Most hunters that are familiar with the rush of the water hunt know that it doesn’t come without diligence, patience, and strategy. Wetlands bring about new challenges, like keeping dry, concealing yourself on the open waters, and managing your decoys and down lines. But with the right gear and advice, you’ll be taking down birds left, right, and centre.
Getting to Know Your Prey
On the water, you’ll be targeting “divers”, or waterfowl that spend their time in deeper waters, diving below the surface to feed. Because there are species specific bag limits, you’ll want to brush up on your knowledge before heading out (or bring along an identification book), as you’ll be relying on your ability to identify birds based on their appearance, sometimes from far distances.
Diving ducks “take the plunge” when feeding, disappearing entirely under the water. Divers also prefer middle areas of bigger bodies of water to help them take off.
Dabbling ducks have the ability to fly straight up off the water and can be found in much smaller water sources such as potholes and dug outs. Diving ducks have to “run” across the water in order to reach the speed necessary for take-off.
All too often, hunters end up underestimating birds, when in fact, they are much more intelligent than we give them credit for. They are constantly learning from our mistakes in order to survive. But you can use this to your advantage too: pay close attention to their behavior, how they react to your calls, your decoy spread and your blind. Remember what works today doesn’t mean it will work every time. The key is to adapt accordingly. Everyday is different. Changing conditions and the birds’ demeanour will determine what they want to see on any particular day.
Location, Location, Location
The key to a successful hunt comes down to finding the “X”: the exact spot where birds will gather. This means seeking out “loafing waters”, or, bodies of water where birds might relax, preen, feed, or sleep between feeding sessions. It’s important to note that hunters prefer to leave roosting waters undisturbed in order to keep natural habitats and populations intact.
If you want to start at the roosting waters for scouting purposes (tracking them to find loafing waters), that’s fair game, so long as you’re not being disruptive of their environment.
Examples of Loafing Waters:
- Sheet Waters
- Major River Systems
- Tidal Marshes
- Pasture Ponds
Preparedness: The best way to find these loafing areas is to study the land from an aerial view ahead of time, using Google Earth or a similar mapping tool. Familiarize yourself with the landscape, so that when you get out and start glassing, you will already have a grasp on the layout. If you’re hunting on private lands, you may need to seek out a land-owner’s permission. Take care to organize this beforehand.
Zero in on the “X”: Once you find your body of water, you’ll still need to scout out the “X”: the exact spot where birds will look to land. Because diving ducks will gravitate toward shallower waters or “sheet water” to loaf, seek out sand bars, a secluded backwater bay or a narrow point that juts out into a main lake to pass shoot trading birds.
If you’re hunting from a boat blind, you’ll have better mobility and be better able to cover multiple loafing waters in less time, meaning you’ll be able to find birds with more ease. This is a good thing. Most waterfowl hunters will tell you not to be afraid to move around. Although the decoy set up can be somewhat laborious to disassemble and then reassemble, you wouldn’t want to be missing out on clean shots because you were too stubborn to move on. On the other hand, you’ll have to be more diligent about concealment. Its best to use materials directly in your surroundings for a realistic look. Tuck cattails and bulrush beds into your boat’s camo strapping chords for added cover.
Ice Getting in Your Way?
If you’re hunting later in the season when ice has already started to form on the surface, you’ll need to break it up to create a landing space for your potential targets. Depending on the consistency of the ice, you’ll be able to break off a sheet and push it under the surface. If the ice is a little thicker, use an axe to cut a hole with a three-foot diameter all around and then stand in the hole (wearing your waders!), bringing mud and water onto the surface, creating the illusion of a bigger hole. Additionally, the ice may be too thin to break into large chunks, in which case you should bring a large sweeping net to eliminate the smaller pieces of shattered ice, as this will look unnatural to birds flying overhead.
WATER HUNT: DECOYS
When on the water hunt, you’ll need a generous supply of decoys to entice overhead birds to settle in the body of water you’re set up on.
The best way to do this is to have a realistic set up involving multiple species and enough motion to convince birds to land.
Water decoys are called floaters, and there are several ways to deploy them. Some prefer to anchor each with its own cord, which allows ducks to float with the currents slightly but still remain in one specific spot. A lot of hunters will rig up their floaters to a main line (formations will vary depending on the hunter, but think of the way a dog-sledding team is rigged up). However you want to set up your spread, remember that you’ll have to retrieve them all once you pack up for the day or move on to the next location.
Mix and match your decoys and ensure you are using floaters that are in varied positions (preening, feeding, etc.) for a realistic depiction. If you are hunting on a smaller body of water or there’s a sandbar of high enough elevation near the water’s edge, bring a few land decoys along as well to set up along the shoreline. This is especially important if you’ve set up your blind along the shoreline.
Pay attention to how big the body of water you’re working with is. Don’t overrun a small creek with hundreds of decoys; that will just look unnatural.
Try to incorporate some motion. If you opt to use a Robo Decoy, position it so that its wings hit the sun to catch overhead birds’ attention. Another option is to use a jerk cord, a line that connects some or all of your floaters and can be manipulated to simulate motion.
Some prefer to use a wind stock decoy, but this will only work if there is enough wind to keep it looking three dimensional. Some hunters like to use a combination of all three, so you can experiment and find out what works best for you.
Suiting Up for a Water Hunt
The water hunt presents new challenges, but nothing that can’t be overcome with the right gear. You never want to be the person who has to cut the hunt short because of inadequate clothing or improper tools, so here are a few things to keep in mind:
- A Retriever Dog: A lot of hunters bring a retriever dog along with them to retrieve fallen birds. Without a dog, you’ll just have to ensure you have someone comfortable wading out into the water to grab fallen birds.
- Waterproof Gloves: This is crucial, especially in colder temperatures. Even if you have a retriever dog, you’ll still need to set up your decoy spread, and waterproof gloves will help keep you warm and dry.
- Waders: Again, at some point you’ll probably need to get in the water, whether it’s to lay out an elaborate decoy spread or secure proper camo to your boat blind. Waders are the best practical solution.
- Floating Key Ring: The last thing you need is to be stranded in the middle of the lake with your keys at the bottom of it. Whenever hunting near bodies of water, it’s always a good idea to waterproof your key ring.
- PFD: Whenever you’re travelling by boat, always keep a PFD in tow. Bodies of water can be unpredictable, and accidents happen. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Effective calling is more of an artform than a science, and the best callers gained their expertise through experience and trial and error, so it’s likely you’ll have to do a lot of the same in order to find success. Think of your calls as tools to be deployed at just the right moment, intended to convince birds who seem unsure about your decoys.
Depending on whether you’re trying to entice duck or geese, there are different call strategies to employ. There are four different types of duck calls that are crucial for a waterfowl hunter to know:
- The Quack
- Feed Call
- Mating Call
- Comeback Call
Canada Geese produce a large variety of sounds, and sophisticated waterfowl hunters will have a wide range of calls in their back pocket to entice birds, but you can accomplish a lot just by knowing two basic calls:
- The Long-Range Hail: This a two-note sound that can be described as a “her-onk” used to entice birds far off in the distance. It should start out low and growling, and then shifts in the second note to a higher-pitched and sharper sound. As birds approach, speed up the call and slowly decrease the volume.
- The Cluck: Once birds are within a closer range, transition to this is one-note sound that resembles an “onk” and repeat over and over until the birds are within shooting range.
ON THE HUNT
Shoot Your Shot
A lot of preparation goes into a hunt, from days of scouting and glassing to the effort it takes to camouflage yourself in the big wide open, so once you finally coax a flock of birds into making a descent, the feeling is pure adrenaline. The hard part is over—it’s time to aim and shoot and watch your next meal fall out of the sky.
A 12-guage, 3-inch shotgun is typically used for most general all-purpose waterfowl hunting. Depending on species hunted, 3 ½-inch 12 gauge (for Larger Canada Geese) or a 20-gauge, 3-inch shotgun (for ducks) can be employed with great success. Many hunters find a 12-gauge shotgun chambered for 3 ½” shells allows for a more versatile combination by allowing you to downsize to 3-inch or even 2 ¾-inch shotshells for up close decoy spread shooting regardless of species hunted. Non-Toxic (Non- Lead) shotshell ammunition is mandatory for waterfowl hunting.
Selecting the right ammunition can vary depending on the birds and hunting situation you expect to encounter. Essentially, you’ll want a shot size that puts enough force out to ensure multiple hits on a bird, and those pellets have to be travelling fast enough to pierce vital organs. Your perfect shot size is going to strike a balance between pattern density and pellet energy. The best way to see what works best in your shotgun is to pattern it with different choke tubes , ammunition brands and different shot sizes.
Shooting from a layout blind or a boat blind is different than shooting from a standing position: you have to act quickly and it’s not the most natural motion to get used to. Spend an afternoon practicing shooting clay targets from a layout blind before heading out on your hunt and you’ll have some muscle memory to back you up.
It’s a good idea to assign a “pit boss” to call the shots—literally. You won’t want to let a flock go by because everyone thought they were being polite. Have a clear plan of action and they’ll be no confusion when you finally get your moment.
Depending on the size of your group, divide up the target area above the decoys into shooting lanes so everyone knows what area belongs to them. If birds are favouring a certain spot in the decoy spread, you can always adjust it to try to even out the shooting opportunities for your group or rotate hunters into blinds that are seeing more action. There is also a safety factor involved by designating shooting lanes. No cross-shooting overhead or behind the blinds makes for a much more enjoyable and safe hunt.
When a bird is executing a landing, they’ll cup their wings and sometimes extend their legs: if you’re seeing this action, it’s time to shoot! Take care to not rush: slow your breath, and try to focus on one target at a time. Avoid flock shooting even if a massive flock is flying overhead.
Concentrate on a single bird and move on to the next. Your shooting percentage will improve if you can resist the temptation of shooting too soon. You have a far better chance of hitting air than a bird if you’re shooting blindly. Lock in your gaze and follow it through.