To say there’s a big difference between finding huntable waterfowl and taking pictures over a
limit is a major understatement.
This is where the minds of new waterfowl hunters begin to race and overcomplicate strategy.
Should you set out a few decoys? Should you call to birds? Where and how do you set up?
Like most pursuits, we often overcomplicate things when simplifying is the best option. Just
remember it’s about one thing – putting yourself within range of birds and effective shooting.
We’ll cover the tactics to use as a new waterfowl hunter…and highlight some of the most
common mistakes to avoid.
First, let’s talk about strategies most suited to new hunters – this means basic gear and simple,
often overlooked ways to put birds in the bag.
You don’t see it much on tv or in media, but jump shooting is possibly the most effective strategy
for new waterfowl hunters just starting. It’s as simple as using your knowledge from scouting to
sneak up on birds and flush them when you’re within range for a clear shot. It requires no extra
gear beyond what we previously discussed – just a bit of woodsmanship and a burning desire to
get after ‘em. And if you’re short on time, you won’t find yourself waiting hours for birds to show
up. Jump shooting is perfectly suited to before or after work hunts where time is limited.
It might seem easy at a glance, but there are some common errors hunters make when jump
shooting ducks and geese. Waterfowl can be extremely wary, especially when they’re sitting on
small, quiet water sources. If they see or hear you coming, odds are they’ll be long gone or out
of range by the time you get to a position to shoot. Regardless of the situation, approach each
group of birds with the utmost caution. When you’ve got wind to hide noise and natural cover to
conceal your approach, use those to your advantage as it can be the difference between going
home empty-handed or coming out heavy.
Being on the “X”
If you’re looking for a more traditional hunt, keep in mind how critical scouting is. If you’ve
located birds using a particular water source, you can have a phenomenal hunt by simply
showing up before the birds arrive and setting up on the “X”. Pay close attention to exactly
where birds are when you’re scouting. This is often the difference between having ducks feet
down within range or flocks that come in and land just outside your reach.
While we’re on the topic of setups and tactics, let’s take a closer look at decoying waterfowl.
Again, we’re not going to expect new hunters to go out and spend a small fortune on dozens of
decoys, but many hunters start out with 6-12 decoys, which is perfectly suited to many of the
smaller water situations. Depending on the specific situation, you’ll want to arrange your decoys
in a natural pattern that closely mimics how the local birds behave. And you’ll want to make sure
your decoy spread gives incoming birds an open spot to land. This could be as simple as a
J-shaped spread or a couple groups of decoys with an opening in the middle.
Setting up on the “X” and decoying birds requires a bit more strategy and you’ll want to keep a
few things in mind:
Concealment can make or break a hunt – new hunters tend to overlook the perspective of
incoming birds…they’re going to be looking closely from above. When possible, use existing
natural cover to remain undetected, and don’t forget to hide your face. If you’ve brought along
extra gear, don’t leave it out in the open for birds to spot from above.
Likewise, recognize that the sun can be a friend or foe – some days it provides shadows to hide
in and other days it exposes your entire setup by illuminating everything. When you’re able to
use the sun to your advantage, don’t forget that as the hunt progresses, your concealment
changes as the position of the sun and cloud cover vary throughout the day. Always be
conscious of the “birds eye view” and be ready to adjust.
As important as remaining hidden, waterfowl easily pick up on movement as well. If you’ve got
birds flying in or circling, it’s critical to remain still until it’s time to shoot. Minimize head
movement by using your eyes to watch incoming birds and keep your hands still.
Knowing birds and their typical patterns is a huge advantage you can use to stack the odds in
your favor. If you’re hunting wood ducks on a secluded stream, you’ll want to be positioned well
before legal shooting time. But if you’re waiting on mallards to return to a pond after feeding in a
nearby field, you’ll be waiting until later morning or afternoon. Again, this information from
scouting and understanding patterns will dictate your strategy more than anything.
Recovering Downed Birds
Hunt long enough and you no doubt experience a lot of disappointment to go with the highs.
There’s one aspect of waterfowl hunting in particular that surprises new hunters…and that’s the
toughness of the birds themselves. Along with identifying and knowing what you’re shooting at,
it’s critical to assess the lethality of your shot. Birds falling belly up with their feet sticking up
aren’t a problem, but be ready for any birds that seem to drop quickly but still have their head up
after they fall.
This is somewhat common with birds shot primarily in the wings and body…they may not fly well
after you pull the trigger, but they’ve got two feet and they know how to use them. Don’t hesitate
to send a finishing shot to ethically dispatch the bird before it can head to nearby cover. As
always, be certain to know your target and what’s beyond it. You don’t wait around either –
ducks are notorious for vanishing into thick cover. This includes swimming or walking into
tangled tree roots, impenetrable brush, or crawling into impossibly small holes among cattails.
Few things are more satisfying than whistling wings, cool fall mornings, and admiring your first
ducks or geese. Put these strategies to use next fall and you’re sure to experience the thrill that
brings hunters back season after season and generation after generation.
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