right, it can also be very productive. Like pass-shooting, the object is to wait for birds to come to you, but unlike pass-shooting, you have a hand in enticing them to come closer than they might otherwise.
As with all hunting methods, you must first find a place to hunt; a pond, slough, field, small bay, stretch of marine shoreline or whatever it might be where your research, scouting and other information-gathering efforts would indicate that birds are likely to be found. And, like the pass-shooter, the person hunting over decoys needs to be well-concealed, so an outer layer of camouflage from head to foot is usually a must, and that outer layer should be both waterproof and warm.
You’ll also need a place to hide from the birds. Waterfowl hunters call that hiding place a blind, and it can take many forms. They come in many shapes and sizes, ready-made or do-it-yourself, temporary and easily moved or, depending on where you’re hunting, permanent and simply “dusted off” each season. You can find lots of ideas for constructing your own blind in many books or on the websites of organizations such as Ducks Unlimited. You can also find ready-made blinds at sporting goods stores and through mail-order outlets. Portable “layout” blinds resembling large, waterproof sleeping bags, are a good option for some situations, especially field hunting.
Depending on the surroundings, you may be able to fashion a very functional blind from available materials such as tree limbs, grass, cattails, or sagebrush. Be sure to “brush up” any blind with whatever natural vegetation occurs at the site you’re hunting.
Where you build or place your blind may well be as important as how it looks and how well it hides you. As a general rule it’s best to be situated with the wind at your back, since ducks and geese, like 747 pilots, prefer to land and take off into the wind. The predominate winds here in the Northwest are out of the west and southwest, so many permanent blinds are built on the west or southwest shorelines of our lakes and ponds.
Locating your blind so that the wind is blowing right-to-left or left-to-right (crosswind) is also a good option, because approaching ducks aren’t as likely to look beyond the decoys and be alarmed by something they see in or around the blind. Hunting from a blind with the wind in your face is the worst option because most ducks will come in from behind you, allowing for the shortest reaction time. Sometimes, though, you simply have to build or place your blind where it blends in best, and take your chances on wind direction.
Some hunters, especially those who hunt geese on open fields and those who hunt ducks on large bodies of water, may use dozens, even hundreds of decoys to help draw birds into shooting range, but for starters you can get by just fine with a dozen mallard decoys. Most ducks seem to recognize mallards, even fake mallards, and will feel safe landing among them. In fact, geese will sometimes be drawn in by mallard decoys. The fact of the matter is that, if your decoys look real and are where the ducks might want to be, it doesn’t matter whether you’re using a dozen mallard imitations or five dozen decoys representing every waterfowl species found in this part of the country.
For duck hunters - and some goose-hunting situations - where you place your decoys is usually going to make more difference than how many or what kind of decoys you put out. First and foremost, your decoys must be visible from the air, so place them out in the open where they can be seen from as far away as possible. A dozen decoys crowded three feet apart into one corner of a 50-acre field will probably go unnoticed by passing birds, as will decoys lined up tight to the edge of a cattail patch or placed under overhanging trees and brush on one side of a small pond.
There are nearly as many opinions on the “right” way to lay out a spread of decoys as there are duck and goose hunters, but there are some general rules on which most hunters agree, and one of those rules is that there should be a an open spot, or hole, among the decoys where there’s room for incoming birds to land, or attempt to land. Placing decoys in a “C” or a “J” formation, with the open side facing downwind is one way to do it. Some hunters place three or four clumps of two or three decoys each to the right in front of the blind and three or four clumps to the left, leaving a large are of open water in the middle, straight out in front of the blind.
As mentioned earlier, big-water hunters gunning for sea ducks and other diving species may use 100 or more decoys, and many of them like the parallel strings or in a J pattern of decoy presentation. Unlike puddle-duck hunters, whose decoys each have a separate anchor line and weight, big-water duck hunters may string dozens of decoys on one line, so that it doesn’t take hours to deploy and retrieve the decoys at the start and end of the day.
If your blind is on a slough, small stream or side channel off a river, try blocking the entire channel you’re hunting with decoys. Flights of ducks on the main river often turn into the smaller feeder sloughs and channels when they see the decoys. If the channel is completely cut off, they’ll often drop right in on the first pass. Place a few singles, pairs and smaller groups of decoys downstream, along the edges of the channel, creating pinch points to funnel landing ducks toward your blind.
As the name implies, this method involves walking, crawling, running or, in some cases, paddling or rowing, to within shooting range of birds that are on the water or on the ground and flushing, or “jumping” them into the air. In other words, you’re stalking your birds, not waiting for them to come to you. How you go about stalking them, of course, is determined by the situation. Jump-shooting puddle ducks along a weedy slough or series of small ponds may be a matter of sneaking quietly from one cattail patch to another and shooting at singles or pairs of birds that rise within shooting range.
Jump-shooting a flock of 150 Canada geese on a recently harvested corn field, on the other hand, may require a 45-minute belly-crawl through 100 yards of mud and cow manure—and lots of luck—to get close enough for a shot. If those geese wander too close to an open hillside and a hunter can get to the back side of the hill without being spotted, the best strategy may be to charge over the hill like some kind of wader-clad sprinter to shorten the shooting distance before the surprised birds are out of range.
As all three scenarios illustrate, jump-shooting isn’t a simple matter of slogging along and shooting birds that happen to appear in front of you. Successful jump-shooting requires a certain amount of reconnaissance, strategy and stealth. Scout the areas you plan to hunt, wear camouflage clothing and facemask or face paint, move slowly and quietly, always be looking and listening as far ahead as possible, use the wind, weather and available cover to your advantage, and always assume that there are birds behind the next clump of cattails or around the next bend in the stream, so you’re ready to shoot when the time comes.
Rather than going to where the birds are resting or feeding and rooting ‘em out, pass-shooters find a spot where they think ducks or geese will pass by, then hunker down and wait for the birds to come to them, hoping their path will bring them within shooting range. The key, of course, is to put yourself in the right place at the right time, or your pass-shooting efforts could lead to some very long and very boring days.
Luckily for hunters, though, ducks and geese are creatures of habit, and they tend to follow the same routine from day to day, season to season, year to year. That includes using the same travel routes between the places they roost at night and the places they feed during the day. The pass-shooters’ primary challenge is to learn where those travel routes are and then to locate ambush points along the way. In some cases, the research has already been done, as there are well-known pass-shooting spots scattered throughout some of our prime duck-hunting and especially goose-hunting areas.
Those traditional pass-shooting spots, however, tend to be pretty popular, and sometimes pretty crowded, so you may want to find a few of your own. Start by figuring out where birds feed, where they rest, and what the routes might be between those areas. In some cases the feeding areas and roosting areas may be only a short distance apart, such as a large lake and a farm field a mile away. In other cases, the travel route may cover 10 miles of rolling hills between the Columbia River and distant corn or wheat fields. Locate a hill they pass over, a point they pass by or a narrow valley they fly through on the way and you’re in business. On the more wide-open east side of the state you might be able to find a high point and scan the countryside for signs of low-flying birds in the distance, then zero in on those places that seem to be used frequently.
While the jump-shooter may kick up birds throughout the entire day, most of the action for pass-shooters is going to occur early in the day, when ducks and geese are traveling from roosting areas to feeding areas, and late in the day, when they’re returning to their roosting spots. Put bluntly, that means be in position by the start of legal hunting hours and/or stay there until sunset. And, as you would in any waterfowl hunting, try to be invisible to the birds. Wear camouflage clothing, facemask or paint and gloves. If there are rocks, bushes or trees nearby, get behind them or at least position yourself so that they break up your silhouette. Even better, build a small blind from limbs, brush and other natural materials or bring along a portable blind. Make sure that you are not taking long shots and shooting beyond the effective range of your shotgun and ammunition combination, so you are able to drop birds within easy retrieval range.
Duck and goose calls
There’s a duck or goose call for virtually every species and hunting situation you might encounter, but do some research before you buy one and do lots of practicing after you buy it. Someone who knows how to use a duck or goose call can work miracles when it comes to drawing birds into shooting range. A bad caller, on the other hand, can chase them off even faster.
Calls can be a very effective tool for the duck or goose hunter, but learn to use them BEFORE you take to the field. Follow the manufacturer’s directions and attend a calling seminar at a local sporting goods store or hunting club. A number of audio and video CDs provide very good instruction on calling all species of waterfowl; have your call ready and practice along with it. Listening to birds on a roost or feeding area and imitating them is a good way to practice your calls, even if you are not hunting. Even after you master the basics, use a call sparingly; over-calling is more likely to chase birds away than under-calling. Here are a few selected pointers (paraphrased) from Ducks Unlimited’s 10 tips for duck callers:
- As long as the ducks are coming in, stop calling.
- When targeting particular species, use calls intended for those species. (In other words, don’t depend totally on the standard mallard call.)
- If two or more people are calling, one should be the leader while others fill in. Don’t compete with your own hunting partners.
- If what you’re doing isn’t working, make a change of some kind. The birds obviously aren’t buying what you’re trying to sell.