From diver ID to shooting lessons, the author recounts days on the water that taught him the most
After 40-some years and tens of thousands of hours afield, my memories of individual hunts and specific ducks have mostly faded. But I can still clearly recall a few early encounters with those birds that forced me to improve my waterfowling skills. These are the lessons they taught me.
1. Gun-Club Bluebills
With a rig of eight decoys and an east wind in our faces, my college buddy and I shouldn't have attracted any bluebills that October day. Yet for several hours, seemingly endless flocks of lesser scaup dive-bombed our setup. And I couldn't hit them. I was young and green, and I'd never shot at fast-flying diving ducks before. It showed. Finally, a solo hen landed by our blind and I water-swatted it, bagging just one in exchange for all those empty hulls.
Lesson learned: Shoot a lot during the off-season for more productive — and more rewarding — hunts.
2. Stormcrow Buffleheads
A friend and I anchored our layout boat in stormy seas and tried to ignore the howling southeast wind. Three buffleheads swam toward our rig but then spooked and tried to escape. However, pounding whitecaps knocked them down every time, and the birds finally just dove and swam toward shore. Later that morning, we capsized our boat and almost drowned.
Lesson learned: If it's too rough and windy for ducks to fly, you shouldn't be hunting from a boat. Your life is worth far more than any duck.
3. An Obvious Canvasback
The big duck banked toward our spread, and I recognized it immediately. Canvasback, I whispered to my blind-mate. Don't shoot. Cans were protected back then. Our mentor, who was watching the hunt unfold behind our blind, disagreed. Redhead, he said. My buddy held fire and the bird passed within easy range. At that point it was close enough that we could easily identify it as a drake redhead.
Experienced diver guys would never mistake a stout, blocky, gray-bodied redhead for a long, lithe canvasback. But I was young, and so was my buddy, and he forgave me — eventually.
Lesson learned: Spend time observing ducks in flight, especially when scouting, and become adept at identifying them.
4. Daylong Ducks
I was one duck shy of my limit, but conditions now seemed unsuitable for filling it. The early-October sun glared like a spotlight on the mirror-calm marsh, and bird activity had all but ceased. Yet I stayed in my skiff and remained optimistic. Finally, as evening neared, several flocks of mallards buzzed over the lake, and I began calling to them. One group broke away and set their wings over my pothole, and I finished with a drake black duck. In hindsight, spending 12 hours in a small boat for a few ducks felt like a great return on investment.
Lesson learned: Hard hunting hard usually pays dividends.
5. The Bufflehead Straggler
Two friends and I had just killed nine buffleheads from a 20-plus flock that decoyed perfectly. But one unscathed drake flushed and flew past us at 15 yards as we reloaded. Laughing at the easy chance, I slowly swung my gun past the bird … and whiffed. More laughter ensued, this time from my buddies.
Lesson learned: Never get complacent with wingshooting.
6. Wide-Flying Woodies
The wood ducks strafed my setup at 40 yards and then banked around the small lake. "Just wait," I thought, "they'll give you a decoying shot." Then the birds zipped past again at the edge of range. I held. Finally, they turned west and disappeared, and I realized I had foolishly wasted two decent opportunities at them.
Lesson learned: Don't pass up attainable shots in hopes of better chances — especially with wood ducks.
7. Sharp-Eyed Greenheads
I couldn't count how many mallards we saw that day in South Dakota. Five thousand? But we only killed one. Sandwiched in a driftwood blind along the sandy shoreline of a large lake, we stuck out like the proverbial floater in a punch bowel. All those mallards simply avoided us and loafed in open water.
Lesson learned: You must set up where the ducks want to be. And if you're not hidden, you're wasting your time.