Target trophy wood ducks by spotting and stalking.
"How far are we from the gravel road?" I asked Matt Koob, my hunt host on a warm, clear, early October morning on the edge of a big lake in southwestern Minnesota.
"Oh, maybe 100 yards," he said as he set out the last of six wood duck decoys 50 feet from shore.
"You're sure we won't be hit by flying rocks when the cattle trucks go by?" I asked.
"And you're sure that six dekes will bring in the birds to this end of a half-mile wide lake?"
"You'll see," he said as he stomped a standing site in the chin-high vegetation on a thin neck of land between the big, open water and a 100-foot-wide pond strewn with toppled trees and dead logs behind us.
At five minutes before shooting time, from out of the blue-pink dawn, a dozen ducks came wheeling into our decoy spread. With wet plops and woodie squeals, the birds landed in the open water, and then swam toward a narrow channel into the fallen timber of the little pond at our backs. Within another minute, two more flocks followed from out of the fading darkness. Several smaller bunches repeated the performance.
"That pond will fill full of woodies," Koob whispered. "When the sun's just right, we'll flush 'em, then pick out some Boone and Crockett drake trophies."
It seemed like a great plan, until a pair of raccoons ambled down the shoreline. Through the dead tree and downed logs, the wood ducks clearly sensed the furred predators. While the raccoons were still 50 feet away, the whole swarm of wood ducks took off in a thunder of wings and woodie whistles.
"Well, it almost worked," Koob said after our short walk back to our truck. "Now it's time for plan B, which is even simpler than plan A."
Glassing Cattle Ponds
Plan B was, I soon learned, to drive the southwest Minnesota countryside in search of dugouts or cattle ponds built years ago to water beef and dairy cows. Now, most of the 25- by 50-yard ponds were buried in corn or bean fields and were surrounded by a narrow border of tall, thin trees and lush vegetation. Without the cows to kick down the cover, the hardwoods and the high weeds made the little pools into a perfect wood duck habitat and hiding places.
"Some wood ducks are born and raised on these ponds, and hundreds of migrators will stop on them to rest and feed," Koob said. "I've hunted 'em here since I was a little kid.
We'll glass the dugouts we can see from the road. The ones where we can't see the water, I'll walk in order to check for ducks. When we find 'em, we'll surround the pond and jump some prime drake woodies. It's just that simple.
"All right! There's a half-dozen I can see through the binoculars," he announced at our second stop. "I've already told the farmer we'll be out here today, so let's start our walk."
Koob returned a little out of breath after walking from our truck, then sneaking and peeking over the berm that held back a 25-by-75-yard patch of water in the middle of a 200-acre soybean field.
"The two drakes looked huge," he whispered, adding to our anticipation of nailing a couple mountable wood ducks. "These two big boys are sitting by themselves about 20 yards out from where we'll jump them. They'll probably flush through the trees, so get on 'em in a hurry before they get covered up in the branches."
Good advice, I decided later, after 25 or more woodies jumped up in front of us. In the commotion of wings and wood duck squeals, I saw one big drake for maybe a half a second before it zipped into and through the tangle of tree branches. Just as I was ready to pull the trigger, the old duck became a fading image. So I swung the gun barrel back into the other direction, found another drake in open sky, and dumped it.
Jake, my 12-year-old German wirehair pointer, hit the water like a Labrador, swam the pond, charged up the opposite bank and disappeared into a six-foot-high stand of cattails and swamp brush. A half a minute later, he reappeared with the wood duck in his fuzzy face.
"Close, but not quite," Koob judged after examining the bird. "This duck's just a yearling. His head feathers are fully colored, but not as long and luxurious as an older specimen. And, the lateral bars below and behind his wings are just starting to fill out.
Next season, he would have been a mounter. The feathers won't be wasted though, because we can give them to some of my friends for fly-tying."
In the next three hours, we repeated the process of scoping out dugouts from a distance, checking them up close for trophy woodies, then flushing the birds. By the fifth pond, we had four drakes, two of which were prime candidates for mounting.
"On a typical hunt in October, when conditions are ideal, we can see 75 to 100 woodies a day," Koob said. "Out of that number, the average hunter will almost always have two good opportunities to shoot two real good trophy drakes. Even in the poorest conditions, we will find and flush 50 wood ducks a day with the odds still very high at getting at least one prime drake in the 3-year-old or older category."
Age is a major component of a trophy wood duck. Size of the head is a telltale sign of a mature drake.
"Feather condition, of course, counts a lot in judging a male wood duck for a taxidermy mount," Koob said. "Look for and avoid ducks that have pin feathers with soft, new growth shafts swollen with blood. If there are lots of pinfeathers in the duck, forget it as a bird for taxidermy because the duck will never look right. Long hard feather shafts are the best indicator of a fully matured drake that will be best for mounting.
When jump-shooting, take a dog to retrieve downed birds. Ducks can vanish quickly into the trees and thick vegetation bordering small ponds and creeks.
"October woodies make the finest mounts, because their feathers are full of color, and iridescent.
Later in the season, by December or January, exposure to the sun and the elements will cause fading and wear that diminishes the quality of the bird as a prime specimen for taxidermy."
When harvesting trophy wood ducks, take a camera. The birds deserve to be memorialized with a photo with the hunter's face, a good dog, a fine gun or whatever other memorabilia are essential parts of the hunting experience.
Hunting Skills Required
Although my own personal preference for hunting any species of ducks is to use decoys, calls, boats, blinds and waders, I can adapt to other ways to shoot any waterfowl when the opportunities arise. Jump shooting is one of those occasions -- a chance to flush bird out of water or in a field and pop them as they hit the air. In the right conditions, it takes as much or more skill than setting out and sitting over a decoy spread, because the circumstances for jumping ducks are so variable.
Planning a successful stalk should take into consideration where the ducks are located, the influence of existing cover and wind direction, a good guess as to where the birds will fly when flushed, and a good eye to mark where they fall.
"It looks so easy from a distance, but it's so hard when you actually do it," said one of my hunting partners after we had miscalculated the flight plan of six wood ducks we jumped off a tree-rimmed stock dam out on a big wide pasture in western Kansas.
Jump shooting most kinds of ducks off from ponds does sound easy. Sneak up close into position, flush the birds and then whack easy targets that slowly rise 25 to 30 yards in front of the guns. That's the theory, anyhow.
And it did work this way with one flock of a half-dozen gadwalls, from which we stoned four. With the woodies, the situation was different, because we were looking for drakes, big old drakes. Finding trophy birds in a gyrating swarm of startled woodies jumping up and flying in all directions requires concentration and a sharp focus from the hunter.
Added to the difficulty factor is the fact wood ducks are relatively fast flyers, quick to get into the air, and prone to twist their way through the trees, rather than to fly above them gadwall or mallard style. The window of opportunity, therefore, is narrow, requiring fast reflexes and snap decisions. Wood ducks should be called "woodies" just because they are so adept at winging through tangled limbs and dense branches.
Most shots at pond- or creek-jumped woodies are fairly close, with distances of 25 to 35 yards common. Even so, most veteran wood duck hunters shoot high-velocity, fairly large steel shot -- Nos. 2, 1 and BB. The idea is to get on these birds before they disappear over or through the usually tall shoreline cover and to anchor them with authority. Dropping the ducks close is necessary to find them.
Definitely take a dog for retrieving jump-shot wood ducks, because downed birds can quickly disappear in weeds and grassy shorelines. Any duck that falls in thick cattails, canary grass or weeds can be lost forever without a dog's nose to sniff it out. In our two days of jump shooting woodies, my old German wirehair pointer found six out of our eight birds that fell in heavy cover where we probably would have never found them. On another trip, my two German shorthair pointers retrieved all of the ducks we shot, plus two bonus Canada geese we jumped off the edge of a small lake.
Drakes reaching three years old are often prime for mounting.
Dark-Thirty Not Necessary
Although I got up at 4 a.m. and drove 30 miles to meet Koob, then went another 20 miles to the lake where we set out decoys, none of the early hours were necessary.
"Tomorrow, let's meet at 8 a.m. and hunt till noon if we have to," Koob suggested. The idea worked just fine -- we collected a two-wood-duck-per-gun limit by noon. On the second day, we had our last drake woodie on the fourth pond, a big bird retrieved by Jake out of a mish-mash of tree limbs and tall weeds.
"Though jump shooting these area ponds is done mainly for wood ducks, that doesn't mean we won't shoot other species," Koob said. "Typically, we will put up some mallards, teal, gadwalls and wigeon from the opening day early in October to ice-over in the second week in November. In fact, last year, we limited out on greenheads a couple of times toward the end of October. During the main part of the duck migration, we can have thousands of mallards feeding in the thousands of acres of grain stubble throughout the region. Lots of them sit on these ponds while they're here."
In most upper Midwestern states, any time in October is the best time if there have been no major, long-term cold fronts to push the ducks south. Generally, woodies in the upper Midwest are early migrators, sometimes moving out of northern nesting areas in late August or anytime in September.
Even with cold weather, however, many wood ducks will linger in the northern states.
I've jumped woodies from ice-rimmed beaver ponds in central Minnesota, and out of mostly frozen creeks in Wisconsin as late as the first week in November. By November, if the weather stays above freezing, wood ducks will still be found in huntable numbers in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.
Hunting 'Good' Ducks
On the second day of our hunt, back at a local restaurant where we went for a late breakfast, a trio of camouflage-clad hunters sat next to us. When I asked how they did that morning, their report was one gadwall and one blue-winged teal, despite motoring a half-mile across a big slough and putting out four-dozen floater decoys.
"There's just no 'good' ducks around here this time of the season," one of the disappointed hunters concluded.
The three guys left before we could show them our trophy wood ducks.
Jerry Thoms is a frequent contributor from Brookings, S.D.