After 30-plus years of waterfowling, I’d like to think I’ve got this duck hunting game figured out.
The scouting, the placing of a duck decoy spread, the calling, the shooting, the retrieve of a loyal Lab and even the cooking.
But the truth is, every single duck season, there are a number of blunders that I make in the field, critical mistakes – duck hunting sins, if you will – that short circuit the opportunities I have to be successful.
As it turns out, I’m apparently not alone in my weekend-warrior mistakes, something a few conversations have revealed.
And with that thought, here are five duck hunting sins I’m seeking to avoid making in upcoming seasons. And so should you.
First, don’t give the ducks something bad to look at, something that they shouldn’t be seeing. And much of the time, that’s you.
“One of the common mistakes that we see is people setting up their blinds in the lane of the kill hole,” said Joel Yeldell, pro-staff member of Tanglefree Decoys and Sitka Gear camouflage wear.
“Essentially, you want to be offset just a little bit. That way, when birds are finishing and coming in, you’re offset to one side or another (so) that their focus is finishing in your hole and not the big coffin shaped blind or whatever kind of blind you’re in. You don’t want that (blind) where they are trying to get (to).”
Keep in mind there are other ways to do this, from inadequately camouflaging your blind, wearing a camouflage pattern that doesn’t match the surroundings, moving in the blind as ducks fly overhead, and of course, not covering up your face and hands with some sort of camo netting, face paint and/or gloves.
A second major mistake that can stop a hunter’s chances of bagging a limit of ducks is to make a major calling blunder. In this case, we’re not talking about calling too much or too little, but instead, about calling to the wrong ducks.
“When it comes to reading and calling ducks, everybody makes the same mistakes,” said RNT-V co-host Jim “Jimbo” Ronquest. “Whether you hunt every day like we do or only on the weekends, everybody makes this mistake including me. In fact, I do it a lot.”
What is that calling mistake? Well, the easy answer is overcalling to pressured ducks. Or maybe even not calling enough to ducks on the move. But in Ronquest’s mind, it’s something else.
“You want to be sure that you watch (and call to) the front end of a bunch of ducks and not the back end,” laughs Ronquest, a longtime Sportsman Channel personality, the 2006 world duck calling champ and a key figure of the RNT Duck Calls team in Stuttgart, Ark.
“This is probably the biggest mistake people make,” he adds. “It’s not as hard to do in an open marsh, over a reservoir or near a rice field. But it is harder to do in the woods, keeping up with the front of a bunch of ducks.”
Ronquest explains that hunters want to focus on the front end of a group of ducks because they are the ones, in essence, leading the pack. In other words, where the front ducks go, the backend ducks are sure to follow.
“Sometimes, calling at ducks in the back end of a bunch might work and a few might fall in to your spread,” he said. “And maybe that will cause the front end of the bunch to come back to them.”
But not often.
“When I’m calling, I don’t worry about those ducks directly overhead,” said Ronquest. “I want to pay particularly close attention to the ducks that are out in front. The ones that are overhead, most of the time, they are the following buddies (and not the leaders).”
A third mistake duck hunters need to avoid making is not mastering the art of concealment.
“As a general rule, we don’t hide very well as duck hunters,” said Ronquest. “I’m (dang) near 300 pounds, but I think I’m all but invisible when I’m standing out in flooded timber next to a tree calling at ducks.
“But if I take a look over at you in those same woods, I’m liable to tell you to put your head behind that tree,” he added with a chuckle.
In Ronquest’s mind, concealment can mean a lot of different things, from making sure someone’s face is hid to insuring a dog doesn’t flare ducks and that blinds have adequate camouflage.
But whatever it all means, he knows not being hidden is one of waterfowling’s biggest mistakes, one all hunters – television pros and weekend warriors – must all work to overcome.
A fourth mistake duck hunters make is not setting out their decoy spread properly, particularly when it comes to thinking about where and how you want ducks to finish.
“Even as veteran hunters, sometimes, we forget about how the wind affects decoys and how ducks come to them,” said Ronquest. “So you always want to keep that in mind when you’re setting your spread out.”
While Jimbo doesn’t discount hunters using tried-and-true patterns – the J-pattern, the X-pattern, the Y-pattern, and so on – he says there is something even more important for a duck hunter to keep in mind when he opens up a sack of decoys.
“Those patterns are all great, but the main thing is that you want to put the decoys where you don’t want ducks to land and you want to leave your openings in spots where you do want them to land.”
In a similar line of thought, Ronquest says hunters need to give thought as to the flight pattern their decoy spread might force ducks into taking.
“On that final pass, you want them down low settling into that opening,” he said. “But if they’ve got to cross those decoys to get there, they’ll probably shift off. You don’t want to make them cross the decoys. Why? Because they want to light towards the decoys, not necessarily directly over and into them.”
A fifth and final sin many duck hunters commit is to not have a way to liven up a duck decoy spread. So says my pal and longtime Texas duck hunting guide J.J. Kent, owner and operator of Kent Outdoors guide service along with the Buck and Duck Lodge.
“In my opinion, one of the worst things you can have is that flat, glassy look to your spread with no motion at all,” said Kent. “It’s almost the kiss of death to your spread.”
Kent combats this in two different ways. First, he is a big believer in using motion decoys, especially earlier in the season.
“Especially early on in the migration through the southern Great Plains, Mojo decoys are a very important ingredient in my spread,” said Kent.
“I want the ducks to see wings flashing in my decoy spread,” he added. “They are migrating, they are headed south for the Texas Gulf Coast, and they are looking for other groups of birds that have stopped for a bit and are staging somewhere.
“So I want motion decoys in my spread to catch their attention as they migrate and hopefully encourage them to swing by and stop for a spell.”
In similar fashion, Kent – the Mossy Oak pro staff manager in North Texas – is adamant about employing some sort of method to bring ripples to the water’s surface on calm, still mornings.
Whether that is an old-fashioned jerk-decoy rig, a splashing- or quivering-duck butt or even a swimming decoy like the Real DeCOY made near Kent’s Pottsboro, Texas, home, you’re more likely to find Kent without a duck call than you are one of these specialty decoy products.
“Whatever you have to use, it can help on those still mornings,” said Kent, a Plano Synergy pro-staff member. “Every hunt is different and you don’t always want to do the same thing.
“But, I always want to have these tools available so that I can adjust, take in, take out and do something different to get the ducks to swing by.”
Avoid committing these five duck hunting blunders each fall and winter and hopefully, you can do the same … get the ducks to swing on by.
Then all that’s remaining to do is to shoot properly. But that’s a whole other story, a lengthy one best left to another time and place.
Because frankly, there’s enough here to keep most of us busy for quite a while.
Especially as the alarm clock gets set for another dark-thirty trip to the duck blind, where hopefully, this time I’ll be a duck hunting saint rather than a muddy backwater waterfowling sinner.