October 10, 2021
By Scott Haugen
I grew up as a lot of us did, jump shooting creeks and sloughs for wood ducks after school and early in the morning on the weekends. Most of the time it was too brushy to fire a shot; other times the ducks were out of range so fast I failed to shoulder the gun. When it came together though, it was a feeling of achievement, one that held special meaning once a breathtaking drake was in hand.
“I’m telling ya, these kids regularly pull wood ducks into the decoys,” Lowell reassured me. A few days later I received a call from Richard, the then-21 year-old, who promptly invited me on a wood duck hunt. It was almost a year until the time was right for a December hunt, but it was worth the wait.
“It’s shooting time,” Richard declared. “This is going to happen, fast.”
Before I even saw a flock plunge into the decoys, Richard and Brent each had a wood duck on the water, and my pudelpointer Echo, wasted no time launching after them. Then the area exploded. A flurry of wood ducks took to the sky, and more continued pouring in from the orchards in which they’d been feeding, just as Richard foretold. Also, they started dropping right back into the decoys, just as he said they would.
In less than 20 minutes we’d closed-in on a three-man limit. Ten minutes later the hunt was over as we carefully picked out drakes. My pudelpointer loves retrieving in water and was in heaven on her first wood duck hunt. Twenty-one wood ducks lay at our feet, and I was speechless.
The Right Situation
Since that initiation three seasons ago, I’ve decoyed wood ducks with the Kropf brothers many times. My whole life I grew up thinking it was impossible to get wood ducks to decoy. I’d tried and failed numerous times. Many of the old timers with real knowledge of decoying birds claimed the same thing, “Wood ducks won’t decoy, period,” and this even after my stories of success.
“Yeah, I hear that a lot,” smiled Richard. Richard is a man of few words. Soft spoken, yes, but as I’ve gotten to know him, one of the most passionate, humble, knowledgeable waterfowlers I’ve had the pleasure of hunting with. “The thing a lot of folks don’t seem to understand is the situation has to be almost perfect in order to get wood ducks to decoy. If the wind is wrong, the water level too high or too low, or the birds are dropping into an area too far from an opening in which to set your decoys, it won’t work. These are very shy, secretive birds, and if they see something they don’t like, or the situation isn’t just right, they won’t drop into the decoys.”
The situations Richard referred to was something that made more sense to me the more I hunted with him. The challenge of decoying wood ducks lies in getting them to land somewhere else besides where they want to dive-bomb into thick habitat lining small creeks and sloughs, places they prefer.
Every time I’ve hunted with the Kropf brothers we’ve set up where a creek slightly widens, in an area that’s more open than where the ducks normally land and spend the day roosting, preening, and frolicking in dense habitat. It’s these openings hunters want to locate to start their wood duck decoying quest.
“We mostly jump shot woodies until I was about 15 years old, then I wanted to try decoying them,” shares Richard. “I wanted the experience to last, not be over with after a couple quick shots.”
Does decoying wood ducks work every time? Of course not. It’s like decoying any waterfowl, but if you truly want to find success, it starts with scouting.
Scouting for Wood Ducks
Watch wood ducks coming into a skinny creek or brush-lined slough on a river, and they approach at a high speed and often land without hesitation. They’re moving so fast in such thick cover, getting a shot can be near impossible. The wood ducks are confident of the protection in such habitats, places they’ve likely been using for weeks.
Last season Richard called me in early November. “I think we have a spot to hunt. There are about 75 wood ducks in the corner of a creek, I just want to watch them for a few more days. If you want to join me one afternoon, you’re more than welcome.” I didn’t hesitate.
The next afternoon Richard and I were using binoculars and a spotting scope to count wood ducks and watch their movement in the creek corner. Then we edged closer and closer. An hour later we were right where Richard was thinking of setting up the blind to hunt from, our approach being covered by thick brush.
We sat for the next two hours and watched wood ducks swim up and down the creek, many within 10-feet of us. The season was open, and we could have shot birds, but in late afternoon you’d be lucky to get three shots off in the thick cover and it’d be over. “If we were to shoot these birds now, we might get a few, but the rest would likely not come back for several days or weeks, maybe even the rest of the season,” Richard confirmed.
“Once we get a few more birds coming in here at daylight, we’ll get serious about hunting it,” continued Richard. A lot of times where you find wood ducks in the afternoon is not the same spot they fly into in the morning. You’ll want to be sure and have a lot of birds landing near where you want to hunt in the morning, prior to committing to a hunt.” The time to hunt this creek came two weeks later, and it was a huge success, once again.
Richard had three other places he kept an eye on last season, with the hopes of decoying wood ducks–two in a creek, one on a slough of a muddy flowing river. The situation was never right at any of those places, however, largely due to the loads of rain we received which scattered the wood ducks; we never hunted any of those spots.
The wood ducks we hunt come to roost in the morning after feeding all night in filbert orchards, what some folks refer to as hazelnut orchards. Call them hazelnuts around the locals and you’ll get a look that makes you feel most uncomfortable. I grew up in the filbert country of Oregon’s Willamette and McKenzie river valleys, some of the most fertile soils in the world for this crop. In fact, my grandparents owned a filbert orchard, as did many neighbors, and I enjoyed some memorable wood duck hunts in them as a kid.
Today, the filbert industry is booming in the Pacific Northwest as the global demand for these nuts continues to rise. With more food available in our region, wood duck numbers are also growing. This is just one example of how finding a high-protein food source wood ducks thrive on, along with water they roost on, can lead to decoying action that can be nothing short of spectacular. I’ve had good wood duck hunts near groves of Russian olives, too, for example.
“Before hunting them I’ll check an area really close early in the morning a few days in a row,” offers Richard. “I’ve hunted these places since I was a kid, so know where the wood ducks like to be. Once numbers build to 75 or 100 birds, it’s time to get serious about hunting them, but before deciding on a hunt I want to make sure the birds are working an area I can hunt.” Many places where wood ducks land in the morning aren’t favorable to decoying, so those are places that can be jump-shot.
Wood Duck Decoys
The most simplistic part of decoying wood ducks is just that, the decoys. In this day and age of massive puddle duck and goose decoy spreads, when it comes to wood ducks, minimization is key.
“I only set out a half-dozen or so wood duck decoys, sometimes a dozen at the most,” shares Richard. “This is because I want to simulate the first few birds of the morning setting down in a spot they normally wouldn’t land, and I want to make sure there is plenty of landing room for fast-approaching ducks.” Decoying wood ducks takes place in tight confines, and if you have too many decoys in the water it plugs the holes, limiting landing spots.
Every time I’ve decoyed wood ducks in creeks with Richard we’ve set up in small openings, places where wood ducks wouldn’t normally land. These open settings are always within 50 yards of where the birds routinely set down, so the decoy spread can be seen as birds approach. “If you can’t get within 40- or 50-yards of where the ducks normally land in the morning, it’s almost impossible to pull them in,” points out Richard.
Wood ducks won’t hesitate landing in moving water, something that’s not necessarily the case with some puddle ducks. “If I can put a few decoys in a creek where the current keeps them moving, that’s great, as movement is key in attracting wary woodies,” Richard smiles. “If there’s no moving water, I run a pair of mallards on a jerk cord in the open, and maybe set another pair of mallards beside them. This is because mallards–even though they’re not as abundant in little creeks as wood ducks are–will come in and they’re the ones that often remain and dabble in the open. Once wood ducks land they don’t waste much time before swimming tight to shore where they feel safe. If wood ducks see mallards moving around, they assume it’s safe, and placing the wood duck decoys between the moving mallards and a brushy shoreline, can be the ticket.”
“If they’re not hitting the hole I’ve created, sometimes I’ll fill-in that hole which invites them to land closer to the brush line, outside the decoys,” Richard notes. “These ducks like landing in thick cover anyway, and we’re defying nature by inviting them to land in the open, even though it’s a small body of water.”
Calling Wood Ducks
As for calling, Richard is a firm believer that wood duck whistles work. “I like running a whistle the whole time, and if we have mallard decoys in the spread, it helps to have a mallard call, too. You don’t need to run the mallard call a lot, but it does help catch the attention of woodies that want to drop directly into the tight spots where you don’t want them to go.”
Wood ducks are vocal and social, even when sitting during the day. I’ve sat for hours many times over the years, watching them frolic, bathe and swim up and down creeks all afternoon long. Richard has called in many of these birds in the afternoon, where they swam right to his whistles with no decoys.
A morning wood duck flight is brief. If things aren’t working, quickly change it. If time is wasted second-guessing yourself, that’s lost opportunity, for if just one small flock lands where you don’t want it to, the hunt can result in a dry-run as that’s where the rest of the incoming birds will land.
The more people I’ve shared my recent-found passion of decoying wood ducks with, confirming it does work, the more surprises I’ve had. Of course, there are skeptics who still say you can never decoy wood ducks, and that’s fine, to each their own. But the ones who shoot you a smile and open up with their stories of success have surprised me, as there are a lot more of them than I ever imagined. These are the hunters who work hard to find success, and have things figured out.
Decoying wood ducks across the country seems to be loved by a small fraternity, yet very doable in many settings. As with any duck hunting adventure, the key to success is making an honest attempt, and this requires time, effort and hunting smart. Once dialed-in, confidence levels rise and the number of wood duck encounters you enjoy will multiply. Before you know it, you’ll be addicted to the challenges and fun times had by decoying one of the most striking, best-tasting ducks the world of waterfowling has to offer.