Adescription of the perfect waterfowling day would undoubtedly begin with wind. Wind makes waterfowl uneasy, fidgety. Rather than raft up in big flocks and loaf on open water, wind and the resulting waves forces ducks to seek shelter. Usually they move in small, restless flocks that respond readily to calling and decoy spreads. They are searching for company and calm waters. Waterfowl also use favorable tail winds to migrate. Recently arrived ducks are naïve, less wary, having not learned the boundaries of refuges, permanent blind locations and which fake ducks to avoid.
The perfect waterfowling day will ideally include some precipitation, too. Low-scudding clouds force ducks to fly lower and their keen eyesight is hindered by the poor light conditions. They are less likely to spot movement when rain or other precipitation weakens shadows and obscures their vision. Combine a wind that makes you wish you had a chinstrap for your cap and rain that stings your face as it whips by in horizontal sheets, and you have the makings of the perfect duck day.
Problem is, perfect dark days are rare. Quite often fall is an extension of Indian summer and it forces waterfowlers to contend with bluebird days and fair-weather hunting. But that doesn’t mean you can’t bag your fair share of waterfowl, even when the weather isn’t ducky.
Even in the nicest weather ducks will fly; they just don’t fly as much. During mild weather ducks will fly early, and then again late in the day, when trading from feeding and resting areas to roosting areas. Usually, the evening flight occurs well after shooting time. During the day, the ducks set.
Hunters need to be prepared to take advantage of this abbreviated window of opportunity, especially early in the season. Be prepared to be at your location an hour before shooting time and have your decoy spread set, blind in place and calls and guns at the ready well before first light. The birds may fly for an hour at most and you need to capitalize on this initial flurry of activity. Don’t be pouring coffee or rearranging decoys when shooting time arrives. Scan the skies in as many directions as possible and be ready for some fast shooting. It might be the only shooting you’ll get.
Once the sun gets up, you’re likely to only see the odd flight and the birds will be inherently spooky once they can see well. Camouflage becomes paramount. Don’t get caught wearing a green leaf pattern when you’re hunting amongst brown cattails and vice versa. The same goes for your boat and blind. Paint your boat and use blind materials that are most likely to blend in with surroundings you hunt most frequently be it flooded timber, cattails or grass.
If you’ve ever flown over a marsh during hunting season, one thing that sticks out like a sore thumb when you fly over a group of hunters is their white faces looking up at you. Ducks, especially puddlers, which tend to approach from up high, see the same thing. Look up when birds are approaching and you’re likely to see the east end of a duck headed west. When hunting during fair weather, it’s a good idea to wear a facemask or use face paint and wear light gloves even if it’s warm to cover pale hands. Use camouflage tape to cover gleaming gun barrels and receivers if you don’t own a camouflaged model or a gun with a matte finish. The same goes for hiding shiny Thermos bottles and shell boxes.
On bright, sunny, bluebird days, the thing ducks spot most readily is movement. Movement is taboo whenever you’re hunting ducks, but especially when conditions allow ducks to scrutinize your set up as if you were under a microscope. When the birds are working you must stay absolutely still. You can only do that if you’re comfortable. Make sure you have a comfortable seat. Carry a five-gallon bucket or folding seat to sit on if you’re not using a blind. Secure a vantage point so you can see without getting up and down. Make certain your dog is positioned so he can see and he is not fidgeting also.
The reason decoys don’t look natural on calm days is because they look like, well, decoys. They lack the movement that a resting, preening, feeding flock of live ducks would generate while splashing, tipping up and stretching their wings. Modern technology has resulted in a variety of decoys that can add a natural-looking, yet subtle, movement to your spread. We now have motorized decoys that dip, wobble, and splash to add realism and attention-getting movement to your decoy spread. In this case, a little movement is good. Too much, can be bad. Spinning-wing decoys that work continuously can make fair-weather birds leery. A better option is to use a motorized spinning-wing decoy that has a remote so you can use it intermittently or a wind-driven, spinning-wing decoy that works at random when the breeze blows.
Another simple way to add some attention-getting movement to your decoy spread is to run a jerk line from one or two of your decoys to a weight anchored to the bottom and then up to your blind or hide. By jerking on the line when ducks are approaching, you can call attention your decoys by causing them to dip and splash simulating feeding or preening waterfowl and divert their keen eyes away from you. Or tie some your decoys on in the middle of the keel instead of at either end. In even the slightest wind decoys tied in such a fashion will roll and totter, sending out waves and ripples.
Obviously, when conditions are bright and sunny waterfowl can really check out your decoys, so the more natural they look, the better your chances of drawing the birds in close. Mix different brands of decoys to provide different outlines, silhouettes and shapes. It helps to mix different species too, especially early in the season when you’re likely to encounter a variety of early migrants like teal, shovelers and wood ducks. Make sure your decoys have fresh paint jobs. Decoy lines should be dark to match the bottom or vegetation. Paint shiny decoy anchors or dip them in a plastic coating to blend with the bottom.
Early in the season, it’s wise to add more hens to your set because many birds will still be in their eclipsed plumage. But either way, your dekes should be bright and colorful optimizing their attraction and to pass the ultimate inspection.
Adding a few sleepers, feeders, coots, seagulls or a heron or two tells edgy ducks that everything is copacetic and usually they’ll drop into the spread without hesitation. Combine these confidence decoys with some animated versions and you can’t present a more convincing spread.
When setting decoys during fair-weather hunts, be sure to leave plenty of room between the decoys and allow plenty of landing space. Widely spaced birds on the water are contented birds that are searching for food, and your spread should emulate this. It’s wise to set up so approaching birds can land parallel to cover, instead of forcing birds to land facing it. Ducks have a natural fear of shoreline vegetation because they know that’s where predators and danger hide. Ducks landing parallel to your hide will feel more at ease landing with open water at their shoulder. Birds landing this way are also less likely to see you, your blind or movement than when approaching head-on.
On calm, sunny days, sound really carries. For this reason, calling can be a real attention-getter when fair-weather waterfowling, but be careful to not overdo it. Use the standard mallard greeting and hail calls to get a passing flock’s attention, but then lay off and let your decoys do their job. Switch to subtle feed chuckles and soft quacks once the ducks are interested. Loud calling will only draw additional attention to your location, and contented ducks are usually fairly quiet.
Since sound carries so well on bluebird days, you are also likely to hear a lot of sounds that you didn’t realize ducks made. Many ducks don’t quack loudly, instead making feeble quacks, chirps, whistles and peeps that sound more like shorebirds. I have a raspy little Faulk’s call that makes perfect gadwall and teal quacks that are a little higher pitched than the mallard’s call. A whistle–type call can make sounds that will draw a variety of ducks. You can imitate the who-who-we-who whistle of a widgeon, the melodious sound of a drake pintail, a wood duck screech or the chirps and peeps that teal make. Combine these calls with your standard mallard repertoire and you’ll likely have a hodgepodge of sunny-day ducks in your lap.
My experiences indicate that duck hunting on bluebird days is usually a first light to midmorning affair. You usually see a fair amount of action at first light when roosted ducks are heading out to feed and then a secondary peak at midmorning when birds again trade around after feeding to find a comfortable place to rest. The exception to this rule is when fair weather is accompanied by cold. Ducks need to feed more during cold weather and I’ve had some exceptional midday shooting on clear, windless days hunting corn stubble and roosting areas. Mallards would pour into the fields to fill their crops only to return in a few hours to restoke their internal furnaces. But when temperatures are moderate, sunny-day ducks prefer to sit and relax.
That point was illustrated time and time again on a lease I had. On bluebird days we’d get a flurry of activity at first light as birds skirted points of marsh where our blinds were located. But once it got bright and full daylight the ducks would start landing in the middle of an expansive area of shallow, open water. Several thousand birds would accumulate there and spend the rest of the day. Usually all we could do was watch from a quarter-mile distant.
Tired of watching instead of shooting, we reasoned that if the ducks wouldn’t come to us, we’d go to the ducks. First we tried building stilt blinds and using floating blinds. The ducks were leery of the unnatural masses and avoided them. Then we hit on the idea of using float tubes. We’d set a bunch of decoys right in the middle of the shallow lake and then have a couple of guys bail out into the tubes, cover themselves with camouflage netting and then slip into the decoys and wait. The ploy worked to perfection. The camouflaged tubes looked like a clump of floating debris or a muskrat house and most times the ducks paid little attention to them and pitched right in. The tube
tactics saved many a fair-
Layout boats can be used in a similar fashion. These low-profile, pumpkin seed-shaped crafts can be anchored right out in the middle of a lake or estuary where ducks are likely to loaf during the middle part of the day. Setting a layout spread requires you do some scouting to determine exactly where the ducks are rafting, but it can pay big dividends.