And how to avoid them so birds stay cupped and committed
How many times has this happened to you? A flock of ducks or geese spots your decoys from a distance and turns on a dime. It was if they had seen a party in your blocks and decided to swing in. Here they come, on a string — wings cupped and landing gear down. Suddenly, just before they get into range, the birds break formation and climb for the sky as if they had been shot at.
Like it or not, waterfowl hunters are con artists. We put out plastic fakes designed to imitate our quarry and produce seductive, plaintive notes on our calls to lure birds into range. It's all a trick. But sometimes, our cover is blown. When ducks and geese smell a rat, they get the heck out of Dodge before it's too late.
Flaring birds is a frustrating part of hunting. Even experienced hunters make mistakes once in a while that cause birds to flare. Not only does that result in a lost opportunity, but it can educate birds, foiling future hunts.
Don't botch your opportunities this fall. Here are four things that make birds flare and what you can do to prevent it from happening.
Moving at the wrong time is a sure way to flare a flock. Face it, waterfowl have really good vision that helps keep them safe from predators — hunters included. So don't let birds catch you moving.
Learn to avoid several movement no-nos. The first has probably happened to almost every hunter: You're standing up or out of position at the wrong time, whether you left the blind to retrieve a bird or are just standing to stretch. Our first instinct is usually to hit the deck. If birds are distant, you might be able to get away with it. However, if birds are already tight, don't blow it for your companions. You're wearing Realtree camo, and it's time to put it to the test. The correct move is, well, to not move. Let the camo do its job and blend into the surroundings. Sure, birds might see you, but they certainly will if you start moving to get back to the blind or suddenly drop to the ground. You might have to sacrifice your shot opportunity, but don't blow it for your buddies. If you're not in their way and they have a safe shooting lane, they might still get a shot if you just hold still.
Inadvertent movements can also be telegraphed to incoming waterfowl like a neon sign. When a flock approaches, what happens? Everyone gets excited. We reach for our shotguns, tuck down tight and scramble to get into a position where we can shoot. Now, imagine that scenario in a duck boat, as seen from above. Likely, the boat is rocking back and forth from all the activity, even if you're hidden by a boat blind. The rocking boat and subsequent ripples won't look too natural to birds in the air. Therefore, make sure the boat is secured with poles or up on sufficiently hard ground so it won't rock. Also, try to have your gun ready, and minimize movement.
Don't forget about Fido. When your dog sees you getting excited, the feeling is contagious. He might start creeping or wagging his tail, which could flare birds. Work with your dog ahead of time to make him steady to shot.
What you wear can also alert incoming birds. Now, I know every self-respecting duck hunter is wearing Realtree camo, but hold on a second. Think about your total appearance. For example, when I was a child, I had an olive-green sweatshirt I frequently wore hunting, mostly because of its olive appearance. It was something I wore underneath my camo duck jacket. But let's face it, sometimes you work up a sweat slogging through mud, and the next thing you know, your jacket is unzipped. Well, that sweatshirt was emblazoned with a bald eagle … with a big white head. Realistically, that eagle head was only about two inches square, but my dad scolded me every time he saw that eagle head. I can't say it ever actually flared incoming birds, but the point stuck with me, and I'm still conscious about the color of all layers of my clothing. You never know when you'll need to shed a layer.
Your face prompts another consideration. In the right light, our smooth skin can almost shine, sticking out obviously from surrounding cover. Growing a beard helps, but your cheeks are still exposed. To reduce the glare off your face, wear face paint or a facemask. And keep your head down until it's time to shoot.
Another consideration is your camouflage, whether you're hunting geese in corn stubble, mallards in flooded timber or eiders along rocky shorelines. Camo only works if it matches your surroundings. Make sure your Realtree pattern is appropriate for the kind of cover you'll be hunting.
This last consideration might be a sticking point with a lot of hunters, but it's something that has always bothered me: duck hunters whose call lanyard is full of bird bands or brightly colored calls. Now, obviously to accumulate that many bands, you've must be successful and kill a lot of birds. But why carry a shiny, rattling lanyard around your neck? That's something I've never understood. It's the same with bright duck calls. Why go through the effort of wearing camouflage and face paint only to carry a bright call? Bird bands are great, and congratulations to you if you've acquired a lot, because you've earned it. But just keep them out of sight.
Blinds and Boats
The same camo considerations apply to blinds and boats. Make sure your blind or boat blends in with the surrounding cover. Grass up your boat or blind with the same kind of vegetation — or at least the same color of vegetation — as the surroundings where you plan to hunt. Your boat shouldn't appear dark green amid tawny brown cattails. And when grassing up your layout blind, it's a good idea to mud it up first. Rub some mud into it to take away the nylon sheen and darken it up a bit. And when you grass it up, make sure you take vegetation from a distant site, not the immediate area. Otherwise, it will look like there's a big hole in the vegetation from the sky.
Your decoys — designed to attract birds — can actually repel them. Make sure they appear as natural as possible. I actually saw some decoys once that had been painted with glossy paint. As pretty as ducks are, they don't shine like glossy-painted plastic. Also, make sure your decoy cords blend with the bottom. Camo is probably the best color for your decoy cords, but don't use white or yellow string — another thing I've seen in the blinds of nimrod hunters.
How you place your decoys is important, too. When birds are nervous and about to take flight, they bunch up tightly. Keep your spreads a little loose so the decoys appear relaxed. Stock-still decoys also look unnatural. Wind is your friend with decoys, but if it's not breezy, add motion decoys, or use a jerk cord to give your spread life.
Remember, selling your spread as being live birds isn't easy. You must consider many fine details when trying to fool wary ducks and geese, particularly after they've been shot at a couple of times. Try to envision how everything you do looks from the air and to the scrutinizing eyes of ducks and geese. You'll be on your way to ensuring those birds never break formation after they're cupped and committed.