There's No such thing as a worthless duck
When I was growing up, I was taught that the only good duck to shoot was a mallard. Pintails were okay, but anything else was a waste of time and shotgun shells. To further add to the equation, even though duck season opened in September, "my hunting for mallards" really didn't start until mid October when my Dad and I would go after the late season ducks that were fully colored, had curls on their tails and were fat enough to pluck and roast in the oven.
Even with my dad's self imposed restrictions, I really loved those first few years of duck hunting. Once summer gave way to autumn, the temperatures started dropping and the leaves turned color, I could hardly wait for my dad to give me the green light and say we were going duck hunting. However, even with all the enjoyment we got from duck hunting, I could never figure out why we wouldn't head afield earlier in the year and capitalize on the numerous species of ducks that were hanging around when the season opened.
When I got old enough to go hunting on my own, I started sneaking out after school and getting in on some early season duck action. On my first few outings, I shot duck species that I'd never even seen when hunting the late season with my dad. Sure I had seen them during the spring and summer and knew what they were, but by the time we started hunting in October, many of the various duck species had already migrated south.
My dad always shook his head at me when I arrived home from my pre-October excursions with a mixed bag of early season ducks. He couldn't believe I was hunting something other than mallards and he was flabbergasted that I was shooting mallards without their full fall plumage. The action was generally fast and furious, the temperatures mild and the competition next to none, so I just laughed at him and his "old school" thoughts and continued to get away whenever I could to enjoy some prime duck hunting action on own. My excursions were so much fun, that I gave up playing high school football for my love of duck hunting and basically went every day of the week.
My days of sneaking out and hunting ducks every day after school are long gone. However, my love of duck hunting hasn't dwindled; in fact it has grown more intense. As a result, every fall, I still head out afield early in the season to capitalize on some great duck hunting action on multiple species.
Early season on the northern prairies can result in some great duck hunting action for a variety of species. When the season opens, there always seems to be an abundance of dabblers such as mallards, teal, widgeon, pintails and gadwalls. In wet seasons, there also tends to be a fair number of divers, especially redheads.
Based on years of experience I have come to determine that early season birds are quite predictable in their habits. When the season opens and the weather is warm, they don't venture far from the potholes or sloughs that they stage on. In fact, there are many days when they simply stay on the same water body and drink, feed and roost. They are so comfortable on their "home water body" that most times they will return to that same water body when spooked or pushed off.
As the season progresses, the ducks get a lot wiser to hunting pressure and don't depend on one main water body as their home roost. Also as the weather begins to cool off the birds start to head out to stubble fields to feed. Once they start feeding in stubble fields, they start to mix with other ducks and follow those ducks' travel patterns. More importantly, the ducks start to get into feeding patterns and this allows me the luxury of being able to scout and predict potential field shoots.
A bonus early-season black duck.
In the Beginning
One of my favorite early season hunting methods is to drive around the countryside and find a slough bottom or pothole that is teaming with ducks. Once I have located such a spot, I'll pull my truck off to the side of the road in a location that is not visible from the water and survey what is going on.
While surveying the situation, I try to glean two very important pieces of information. The first thing I want to know is exactly where on the water the main concentration of ducks is holding. The second consideration concerns whether there is enough vegetation around the water body to allow me to tuck myself in and be hidden from the ducks, or if I'll need a blind.
With the information gathered, I'll grab my shotgun, blind bag and a handful of floating duck decoys. If there is ample vegetation to hide me, I also take a 5 gallon pail to use as a seat in the weeds. If there is not enough vegetation, I'll grab a low profile layout blind to use along the shoreline.
When using a low profile blind to hunt around water, I'll brush it at my truck with nearby vegetation that matches the area surrounding the water body prior to heading to the slough bottom or pothole. In the event that nearby natural vegetation is not present, I always carry a few different colors of raffia in my truck to ensure I can blend in anywhere by tying some matching colored strands to my blind.
Then, with gear in hand, I'll slowly walk towards the water and the ducks with the intention of getting them to take flight with the least amount of disturbance. When they do take flight, I'll crouch over and hide so that they can't see me. Although tempting, I never shoot at them, even if they are at point blank range when they bust off the water. By not shooting when the entire group is airborne, I greatly increase my chances of having them return in small groups as opposed to simply knocking one or two down and educating the remainder and not having them return.
The moment the ducks leave, I quickly move in and toss out my decoys at the location where the ducks were most concentrated. Immediately after that, I'll set up my blind or hide in the nearby vegetation. After that, it becomes a waiting game and usually in short order, the ducks will start to filter back in small family groups.
As the ducks return, I'll blow the occasional soft quack or two to give them confidence that all is well. In recent years, I've added duck whistles to my repertoire of calls and have found that a short series of whistles work wonders on the small dabbling ducks as they return to the water.
When there are a variety of duck species on the water, there seems to be a bit of a ret
urning order they follow when coming back to the water body after being flushed. Usually the first species to return are the teal. They generally sweep in out of nowhere low to the water and at mach-1 speeds. If I'm lucky enough to catch them coming, I can get on them on the first pass. However, even though I'm expecting them to return, the little speed devils usually catch me off guard and only the whistling of their wings catch my attention as they buzz around the water body. However, once I know they're in the area, I get ready for some fast paced action!
Dogs don't discriminate between early ducks and late.
As a kid, I never had the opportunity to shoot teal. This is because teal don't typically stay long in Saskatchewan. In fact, in most years, they're long gone by mid to late September. However, since I got started on some early season mixed bag hunting, I've been able to enjoy the thrills and challenges that these tiny little ducks offer!
Shortly after the teal start coming back, the other ducks start working their way back. The next species can vary from gadwalls to widgeon to shovelers to red heads with no specific order or pattern. These ducks are generally not overly cautious upon their return and will only circle once or twice before committing themselves to land. Then the pintails start coming back and finally the mallards. As the birds return, I take shots at the various groups and don't hold off in anticipation of better or different species coming later. Therefore, when the shoot is over, I generally have a mixed bag of ducks.
The beauty of this style of hunting is that it can be done at any time of the day and depending on how things go, I may have to set up at one two or even three different locations. In most early season situations the ducks will come back to where they have been pushed off. However, there are days when they won't. Based on years of experience, I usually give the ducks 30 to 45 minutes to start filtering back. If they don't return in that time frame, I start looking elsewhere for a new, potential hunting location.
It doesn't take long for the ducks to start getting wise after being flushed off a pothole and then shot when they return. When this happens, I try to line up a couple of buddies and then we tag team the ducks by setting up a hunter and a few decoys on some surrounding wetlands.
Once a likely group of ducks is located, we try to locate nearby water bodies for everyone in the group except one guy. Once everyone is set up and waiting with their decoys in place, the remaining hunter moves in similar to above and flushes the ducks. Once the ducks are gone, that hunter also sets up a few decoys.
If all goes well, the original guys set up on distant ponds will get in some shooting action at various groups of ducks looking for a new place to set down. In addition, the original hunter that flushed the ducks is often treated to some shooting on birds that get away from the other shooters. Depending on the number of ducks in the area, a hunt such as this can last a long time and result in limits for everyone.
Mixed bag in tow, the author exits the marsh.
When the weather cools enough for the ducks to start regularly feeding on grains and moving off water bodies on a regular basis, I'll move away from the flush-and-wait hunting tactic and start focusing on field shoots. During morning hunts, I'll try to combine a duck hunt with a goose hunt so as to get in some bonus shooting action. As for afternoon hunts, I'll focus exclusively on ducks.
In my home province of Saskatchewan, early season goose hunting is only allowed until noon. Therefore, when looking for a morning hunt, I try to locate a field where ducks are feeding with geese. As for afternoon shoots, I try to find a field where the ducks are feeding by themselves. In the event I only find fields with ducks feeding with geese in the afternoons, I'll put in a little extra scouting effort to determine where the ducks are coming from and then set up along that travel route and run some traffic on them with hopes of saving the mixed goose and duck field for a morning shoot.
Regardless of the time of day that I'm hunting ducks in dry fields, the majority of my decoys will consist of Canada goose or snow goose decoys. I use goose decoys for two reasons. One is that they are larger and more visible at longer ranges than duck decoys. Secondly, the goose decoys are good confidence decoys for the ducks and seem to help make them commit a little better.
On the downwind end of my goose spread, I'll deploy a series of duck decoys to represent a flock or two of ducks that have just landed and are starting to feed. Years ago when I first started hunting, my duck decoys were floaters set out in the field. Over time, I have progressed to shells, to full bodies, to shells and full bodies on motion stakes.
On my first series of dry field hunts, I tend to use more hen than drake decoys to replicate ducks in their eclipse color phases. As the season progresses and the ducks start to "color up", I'll add more drakes to the mix. In recent times, I've also started adding black duck decoys to my spreads even though black ducks are a rarity where I hunt. The reason I use them is that the black ducks are darker bodied than many of my other decoys and show up very well on stubble fields. As well, at a distance, the color schemes on black ducks tend to look more like hens or eclipse phase drakes.
In addition, I often use a couple spinning winged decoys in with my goose decoys and position myself about 15 yards upwind of my duck decoys. While I use these spinners to represent aggressive ducks that are starting to jump ahead of the others, they really help to bring the early season ducks in close so that I can get a good look at them to determine if they're drakes or hens.
I have found hunting early season mixed bag ducks to be a lot of fun. Unfortunately because of his preconceived notions about duck hunting, my dad missed out on some spectacular hunting action. I'm sure glad I didn't listen to everything my dad told me!