By Burleson Smith
November 29, 2018 - Duck hunters, by all intents and purposes, are insane.
That is to say, duck hunting is probably not the best choice for your good friend’s first hunting experience. For that, I might recommend trying a lackadaisical late summer dove shoot or an afternoon pursuing small game. These hunts are social, comfortable and low impact.
Duck hunting on the other hand gets better as the weather gets worse. The colder, wetter and more miserable the hunter, the higher the likelihood for success. But don’t despair! Seasoned duck hunters know how to prepare for the blind and mitigate the torment that keeps the ducks in the air. And as many seasoned duck hunters will admit – there is nothing quite like watching a flock of quackers set their wings and descend unwittingly into range.
What follows are a few general suggestions on how best to prepare for your next duck hunt.
1. Know the weather you’ll need to weather. (Dress for success)
While not unique to duck hunting, the weather forecast is perhaps the single most important piece of information in the waterfowler’s toolbox. Being unprepared for inclement weather has brought an early end to many a successful duck hunt and in today’s digital landscape there are no excuses. In the way that fly anglers are amateur entomologists, duck hunters should be amateur meteorologists.
As northern and western duck hunters will tell you, there is almost no such thing as too cold for ducks. Holding all other variables consistent, a colder morning will always trump a warmer morning. For the hunter this means one thing: layers.
Be mindful of your base layers, which are arguably more important than your outer layers. Maintaining the microenvironment between you and your clothing is the first step to enjoying your hunt. Merino wool or capilene are preferred when choosing base layers. Piling on good quality fabrics like the ones found in Duck Camp’s wingshooting shirts (midweight and heavyweight) will both protect your base layer and begin to add protection from the elements. Outer layers come in all shapes and sizes, but most crucially neither your outer layer nor your base layer should be cotton. Cotton holds moisture and sweating through your cotton base layer or an unsuspecting rain that soaks your cotton outer layer can leave even the most devoted duck hunter in quite the hypothermic pickle.
For more information on the cold tolerance of waterfowl check out this article from Duck’s Unlimited by Dr. Mike Brasher
Wind is crucial for understanding the way ducks approach a feeding ground and the orientation of your blind but that is for another post. For the hunter, wind means compounding the cold. Wind chills and wind burn can be mitigated by protecting your exposed areas. A good balaclava and a sturdy pair of gloves can really go the distance when it comes to protecting yourself from a biting wind. A good pair of shooting glasses can protect your eyes and even better outline the shooting profile of an incoming bird – especially against a dull, grey sky. Ancillary benefits include covering the two most visible parts of a duck hunter. More often than not a flared flock saw a face looking up or hands moving quickly to grab a shotgun or call.
A steady drizzle or even periodic showers is a welcome sight to the avid duck hunter. Moderated precipitation can keep ducks low in the sky, keep them moving and reduce their ability to spot even the most careful hunters. Obviously for the hunter this means rain gear. I personally recommend avoiding ponchos or budget rain set ups as they tend to be more difficult to manage and control in the blind especially with a steady wind. Ideally your outer layer would also protect you from intermittent rain. Many hunters prefer the “onesie” or overall approach to outer layers.
A good pair of duck waders can check several of the boxes mentioned above. Duck waders can serve as a strong and warm outer layer but can be cumbersome in situations where the you’re not required to be in the water to set decoys, retrieve birds or access your blind. When it comes to waders, storing them in the proper way is perhaps the most important maintenance note. Waders should be stored in a cool dry location with no sun exposure. Ideally, they should be stored hanging or loosely folded to prevent creases or other unnecessary wear.
2. The blind bag. (If you think you might need it…you probably will)
A duck hunt is not the time to show off your embroidered, hand stitched, Filson bird bags. Much like the hunter, your blind bag has to survive the elements and more importantly protect what’s inside. Also keep in mind that blind bags are free from the chief duty of most bird bags – toting birds! Below are a few items I like to have in my blind bag to enrich my hunt.
Bring them. They help. Keep in mind that most states require steel shot for waterfowl. There are different shot sizes that are optimized for different species of ducks and geese so make sure you consider these.
You need one! Be sure to check your state’s local department of natural resources (DNR) for guidelines on what you need to be a legal hunter. Bear in mind that federal duck stamps are typically required on top of state licenses and can take several days to arrive in the mail. Don't wait until the last minute!
Gloves, gators, layers – all can easily slip out of your pocket to find a resting place at the bottom of the lake. I always recommend bringing extras. If nothing else you may be able to save an unprepared colleague from having to call the hunt on account of weather!
Flashlight or Headlamp
You cannot underestimate the value of having a bit of light on your journey to the blind and your quest for the perfect decoy set. Whether to review the decoy spread, find that next sure step in the marsh or locate the shells you just spilled all over the floor of the blind a bit of light can go a long way.
Any extra source of warmth is of pinnacle importance especially during those late season hunts. To avoid cozying up to your smoking barrel include some handwarmers or at the very least a thermos of coffee to keep you warm during the lulls in the activity. Hands especially need to stay warm to manipulate loading and unloading shells, quickly grabbing the right call or tending to other basic functions like heeding the call of nature.
Types of calls and calling strategies among duck hunters are very personal and even touchy subjects of conversations. If you could host a Thanksgiving dinner with duck hunters, calls and calling would replace politics as the divisive conversation topic. I won’t go into calling strategies, but a call lanyard is an incredibly useful addition to any blind bag. Know the prevailing species in your area and have a call to designed for each. Be careful not to overload your lanyard with calls. Prepare and string your lanyard before each hunt as the rustling and bustling of finding the right call can mimic an overloaded key chain and make it hard to find what you need in the moment.
If you’re out of cell service (hopefully!) or otherwise concerned with the momentary shifts in weather a small hand-held weather radio can keep you updated on what’s coming your way and inform you on whether to stay in the blind for that last late morning flight.
Waterfowlers prefer game totes to game bags. A duck tote is an easy way to haul your birds, takes up limited space in your blind bag and sets the stage for some great Instagram photos to boot!
A good pair of binoculars can add some weight to your blind bag but I find them to be incredibly useful for tracking wounded birds or keeping an eye on your retriever as he/she returns from a long retrieve. Binoculars are also fun to have, so you can enjoy the other wildlife you’ll see from the blind.
If hunting with other groups, it is always nice to be able to stay in touch. This way you can trade notes on what other groups are seeing, facilitate boat or travel logistics and make a group decision on when it is time to retire to the fireside for breakfast.
A piece of fruit, granola bar or muffin can help you keep warm, restore the energy that cold weather can so easily sap and lift the spirits of others with whom you might be willing to share!
1. Most of the varied duck species in North America boast a striking plumage.
2. Early morning is one of the most beautiful times of day.
3. Any hunt with friends is a hunt worth remembering.
Water Proof Bag
If you’re taking a wallet, phone or keys to the blind, it’s worth investing in a small dry bag or box of some type. Duck hunting is a wet sport and is not exactly valuable friendly.
3. Decoys (Fake ducks give real ducks FOMO)
Chances are if you own decoys you hunt enough that most of the information in this post is pretty obvious. But if you’re just getting into the sport, your decoy strategy can make or break a hunt. Make sure your decoys are ready to go and organized in a way that can allow for easy distribution. There is nothing more frustrating than dealing with a tangle of decoys in the middle of a swamp at 5am. Put some time in the night before to arrange your decoys and be sure you can manage the load. A decoy bag can be helpful if you have a long walk to the blind in the morning.
Duck hunters are, by all intents and purposes, insane. But if you’re prepared, dress appropriately and bring what you need, it can be one of the most rewarding hunting experiences available to the North American hunter. Good luck and shoot straight!