Wood ducks are the total package. They’re undeniably beautiful, have a ghostly but stunning call, bomb into the decoys at incredible speeds, and are some of the best table fare of any waterfowl. For many, this duck is at the top of their target species.
But wood ducks aren’t found just anywhere, and if you want them in your freezer, it’s best that you know where and how to target them.
Part of hunting wood ducks is knowing what their typical environment is. While they can inhabit standard puddle duck habitat to feed on smartweed and duckweed, wood ducks are mostly nut and grain eaters and therefore associate heavily with habitat that carries their favorite foods.
For Matt Heinrichs, a wood duck hunter in Iowa, finding a combination of solitude and food, like timber-lined bays on lakes and shallow oxbows along rivers is key.
“I think wood ducks, more than any other duck species, seek out solitude,” Heinrichs said. “So it takes more ‘boots on the ground’ scouting because you’re not going to see into those spots from the county road or the boat launch.”
Of course, a food source combined with solitude is a plus, and knowing what wood ducks feed on in your area is helpful.
Across their entire range, they eat a lot of acorns, beech nuts, black gum tree fruits, and duckweed. In the Central South, you’ll find them eating pecans in and around cattle ponds. In the Midwest, they stick to soybeans and corn fields, especially when there’s some flooding and sheet water. Lastly, sneaking around silage fields in the early fall is a surefire way to find some big concentrations of wood ducks.
While scouting is an important component to most waterfowl hunting, wood ducks take it to the extreme. Just knowing there’s some hanging out on the local marsh or silage field isn’t enough. You must know exactly where they want to be.
Hunter Rud, an eastern Minnesota waterfowler, targets wood ducks in the early part of his season when they’re the most prevalent.
“Scouting them is definitely important,” Rud said. “It’s hard to draw them off the spot they want to be at, so you have to be exactly where they want. I’d say within 50 yards of their bubble.”
In my experience, this is the most significant difference in hunting wood ducks versus any other species. Their “bubble” is akin to a favorite hat or coffee mug, except with wood ducks, it’s a log, beaver dam, rock, or eddy.
“It can be as specific as going to a single log,” Rud said. “On our local streams, that bubble might be a 20-foot by 10-foot area in a backwater eddy. One time, it was a beaver dam where the beaver had used some corn stalks.”
What this means for your scout is that you must put boots on the ground and be willing to sneak through the woods to find the “x.” First, target spots that hold traditional wood duck habitat. Beaver dams, logs laid down in the water, oak bottoms, oxbows, and maybe even silage fields near rivers.
But, if your time to scout is limited, Heinrichs has a creative resource for finding these timber ducks.
“I’ve found that one of the best ways to find a wood duck spot is by talking with local deer hunters,” Heinrichs said. “They spend a ton of time in the woods and see and hear everything moving. Since they’re chasing a different critter, they’re much more likely to give up the goods on a few ducks.”
The last important piece of the scout is to walk into the area slowly and quietly, listening for their calls. Wood ducks are typically pretty noisy on the water, so knowing what to listen for is a real advantage. It’s time consuming, but if you do it right, you can get eyes on their perch without spooking them.
Once you’ve found where the wood ducks are, the hunting is easy. Be on time, be still, and be ready.
“Being there on time is important, because it’s going to be the first 15 minutes of shooting light, if that,” Rud said. “The guns are loaded and shouldered at shooting time, no joke. It’s just silhouettes bombing through the trees at first light.”
And while the wood ducks often come in with reckless abandonment, I personally still use a few decoys to try centering them in a good spot for shooting. You also want to be very still, hide behind a tree, and wear a facemask. While they usually don’t pay much attention to you, you want them to be fully committed and attempting to land at the speeds they go.
As far as decoys go, it’s just about keeping it simple on the “x.”
“My spread is usually seven decoys and a jerk cord,” Rud said. “Being where they’re at is way more important than decoys.”
Last, is the shooting. You’ll want to give yourself a little space for these speedy birds. “It’s really hard to shoot them when they’re flipping in, it’s instinctive shooting,” Rud said. “They skid across the water as they land. I sit 15 yards off the decoys and shoot 6 shot because they’re so fast.”
Once the shooting is all done, relish in the memories of a lifetime; a 15-minute hunt with smoking hot barrels, a beautiful bird, and some of the best acorn-fed meat a duck hunter could ask for.