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Wildfowl’s Guide to Public Land Duck Hunting Etiquette

by Kyle Wintersteen   |  April 12th, 2013 0

Duck hunting public land certainly comes with its share of pitfalls and pleasures. A lot of that has to do with the fact that you’re sharing space with people who may or may not abide by certain commonsense rules of hunting etiquette. Usually things go pretty well, but other times it can be a bit frustrating.

I can remember a specific opening day in our public land blind near Washington, D.C., where we had a pretty slow day until a few lonely honks on the horizon quickly changed our spirits. The four geese were high, but they were coming in nonetheless. Every 500 yards, a new blind called to them, but they arrived at our spread as if on a string. The birds made two passes, all the while being pestered by hunters in the blind nearest us. Their calling was awful.

Despite the hunters’ efforts, I was certain the geese would pitch to our blocks after one more circle. But then the other hunters did something truly amazing: They stood and shot five times at the geese working our spread. A conservative estimate put the birds no closer than 150 yards of their blind.

The skybusting was so bad, in fact, that it didn’t flare the geese. They cupped up, glided in and the fellows nearby got to watch us kill them. In twenty years of duck hunting, I have witnessed some truly poor manners on public land, but that tops them all. Most cases of such discourtesy are just mild nuisances, but others can ruin a hunt or even pose a safety risk. In order to help guide you through your public land duck hunting experience, we’ve compiled our rules of essential etiquette.

Be Reasonable With Your Shots
How many times have you hunted public land when birds flew into the area and some impatient hunter took a long crack at them? Worst of all is when the birds are clearly interested in working—maybe not your spread, but somebody’s—and some greedy individual spoils it.

On private land or even non-crowded public, land I am not opposed to taking a pass shot, within limits of course. However, public land requires extra courtesy and patience. Lest you disrupt hunting opportunities for those around you, shots should be taken over decoys or at least within reasonable range. The threshold for skybusting has no exact distance, but use a little common sense. You know when birds are on the edge of shotgun range. However, if you demonstrate that you do not, another hunter may drop by to explain your mistake.

Don’t Call Birds Working Another Spread
This one really gets me hot under the Gore-Tex collar—when ducks are working a hunter’s spread and some loudmouth tries to highball them over his way instead. He isn’t likely to call the birds in, but may just succeed in calling loudly and poorly enough to flare them entirely. So if ducks start working someone else’s spread, be a big boy and put the call in your pocket.

Loitering At the Dock
It’s a sour feeling to arrive at the public boat ramp—perhaps a little tardier than you hoped—to find a line of trucks waiting for some neophyte to get launched. Nobody has a perfect dismount into the water every time, but there’s no excuse for showing up unprepared. If you’re new to launching a boat or you’ve purchased a new trailer, do everyone a favor and make a few practice runs in the daylight. Ditto for teaching your dog basic obedience. The process of launching boats into the river is not streamlined by dogs running around uncontrolled. However, even if you’re the world’s best boat launcher, remember to keep things moving at a public ramp. There are others behind you who’d like to assemble their spreads prior to sunrise.

Early Bird Gets the Worm
You arrived at your favorite public land honeyhole to find it unoccupied. You’ve got your decoys out in time for a cup of coffee, and as the sun rises, the mallards begin to fly. Then an underpowered johnboat slowly peters on by, flaring everything in sight. Your hunt isn’t ruined, but it’s certainly on hold, and you may have lost your only opportunity of the day to score a duck dinner. It’s good manners on public land to show up early and stay at least until the ducks have settled for the morning. Boats on the move after legal light flare birds, disrupt their  movements—which more dedicated hunters may have scouted—and are just plain aggravating. If you oversleep, you can always hunt the afternoon flight. Please don’t paddle by my spread at 8 a.m.

A Little Distance, Please
In certain jurisdictions, you cannot legally set up within a certain distance of another registered, public-land blind—the buffer is as much as 500 yards in some cases. I don’t entirely agree with such laws, but I understand why they came about. It’s incredible how bold—or stupid—some folks can be in setting up on the outskirts of another man’s spread. Perhaps you arrived at your predetermined destination to find someone else setting up there. Tough. Better go to your backup plan, or at least allow a reasonable amount of space to avoid working the same birds. Arguably the worst offender in this category is the hunter who sets up too closely and is even willing to shoot at birds preparing to pitch to the rightful hunter’s spread.

No Spot is “Your” Spot
My friend Jeff arrived at the island at an ungodly hour, knowing he’d have competition for it but confident it would produce ducks. Forty-five minutes prior to legal light, a man just a few years beyond middle age slid his boat hard into the beach. It was clear he was fighting mad but not clear why. “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me!” he barked. “This is my spot, son. Holy [expletive]. You have a lot of nerve setting up in my spot.”

Jeff explained to the gentleman that on public land there is no such thing as “your” spot. It nearly went to fisticuffs before Jeff threatened to phone the game warden and the man sailed off. One would think the very definition of public land would prevent incidents such as this, but Jeff’s experience—while an extreme example—is not all that unique. Don’t get possessive just because you frequent a certain spot. Public land belongs to all of us.

Pick Up Your Trash
It’s especially important to pick up spent shells, candy wrappers, water bottles and any other assorted litter on public land. Should you discover another hunter’s mess, consider picking that up, too. After all, public land areas aren’t only frequented by hunters—we have the image of our sport to consider. Moreover, I simply don’t know how anyone can leave trash behind and consider himself a conservationist or even a sportsman. In my book, someone who litters is not a duck hunter, just a guy with a shotgun and some decoys.

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