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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.