Troubleshooting for Duck Hunters: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

Troubleshooting for Duck Hunters: What to Do When Things Go Wrong

With all of the interaction that comes with duck hunting, there's no surprise that things can go wrong. It can be all the more frustrating when you don't actually know what is going wrong. You're looking at the sky, not seeing any birds, and wondering why you even picked up the sport in the first place.

It just makes sense when you think about all of the steps that come with being successful on a hunt. First, you need birds to be flying in the area. Second, you need the birds to be interested in the water that you're hunting. Third, you need your decoy spread to actually do its intended job. Fourth, you need to be able to hit the birds when they're within range. The list goes on and on.

As a wise man once said, “Knowing is half the battle.” That’s particularly true when it comes to hunting ducks, so in that spirit, let's take a few minutes to examine the common problems that pop up in duck hunting and what we can do to solve them. Now, before you think I’m actually qualified to inform you, let me tell you that I’m not. In fact, I need the answers in this article as much as you probably do, so I decided to reach out to one of the best duck hunters I know—Mr. Joe Genzel a lifelong waterfowl hunter, MeatEater contributor, and conservationist with Ducks Unlimited. With his input, hopefully, you'll be well on your way to not only solving these problems but also learning what caused them in the first place.

Problem: I’m not seeing birds.

This is the duck hunting problem to rule them all. No matter who you are or where you've hunted, we've all experienced the misery that comes with simply not seeing birds. As you may have guessed, it's also one of the harder problems to fix, and there's no simple solution to making ducks appear out of the blue, but Joe does have a few suggestions.

Pick your days. Is it actually a good day to hunt? It's not a fun question to ask, but it's an important one. There are some days when the birds simply are not moving and for future hunts, it's equally important to know the bad days as well as the good days.

“A lot of younger or inexperienced hunters are eager to hunt as many days as they possibly can,” Joe said. “And in some regions of the country, like the coastal prairie of Texas, that makes sense because those birds are wintering there. They're likely going to move at least once, if not twice, every single day. But in many other parts of the country, birds might not move at all if there is a warmup.”

Hunt smaller water. Especially in the late season, birds have seen their fair share of hunters across the country. This means that they'll probably be flocking towards smaller water including creeks and small backwater ponds, so you may want to check there next.

Scout with stealth. This can be a tough one to decipher because you often don't know you're making this mistake. In some cases, you may be spooking birds before you even see them or, worse yet, you're seeing birds and spooking them anyway. Regardless, that's something you want to avoid.

Here's an example from Joe: “I was hunting a river system last year and we came across 1,500 to 2,000 ducks in this channel, but we were running our boat a little bit too fast, and they all flew off. The next day we decided, well, if even a third of those birds come back, we’ll have a good hunt. Well, two birds came back.” Take it easy. Take it slow. The only thing worse than not knowing where the birds are is knowing that they just flew off for good.

Scout more. It's a simple one but true. if there aren't birds there, then there aren't birds there. Spend more time in the field looking to find where they actually are.

Read the location. Lastly, a location can vary based on the birds’ behavior as well. Joe pointed out that if you see birds circling an area while you're scouting and eventually landing, then it's probably a temporary feeding or roosting area. But if you see birds dive-bombing into an area while you're scouting, then it's most likely an area where they'll be sticking around for a good bit. Get ready for tomorrow.

Problem: The ducks aren’t decoying.

There's a huge difference between ducks that you're seeing and ducks that you can actually hunt. Decoys are a huge part of that. Joe has a few tips for turning your decoys from a deterrence into an advantage.

Mix up your spread. A simple first step is to just change up what your decoy spread looks like. Change the species. Change the arrangement. Change the quantity. if the birds are seeing your decoys and deciding not to come in, then there's obviously something that they don't like. While it may be a factor that's out of your control, like the weather or time of day, it could be your decoys.

“I think a lot of people just do what their neighbor's doing,” Joe said. “A blob of mallard decoys and a couple of spinners may work for the first day or two of the season, but birds get conditioned to that.”

Plant decoys where you don’t want them to land. Tagging on to the last point, the birds may not want to land where your decoys are actually placed. Try placing your decoys where your target does want to land and then hunt that location. Joe used the example of placing decoys in the middle of flooded corn and then hunting the edge of that corn. Even the smallest glimpse of a feeding bird in that corn can entice a group of ducks to commit.

Add movement. There's no question that movement is key to creating a realistic decoy spread. Joe pointed out that there are varying kinds of movement that can be used throughout the season, and he also pointed out that a jerk rig is not a cheap or antiquated method of adding movement.

It may actually be the best way: “Jerk rigs are widely used in flooded timber," Joe said. "But I hardly see people use them at all anywhere else. You'll know you're hunting with somebody who knows what they're doing if they use a jerk rig to add movement.”

Sometimes spinners or other types of movement decoys are just too much for some ducks. The jerk rig can be just subtle enough for any duck but still noticeable.

Problem: The birds are circling but not finishing.

There's nothing that will get your heart racing like a group of mallards circling your decoy spread, quacking away, and getting ready for landing. There's also nothing that will make your heart sink like watching them decide not to land. None of us speak duck, even though we try, so it's tough to know why they aren't committing but there are some tricks that Joe uses to coax the next group in.

Give them space. Sometimes reluctant ducks have nothing to do with your presence at all. In fact, it may just be that the group of (fake) ducks already sitting in their spot have crowded them out. They may actually want to land there, so it's just a matter of moving your spread to give them space. Try reducing the quantity or simply rearranging for a nice landing area.

“I can remember being in Kansas and hunting this little slough that you could throw a baseball across,” Joe told MeatEater. “The birds had been in there the day before, but now they just didn't want to land. We got rid of the Mojos and took half the decoys out, and that made all the difference in the world.”

Set up for crossing shots. A lot of hunters set their decoys up for a shot right in front of their blind, Joe pointed out, but he prefers to set up for a good crossing shot. This allows you to remain concealed up until the point where you pull the trigger.

Improve your hide. Sometimes it's not an option to set up for a crossing shot or the birds are simply too skeptical in general. You may need to beef up your blind. It's as simple as that. Either add some natural brush, bring in a panel blind, or find a new location where you can stay hidden.

Shut up. This last one is simple but worth noting. Just be quiet. This may mean putting the duck call away or catching up with your friends after the hunt, not during the hunt.

“Duck hunting is more of a social sport where you can get away with talking to your buddies. But, when birds are close, you should shut up. Their brains might be the size of a pea, but they know if something's up,” Joe told me.

Problem: Birds are landing too far away.

Ever feel like you’re getting to the finish line and tripping at the last moment? You're watching the ducks land in the water, except they're landing 80 yards away and coming nowhere close. It’s the ultimate tease, and Joe has a couple of tips for getting you your trophy.

Get them out of there. First things first, Joe said that it's important to get those ducks out of that water as soon as possible. When more ducks come through, they're going to land where those ducks already landed, making them almost impossible to shoot. So, yell at them or send your dog their way to flush them out of the water.

Shift your spread. One simple reason that ducks may be landing too far away is due to the wind. You probably already know that ducks prefer to land with the wind in their face, so be sure that you are reading the wind correctly. If you need to shift your spread, do so in a way that facilitates the birds landing closer to your blind given the wind conditions.

Split up your groups. It could also be that the birds just aren't buying the trick. So throw another trick their way.

“In those scenarios, I try to put big groups of decoys a hundred yards away from my position and then put a small family group closer to my blind,” Joe said. “A lot of times, they'll come over low enough to take a look and not necessarily land with that small group, but they're within shooting range.”

Problem: I’m missing “easy” shots.

This is the scenario that stings the most. You've done everything right up to this point, and you're ready to pull the trigger when a bird is landing 10 yards out over your decoys. Then, you whiff. I know this pain because it's happened to me—more than once—so unlike most of the points in this article, I have first-hand experience for a solution.

Pattern your gun. I never understood all of the talk about patterning your shotgun until I started missing “easy” shots over my spread. Once I went to the range and actually put some shot through a piece of paper, I realized that my beloved Wingmaster 870 tends to shoot a little bit high at short ranges. Now I know to put my bead just above the bird when they give me a softball.

Joe also pointed out that this can change from person to person as well. “It's going to shoot differently for me versus you. I'm 6’4” and 275 pounds, so that's not your average person, and that's who shotguns are typically made for. That's why it's so critical to at the very least, to pattern your gun and see what it looks like.”

Practice. Nobody likes this answer, but it's just the way it is. if you're missing shots you probably need to practice taking shots. Go to the five-stand course or simply shoot some clays before the season starts, so you’re ready when the moment arrives with cupped wings.

Problem: I’m missing typical shots.

Let's say that you are familiar with your gun and you're still missing shots that the average duck hunter sees on a regular basis—like crossing shots at 30 yards, overhead shots, or away shots. The answer is not all that different from the previous issue, with a few small tweaks.

Practice. I know; we just covered this. But it bears repeating and there are some slight differences. One thing you can do is practice shooting with a low gun, meaning a relaxed position. This allows you to spend more time looking at how the bird is flying, tracking its trajectory, and preparing for the shot.

Also, be sure to practice your lead. This is one of the most common mistakes that duck hunters and hunters in general can make. Generally, you're shooting behind the bird but that may not always be the case. Know how to take a shot in every scenario that presents itself during a hunt. It's not on the shotgun; it's on you.

“Duck hunting is such an expensive sport and so many people don't take the time to actually shoot their gun,” Joe said. “Figure it out. Spend time with it. It's just like buying an expensive baseball bat. That bat's not going to make you a better hitter, right? You have to be able to do the actual work so that you can see positive results.”

Change your choke. The issue could also be that you're shooting the incorrect choke in your gun. Make sure that it's appropriate for the distances and the size of birds that you'll be shooting. But, let's be honest, you probably just need to practice more.

Know when to shoot. Joe made another great point about shooting. You're not going to be a perfect shot at any point in your hunting career and it's important to know what you're good at and what you're not good at. You can only know this by, you guessed it, practice. But it's also okay to know that you're not great at overhead shots, for example. I’m terrible at them, which is why I tend not to take them.

Change your shot size. Depending on the type of birds and the time of the season, you may need to make an adjustment as far as what type of shot you're shooting. As the year progresses, birds will put on more plumage and will most likely be harder to take down. You may need to increase your shot size to accommodate for this.

Joe also shared this helpful chart from Mr. Tom Roster compared the different shot sizes and how they affect birds at different distances. it's definitely worth checking out. Also, you probably need to practice some more. I know I do.

When encountering any of these problems, it's important to remember why we hunt in the first place. We love the challenge. If we were in it just to bag birds, we could do all sorts of things (probably illegal things) to get to our limit in most circumstances. Embrace that challenge. Soak up the moments when it's not working, pay attention, and try to figure out how you can solve it for the future— if you can make that the fun part, you're going to have a great hunting future, problems and all.

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