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A Duck Hunter’s Guide to Enjoying Their Days Afield this Season

Controlling the Controllables 

Brent Birch

duck hunter calling ducks

Duck season is now upon us with many seasons in the upper half of the country underway and southern states cranking up soon. By all reports, this could be a tougher than tough season given poor habitat on the breeding grounds this past spring and summer. No one truly knows, because the aerial surveys weren’t conducted due to COVID-19 protocols in Canada. How sports arenas and stadiums can be packed with fans but a couple of guys can’t get in an airplane to do waterfowl surveys is baffling to me, but I digress.

Despite the dire forecast for the season, duck blinds will be heavily populated come Saturday morning with the hope the experts are wrong about this season’s fall flight. Waterfowlers should keep in mind there are plenty of huntable ducks to be had as populations are still well above the long-term average. Nonetheless, the conditions may need to be near perfect for this season to be a success.

Hunters will need to bring their A game, because there won’t be many young and dumb ducks headed south this winter. Decoy spreads, duck callers and blinds will be up against a savvy group of mature and wise birds this season. To be successful this duck season, waterfowlers will likely need to hunt smarter and harder than they have in a long, long time.

Older, smarter birds combined with our current trend of warmer and warmer winters and a tough breeding season could lead to a frustrating season. Duck hunters are complainers by nature and frankly, have a lot to complain about. Too warm, too cold, not enough water, too much water, flooded corn and so on. 

So many things related to duck hunting are out of the individual hunter’s control. We can’t control the weather which in turn impacts water and subsequently food and how much they need to eat. Yes, water can be pumped from wells and ditches to artificially flood hunting grounds but for ducks to really flourish and stay in an area, they need natural flooding to take place and plenty of food when cold weather dictates they eat a lot to stay warm. They also need areas of refuge away from guns and boats and UTVs. Those refuges are typically naturally flooded with food naturally produced like invertebrates, panic grasses and acorns.

For more enjoyable days afield with an eye to the future of duck hunting versus the now, waterfowlers should consider some of the following goals for this coming season on things that they can actually influence. 

Lay Off the Hens

Brent Birch duck decoys
Based on forecasts, waterfowlers may be staring and empty skies more than desired this season.
Photo: Russ Powell

There is quite a bit of debate within the waterfowl science community as to whether hunters harvesting hens makes any difference. That topic is very complex and is a whole other article within itself. In fact, I wrote one the subject for another publication that would be a good read if you are interested in the topic. “Dead Ducks Don’t Lay Eggs” is an interesting look at the Super Hen theory and it’s possible impact on the breeding population. 

Given how poor this year’s breeding season was and how hard hens have it on the breeding grounds due to predators and other factors, hunters can make a conscious decision not to shoot a hen floating in the decoys. Logic tells me the more baby-making hens we as hunters send back to the breeding grounds, the more opportunities some of these ducks have to start building the population back to better numbers. Especially if we get a wet spring in prairie Canada and the Dakotas. Worth a try.

Ease the Hunter Pressure

While duck hunting is on the decline in several states, that is not the case in Arkansas. Not only is it popular with residents but also out-of-state hunters who come to the Duck Capital of the World to experience everything Arkansas has to offer. Arkansas has sold over 100,000 state duck stamps each year since 2015. Ten years prior, only 82,000 were sold. 

The popularity of the sport is great in a lot of ways. Local economies are boosted by hunters. Wildlife benefits from Pittman Robertson Act dollars. Nobody supports conservation efforts like hunters and on and on. 

But with all those hunters afield, the ducks don’t have many places to go where they aren’t harassed, much less being shot at while trying to get a little something to eat. Shotguns aren’t the only thing pressuring ducks either. The new trend in “scouting,” which is actually oftentimes code for I’m going to ride around the woods in my new, fancy boat spooking ducks. Same could be said for UTVs and ATVs riding all around kicking up ducks and geese. 

The more hunters push the ducks, the more inclined they are going to be to avoiding pressure. Stress hunters put on waterfowl is a big factor in why we are seeing more duck activity outside of shooting time. Ducks have gotten smart and have figured nobody will be out there bothering them, much less shooting at them in the dark. Especially if winter is mild and they only need to eat once a day. Above average temperatures where ducks aren’t burning calories staying warm will push them to an extreme nocturnal schedule under pressure.

Scouting is great and necessary but do it from a distance using binoculars. Take longer routes back to camp by boat or UTV if it means you will disturb less waterfowl. Once you finish the hunt, especially on a good day, get out of there and let the ducks fill the place up undisturbed. Don’t hang around taking video and pictures if at all possible. Get in, get out. 

Making a choice to remove some man-made pressure will help your future hunts more than you realize. Let ducks be ducks without humans relentlessly pestering them is crucial because we will never ever get the greenlight to hunt them at night. If we as hunters keep pressuring them like we are, that may be the only time we see them in any huntable numbers.   

Something Besides Limits, Limits, Limits

Brent Birch flying ducks
Ducks have been pushed to doing most of their activity after hours due to increased hunter pressure. 
Photo credit: Brent Birch

Unfortunately, waterfowling has gotten narrowly focused on limits. How many and how fast is the theme. Like many things awry in the world, social media is a big part of the blame. Instagram and the like have turned into online brag boards, which feeds egos that will even go as far as to post pictures from another day’s hunt on actual days they don’t limit just to keep appearances up. I know that to have actually happened and more than once, and this wasn’t even a guide service who is trying to make a buck based on success. That’s just crazy. 

I encourage modern waterfowlers to seek something else from the sport besides the limits mentality. Posting daily deal pile pictures is boring and unoriginal. There are scads of them every day. Add some in with the camaraderie amongst family and friends. The time spent outdoors with beautiful sunrises and sunsets and wildlife doing their thing. So many things to slow down and enjoy that often are sacrificed to kill a limit in 32 minutes and post it. 

Trust me, I love to have a lights out, full strap hunt as much as the next guy, probably more so. But I’ve squared off that those aren’t everyday occurrences, even for the most skilled hunters or the people with the best of the best private land. Please don’t cheapen the sport of duck hunting by only being obsessed with limits and social media. Find other ways to compliment the good days, the slow days and everything in between. 

Season Outlook

If you are one of those perpetual complainers or always frustrated duck hunters, maybe make every effort to take the high road this season and stay out of the muck of whining, complaining and blaming everything under the sun if this duck season is a bust. Or maybe duck hunting isn’t really for you. If lights-out success more times than not is the barometer to keep you happy, maybe something like bream fishing in a stocked pond will bring that stress level down.

My personal expectations are low going into the 2021-22 duck season, and I’ve got my mind made up to look for opportunities to get the most out of the season with an eye to improving the future. I will just control what I can control. Straps full of ducks or not. 

And with those controllables, my hope is the sport and traditions of duck hunting make a big time comeback sooner than later. Or keep doing what we are doing and still be complaining about the same ole things year after year. 

Let’s make duck hunting fun again by controlling what we can control.

Mossy Oak duck hunting gear

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