Every year millions of wild duck and geese of numerous species make their way south on their annual migrations from their summer ranges to the winter homes. During this time thousands of duck and goose hunters across both Canada and the U.S. take to the waterways, marshlands and agricultural fields in pursuit of wild waterfowl.
While the classic duck-hunting scene of a well camouflaged hunter sitting in a duck blind, blowing on a call with his trusted Labrador by his side and an expensive shotgun in his lap paints a romantic picture of the sport. Unfortunately, it may also serve to discourage the budding waterfowl hunter by offering the impression you need to spend a lot of money to get started. However, the truth is you do not need a lot of fancy and expensive gear to be a successful waterfowl hunter, and this comprehensive beginner’s guide to hunting North-American waterfowl will give you all the information you need bag your share of ducks and geese.
The two main types of ducks and three main species of geese found throughout North America. Ducks are divided into two basic groups:
Puddle, or dabbling
Puddle, or dabbling, ducks are shallow-water feeders that flock to ponds, marshes, swamps, lakeshores, slow moving creeks and rivers and transitory wetlands. Some species of puddle ducks, especially mallards and wood ducks, prefer small creeks or rivers.
Most puddle ducks, particularly pintails, mallards, and black ducks will feed eagerly in reaped agricultural fields. The habitat preferences of dabbling ducks will change with food availability. For example, mallards hatched in prairie regions readily make use of flooded woodlands during migration.
Diving ducks prefer larger bodies of water and will assemble in large flocks on lakes, rivers, bays, sloughs, reservoirs, coastal estuaries and the shorelines of the Great Lakes. Because of their preference for larger waterways, diving ducks are also often referred to as “lake” or “bay” ducks.
Diving ducks will congregate in areas where they feel safe and have preferred food choices, such as succulent vegetation, invertebrates, like mollusks, and certain fish species. For example, it is estimated that as much as 70 percent of the world’s canvasback population migrates through Pool Nine on the Mississippi River due to the large refuge where the birds aren’t disturbed and the abundance of wild celery.
Of the six species of North-American geese, the most popular species pursued by hunters are Canadian and snow geese. The six species of North American geese include:
- Canada goose
- Black Brant
- Snow goose
- Ross’s goose
- White-fronted goose
One of the main don’ts of goose hunting is don’t over call. Many hunters just blow and blow on their calls and then wonder why the geese pass then by on their way to warmer climates. Compared to ducks, most geese species are relatively subdued.
Gear and Equipment
If you want to hunt waterfowl, you must have a shotgun as using any single-projectile shell or cartridge, such as a rifle, bow or crossbows, is illegal for hunting ducks and geese in the U.S.
As a beginner, any shotgun of at least 20 gauge will get you started. However, if you plan to hunt ducks as anything more than a casual endeavor you will want to get at least a 12 gauge. Many waterfowl hunters opt for semiautos or pumps, but a double barrel will work almost as well as you are limited to having a maximum of three shells in your weapon at one time. Some hunters prefer the semiauto, but the pump-style gun is the fastest for accurate follow-up shots as the act of sliding the pump helps to bring the barrel back on target.
A shotgun that fits you poorly will help you become a bad shot quickly. The most important feature of a good waterfowl gun is the “length of pull” that, when properly fitted, will help improve your speed and the gun’s maneuverability. The “drop at comb” fit, meaning the angle of the stock to the receiver, is also important for accurate shots. A 12-gauge shotgun kicks plenty, so adding a high-quality recoil pad will help you keep shooting. There are some very good recoil pads on the market capable of absorbing 50 to 90 percent of felt recoil. On a gun with a shiny finish, use some type of camo wrap or cover the barrel and receiver.
- The best shotgun loads for waterfowl hunting are #4 or #2, with the smaller the number the larger the shot size. Depending on the material the shot is made of, #4 shot is typically plenty for duck, but geese are bigger, tougher, and harder to knock down. Lead shot is illegal for waterfowl hunting. Steel was in vogue for several years, but it has real problems with power and accuracy at ranges over 35 yards, as well as having a nasty habit of wearing out shotgun barrels and chokes. Alloy shot is now the favorite, as the softer materials, typically tungsten, iron or bismuth, will accurately reach out to ranges of 50 yards with plenty of killing power.
When the pellets, or “shot,” leave the barrel of a shotgun it begins to spread out immediately. The farther the shot travels the more it spreads out. The choke on a shotgun helps to determine how fast the shot spreads.
The choke of your shotgun acts similarly to a garden-hose spray nozzle. As the nozzle is closed the water comes out in a long and narrow stream and as the nozzle is opened the water comes out in a wider pattern. As with the spray nozzle, the more open your choke is the wider your shot pattern will be, and vice versa. The distance you are from your target will determine the type of choke you need. The five most-common choke patterns are:
- Cylinder choke is a typical unconstricted barrel, allowing the shot pattern to spread out rapidly for very close shots.
- Improved cylinder has a slightly more constriction than cylinder. This permits the shot to spread quickly and is typically used for upland game.
- Modified choke has a moderate constriction that makes the pattern more useful at longer distances of 30 to 35 yards. Modified choke is a good choice for jump shooting ducks or hunting narrow waterways, such as creeks or sloughs. There is also improved-modified choke that produces a slightly tighter pattern than modified.
- Full choke throws a tightly constricted pattern and is the common choice among waterfowl hunters. Full choke is good for shots out to 40 or 45 yards.
- Extra-full choke, sometimes called “turkey” or “goose,” choke for a very dense shot pattern for ranges of over 45 yards,
Concealment is crucial if you want to bring in the birds. While their eyesight is not quite on par with the wild turkey, waterfowl have amazing vision. You should always try to match you camo to your surroundings. There are many pattern choices for waterfowl hunting, including marsh grass and cattail patterns. However, if you don’t have the funds for a specialized waterfowl-hunting wardrobe, some of the new universal digital camo patterns will work too. When picking camo gear, remember that waterfowl hunting is typically done in the fall, so stick with muted fall colors and tones. As waterfowl can pick your shiny face up at great distances, you will need to wear a camo mask, head net or face paint. If you opt for paint, be sure you get a good camo cap.
Try to match your decoy spread to the same types of ducks you have observed during your scouting missions. While mallard decoys are easy to find, very inexpensive and are the most-hunted duck in North America, a wood duck or pintail may not land amid a spread of just mallards. A good option is to use a mix of species, with at least one hen and one drake of each species you want to hunt. While some gun-hoe hunters will set out hundreds of decoys, 12 to 24 decoys is usually enough.
While there are some very expensive decoys on the market, do not let some fast-taking salesperson sell you the most expensive set of decoys in the store. Look around and shop online and you can find a good set of a dozen decoys for well under $50. You can also look for used decoys at yard sales and online classified sites, like Craigslist. Finally, a real duck does not sit motionless on the water, so adding a just a couple of decoys that of have some sort of movement function, like swimming or moving wings, can work magic at bringing the birds in the last few yards for a good shot. Again, shop around.
The weather during waterfowl season is often just flat out nasty! While there will be nice, balmy, Indian-summer type days, these are not usually the most productive for hunting ducks and geese. Additionally, you will be wading out to set up your decoys and maybe pick up a bird every now and then, so be sure to get a good pair of insulated waders. Neoprene, the same material used to make SCUBA-diving wetsuits, has been the standard material for many years with good reason. Neoprene will keep you warm, even if the waders happen spring a leak. Don’t skimp here; buy the best pair of waders you can afford.
In addition to your hunting license, a federal waterfowl stamp is required for hunting any type of waterfowl. Additionally, many states require you to have their state stamp as well. Don’t grouse over the few extra dollars as the fees go towards preserving habitat so their will be ducks and geese for your children and grandchildren to hunt.
If hunting over water, you will need a method of retrieving your birds. Here there are basically two options: a good water dog or some type of boat. While many hunters think they have to have a dog breed such as a Labrador, golden or Chesapeake Bay retriever, the truth is any dog that is neither afraid to go in the water or fearful of gunfire can be trained to retrieve waterfowl. A good book on basic retriever training will show you how to teach the family pet how to water retrieve, however, there are two caveats. First, the dog must have the personality for it and, two, be able to tolerate cold water. Sans a willing dog, you will need a boat.
Almost any boat, from your regular fishing boat to one-man inflatable, will do for waterfowl hunting. You can use the boat to just retrieve downed birds or turn it into a floating hunting blind.
Hunting Season and Regulations
Waterfowl hunting season coincides with the birds fall migration patterns. While many species follow a schedule each year, waterfowl migration remains somewhat of a mystery. The migration schedules of some birds is so predictable they are called “calendar ducks,” arriving like clockwork in the same locations year after year. With other species its just a guessing game.
Most waterfowl undertake vast migrations every fall to warmer latitudes, where food is more plentiful. During their journey the birds make daily stops to rest and feed. However, not all species of waterfowl migrate at the same time, depending on latitude where the birds spend the summer and the specie’s own biological clock. As a result, the hunting season for different waterfowl species also varies and are set according to both state and federal law.
As President Reagan was fond of saying, “Things get real complicated real fast when the federal government gets involved.” Besides local and state laws, the hunting of all migratory birds, including waterfowl, is subject to federal regulations.
It is crucial to know your waterfowl species to keep from running afoul of the law. In most cases, there will be different bag limits for each species and the sexes of each species. Additionally, some legal birds will sometimes share the same water as protected species. Shooting the wrong bird can result in a stiff fine and even a loss of hunting privileges. Know your bird species and never take a shot if you are not 100 percent certain of what you are shooting at.
General hunting seasons throughout much of northern North America open in September. During the early part of the season you will find local birds staging for migration. Farther south, along the mid U.S. states, seasons typically open in October and November. In the “destination” states, where the birds winter, hunting season remains open through December or into January. The federal government maintains very tight control on waterfowl hunting season dates, structures and limits, so each states receives an exact limit on the number of waterfowl hunting days they can have each year. Some states will attempt to maximize hunting opportunities by creating different hunting areas, or “zones,” and hold split seasons and a late-season hunt to take advantage of peak-migration periods.
You must pay strict attention to the regulations for each species of waterfowl, as many species will have different hunting seasons, bag limits and sex requirements. Additionally, bag limits and other criteria will often change during the season, whereas one day you may be able to take six of one species and the next day the bag limit may drop to two birds. Furthermore, regulations will be different depending on the “flyway,” or the specific part of the country, you are hunting in. Stay out of trouble by knowing both the state and federal regulations for the species you are hunting.
Other important things to know under federal law:
- Only non-toxic, lead-free shot is legal when hunting waterfowl.
- Shotguns larger than 10-gauge are prohibited.
- The total capacity of your shotgun cannot exceed three rounds. Shotguns with a magazine capable of holding more than three shells must have a one-piece plug that restricts the gun’s capacity to three shells. The plug must be internally inserted so it cannot be removed without disassembling the firearm.
One of the most critical factors to successful duck and goose hunting is scouting. You can work your calls to perfection and have the best decoy spread money can buy, but it will all be for not if there are no ducks. Knowing what the birds are feeding on and finding those special places that other hunters don’t know of will keep you eating roast duck and goose long into the winter.
Whether scouting private or public land, you will benefit from knowing the local geography and agriculture to help pinpoint feeding spots. Take a drive and look for waterways and fields where the local birds are hanging out. Waterfowl may have a “roosting” spot, which is just a name for the place where the birds spend the night, and a separate place where they feed and another where they just hang out. Waterfowl will also have traditional travel corridors they use to move between each area. Stay out of the roosting areas, unless you want the birds to find a new roosting area. When scouting, focus on feeding and transition areas and travel corridors.
You should set long- and short-term goals when scouting for waterfowl. Your short-term goal should be finding two spots, a primary spot and a secondary place in case the birds disappear from you primary hunting spot. Scout larger areas to confirm ducks or geese are in the vicinity and you will be able to determine, with a little practice, where in those areas to narrow your search for a specific hunting spot. Finding these areas on bodies of water and gaining access if the water is bordered by private land should be a part of your long-term goal.
Becoming a successful wingshot takes plenty of practice, and the first step is knowing how your shotgun patterns. Set up paper targets at 20, 30, 40, 45 and 50 yards. Take one shot at each target and write the distances and choke on each one. If you have a gun with interchangeable or an adjustable choke, repeat the process for each choke or setting. If you have a double barrel then pattern each barrel, as doubles will usually have different chokes for each barrel. You obviously only have to check the one barrel if you are using a pump or autoloader with a fixed choke.
For actual field-type practice, a box of clay pigeons and a hand launcher is not that expensive and will help improve your marksmanship immeasurably. Also, if you have access to a shooting range or gun club that has a skeet range so much the better. Another very inexpensive way to become a crack wingshot at very little cost is to pick up a few Frisbees and have someone throw the disks while you shoot. These plastic disks are practically indestructible and can be reused many times, allowing you to take dozens of practice shots for a couple of bucks.
When learning how to shoot at moving targets, remember the farther away the target is the more you will have to lead it. Play around with different chokes at different ranges to see what choke works best at what range for your gun. There are innumerable methods of trying to calculate lead and distance, but the only way to become a truly proficient wingshot is by making it instinctive. This means a lot of practice.
Every diehard waterfowl hunter knows the jubilation that comes from discovering a new honey hole. With a little legwork you will be able to find the hot spots for waterfowl, such as stands of flooded timber and productive sections of an agricultural field. Try to locate the “X” when looking for feeding areas. This is the magical spot where the birds have stopped feeding before they went to their roosting spot or transition area. This is also the spot where the birds will most likely start feeding again when they return. Mark the spot with something visible, like a flag or bucket, so you will be able to find it again.
Waterfowl hunting in Wyoming is somewhat different from hunting ducks in Florida. If you don’t know a barley field from a soybean field, you may need to do a little homework. Ask farmers how to identify crops and where to start looking for waterfowl feeding areas. As landowners spend a lot of time outdoors, these people possess a wealth of knowledge about the local wildlife and will often be able to get you headed in the right direction. You will reduce your scouting time immeasurably once you learn what the birds are eating.
Waterfowl will gather almost anywhere in the early part of the season, until they start getting shot at. After the easy ducks and geese are gone you will have to get away from the other hunters, and that means going to areas that most hunters won’t.
Look for points on waterways where the shoreline is covered with thick brush, the back end of deep coves and pools far enough up a creek to discourage most hunters. Remember, just like any wildlife species, when hunting pressure ramps up the birds will go where hunters won’t.
The two driving forces that will keep birds returning to the same places every year are food and security. Waterfowl will remember where they were shot at and where they weren’t and will avoid any areas of heavy hunting pressure, or come in just after legal shooting light and be gone at the crack of dawn. Most often this means finding the hardest places there are for you to reach.
Use Google Earth to locate small bodies of water, such as ponds, a mile or more away from roads. These little spots will often be gold mines for waterfowl hunting, and a good spread of decoys can have a small isolated pond loaded with birds.
Size matters, sometimes, but in reverse with waterfowl hunting. Small ponds and potholes are typically more productive for puddle ducks, whereas divers and geese tend to like big water, until they start getting shot at. You will find geese and divers on the most isolated spots on big water, such as a backwater marsh or cove, once the season has been open for a week or two.
Selecting Stand or Blind Locations
Watch for waterfowl flying overhead and you may be able to pinpoint precisely where their preferred feeding fields are. A large flock of birds may wander all around a field, but they will be bunched up when coming in for a landing. This is the best spot to set out your decoys and set up a blind.
Keeping the sun at your back will prevent you from being blinded when taking a shot and will also have the opposite effect on the birds. The sun will help to obscure the birds vision, making you harder to detect, giving you those few precious extra seconds you need to get off a shot.
Also, keep in mind that waterfowl will virtually always land flying into the wind. If you set up so you are facing the wind the birds will be looking right at you when they come in. By having the wind at your side, or ideally at a 45-dergree angle between your side and back, the birds will come in either to your left or right as they land, giving you an easy crossing shot.
Because of their excellent eyesight, concealment is critical when hunting waterfowl. Take advantage of available natural cover. When hunting near water, this include reeds, cattails, marsh grass or heavy brush. Use cornstalks or hay bales when hunting crop fields. If there is no natural cover where you want to set up, you can build a blind from these types of natural materials or use a camo popup blind or burlap netting. Add some natural materials to an artificial blind to help it blend into the surroundings. You will usually have to break your concealment when the time comes to take your shot, so be quick and decisive or you may miss your chance.
If hunting in a dry area, make note of where the birds like to water as waterfowl need fresh water when feeding on dry fodder, such as corn, grain or peas. Small wetlands, like freshwater creeks near crop fields, will be magnets for thirsty birds. By following ducks when you are scouting you can pinpoint exactly where they’ll land in their preferred feeding fields.
While the terrain may look all the same to you, hungry birds target a particular spot for a reason. Setting up your decoys just anywhere simply won’t produce steady results. Try to find out where the birds naturally prefer to land and your decoys will help them feel more secure when checking the area out.
Using Scents, Calls and Decoys
Scents: Like most birds, ducks and geese have very poor noses, so no type of scents are necessary and will just be a waste of money.
Calls: Calling ducks and geese can be both very exciting and excruciatingly humbling. One minute you will be thinking you are a waterfowl whisperer and the next you won’t be able to call in a baby duckling looking for its mama if your own life depended on it. That is just the nature of the beast.
There are many duck and goose calls on the market. Read online reviews to see what other hunters are saying about each call before you start shelling out money.
As a new waterfowl hunter, don’t think you have to be a master caller to get ducks and geese to come to your decoys. Unlike turkey hunting, calling is not the most critical aspect of waterfowl hunting. Having a good setup on a good spot in quality habitat with a decent decoy spread will do most of the work. However, that being said, knowing how to imitate a few basic calls can get birds that may be heading in the opposite directions to give your spot a closer look.
The key to calling is practice, and if you stick with just the basics to get started you won’t need to spend hours learning. Just a few minutes a day will do the trick.
Pick up a CD or DVD on waterfowl calling, or look online. There are many websites, including YouTube, where you can find free instruction and recordings of the sounds waterfowl make, for free. The basic duck calls you should learn include:
- Basic “quack.” While not all ducks quack, most do. One of the biggest mistakes even seasoned hunters make is not ending the call properly. Many times hunters will only produce a “qua” without the “ck” at the end. Be sure you make the full sound, “quack!” Get this one right and everything else is secondary.
- Feeding call: This is the sound contented ducks make when they are feeling safe and secure. Make a “tik-kituk-katikka” with slightly increasing and decreasing volume. Use this, softly and VERY sparingly, when ducks are approaching your decoy spread to give them a little extra feeling of safety.
- Greeting call: Use this call when you first see ducks in the distance. The greeting is a series of five to seven “Kanc, Kanc, kanc, kanc, kanc” sounds produced in an even rhythm with a descending volume.
- Comeback call: Use this call when the ducks don’t respond to your greeting or you want an immediate response, such as when hunting in flooded timber. This call is similar to the greeting call, but more urgent, sounding like, “Kanckanc, Kanc, kanc, kanc!”
Most North-American geese species have the same basic calls, with the top three vocalizations being:
- In-Flight Call: If the birds are flying low enough, you will here almost an incessant “Honk-honk, honk-honk; honk, honk, honk-honk.”
- Pair call: Some geese species, like the Canadian, mate for life and produce a “Honk, honk, honk-honk” call when feeding or roosting.
- Interaction call: This is similar to the duck “feeding call” as it is used when the geese are feeling safe. This call is a series of “Quack; honk-honk; quack; honk-honk. Use voice inflection when calling and play the call like a musical instrument. Remember, you are trying to “talk” to the birds, so don’t grunt or growl. Use “dat” for high-pitched notes and “dut” for low notes for ducks. Cup your hands over the end of the call and open and close your palms to help produce breaks and vary tone.
Decoys: Decoys are a huge part of duck hunting and it is crucial you pay attention to details. Setting out your spread just anywhere simply doesn’t produce consistent results. While the terrain may all look the same to you, hungry ducks target a specific spot for a reason. Set your decoys up in places where you have seen birds land.
In lieu of having been able to observe birds landing, place decoys around some type of shelter structure, like brush piles or stands of cattails near water. Never place your decoys out in the middle of wide-open water, as this is not usually where real birds would be and both ducks and geese will often avoid a line of decoys in the middle of nowhere.
- Stay Legal: Be sure you stay on the right side of the law. Waterfowl hunting is highly and strictly regulated and there are steep penalties for those who are found to have violated the law. Be sure you have the right licensees, stamps and permits, know the bag limits and be able to positively identify the birds you are hunting, even when they are in the air.
- Don’t Arrive Too Early: Be extra careful if heading to your stand or blind before first light, especially if it is located on the water, as you can easily spook birds. Ideally, try to time your approach to get there just as dawn breaks. Also, the birds already there at daybreak will be leaving, and you want the ones that will be coming, not the birds that are already wary.
- Stay Later: Don’t be the hunter who goes home early just because the action has slowed. Waterfowl are active all day during migration and you never know when a flock is headed to your exact location.
- Alternative Hunting Methods: Floating down a section of a creek or river in a small boat can provide fast action. Be watchful of the water ahead and be ready when you pass by calm backchannels as these are ideal spots for migrating birds to hold up. If you don’t have a boat, jumpshooting birds as you walk along the banks of waterways, like rivers, lakes, ponds and even flooded stands of timber, can also produce great results. Use natural vegetation to hide behind when jumpshooting. However, be careful of where the birds may fall if jumpshooting without a retriever as the bird may land somewhere you won’t be able to get at.
- Know Your Limitations: Limit passing shots to the effective range of both your shotgun and your skill level. Typically, for 10- or 12-gauge shotguns, this means a maximum of 40 to 45 yards, and ideally 40 yards or closer. If you can handle a 10 gauge you can push the distance to 50 yards.
- Aim Small: Like Benjamin Martin said in the movie The Patriot, “Aim small, miss small.” For waterfowl hunting this means picking a single spot on one bird, such as its eyeball, and not trying to shoot at the entire flock. Shooting at a group of birds is called “flock shooting” and hunters who flock shoot are known as “sky busters.” All these hunters accomplish is make a lot of noise and hardly ever hit anything. By picking one small spot, even if you miss your mark, you will still hit the bird.
- Follow Through: Keep your swing going after you have taken your shot. Swing the shotgun to get your lead correct and then keep swing the shotgun until well after you have pulled the trigger. This will prevent you from accidentally stopping your swing prematurely, and cause you to miss short. Just like swing a golf club and a baseball bat, follow through is key when wing shooting.
This comprehensive beginner’s guide to hunting waterfowl has provided you with all the information on the tactics, gear and tips you need to successfully and consistently take most species of North American ducks and geese. As a new waterfowl hunter, remember the hardest part of taking waterfowl is finding a good place to hunt where the birds aren’t too pressured. With a little effort, you can locate an out-of-the-way spot where the birds’ have their needs met and most hunters do not go. Barring finding an ideal hunting spot, the most difficult part of waterfowl hunting is learning to call in wary birds that have been shot at too many times.
While duck hunting is one of the most challenging forms of hunting, it is by no means out of the reach of a beginner. Put in the necessary time to learn how to hit a moving target, find high-quality habitat, learn just a few rudimentary duck and goose calls and master the art of concealment and you will be hooked on waterfowl hunting for life.