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Wildfowl's Guide to Public Land Duck Hunting Etiquette

Wildfowl's Guide to Public Land Duck Hunting Etiquette

Duck hunting public land certainly comes with its share of pitfalls and pleasures. A lot of that has to do with the fact that you're sharing space with people who may or may not abide by certain commonsense rules of hunting etiquette. Usually things go pretty well, but other times it can be a bit frustrating.

I can remember a specific opening day in our public land blind near Washington, D.C., where we had a pretty slow day until a few lonely honks on the horizon quickly changed our spirits. The four geese were high, but they were coming in nonetheless. Every 500 yards, a new blind called to them, but they arrived at our spread as if on a string. The birds made two passes, all the while being pestered by hunters in the blind nearest us. Their calling was awful.

Despite the hunters' efforts, I was certain the geese would pitch to our blocks after one more circle. But then the other hunters did something truly amazing: They stood and shot five times at the geese working our spread. A conservative estimate put the birds no closer than 150 yards of their blind.

The skybusting was so bad, in fact, that it didn't flare the geese. They cupped up, glided in and the fellows nearby got to watch us kill them. In twenty years of duck hunting, I have witnessed some truly poor manners on public land, but that tops them all. Most cases of such discourtesy are just mild nuisances, but others can ruin a hunt or even pose a safety risk. In order to help guide you through your public land duck hunting experience, we've compiled our rules of essential etiquette.

Be Reasonable With Your Shots

How many times have you hunted public land when birds flew into the area and some impatient hunter took a long crack at them? Worst of all is when the birds are clearly interested in working — maybe not your spread, but somebody's — and some greedy individual spoils it.

On private land or even non-crowded public, land I am not opposed to taking a pass shot, within limits of course. However, public land requires extra courtesy and patience. Lest you disrupt hunting opportunities for those around you, shots should be taken over decoys or at least within reasonable range. The threshold for skybusting has no exact distance, but use a little common sense. You know when birds are on the edge of shotgun range. However, if you demonstrate that you do not, another hunter may drop by to explain your mistake.

Don't Call Birds Working Another Spread

This one really gets me hot under the Gore-Tex collar — when ducks are working a hunter's spread and some loudmouth tries to highball them over his way instead. He isn't likely to call the birds in, but may just succeed in calling loudly and poorly enough to flare them entirely. So if ducks start working someone else's spread, be a big boy and put the call in your pocket.

Loitering At the Dock

It's a sour feeling to arrive at the public boat ramp — perhaps a little tardier than you hoped — to find a line of trucks waiting for some neophyte to get launched. Nobody has a perfect dismount into the water every time, but there's no excuse for showing up unprepared. If you're new to launching a boat or you've purchased a new trailer, do everyone a favor and make a few practice runs in the daylight. Ditto for teaching your dog basic obedience. The process of launching boats into the river is not streamlined by dogs running around uncontrolled. However, even if you're the world's best boat launcher, remember to keep things moving at a public ramp. There are others behind you who'd like to assemble their spreads prior to sunrise.

Early Bird Gets the Worm


You arrived at your favorite public land honeyhole to find it unoccupied. You've got your decoys out in time for a cup of coffee, and as the sun rises, the mallards begin to fly. Then an underpowered johnboat slowly peters on by, flaring everything in sight. Your hunt isn't ruined, but it's certainly on hold, and you may have lost your only opportunity of the day to score a duck dinner. It's good manners on public land to show up early and stay at least until the ducks have settled for the morning. Boats on the move after legal light flare birds, disrupt their  movements — which more dedicated hunters may have scouted — and are just plain aggravating. If you oversleep, you can always hunt the afternoon flight. Please don't paddle by my spread at 8 a.m.

A Little Distance, Please

In certain jurisdictions, you cannot legally set up within a certain distance of another registered, public-land blind — the buffer is as much as 500 yards in some cases. I don't entirely agree with such laws, but I understand why they came about. It's incredible how bold — or stupid — some folks can be in setting up on the outskirts of another man's spread. Perhaps you arrived at your predetermined destination to find someone else setting up there. Tough. Better go to your backup plan, or at least allow a reasonable amount of space to avoid working the same birds. Arguably the worst offender in this category is the hunter who sets up too closely and is even willing to shoot at birds preparing to pitch to the rightful hunter's spread.

No Spot is "Your" Spot

My friend Jeff arrived at the island at an ungodly hour, knowing he'd have competition for it but confident it would produce ducks. Forty-five minutes prior to legal light, a man just a few years beyond middle age slid his boat hard into the beach. It was clear he was fighting mad but not clear why. "You've gotta be kiddin' me!" he barked. "This is my spot, son. Holy [expletive]. You have a lot of nerve setting up in my spot."

Jeff explained to the gentleman that on public land there is no such thing as "your" spot. It nearly went to fisticuffs before Jeff threatened to phone the game warden and the man sailed off. One would think the very definition of public land would prevent incidents such as this, but Jeff's experience — while an extreme example — is not all that unique. Don't get possessive just because you frequent a certain spot. Public land belongs to all of us.

Pick Up Your Trash

It's especially important to pick up spent shells, candy wrappers, water bottles and any other assorted litter on public land. Should you discover another hunter's mess, consider picking that up, too. After all, public land areas aren't only frequented by hunters — we have the image of our sport to consider. Moreover, I simply don't know how anyone can leave trash behind and consider himself a conservationist or even a sportsman. In my book, someone who litters is not a duck hunter, just a guy with a shotgun and some decoys.

Venice, Louisiana

An hour or so south of New Orleans is one of the coolest trophy duck games in town. 'People think of canvasbacks, they think of Lake Sinclair and Pool 9, but let me tell you, there is not a better place on God's green earth to shoot cans and pintails; it is the most amazing thing. You run south from Venice down the river an hour or two and branch off into the marsh, and from there you are in a pirot in one of the most imperiled duck habitats on the planet due to saltwater intrusion. It is guaranteed if they haven't had a hurricane (which kills duck food with saltwater from flooding) and if it's stable, you will kill a can and a pintail, then fill out on gaddies and teal. It's unbelievable, ' Russell says. Shoot your limit early and go chase redfish and speckled seatrout. Or in January, you can go offshore and hook tuna after hunting, and January is the best month for a plumed out drake can or pintail.

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Pintails and canvasbacks
-- Starting at $200-$300 a day
-- Peak: January


Shooting thirsty greenheads over peanut fields here is another bucket list experience for the mallard-minded. It's only a five-bird limit, 'but if you think you've experienced hunting decoying mallards, you haven't until you chase them over water in the morning when they are coming in thirsty. These birds are not circling, ' Russell says. 'And in the afternoon, in the fields, you haven't seen anything like sitting under a tornado of mallards that look like little black dots in the stratosphere and start falling like cinder blocks from the sky. You just don't get that in a rice field. When they get full of hulled peanuts they have got to drink. ' You will shoot greenheads and wigeon and some geese, too. Hold out for greenheads.

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Mallards
-- $300 a day
-- Peak: December-January

Aleutian Islands, Alaska

Out in the Aleutian Chain awaits a mixed wing of waterfowl and seafood heaven. Harlequins, broadwing scaup, buffleheads, Pacific common eiders, Eurasian wigeon, Eurasian greenwings, and best of all, Pacific brant. Pacific brant are more beautiful and better eating than their Atlantic brethren. Go in September to hunt brant and geese, and salmon fish in the afternoons. October-November trips bring more fishing, and there is bonus ptarmigan hunting and birdwatching. Later in the fall you can score on halibut. Cold Bay has emperor geese, and you can't hunt them, but it's one of most beautiful waterfowl in the world. 'I took a client out there who either shot or saw 27 new species of waterfowl to add to his life list, ' Russell says. Your guides know where the birds are based on the wind and how that relates to accessibility. Cold Bay's lagoon is split from the Bering Sea by a reef, and the weather can be 40 degrees and sunny one minute and blowing 50 mph and sleeting the next. 'You may boat in to your spot, you may walk in on a bear trail€¦it's as much Indiana Jones as a duck hunt, ' Russell says.

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Pacific brant and elite sea ducks
-- Starting at gallery=12,700-$3,000 for six days
-- Peak: September-January


'In the Lower 48 we are bastardized by a plague of lesser snows and everyone is talking about hundred-bird days€¦Quebec ain't that way, baby, ' Russell says. You are hunting a greater snow goose that is a whole different creature, decoys fantastically and makes a living grubbing on the banks of the St. Lawrence River amid 20-foot tidal surges. You can't hunt on the river itself — it's a sanctuary — but you can drop them on the river bank, a French rule and a fine line. Average kill is 10 per man, per day of these greaters. As compared to Canada's other higher volume hunts, "This is a gentleman's hunt. You can hunt in sneakers or rubber boots, the staff is French Canadian or French, and the food is the best — goose, moose, caribou steaks, it's all superlative. I went up there a few years ago and I thought 'big deal, snow geese' and now it is one of my personal best lifetime experiences," he says.

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Greater snow geese
-- [imo-slideshow gallery=12],800 for three days, lodging, meals, transfers, ammo and ice chest
-- Peak: May

St. Paul Island, Alaska

The only real expensive hunt on this list is all about the journey, a whole different experience up on the Bering Sea, and a chance to come home with a bird very few people have ever even seen. St. Paul Island is a 40-mile long chunk of volcanic rock out in the middle of the ocean, home to this unicorn of a duck that only migrates as far 'south ' as the Bering Sea. 'It's great to be a good ball player on your home field, but this is the Big Away Game, ' Russell says. 'It's so much more than the holy grail species of king eider, a pelagic species that lives right on the ice shelf, and follows the floes as they start to move down. It's a miracle that humans are able to even think about killing these birds. I collect birds, but I prefer to collect experiences, and to be out in that part of world and to be a biologist and see how that bird behaves and the excitement of being on the Bering Sea in January, when it's sometimes minus 40 degrees, it's just magical to see, being a Mississippi boy. ' You can only hunt them the first couple hours of daylight, then they are way offshore. Limit is four birds per year. Huge swells pound the shore, and you must often hunt from the rocks as seas are too rough for boats.

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- King eiders
-- About $4,300, not including airfare (around gallery=12,000 more)
-- Peak: January, when you can hurt yourself on snow crab

Mazatlan, Mexico

This is the honeymoon hunt, the No. 1 couples destination, and you can go in the spring when the Lower 48 is closed. It doesn't get a lot better than this. World-class largemouth bass angling in the afternoons, or head out for marlin on the blue water or simply hit the beach. You will shoot blue-winged teal, cinnamon teal, green-winged teal, canvasbacks and plumed out pintails. Mexico always gets tons of bad press and this year is no exception. Travel concerns? 'I go to Mazatlan with my wife and I don't see that stuff. It's how you travel. You need to stay on the resort, stick only to organized tours, ' Russell says. 'We keep abreast of state department warnings. A lot can happen in Mexico, but if you want trouble for sure I can take you to neighborhoods in Memphis or Jackson, Miss., but me or my guests have never had any problems where we hunt in Mexico. The No. 1 rule is mind your freaking manners. You don't go to whorehouses, bars, bullfights or buy pot. You can find trouble if you do that. And you must know that in your baggage there is not one single piece of ammo anywhere. You can bring your gun, but if you have no permit, I can't help you, God can't help you, and that's a fact. '

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Blue-winged, green-winged, cinnamon teal, canvasbacks and pintails
-- gallery=12,400
-- Peak: January-February

Baja, Mexico

This is the good life hunt, and wonderfully close to home. 'I come back from western Mexico and feel so good, the food is great, weather is beautiful, it's my absolute favorite destination and Baja is one of my favorite hunts, ' Russell says. Wintering Pacific brant are the target out of San Quintin, hunted over dekes from ground blinds over the tide line. Limit is 10 birds per day, and expect bonus pintails and scoters. In good years, afternoon quail hunting is great. The incredible fresh seafood makes the hunt something special. Expect to eat brant, crab claws and oysters all straight from the sea the same day.

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Pacific brant
-- gallery=12,450
-- Peak: Late January-February


When it goes well, watching big greenheads flutter like maple leaves down through a hole in the canopy is indeed as good as it gets€¦which is why there is often someone in your spot already at 2 a.m. The lovely thing? The hunting is much better on sunny days, which proves Mother Nature intended us to enjoy this. 'Green timber mallard hunting is simply the best, ' Russell says. 'It's an experience unlike anything else. To have mallards filtering in through the trees, landing all around, it's something holy. And I don't mean cypress or a lake with dead timber, or a stick pond, I'm talking honest-to-God green timber hunting, flooded oaks. I do a lot of cypress hunting for gaddies in Mississippi, and when I'm in Arkansas I often hunt rice fields€¦but green timber is the absolute best mallard experience there is in North America. '

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Mallards
-- DIY, or $350 a day guided
-- Peak: December-January

Las Flores, Argentina

Everyone gets the allure of shooting 40 to 60 decoying ducks per day, the volume thing, but there is more to the equation. 'We as hunters have to have some modicum of respect for ourselves and the resource to not make it just about numbers. What appeals to me about Argentina is the quality of seeing THAT many decoying birds. The other part is the species. We're talking five or six species of teal (including the silver teal, above), two of pintail, and three of whistling ducks. The world's largest wigeon, a groovy red shoveler, and my favorite, the rosy-billed pochard (see front of this article), a good-eating bird that decoys like a canvasback, they just hammer into the decoys. I don't care about shooting 50 ducks, but I want to shoot 15 rosy-bills, it's a thrilling bird to hunt. ' And leave plenty of time to chase perdiz partridge, decoying pigeons and for high-volume dove hunts. Oh, and to kick around Buenos Aires, the coolest town in South America.

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Rosy-billed pochard and 12 other species
-- gallery=12,800-$3,700 for four days
-- Peak: June-July


Two ultimate trophy duck hunts await. One is a coastal hunt for cinnamon teal, the world's highest volume cinnamon teal hunt, with hunters getting a crack at up to 50 to 70 cinnamons. Don't worry, you are not wearing out the U.S. birds during your southerly jaunt. Of the five races of cinnamon teal, this is a healthy and isolated population of a darker cinnamon tone. You will hunt the coastal estuary from shore over dekes in feeding areas, set up in a blind and here they come. The other great Peru hunt is for the Andes torrent duck, which lives in flowing clear rivers at 10,000 to 14,000 feet above sea level. The opposite of a volume shoot, you sit on a rock on a stream and waiting for one to fly past. The limit is one drake or one pair. This is for the Most Interesting Duck Hunter in the World. 'If you've killed your king eiders and everything else, you still haven't had a torrent duck at 14,000 feet above sea level. ' You will also hunt puna teal, sharpwing duck and Andean goose on the high-level hunt.

Ducks, Bucks & Dates
-- Torrent ducks and cinnamon teal
-- $3,500-$4,000 for a week in the mountains or a week on the coast, or three days in each place
-- Peak: April-July

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