How to Hunt Waterfowl: My First Hunt
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Waterfowl hunting is one of the most popular forms of hunting, and as a self-proclaimed “adult-onset hunter” it was time to try it. As with all the outdoor experiences that I have enjoyed later in life, they usually start with thorough internet research. Reading articles, watching videos, and compiling a mental list of what strategy will best suit someone like me who is going duck hunting for the first time. Of course, I asked them questions like “do I need waders?” and “do I need a seat?”, but the real important questions like “how will I know when to shoot?” don’t have an easy answer.
The alarm went off about the same time it does for any morning hunting trip, somewhere between 3 and 4 am. Just as important as assembling the necessary gear and clothing, making a pot of coffee is essential. I will shamelessly plug Black Rifle Coffee Company because it is delicious and the money spent on their coffee supports veterans. After putting the gear, clothing, and coffee in the truck I was off to rendezvous with an experienced duck hunter and a Labrador retriever.
We arrived in a drainage swamp on low land that featured several long dikes that bordered shallow canals and culverts. Tall marsh grass, scattered trees, and shrubs scattered the landscape. The water level would fluctuate with the local precipitation and change your energy needed to access the distant landing ponds. If you have not walked in insulated waders it requires a higher baseline amount of energy than walking around in street clothes. Throw in swampy sinking mud and water combined with cold temperatures and you start to paint a picture of a heart-pounding, air grasping endeavor. Our walk into the property was not nearly as exhausting as some, but not mentioning the possibility of this logistical hurdle would be a mistake.
Setting up the decoy spread can be equally challenging. Often the depth of the pond or lake changes based on distance from shore, and the bottom composition can also be soft or hard which changes the difficulty of the spread placement. Generally, soft mucky bottoms combined with above-knee water levels are going to require more balance and energy than sand or gravel bottoms with below-knee water levels. Using a wading pole or decoy pole can help with balance and placement, but this is one of the many situations where there is a ton of benefit hunting with other people.
After we were all set up, waiting for shooting light was exciting. The anticipation of the hunt and a new adventure put a smile on my face. The weather was great, and the sunrise was beautiful. At daybreak we had a couple of ducks fly in, followed shortly by intermittent pairs of geese flying overhead. I shot but missed, and eventually Sam got a duck that flew into the side of our spread to buckle and the dog ran out to retrieve it. We sat all morning but only saw a handful of ducks and shooting opportunities. One duck worked our decoys and flew into the middle of the spread and hung up about 30 yards away from me, but I was not sure when I was supposed to shoot. I was mentally debating whether I was supposed to let the bird totally decoy before shooting or shoot as soon as it came into range. Unfortunately, the combination of no previous experience and no real education led to a tailing shot at 40 yards because the bird flew off when I did finally stand up to shoot. The bird was hit, but it dove underwater and the dog was unable to recover it.
After a couple more attempts to bring down some passing geese that turned out to be out of range, we called the hunt and headed back to the truck. Having zero expectations and an open mind going into the hunt I walked away happy to experience waterfowl hunting and eager to learn more, get better, and try again.
Some of the major lessons of my first trip learning to hunt waterfowl were:
Knowing when to shoot. Talk with your group of hunters and establish if pass shooting (if they come into range anywhere you shoot) or decoying ducks (waiting to shoot until they fly into the decoy spread) is the goal. It could be a combination, but communication is key.
Knowing the distance of ethical shooting. Unfortunately, there are very few ways to replicate shooting real birds. Clay courses offer experience, but it is not a direct translation to the field. Understanding the effective lethal range of both the type and size of shot you are using is important.
Reading distance of birds flying. Just as important as knowing how far your shot will travel and be lethal, it is important to determine distance a bird is away from you while flying. Often this was difficult for me as a first-time hunter. My perception of 20 yards on the ground was not easily translated to birds flying in the air.
Know the lethality of both distance and shot for each species you are shooting. For example, I learned the hard way that geese at 60 yards in the air will laugh at number 2 shot steel 12-gauge loads. In the future, I will not be wasting ammo on that shot unless I have a different shot, or the geese are closer.