Waterfowling is a storied tradition where I live on the DelMarVa peninsula, but for many across the country it is an experience they’ve not yet had the opportunity to take part in. As it seems more people become focused on specific things such as deer hunting in the fall the statistics show the numbers of people duck and goose hunting have decreased.
I hope this little introduction will be enough to get you outside to take advantage of the good old days of waterfowling. We are currently in the midst of a boom as far as duck and goose numbers go despite some species remaining at worrisome numbers (such as pintail and black ducks). Ongoing efforts of groups like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl continue to work to improve populations, but its always unclear how breeding conditions will be each spring and populations will be affected. So go now!
It doesn’t take much to get outside and get started duck and goose hunting. A quick look on craigslist will find some decoys for cheap. Beyond that a shotgun, some non-toxic (steel, bismuth) loads, often a call, a small shoulder bag and some common sense are all that is needed. However the gear seems to quickly accumulate when you get this sickness and the sky is the limit in terms of complexity, quantity, and types of decoys and calls and boats and everything else you might think you need.
The biggest question you will have is “Where are the birds?” I once read or heard the following apt advice: “There are places where the birds want to be and there are places they don’t mind ‘a goin’.” This is the gospel truth. I have come across some places so ducky you think to yourself they must be in here. I’ve also been to pristine fields that certainly had to hold geese. I can’t explain why they aren’t where they aren’t, but they aren’t. If you have time to kill and just want to enjoy a morning or evening out then by all means give it a chance. However, scouting is just as important in this game as it is in any other kind of hunting. Birds don’t just go to places that look good.
When you do find them it typically doesn’t take much to convince them to get in front of your gun. This is why a minimal amount of decoys is often all that is needed. I enjoy only having to carry 6 duck decoys rather than slogging dozens in and back. To put this in perspective my friends and I have a Pennsylvania goose field that for one reason another the birds like and is extremely reliable. One morning someone (not me) slept in and left my buddy Travis with no decoys. He decided to see what would happen only having his call in hand. He walked away with a limit an hour after sunrise.
Hunting over decoys is how most hunters choose to pursue ducks and geese, but respectfully pass shooting birds (respectfully = no sky busting or busting birds working other hunters) is also an option. Finding birds means understanding they are looking for places to roost, rest, and feed. Often multiple species of birds are using the same areas but there are most definitely preferred habitats for geese, puddle ducks, and diver ducks. Take the time to observe the birds and what they prefer and success will follow.
I enjoy waterfowling for all the things that big game hunting does not provide. Sitting in the duck or goose blind gives me time to B.S. and catch up with friends when the birds aren’t flying. One of us sometimes brings a stove and breakfast is made on the spot. However, watching a good dog work may be my favorite aspect of waterfowl hunting and is an experience in itself. The look in my lab’s eyes when the birds are overhead is one of pure intensity. Seeing a dog carry out the duty that it and the generations before it were bred for provides a unique sense of satisfaction.
This type of hunting is also often a great introduction for adults and children new to hunting. It requires brief moments of stillness punctuated by moments of excitement. In between are the moments to teach and answer questions and explain why things are done the way they are. It will be extremely important to foster future hunters to maintain all the great traditions that waterfowling has.
From chasing broadbills in skull boats on the New Jersey coast to standing alongside the flooded timber of Arkansas looking up for greenheads to the wide-open prairie pothole region of the Dakotas and the very mixed bag they offer countless opportunities exist. Every place that ducks and geese inhabit offers a unique experience. Get out and enjoy your backyard and you will find a new reason to be outside when many other hunting seasons are yet to open or have already closed.