By Brent Birch, contributing editor
As August fades away, seemingly, so does summer. Despite what the outdoor temperatures may read for the next month or so, football and hunting move to the top of the priority list when the calendar flips to September. And with each passing day of late summer and fall, the anticipation of another waterfowl season rises.
Maybe it’s dove season that causes the stoking of that fire that’s been dashed since the previous January. Part hunting, part social event, the traditional start date for dove season takes place over the Labor Day weekend, with many hunters dusting off their shotguns for the first time since January. Our family were habitual dove hunters through the 1990s but have slid back considerably since, with only sporadic hunts here and there. Many of my friends are the same as the dove population has declined, so has the interest in standing out there in 95-degree heat, mosquitos, snakes, and the like.
But the lack of interest in dove hunting has done nothing to temper the energy towards the next “be here before we know it” duck season. For those with land of their own, the work never stops. Managing habitat for ducks is now a 12-month out-of-the-year effort. Harvest season is in full swing for those growing rice, soybeans, and corn, while time is running out on those looking to get a good stand of millet in their duck food plots.
As fall creeps along, the focus will shift to prepping hunting spots, duck blinds, and cleaning up decoys and gear from the previous season. Then, waterfowl start showing up on the landscape. Blue Wing Teal the first to arrive, typically followed by specklebellies and greenwing teal.
And boom…we are at Halloween, and the first sizeable wave of mallards descend on Arkansas. Cold front or not, they just show up about this time. This truly signals the season is almost here. Other ducks like gadwall and pintails show up about the same time, but the mallard is king here.
With the season fast approaching, what can you do these last few months before the season starts to ensure you get off to a good start come November?
The best place to start is to get your shotgun out of the gun safe, closet, or wherever you may keep it and proceed to clean. A dirty or improperly cleaned gun will surely fail you during an epic hunt this coming season. Rust is evil, but so is too much or the wrong gun oil. Avoid water-based solutions that will indeed freeze if the temps warrant.
Next step once your piece is functional, head to a local shooting range and sharpen your aiming eye. Don’t just go shoot…take the type of shots you consistently take during the season. Also, pattern your gun with the shell and choke you plan on shooting this season. Do some research on what choke works best with your shell of choice (and that doesn’t always mean running out and purchasing an aftermarket choke, as many shells are designed to work best with what comes with the gun). All of those efforts could lead to more success and less crippled birds.
Although the weather is too warm to wear the stuff needed during the season, now is the time to assess what is in good shape and what needs to be replaced. Waders are worth a pre-season stress test as they can dry rot if not stored correctly, and seams tend to give way during the off-season.
Also, I recommend getting your boat in the water or your ATV out of the garage to ensure they work correctly. Fluids, batteries, tires, and getting rid of old gas are a must. Nothing can ruin a hunt faster than a mode of transportation that fails to transport.
Giving those decoys a good rinse isn’t a bad idea. Dull, dirty, muddy decoys don’t pop when the sun pokes out, so using a foaming car wash setup works wonders. Be careful with high-pressure sprayers as they will peel flocking and paint right off the plastic. Use a light abrasion brush to get off that baked-in dirt when necessary. I’ve never encountered a live mallard covered in mud, so it makes sense that decoys should also be clean as a whistle.
The duck call is an often overlooked tool and shouldn’t be. Calls with natural corks need to be replaced at least every season if not more. The cork shrinks as it dries out during the offseason, and that lack of fit with the reed and tone board can cause a fair amount of sound difference. Most call companies will allow you to send your call and have it tuned up and sometimes polished for the upcoming season. Of course, if you are a marginal or worse caller…that may not matter much.
I believe the saying is “fail to prepare, prepare to fail.” I doubt a duck hunter originated that statement, but it definitely applies when it comes to duck season. The more prep work you do now, the better your stuff will perform this season, or you will discover equipment that had no chance of working when you needed it most. Going to sleep the night before opening day is already hard enough; imagine how restless you would be if you were unsure if your boat would crank or your shotgun would cycle.
Plus, getting to fool around with your gear should make the months, weeks, and eventually, days zip right by, and we will be standing in knee-deep water in no time.
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.