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A Beginner's Guide To Successful Waterfowl Hunting

A Beginner's Guide To Successful Waterfowl Hunting

What you need to know to become a successful waterfowler

We stumbled our way through the darkness, weaving between the sagebrush. Bags of decoys slung over our shoulders, headlamps leading the way to a pond that had been scouted for the past couple of days. We were finally going to hunt “The Oasis”. The sun began to bring light to the horizon. As we stood there, looking down at the water, the sharp rasp of mallards’ warning calls rang out. The birds began to fill with the morning sky with silhouettes by the hundreds. As the 5 of us stood there looking at one another we knew that this was going to be a great hunt. We set up on the edge of the bank, in front of a pocket of open water surrounded by ice. We placed our decoys and crawled in our blinds, then watched as all those birds began to return to the only open water for miles thanks to the freezing temperatures. We shot our limits that day: 35 greenheads and 18 honkers made a splash on that small body of water. The morning we hunted the “Oasis” is one I will never forget.

There is tons of preparation and knowledge that goes into a successful waterfowl hunting trip. Where are you hunting? River, pond or field? What techniques will you use? How do you gear up? What do you need to deceive the birds? Will you hunt with just your buddies or select a waterfowl outfitter? Following are some beginner tips - for more advanced waterfowl hunting tips you can check out our interview with Matt McCrory, owner of Prairie Hunting Adventures in Southeast Missouri.

Waterfowl Hunting Gear

Much of the time spent hunting waterfowl is devoted to battling the elements. Waterfowl season usually runs between October and January in most states, so you can expect to see rain, snow, ice and cold temperatures. It is key to be dressed for the weather. You will be very still while waterfowling. Hours are usually spent sitting or lying in the duck blind waiting for the next group of birds. Having good gear will improve your hunting experience. Granted, not all waterfowl hunts are in cold temperatures, but this will prepare you for the worst.

  • Waders: Having a good pair is a necessity in most hunts. While trudging through water and mud, it's important to stay dry. Also dress warm underneath your waders to ensure your comfort.
  • Jacket: A warm waterproof/breathable jacket is another good idea. Go for taped seams if you can, with at least a 10,000 mm waterproof rating.
  • Beanies/hats/gloves: Your head and hands release a lot of body heat. While hunting in below freezing temperatures this is a must to stay warm.
  • Socks: Keeping your feet warm, even if they get wet, is a big step in winning the battle against cold. Wool or a quality synthetic blend will do wonders - stay away from cotton.
  • Shotgun: Most waterfowl hunters prefer to use a 12 gauge shotgun for duck hunting. They pack a punch to knock birds down even at long range. Geese are tough. Having a larger shotgun or magnum for geese is ideal.
  • Ammunition: When hunting waterfowl you are required by law to shoot STEEL shot instead of lead. Steel shotgun shells come in many different sizes. You can buy 2 ¾ in., 3 in. or 3 ½ in. long shells in many different shot sizes. The most common are 2, 3 and 4 shot for hunting waterfowl, some will also shoot BB. The smaller the number the bigger diameter the shot size, but there is a smaller number of pellets in the shell. (This is the hunter's preference.)
  • Calls: Duck and goose calls come any many different shapes and sizes, but are all basically the same (with a slight variation in sounds). You can spend anywhere from $20 to $200 depending on what you want. Cheap calls are usually made from plastic, compared to more expensive calls which can be made out of wood or acrylic. Calls can be mass-manufactured or handmade. It's best to learn to properly use your call before you step into the field.


Scouting is a crucial element for a successful hunt. Knowing where to find the birds dramatically increases your odds of “shooting a limit.” (Be sure to ask permission from landowners before you hunt if you’re not on public land.) To get the job done, it's important to have a visual on a decent amount of birds in the area. Are they flying? Where are they flying? What are they doing once they've reached their destination? Are they feeding? Or are they just hanging out in the water? These are all important questions to ask yourself while planning how to set up to hunt.

Becoming Successful Waterfowler

Having a Good Hide

Concealment Is another extremely important feature. Having a good hide is necessary so the birds don't see you. The most common hide is the “duck blind”. Built out of trees, branches, bushes or stumps, they blend into the natural surroundings. There are many other types of blinds that can be very successful for your next hunt. Layout blinds work well in many situations because they are so versatile and easy to use. A layout blind resembles a sleeping bag in which you lay on your back with your head propped up. Their low profile makes it easy to hide in many scenarios. They work especially in open fields or on ground where there isn't much cover. (Be sure you brush-up the layout blind.) Another blind option could be a pop-up blind or A-frame blind, these work well. Make sure to brush these in with your surroundings as well.

The Spread

Your decoys are probably the most crucial aspect in putting the hurt on waterfowl. Having a realistic spread will dramatically increase your chances of having a good hunt. There are hundreds of brands and styles of decoys out there. Floaters, full bodied, decoy shells...the list goes on. Floater decoys are best used when hunting in water. Full bodies are mainly used for field hunting and will hold their own on the banks of rivers and ponds along with decoy shells. Decoys need to be set up in a realistic manner, as if they were real birds. Ducks and geese prefer to land near your decoys in open pockets, so take that into consideration when setting up. Most importantly, a good spread should have some kind of motion. Like regular decoys there are many different styles. The most common is a spinning wing decoy or “Mojo”. The fast spinning of the wings catches the eye of the birds and brings them into range. Make sure to check your hunting area’s rules and regulations as these are illegal to hunt over in some States. A Mojo can be used in any hunting situation. Another common way to add motion to your spread is using a jerk string. This is a mechanism you hook to multiple floater decoys and attach to a chord headed back to the blind. At the other end a “jerk string” is attached to a solid object like a rock or a tree with a bungee. Once set up, you can pull on the string and the decoys will act as if they are swimming. The bungee serves to give the decoys action and will pull them back into place.

That morning at the “Oasis” everything was perfect. We had all the right gear, we scouted the pond for days, our hide was phenomenal and the birds worked into the spread perfectly. We did everything right and the work and preparation paid off for the hunt of a lifetime. Before your next outing be sure you put in some time prepping your gear, locating some birds, finding a good hide, and throwing out the perfect spread. And if you're looking for a guide, check out our duck hunting outfitters. Good Luck!

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