This year should be an outstanding year for Michigan sportsmen seeking hot duck hunting opportunities, especially if you modify your hunting strategy to take advantage of booming wood duck populations. Spring hatch produced impressive results following heavy rain. Local marshes suddenly became flooded and ideal waterfowl habitats.
Mallard populations in many parts of Michigan are still stumbling; even with abundant habitat, finding good numbers can be a task. Woodies were everywhere this spring, producing large numbers of ducklings, and you can expect exceptional gunning this fall. However, recent hot weather and summer drought has rivers very low and clear. Local marshes have less water as well. If you want fast-paced shooting, I recommend a few simple steps to success.
Since some waterways are almost void of waterfowl while other areas are loaded, scouting can be the key to success. On a recent trip, I located a beaver dam on state land, complete with high water and flooded timber that was simply alive with wood ducks, a good number of mallards, some gadwall or widgeon and even a few teal. Just a few years ago, mallards were plentiful, but today the dominant species in most waterways are wood ducks. I recommend you scout now, locate wood duck hiding locations and surprise them on the opener at dawn. But do you know where woodies hang out and hunting tactics that bring them kissin’ close?
A couple of years ago, I moved from traditional cattail hot spots to potholes, timber floodings, and marshes highlighted with thick brush and oak trees. I wish I could recommend flooded corn on state land, but most water-fowling areas have been neglected, crops were not planted, and ducks are not there. Parking lots will be empty on opening day. The Maple River has zero corn this year, low water, and just a few local birds when just a few years ago, it bristled with standing corn, flooded timber, and on the opener, thousands of ducks were there for exciting hunting.
Like many Michigan hunters, I’ve moved to flooded creeks, marsh backwaters and marshes bordering major rivers. I love those pockets of flooded timber along the Grand River that draw wood ducks like a huge watery magnet. Most woodie honey holes are difficult to get to, and often walking through brush and flooded woods is all part of the duck hunting adventure.
Most duck hunters will tell you wood ducks don’t come to decoys, and I guess I sort of agree. However, after years of experimenting with decoy spreads, I’ve hit on a couple tactics that entice passing woodies to fold wings and dive at your feet. It all begins by scouting and finding exactly where they want to land. Wood duck landing hot spots are directly adjacent to food sources like flooded timber with oak trees dropping acorns or pockets of water with a rich green layer of duckweed and other food sources.
Here’s the ticket. Bring a bag of decoys, including one or two MOJO spinning-wing wood ducks. You know the lightweight, quiet lifelike decoy that operates on 4 AA batteries and looks like a landing drake wood duck. I also like one MOJO floater spinning wing that glides in circles, causes ripples on the calm swamp water surface and has lifelike action under any conditions. Bring some wood duck floater decoys and put them in a relatively small area to mimic a flock of wood ducks dining with birds coming into land. Wood ducks see the flopping wings, get a glimpse of the swimming decoy and are convinced the group is actively dining on a food source. Unlike other ducks, wood ducks tend not to circle the spread. They see the decoys, recognize the landing zone, cup wings and dive headlong into the decoys at lightning speed. It is almost impossible to get off a shot when birds are falling out of the sky into the timber honey hole. That’s when you flush them, and the shooting is very challenging as birds blow up the water like a Polaris missile headed skyward, zig-zagging through the multitude of branches and zooming out of range at lightning speed. They come in fast and leave extra fast like no other duck. The challenge to drop them from the sky requires excellent shooting skills and a willingness to constantly adjust your barrel lead instantly. Let me warn you. This isn’t a turkey shoot where you sit on a comfortable seat in a duck boat, allowing birds to circle and pick off your target easily. Heck no! This is roughneck swamp hunting where you stand in waist-deep water and muck with your finger constantly on the safety and gun ready because wild wood ducks zoom in and out, leaving you shaking from the abrupt, lightning-fast encounter. This is not the brand of hunting for the faint of heart because wild ducks will be in your face, then turn on the afterburners and flash out of range in a millisecond. Folks who are relaxed and looking in the wrong direction seldom get the shotgun to their shoulder and safety off before the zooming ducks are out of range and gone. If you have never been in this unique duck hunting situation, you should hunt with me, and you will leave the flooded timber totally frazzled, discombobulated from the hair-raising, nerve-racking experience.
Forget your traditional cattail tan or brown camouflage if your quest is to outsmart wood ducks. For this brand of hunting, you need to dress up like a swamp thing with plenty of Realtree woodlands camo mixed with green and dark brown.
Another deadly tactic is to leave the decoys in the truck and hunt the flyways. Woodies like to use specific patterns when going to and from wet honey holes. They seldom fly very high and offer excellent pass shooting for the well-camouflaged hunter hugging a tree and ever scanning the sky for distant winged jets that zoom by at lightning speed. Fast-moving woodies that twist and turn while skimming tree tops are a worthy adversary, and seasoned waterfowlers tend to have a poor batting average when trying to bring ’em down. Bring lots of shells if your goal is to identify fly routes and intercept wood ducks by pass shooting.
Then, some seasoned hunters prefer to stalk birds that touch down and quickly wiggle into the underbrush and disappear. For this brand of duck hunting, you need to take a page from the trophy buck stalker’s bible and approach cautiously. The trick is to be fully camouflaged from head to toe, including hands, face and shiny gun barrel. Next, you position a tree, stump, cattails or brush between you and the target wood ducks as you slowly approach. Always have your shotgun across your chest in a ready shooting position with finger on the trigger in case birds suddenly flush. The idea is to slowly slip through the water without making waves, splashing, or sudden motion and ease into range. More often than not, wood ducks spot you with ease and swim for safety. At times, they immediately flush out of range, but you can also corner them, slip into shooting range and harvest ducks as they blast from the water and weave through the trees to get away. Shots are always challenging.
I love October duck hunting in the rain when birds are active. One of my deadliest tricks is finding a pothole with standing water in a stubble cornfield. I carry out a few decoys, complete with a MOJO spinning wing decoy and a handful of floaters. The last few years, I used wood duck decoys and sucked them from the skies as they zoomed close to check out birds swimming in the field grain pothole. Sometimes I get mallards using this cornfield trick, and with Michigan’s booming goose numbers, I always carry some BBBs to knock ’em down easily when they fly close to get a better look at the ducks on the water. For this hunting tactic, I wear waders and a corn camo shirt, hat and vest. On gray days with low light conditions, ducks leave local marshes and swamps and head for agricultural fields. Some days you will run out of ammo, and there are no other hunters in sight, no boats and no other shots are fired within hearing distance. All waterfowl are drawn to cut corn, especially migrating wood ducks.
What about you? Do you have a wood duck honey hole scouted for the opener? If so, the best of Michigan waterfowling is about to get better for you. If you are a traditional puddle duck hunter, perhaps you need to make the switch to woodies; populations are booming. The shooting can be awesome!