November 14, 2006
A lifetime of blunders does a seasoned waterfowler make.
It's a fact that some hunters harvest more ducks and geese than other hunters. I once thought that successful hunters were just lucky. However, I now feel success is a result of paying close attention to details, watching how birds react to various situations, recognizing when mistakes are made and avoiding making the same mistake twice.
Throughout the last 30 years of waterfowling, I've made more than my fair share of mistakes. However, during that time, I've also learned from those mistakes and become a better hunter. I've definitely learned from my experiences, and they've made me a better hunter.
1. Not Remaining Motionless
One of the reasons I hunt waterfowl is because it's exciting. The sights and sounds get my heart pounding and blood flowing. In my early years of hunting, it was common nature for me to fidget in my blind and swivel my head in multiple directions while searching the skies for incoming birds.
When birds approached, I often got caught up in the excitement and started watching them. While doing so, I had a tendency to move my head with the birds. This unnatural motion and the glare off my face alerted the birds and helped them pinpoint danger below. When this happened, the birds flared and I didn't get any shooting opportunities.
Over time I realized my motion and that of my buddies' was flaring birds. As a direct result, I stay low and move slowly while watching for incoming birds. On most occasions, I try to move only my eyes and keep my head as still as possible. When hunting with a group of hunters, my buddies and I pick one hunter to do all the watching and calling of the shots. While we're waiting for the "take 'em" signal, we keep our heads down and have trust in our partner to call the shot at the right time. In addition, since we all enjoy watching the birds we regularly take turns doing the watching and calling.
2. Improper Use Of Camouflage
I grew up hunting ducks and geese while wearing tan and green colored clothing and have come to the realization that waterfowling and camouflage go hand in hand. Nowadays, I use camouflage to blend in with the natural surroundings. Blinds and accessories also benefit from camouflage because they disappear into the surroundings making it hard for birds to detect a human presence.
Over time, I've discovered that not all camouflage is created equal. When stepping away from the spread to retrieve vehicles or downed birds, I've observed that older patterns with their blocky shapes appear like a solid blob. However, the newer patterns with contrasting earth tones and natural shapes create an open, irregular and realistic effect.
In recent times, camouflage creators have gone an extra step by adding counter shading to their patterns. This unique shading process increases the shape and color contrast of the camouflage patterns. The result is a three dimensional illusion so realistic, that no matter what distance I'm looking at it, I get the impression I can reach right through the pattern.
Over time, I've learned to match my camo pattern to each individual situation. For example, I'll never wear a dark pattern in a lighter colored environment or vice-versa. Similarly I would never think of using a snow pattern unless there was snow on the ground. In some situations I'll wear the same camo pattern from head to toe, yet on other occasions I find it beneficial to mix and match various patterns.
The school of hard knocks, featuring flaring birds, has taught me to not limit my use of camouflage to just jackets and pants. Thus, I also wear camo gloves and face masks. To take my camouflaging to the next level I make sure that none of my clothing has shiny zippers or buttons. In addition, when selecting hunting accessories, such as blind bags and thermoses, I go with the camouflage versions.
3. Decoys Too Tight
When I first started hunting, I often made the mistake of setting my decoys too close together. However, when doing some scouting it finally dawned on me that ducks and geese spread out when relaxed and moved closer together when they become alarmed or nervous. Thus, my scouting sessions helped me learn that my tight decoy spreads were portraying danger and actually turning off incoming birds.
Since then, I always try to set up my decoys, so that they look like relaxed birds. Such results are achieved by deploying my decoys in small family groups of four to seven, with a spacing of at least three feet between each decoy and a minimum of 10 feet between family groups.
4. No Landing Zone
Time afield has also taught me that in order to attract birds, my decoy spreads must be welcoming. Looking back on my early years, I used a lot of oval or circular decoy patterns that just didn't have obvious landing zones. Birds would circle and circle, but never commit.
Therefore, when setting up my decoys, I now always make sure to leave a landing zone. Since incoming birds typically land just short of the main flock, my landing zone is typically a pocket of open space downwind of my main decoy spread. My best hunts seem to happen over fishhook, V or J patterns. Last season, I also had great success by observing exactly how the birds were positioned during my scouting trips and then replicating that pattern the next day with a very pronounced and obvious landing zone.
5. Shiny Decoys
Decoying ducks and geese are always alert and looking for danger. When they see the glare off shiny decoys they know something isn't right. When this happens the birds will land well short of the decoys or quickly head for safer places.
Thus, I always take time prior to the season to check my decoys for glare. If I find some glaring decoys, I'll repaint them with flat paint or replace them with new decoys. Additionally, I'll continue to check my decoys during the hunting season to see if any reflect light. If I find a shiny decoy in my set, I remove it immediately and fix it up after my hunt.
To help avoid shiny decoys, I ensure they are clean and dirt free when I put them in decoy bags. If not, the dirt on the decoys will rub off the paint and I'll be left with shiny decoys.
Over the past season and a half, I have flocked all my Canada goose heads. In addition, I'm now replacing all my old decoys with fully flocked decoys. When my spread is fully converted over, I'll never have to worry about decoy shine again.
6. Calling Too Much
I used to get so caught up in my calling that I'd neglect to watch how incoming birds were reacting to my calls. In many cases, my calling was too much for them, or featured the wrong sounds, and actually ended up spooking incoming birds instead of bringing them closer.
Now, when calling I watch the birds to see how they react to my calls. If the birds become energized by my series of calls, I'll keep blowing in that fashion. However, if the birds start to hesitate or slide off when I call, I'll stop my calling or give them a different sequence or cadence. While I experiment with various calls or lack of sounds, I watch the birds to see how they react to the various changes. As soon as I observe something that is working, I'll stick to it.
Amazingly, I have found that in many cases, "less is best." Sometimes, a little calling is all it takes to catch birds' attention and keep them coming. In fact, I have had many a good hunt where I've never even blown a duck or goose call.
7. An Uncontrolled Dog
It's a pleasure to watch a retriever pick up downed birds! However, there's no enjoyment if the dog doesn't listen or can't remain motionless when birds are working the set. There are only so many opportunities on a hunt, so I don't want a dog spoiling any of them.
I've seen many a good hunt quickly go bad when a retriever runs erratically between the decoys or swims out of control amongst the blocks. When this happens, I now take action by restraining dogs in blinds, tethering them to the spot or in worse case scenarios walking them back to the truck and putting them in their kennel.
When taking such actions, I don't feel bad, because all dogs have good days and bad days. In addition, young dogs need to learn the routine and will only do so by discipline. My motto is to spend extra time training dogs at home as opposed to trying to do so in the field.
8. Dirty Gun
Waterfowling is hard on shotguns. Dirt, grime and stubble can accumulate in the action. When guns become too dirty, they can jam up and not cycle shells. While this is especially true for semiautomatic shotguns, I've also had it happen when using pump guns.
When my gun fails, I have nobody to blame but myself. To prevent my shotgun from letting me down, I give it a quick cleaning after every outing. I've found that air compressors work perfectly for blowing off dust and grit and allow me to quickly clean my gun without having to break it down. After every three or four hunts, I strip my gun down and give it a real thorough cleaning.
A long time ago, I dropped my shotgun into a mud puddle. This plugged my barrel and quickly ended my hunt. Having learned a hard lesson that day, I now carry a few cleaning supplies and portable cleaning rod with me whenever I head afield.
9. Unprepared For The Weather
Many years ago when I was a young pup, if unexpected nasty weather rolled in I used to head home and miss out on some of the best hunting of the year. Although I spent hours planning my hunt, scouting and setting up decoys, I was simply unprepared for the brutal weather and had to call it quits.
After hearing one too many times about what I missed out on, I've invested in good quality insulated wind and waterproof jackets, pants, gloves and hats. In addition, my blind bag always has a spare pair of gloves, a skullcap and several chemical hand warmers in it. With good quality versatile hunting clothes and a few extra accessories, I'm ready to hunt in any conditions Mother Nature throws at me.
As an added precaution, before heading out hunting, I take the time to catch the weather forecast for the day. If there's even a remote chance of bad weather, I pack a few extra clothing items and put a survival kit in my truck.
10. Snooze You Loose
Being late for a hunt is inexcusable. I always make sure I give myself ample time to travel to my hunting spot, set up decoys and move my vehicle from the area. If legal shooting time starts a half an hour before sunrise, I plan to be completely ready at least 15 minutes before that.
I do so, because experience has taught me that if I don't and birds start working the area, my final stages of preparation usually spook the birds, change their flight path and ruin my hunt. Being late also put unnecessary pressure on me and spoiled what should have been an enjoyable time.
11. The Wrong Loads
Trust me when I tell you geese are hard to kill with duck loads and ducks are hard to eat when they come down with goose loads. Where I hunt, ducks and geese often stage and feed in the same places. In many cases, what was supposed to be a duck shoot can quickly turn into a goose hunt or vice versa, even though scouting indicated it was going to be a one species hunt!
Thus, I now always make sure I have the proper loads and choke tubes with me to effectively and ethically harvest both species of birds. In addition, I always carry lots of ammunition so that I never again have to watch incoming birds while holding an empty shotgun.
12. Not Knowing When To Shoot
When I first started hunting, countless birds escaped unscathed each fall because I had trouble deciding when to pull the trigger. The most common mistake I made was to shoot when birds were too far away and not within range. After that issue was figured out, I then had problems deciding when to shoot as the birds worked closer. During those days, I passed on many shots hoping that the birds would make just one more approach for the perfect shooting opportunity.
Like most hunters, I prefer to shoot my birds in the 20- to 25-yard range. However, based on various experiences, I will now call the shot if the birds are within such ranges, even if they are coasting over as opposed to having set wings.
There are times when ducks and geese will not always "finish" or get that close. Thus, I've come to realize that there are times when I have to take them at longer ranges such as those out to 40 yards.
So as birds work my spreads, I watch them to see how close they'll come. When it looks like they're going to bust or slide off, I'll start shooting, provided they are within range.
To help me quickly gauge distances, I set up a few decoys 35 to 40 yards away from my blinds. When the birds reach those decoys, I know they are within range. However, since the birds can quickly back pedal 10-plus yards while I'm shouldering my shotgun, I try to work them closer before opening fire.
Over time, I've come to realize that the optimal shots are those taken at birds in the final stages of landing. Thus, when the birds are really working well, I'll let them move in tight so I can get some close range shooting action.
Something that has worked for me is incorporating a five second rule. As the birds come down the pipe and start into their final stages of landing, I will not holler out the "take 'em" signal. Instead, I'll count to five before calling the shot. By doing so, the ducks and geese coast in just that much closer and in most cases have their feet down and wings wide open when the shooting begins.
It's evident I've made more than my fair share of mistakes. On the other hand, a pro-active approach has helped me overcome these mistakes and made me a better waterfowl hunter. I still flub up, finding ways to botch this or that hunting situation. Still, I'm far more prepared than I used to be, which only leaves making good decisions at the moment of truth. I can nearly always do that!