Get your ducks in a row

John Pollmann
About the author: John Pollmann is an award-winning freelance writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.

Every waterfowl hunter likely has a season similar to the one I experienced last fall. In a nutshell, it wasn’t good, but I’m determined to see that this year is different.

What follows is a personal game plan to get my waterfowl season back on track this year, but these five tips will work just as well for anyone looking to have a successful fall with plenty of ducks and geese over the decoys.

1. Scouting

The single biggest factor in putting together a successful day of decoying ducks and geese is scouting, and because of the time and effort involved, it is also one of the more difficult aspects of the hunt. However, it absolutely pays to get an early start on scouting, which can save a hunter time down the road.

This summer I’ve already started inspecting precipitation maps to get an idea of areas I typically hunt that have received significant rainfall amounts, which can lead to those flooded low-lying areas that waterfowl love. These maps can also shed light on certain areas that have held ample water throughout the spring and summer — places where nesting birds likely enjoyed good success.

The weeks leading up to the season’s opening bell are also a good time to reconnect with landowners, if a hunter hasn’t done so already. Before the ink is dry on this issue of Outdoor Forum, I’ll have touched base with a few more landowners — some old friends, and hopefully some new friends — about conditions in their areas. Based on first-hand experience, these farmers and ranchers appreciate when hunters make the extra effort to show up throughout the year and not just on a Friday night during harvest season to ask for permission to hunt the next morning.

Once the season starts, scouting, in large part, becomes a game of watching the weather and following the food. Hunting pressure, too, plays a role in where waterfowl will be found. Outside of hitting the road and taking a look in person, a hunter can utilize online migration updates and weather maps, as well as observations from friends and landowners to stay abreast of bird numbers and day-to-day patterns of behavior.

2. Dog work

My young yellow Lab, Buddy, got in his fair share of pheasant hunting last year, but he will be experiencing his first season of duck and goose hunting this fall. His behavior in the blind and success at finding and retrieving birds is a top priority for me.

To this end, I’m including as many aspects of a real hunting experience into his training regimen, including introducing him to his stand and blind, decoys, and other gear that he will likely encounter. There will be enough distractions for him in the field as it is, so letting him get acquainted with as much “stuff” as I can now will hopefully help eliminate some of the confusion this fall when it matters.

Much like scouting, the work to get my dog in hunting shape has already begun, which is extremely important. As one veterinarian friend of mine warned, “We expect these dogs to go from couch-potatoes to world-class athletes overnight. This isn’t practical, and it definitely isn’t safe for the dog. Hunting dogs love what they do to the point that they will literally run themselves to death.”

In the weeks remaining before the start of the season, I’ll continue to work with my dog by running and swimming so that he is in top physical condition and ready to perform this fall. All of the time spent training and exercising through the spring and summer months will be worth every minute when I watch him make his first retrieve this fall.

3. Gear up

Even more important than buying one of the newest gadgets available in the waterfowl hunting catalogs is making sure that the gear I already have at home is in proper running order, including the larger items that get pulled behind my truck. When it comes to trailers and boats, surprises are not a good thing.

Prior to the season it is always smart to check lights, wiring, brakes, tires — including the spare — and bearings on trailers. Boat motors are also an item that benefit from some preventive maintenance before, and not during, the season.

These preseason gear preparations extend to other areas, too: decoys need to be cleaned and have their lines and weights inspected; shotgun shells and after-market chokes need to be run through their paces to inspect patterns; waterfowl clothing should be pulled from storage and aired out; and waders should be inspected for leaks.

Speaking of waders, I do need a new pair, so I’ll be “forced” to inspect the new gear available to waterfowl hunters just a bit.

Whether maintaining old or buying new, readying each and every piece of gear for the season can be nearly as much fun as the actual hunts, and it helps keep a hunter’s head in the game.

4. Calling

I don’t practice duck calling as much as I used to, and that’s a bad thing. The good news is that there are only a few sounds that I need to focus on in the coming weeks so that they are ready to use on opening day.

While a fancy feeding chuckle sounds impressive, the basic descending five-note greeting call is the one call I need to be comfortable with. If I can blow that call at the drop of the hat, it becomes fairly easy to add modifications to meet just about any hunting situation: add volume for a hail call, add speed for a come-back call, soften it for working birds up close, or draw it down to just a single “quack” for confidence or a lonesome-hen type of call. If I can blow a greeting call, I can put more ducks in the decoys.

The basics are fine for goose calling, too. A caller that is comfortable producing the low-to-high honk and shortened cluck of a Canada goose on a short-reed call can then transition to other sounds by varying the speed of air and adjusting the back-pressure created with his hands.

5. Try something new

Lastly, I know that if I really am going to shrug off the disappointment of last season, I’ll need to do a few things differently. This includes trying new methods of hunting.

For nearly 20 years I’ve focused a lot of energy on hunting ducks and geese over decoys in dry field situations, but this often requires more scouting and landing permission from a landowner, not to mention the time and effort it takes to set up a large spread of field decoys.

By contrast, hunting over water can frequently take place on public ground. Water hunts require different gear, but most of those items are already in my possession. Plus, there are few things better than decoying both ducks and geese over a spread of decoys on the water.

This year will also be a time when I explore new areas that are a little closer to home. Hopefully my preseason scouting trips into these areas will produce positive results in terms of both public- and private-land options for hunts in October and November.

And I also know that I need to revise my expectations for the season. I’ve become spoiled over the years, having enjoyed a lot of hunts that ended with a strap full of greenheads or a tailgate stacked with Canada geese. Knowing that I might instead come home with a brace of gadwall and blue-winged teal — or maybe nothing at all — won’t be enough to keep me from putting in the time to scout and hunt.

As waterfowl hunters, we’re only given so many seasons to watch the sun rise over the decoys; we should make the most of every one of them. And that’s exactly what I plan on doing this year.

Off-season training that ensures retrievers both young and old are accustomed to all the distractions associated with waterfowling — dog blinds, decoys, stands, etc. — goes a long way to increasing their focus in the field come fall.
Knowing exactly how your gun patterns with stock and after-market chokes will give you confidence to make ethical shots come fall. Unfortunately, patterning is a necessary off-season step that often gets overlooked by many waterfowl hunters. Photo by John Pollmann
A caller that’s confident will put more ducks and geese in the spread. For ducks, mastering the basic five-note greeting call is a must. For Canada geese, a good starting point is using a short-reed call to make the basic low-to-high honk and a shortened cluck.
get your ducks in a row