The cool, mid-October wind carries a pleasant aroma of decaying leaves across our little beaver dam. Oaks adorned in rich autumn splendor line the banks, creating the finest of settings while dropping their protein-rich acorns. Down the creek, in the distance, wood ducks awaken on the roost, squealing their apparent delight at being such beautiful waterfowl.
A dozen hand-carved decoys are positioned. Shotguns loaded with No. 4s. The dog is tucked in his MoMarsh blind. A wood duck hunt over decoys — one of my favorite forms of 'fowling — is set to begin.
Plenty of wood ducks are jump shot or taken on float trips, but for me these pursuits pale in comparison to the thrill of shooting them over blocks. It can be a challenging endeavor, as wood ducks are notoriously wary and shy to commit. Yet wood ducks do decoy, despite popular suggestions to the contrary.
"We absolutely shoot decoying wood ducks," says Jackie Vancleave, who guides on Tennessee's famed Reelfoot Lake and is an Avery pro staffer "I don't like to take passing shots. With the right setup, they'll loop downwind and come in. They'll work like mallards."
However, it's a grave mistake to hunt them like greenheads. Wood ducks are a unique bird requiring specialized tactics. Here's how to decoy them.
Scouting is critical to successfully decoy wood ducks, as they're stubbornly unlikely to waiver from habitual feed and loafing areas. It's not just an advantage to find the "X" — it's rather essential.
"I never hunt a spot for wood ducks unless I've seen or at least heard a few birds there while scouting," says Captain Bob Wetherald, owner of Mid River Guide Service in southern Maryland. "It's not like with mallards or gadwalls, where a good spot will almost always produce a few birds. Woodies have entire oak-lined stream systems to use, and sometimes they seem to do so haphazardly."
That breadth of available habitat can also make wood ducks challenging to locate. So, narrow your search to their preferred habitats, which can vary by region. Across much of the country, they prefer swampy streams, flood-prone creeks, sloughs, brushy backwaters, and beaver dams.
In the south, flooded timber, especially among swamps and oxbow sloughs along river systems, can prove fruitful. Regardless of where you live, there are two key variables to look for: ample, brushy cover and timber — which lends the birds a sense of security and provides resting spots to preen — and good food sources such as acorns or smartweed.
"If there's any duck that's heavily influenced by a food source, it's definitely wood ducks," says Wetherald, who hunts the beaver-dammed headwaters of a river system. "I also like spots that are ravenous with branches and old deadwood. You want a hole that looks haunted, not pristine."
Further narrow your search by focusing on the remotest of locations. While mallards are content to loaf on golf course ponds, even as plaid-adorned humans tramp by, wood ducks are a far more suspicious bunch.
"You have to get away from people and boat traffic," says Vancleave, who additionally advises scouting lilly pads due to their tendency to trap acorns. "If you search an area off the beaten path with good timber, food and two or three feet of water, you'll find wood ducks."
As with other waterfowl, the best times to scout are early morning (don't be late: wood ducks are among the first species to take flight) and late evening. All that's left then is putting in the time and effort until you find some ducks.
"Wood ducks are hard to find, but the rest is pretty simple," Vancleave says. "They're really not that hard to hunt."
So, you've successfully located a feeding loafing, or roosting site — now what? First off, don't overcomplicate your decoy spread. A small spread is all that's required, because you're already where the wood ducks want to be, a big spread is unlikely to attract "traffic" wood ducks, and the birds are frequently found in small groups (if scouting indicates otherwise, by all means add decoys).
Wetherald uses only about five wood duck decoys, plus some mallards.
"There's no real wood duck spread," he says with a chuckle. "Finding them is the important thing, then just put a few decoys out."
Vancleave has a slightly more systematic approach involving two-dozen decoys.
"I put them right out in the middle of the hole where they can be seen from any direction," he explains. "And I like to put spinning-wing decoys right out with them. They're really effective on woodies, which seem to like the floating spinners best. I think the staked models have more flash to them, which can scare wood ducks. However if they do flare, don't give up on the spinning-wing right away. Try moving it away from the spread or all the way to the bank. It's just like your regular decoys — sometimes a small adjustment makes all the difference."
As for the remainder of your spread, don't fuss over any specific arrangement such as the classic "U" or "J." Wood ducks just need to see a few decoys.
"I put about seven wood ducks out in groups of two or three with no particular formation," says Ethan Massey, a senior at Louisiana State University who's participated in wood duck studies. "I just toss them out, and wherever they land that's where they are. Then I add a half-dozen mallards, which probably makes me feel better more than anything else. I'll include three or four on a jerk string to bring the hole alive. I think that works better for wood ducks than a spinner."
I like to pitch my decoys closer to vegetation than some hunters, as I find it mimics a realistic scenario. Still, doing so is a compromise — too close to cover and the ducks won't see them. If I'm able to exploit a crosswind, I'll position a dozen decoys upwind with a wing-spinner between them and me. Wood ducks commit — or at least slow down for a look — in front of me at the trailing edge of the decoys. Or at least that's the idea.
"I don't think wood ducks pay as much attention to the wind as other ducks," says Massey. "I like to pretend I know what they're doing, but I've seen so many land where they're not supposed to."
Wood ducks' immunity to calling is greatly exaggerated. Yes, it takes finesse, but they can be coaxed with the right melody.
"I definitely don't work them like I would a mallard," says Vancleave. "I'll holler at them a couple times just to let them know where I'm at and that's it. They hear you. Often they'll fly out 150 yards without seeming to give you a look, and then they'll circle and sneak on in."
There are a host of wood duck vocalizations. Some swear by using the rather loud wee-eet wee-eet call made by flying wood ducks, yet I'm skeptical of its usefulness. Perhaps it aids in gaining birds' attention, but how does sounding like a duck in the air help lure them to the ground? I argue that the most important calls to master are the chuckles and familiar squeals made by content, feeding or loafing wood ducks.
"It just gives them something to key on," says Wetherald. "They may not finish to the decoys, but it gives them a reason to at least buzz your spread. The success rate can be slim, but hey, if you can hear them squealing in the distance why wouldn't you squeal back?"
There is, however, one instance when I find wood ducks more susceptible to calling than other species: when they're on the water. Last season some friends and I were cooking breakfast during a slow hunt when wood ducks announced their presence around the lake bend. My buddy squealed back at them, received a prompt reply, and squealed again. Three woodies paddled with all their might until we stood to flush them for the shot.
As established, the greatest hurdle to decoying wood ducks is finding an area they're actively frequenting. Unfortunately such honey holes can be short-lived.
"The first hunt at a scouted location is typically the best, because woodies are just so skittish," says Wetherald. "You may get a second hunt out of it, but from then on it's hit and miss."
Wood ducks are perhaps the most pressure-sensitive of all waterfowl. From experience, I know even a cautious hunt can scatter them in search of undisturbed havens.
"For some reason a lot of people treat wood duck hunts like a big party," says Massey. "They'll invite five friends and shoot 15 ducks. That can be fun, but then your spot is done, maybe for the year. I'd rather take one buddy, shoot a couple birds and get out. It's more relaxing and gives the ducks a chance to settle back in. Same goes for hunting the roost, which is fairly common with wood ducks but also pushes the birds out."
Make no mistake: Relocating wary, pressured wood ducks in a veritable sea of available habitat is one of waterfowling's great challenges. Yet it can be done.
"Just keep on digging until you find them," says Vancleave. "And when you do, you've got them."