The More Likely It Will Hold Lots Of Wood Ducks…
Some kinds of duck hunting are better described as duck shooting. When I visited Argentina back in 2005 to sample waterfowl hunting in the Southern Hemisphere, I came home with the realization that I hadn’t been duck hunting but rather duck shooting.
Birds were ridiculously abundant in the shallow water marshes that dotted the landscape. Our guides, while serious about putting us on birds, paid little attention to enticing ducks within range. Instead, the hunting strategy was more about building makeshift blinds and providing a glorified form of pass shooting.
To be fair, we shot lots of birds over the decoys as they passed by on route to other places. I quickly realized that the decoys were more for show and confidence than effect.
Shots at Argentina ducks were fast, the birds came from every direction and the action was on the verge of chaos. That’s exactly how a well planned wood duck hunt goes!
The Makings Of A Great Wood Duck Slough
Unlike other popular puddlers, the wood duck sticks pretty much to itself and for the most part responds to decoys only sparingly. Needless to say, unless you know what types of marshes wood ducks like best, you’re not likely to shoot more than the occasional wood duck. Lots of marshes will support small to medium numbers of wood ducks. Only ideal wetlands support large numbers of wood ducks and chaotic shooting.
The more difficult a marsh is to access and or wade, the more likely it will hold lots of wood ducks. A magic mixture of water, cattails, marsh grass, downed timber, stumps, flooded brush and willow, plus lots and lots of floating duck weed (a favorite food of wood ducks) are the ingredients that make up a killer wood duck slough.
At first light a good wood duck swamp can literally be buzzing with activity. Ducks are seemingly coming and going from every direction. A few birds will also be slipping into secluded hides in the marsh grass and flooded brush. This phenomenon provides the illusion that wood ducks are both gregarious creatures and willing to decoy. Actually, these birds are reclusive and not likely to rub elbows with other waterfowl species or even others of their own flavor. When these birds show up in a particular location in big numbers, it’s because the habitat is ideal or hunting pressure has forced the birds to use specific areas.
In the southern states where wood ducks spend the winter, huge flocks often form in flooded timber. Back home in Michigan, concentrations of wood ducks conducive to great hunting are actually hard to come by. The only way to zero in on the best hunting is to spend copious amounts of time scouting and seeking out the isolated sloughs wood ducks love best.
I start my wood duck scouting adventures by consulting county maps that indicate the location of natural marshes and backwaters or floodings created by the DNR. Across Michigan there are literally dozens of flooded backwaters on state lands that serve as secluded wood duck havens.
Once I’ve identified a potential flooding to explore, it’s time to put feet on the ground and see if the spot actually holds wood ducks. It’s important to time this scouting effort just prior to duck season. Like other waterfowl, wood ducks stage in specific spots starting in late August and extending into September.
During nesting season wood ducks are widely dispersed. As soon as the young birds learn to fly in late summer, loose groupings of wood ducks start showing up on the prime sloughs that offer the right combination of food and cover. The staging process starts slowly and builds in intensity as fall approaches.
Timing the scouting efforts to coincide with the peak staging activities insures the best odds of finding truly big concentrations of birds and not just satellite flocks.
Dogs Are A Must
The very nature of the marshes wood ducks favor means hunting with a retrieving dog isn’t a luxury, but rather a necessity. Wading is almost always difficult at best and impossible in many areas. Just getting to a downed bird can become a morning’s labor.
While the going isn’t exactly easy for a dog, the chance of recovering downed birds greatly increases as does the enjoyment of the hunt.
Natural Hides Work Best
Building a blind for wood duck hunting is as much a waste of time as hauling decoys. The best strategy is to determine the natural flight path birds are following and then positioning yourself along this route. Nestling into natural cover like cattails, marsh grass or brush works best. If there is no available cover, cutting a few willow branches and making a makeshift blind will suffice.
Wood ducks love to fly along natural edges. A forested tree line that borders a slough is an ideal place to find wood ducks trading. Natural bottle neck areas where two or more natural edges collide create an even better location.
One of my all time best wood duck spots is located at the junction where a small marshy stream pours into a backwater flooding. Flanking the stream on both sides is a heavily
wooded tree line that stops abruptly at the marsh edge. Birds naturally trade up and down the marshy creek and also the flanking tree lines, making this location as busy as a four way stop sign at rush hour.
Wood ducks aren’t especially large birds, but they are as tenacious as a diving duck when wounded. I’ve found that because the shots are most often at birds passing by quickly, it’s best to over gun for wood ducks. A modified choke and the standard 3-inch 12 gauge load of 1-1/4 ounce No. 2 steel shot works nicely on wood ducks out to about 40 yards. Tungsten loads are even better at cleanly killing wood ducks if you don’t mind the price. My favorite tungsten wood duck load is the 2-3/4 inch 12 gauge Kent Matrix loaded with 1-3/8 ounce of No. 3 shot. This amazing load literally vaporizes wood ducks at any range I can hit them.
If you’re willing to limit your shooting distance a little, the 3-inch 12 gauge is a sweet little wood duck gun, but not with steel shot loads. I shoot a Browning Gold Fusion that I had film dipped camo some years ago. A 3-inch load of 1-1/8 ounces of No. 3 Kent Matrix or a 3-inch load of 1-1/8 ounces of Remington HD in No. 4 shot is death to wood ducks out to about 35-40 yards.
Steel shot in a 20 gauge is simply too light for serious wood duck hunting. The heaviest steel shot loads are only about one ounce and way to lean for a dense killing pattern.
Early Is The Only Option
The best wood duck hunting in Michigan happens on opening day and the following week of duck season. Once these birds get shot at a little, they quickly abandon smaller marshes. Many of these birds actually migrate south in early October, leaving hunters wondering what happened to all the woodies.
The moral of the story is to hunt the early season, put your faith in scouting and if you decide to take along some decoys, know it’s more for show than go.