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6 Big Water Duck Hunting Tips

by Ken Bailey   |  January 12th, 2016 0

Big water duck hunting tactics

Whether on large inland lakes and reservoirs or coastal bays and flats, hunting ducks on big water is among the most challenging and rewarding of waterfowling pursuits.

It demands the best in tactics, gear, clothing, gunning and knowledge of duck ecology, movements and identification, while providing an experience that can’t be replicated in the austerity of a grain field.

Hunting agricultural fields or small potholes certainly has its charm. The shooting can be fast and furious, it’s typically “clean” waterfowling, access in is generally simple, and there’s no denying that mallards, which make up the majority of the bag across North America, are an absolute treat on the table.

Here are some killer duck hunting tips when you’re faced with big water situations.

Create a Kill Hole 

Much has been said about the best patterns for decoy spreads; the V, U, W, J, and many others. They all work. Fundamental to any setup, however, is ensuring you provide an open landing area where you want to be shooting ducks in relation to your blind.

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Try and locate your landing zone on the downwind side of the spread. Space your blocks much wider apart on the big water than you would in a field, as it gives the appearance of more birds, and on big water more decoys is almost always better.

Decoying tips for open water duck hunting

If you’re specifically targeting diving ducks, consider using a long line. Setting ones that extend 100 to 200 yards, angled downwind, anchored at both ends, with decoys spaced five to 10 yards apart are appropriate. You can attach blocks to the main line on three-foot leads using swordfish or halibut clips that can be purchased through commercial fishing supply houses.

The near-shore end of my long line stops just beyond my furthest single-line decoy on the upwind side of the set. When all works right, ducks cruising the lake will turn on my long line, following it all the way in before settling into the landing zone.

Diversify Your Duck Spreads

One of the great benefits of duck hunting on big water is the diversity of species you’ll encounter. Mixed bags are commonplace if that’s what you’re looking for. Alternatively, if you’re targeting a specific species or two, you must be able to readily identify them on the wing.

Profile, color, wing beat, voice, flight and flock characteristics, and time of the season all provide clues.

Concealment tips when duck hunting big water

On big water duck hunts, carry binoculars with you and make a determined effort to identify all the ducks you see, even those well out of range. A duck you can’t see to shoot is an illegal duck, so make sure you can see what you’re shooting at before pulling the trigger.

Identification guides, videos and audio tapes can be a big help, but there’s no substitute for time in the field. Carry binoculars with you when duck hunting big waters and make a determined effort to identify all the ducks you see, even those well out of range.

With so many  species-specific bag limits, if you can’t identify birds on the wing, you may quickly find yourself in an unfortunate legal situation. If you’re unsure, don’t shoot.

How to hide 

Ducks often fly along the lee side of islands, points and bays on windy days, where the natural vegetation protects them from the buffeting winds. Where possible, use natural cover for your blind, whether that’s grasses, rock piles or fallen timber, and remember to bring a seat for comfort and a lower profile.

Duck Hunting Big water tips

When it comes to duck hunting, nothing comes close to natural vegetation for concealment. You can weave vegetation such as cattails, bulrushes, or cornstalks to your boat or blind and this will work great for fooling late-season birds. The birds have seen everything by now, so thinking smarter will bag you more birds.

Those hunting from a boat have more location options but have to be more concerned with concealment. There are a number of commercial boat blinds available—most consist of aluminum framing interlaced with camouflage netting or artificial grasses. My jon boat is equipped this way, but I often just tuck it in to cattail or bulrush beds to maximize cover.

Layout boats are another effective option that allow you to set up right amongst the decoys, even in open water, but they require the use of a tender boat to get you in and out of position and retrieve birds.

Big-water duck hunting exposes you to a wide range of potential threats, so safety must be considered. Life jackets are an obvious, though often overlooked, necessity. I also carry a signal whistle, GPS, cell phone and a simple survival kit. Weather, accidents or equipment failure can all leave you stranded, and a few well-chosen accessories will save you a world of discomfort.

Camo AND Calling

Days on the open water, particularly late in the season, can bring bone-chilling weather in the blink of an eye. It’s imperative that you dress for the worst possible conditions, and that means ensuring you have gloves, a stocking cap, and layered garments that are warm and waterproof. It’s easy to inadvertently get wet, with the accompanying risk of hypothermia.

Best Duck Hunting Clothing

With late-season duck hunting comes frigid temperatures for most of the country. Proper clothing is vital if you want to stick out all-day hunts, or even short day hunts. It’s easy to inadvertently get wet, with a great risk of getting hypothermia. Neoprene chest waders are worn sometimes to add an extra layer of warmth and protection from the harsh elements mother nature throws during the seasons.

I wear neoprene chest waders, even when I’m hunting from ground blinds, as they provide insulation while protecting me from rain, sleet, waves and shaking retrievers. Waterproof gloves are also a real benefit, so your hands stay dry and warm when placing and picking up decoys.

Proper clothing also means effective camouflage, and don’t overlook the value of a camo mask or face paint. Nothing flares birds more quickly than a pale, shiny face pointed skyward.

What To Shoot

When it comes to guns there are no absolutes, but shots are often on the long side when open-water hunting, and as such a 12-gauge is really the only practical option.

Gun options for duck hunting big waters

When it comes to big water hunts, pumps and semi-automatic shotguns are a first choice. Long shots are often on the menu for big waters, so practicing your shot throughout the season for this type of situation will come in handy.

Doubles can be awkward to load while sitting in a boat, and if there’s ever a need for a third, anchoring shot, it’s on the big water. That’s why I recommend pumps and semi-autos and shot size No. 2 or larger.

If you are ever going to invest in the better, and more expensive, steel shot alternatives like Hevi-Shot, this would be the time. The shooting can be challenging and large diving ducks are notorious for absorbing pellets.

Go Early or Stay Home

There’s no substitute for a well-trained retriever, and you get to see them perform at their very best when hunting large wetlands. This is what they’ve been bred for over the decades, and it’s a real treat to watch them in action.

Duck Hunting with retrievers

However, the absence of a dog shouldn’t prevent you from hunting large water. You’ll just have to make retrieval a priority after each bird is shot; it doesn’t take much wind or time for a downed duck to drift several hundred yards.

Big-water duck hunting is best appreciated by those who aren’t watching the clock. Get out there at first light and let the cards fall.

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