By Brent Birch, contributing editor
This past duck season is well beyond the rearview mirror for most, especially as summer is hurdling our way in short order. Sure, some recollections of seasons gone by get stirred up randomly this time of year but for masses, duck season is replaced by crappie fishing, graduations, spring sports and other pursuits.
But should it be?
I guess the answer to that begets another question…how successful do you want your future duck seasons to be? Duck hunting has blown by the days of just showing up on opening morning, throwing out some decoys and shooting a few ducks. With shrinking habitat, ever improving equipment and ducks adapting to hunting pressure, waterfowlers working hard in the off season are experiencing more fruitful days afield than those that don’t.
So, if you are the casual waterfowler that just likes being at duck camp, hanging out and indifferent to the day’s haul, then this article may not be for you.
On the other hand, if improving your days afield is of some level of importance, here’s a few thoughts on what duck hunters could be doing leading into next season.
1. SUPPORT CONSERVATION
More ducks covering the sky and hopefully ending up in your decoys doesn’t just happen by magic. Ducks are ultra-resilient as evidenced by their huge dependence on water for not only feeding but also nesting and subsequently raising their young. Wet springs and summers in the Prairie Pothole Region are a boon for duck production. Dry years are not, as evidenced by tough conditions 2018-2021. Poor breeding populations during those dry years led to below average hatches and made nesting hens and their young extremely vulnerable to predators.
Well-known conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl do incredible work to perpetuate the sport of waterfowling. I am fully convinced that if these two organizations didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be any duck hunting to speak of. The population would not be able to weather the years with difficult conditions unless someone was fighting on behalf of the ducks.
Contributions to these non-profit organizations don’t have to be huge to be effective. Every dollar counts at this point, and there are volunteer projects and other efforts beyond money that hunters can be involved in.
2. SHARPEN YOUR SKILLSET
Much like golf, tennis or another athletic endeavor, every duck hunter walking the planet can improve somewhere in their game. Too many hunters hang their duck calls up or put their shotgun in the gun safe as soon as the season is over only to not see the light of day until the following fall. Trips to the shooting range to improve shotgunning skills are all too rare, yet guys wonder why they can’t hit a fluttering greenhead at 35 yards.
Your off-season efforts could include walking the woods during the summer to identify new holes to try, better access opportunities or make improvements to existing spots. Quality duck holes need regular maintenance to be consistent, and that kind of work can’t take place during the season. One, it’s too late, and two, chainsaws, implements and humans disturb the ducks too much.
Summer scouting could be a game changer for the upcoming season. Especially on the public ground. Just make sure you take plenty of bug spray and something to thwart a cottonmouth or two.
Want to be a better duck caller? Listen to ducks in the off season and learn to mimic their routines, sounds and maybe most importantly, when they are silent. There are a plethora of hunters that can blow a duck call but can’t call ducks. Although those sound like the same thing, they are not.
Maybe go to a lake, zoo or the city park and listen to ducks interact and talk to one another. Sounds silly but you can learn a ton from this simple act. The ability to manage when to go loud, when to go soft, when to hit this note or that note and when to go quiet is an art. Truly listen to the sounds ducks actually make and compare to the noise you make with a call. If more hunters actually listened to ducks, many would find they really don’t sound like a duck, have the cadence of a duck or make ducks actually interested in their decoy spread.
3. GET EDUCATED
There are so many resources available now to improve your duck hunting knowledge. Between podcasts, YouTube, social media and articles, there are mounds of information out there waiting to be consumed. There are so many opportunities to learn more about ducks and why they do what they do. Habitat management and best practices are readily available all over the web. Many regions are hosting workshops with biologists specializing in habitat and waterfowl behavior. Do a little research, and odds are you can find something of interest that will improve your depth of knowledge on the sport and the wild game we chase.
WORTH THE EFFORT
Ducks are constantly evolving, so what you knew about duck hunting 10, 20, 30 years ago may or may not apply any longer. A great example is the spinning wing decoy. The advent of that device changed the game in 1999 and brought a wave of new hunters into the sport. Those are not nearly as effective any longer so waterfowlers that got into the sport because they could flip a switch and shoot ducks are now finding tough days afield. Adapt or fail.
As cool as duck hunting looks on social media and in the magazines, it is exponentially cooler when you are skilled afield or contributed somehow to growing the duck population. Not that everyone has to be an expert, and trust me, even “experts” have their fair share of tough days. As mentioned previously, not everyone has to be a major donor to make a difference either.
Success tends to find its way more often than not to those that invest the time and effort outside of duck season. I encourage you to find some ways to up your game during the off season and see how that impacts your enjoyment the following fall. Keep in mind nobody was born a skilled, knowledgeable, adept, top shelf duck hunter.
So get started.
About the Author
A lifelong waterfowler who cut his teeth duck hunting in the White River Bottoms at Crocketts Bluff as well as rice fields and reservoirs across Lonoke, Prairie, and Arkansas counties, Brent Birch is the publisher of The Grand Prairie: A History of Duck Hunting’s Hallowed Ground, which details the legacy of Arkansas’s rich waterfowling history. He is also co-creator and editor of Greenhead: The Arkansas Duck Hunting Magazine and co-founder of the Arkansas Waterfowler Hall of Fame located in Stuttgart, Arkansas.