Modern hunting techniques
The waterfowl hunting season is generally in the autumn and winter. Hunting seasons are set by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the United States. In the autumn, the ducks and geese have finished raising their young and are migrating to warmer areas to feed. The hunting seasons usually begin in October and end in January. Extended goose seasons can go into April, the Conservation Order by the U.S.F.W.S.
There are four large flyways in the United States that the waterfowl follow: the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific Flyways.
There are several items used by almost all waterfowl hunters: a shotgun, ammunition, a hunting blind, decoys, a boat, and a duck or goose call. The decoys are used to lure the birds within range, and the blind conceals the hunter. When a hunter or hunters sees the waterfowl, he or she begins calling with the duck or goose call. Once the birds are within range, the hunters rise from the blind and quickly shoot the birds before they are frightened off and out of shooting range. Duck or goose calls are often used to attract birds; sometimes calls of other birds will also be simulated to convince the birds that there is no danger.
Hunters position themselves in blinds near rivers, lakes, ponds or in agriculture fields planted with corn, barley, wheat or millet. Hunters build blinds to conceal themselves from waterfowl, as waterfowl have sharp eyes and can see colors. That is why hunters use camouflage. Waterfowl hunters also often use dogs to retrieve dead or injured birds in the water. There are many retriever breeds, such as Labrador Retrievers and Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, specifically bred for the task. Hunters also may use a boat to get downed birds. Some hunters use boats as blinds or float rivers in search of waterfowl. When the ducks see the hunters in the boat, ducks flush off the water and hunters shoot. Then birds are collected and placed in the boat.
Each hunter prefers a certain type of weather condition, depending on the type of hunting setting. Some hunters prefer sunny days vs cloudy or rainy days. However, ducks and geese fly more extensively and actively on cloudy days, rain or snow. There is an old hunters tale that if you see swans flying, ducks will be close behind.
Alaska Waterfowl Hunting Some of North America’s top waterfowl hunting occurs in Alaska in the Aleutian Islands and Pribilof Islands. These areas hold large populations of seaducks to include the most sought after of all North America’s waterfowl including king eiders, Pacific eider, harlequin, and long tail ducks along with scoters.
In the days of market hunting, punt guns, four (4) gauge, six (6) gauge, eight (8) gauge and ten (10) gauge shotguns were used in hunting. Modern sport hunters are more likely to use ten (10), twelve (12), sixteen (16), or twenty (20) gauge shotguns. Punt guns and four and six gauge were mounted to small boats. This was due to their weight and recoil. The eight gauge was hand held and weighed about fourteen pounds and shot about 2.5 ounces of shot. The largest gun used today in the United States is the ten gauge shotgun, shooting a 3 and 1/2 inch shell that holds up to 2 ounces of shot. These shotguns can kill ducks at up to 60 yards. By far the most common modern shotgun used for waterfowl hunting is the twelve gauge. With the development of high-pressure 3.5″ shells, 12 gauge shotguns can deliver close to the power and shot load of a ten gauge out of a lighter gun with less recoil. Modern sixteen gauge shotguns are rare, with more people choosing the higher power twelve gauge or lower recoil of the twenty gauge. Twenty gauge shotguns are less commonly used for long-range waterfowl hunting, but are preferred by hunters who do not like the weight of the twelve gauge. Twenty eight gauge and .410 bore shotguns are rarely used due to the gun’s inability to ensure clean kills at ranges of 40 to 50 yards. Some hunting guns have camouflage-patterned stocks and low-gloss finishes on the metal to reduce their visibility to waterfowl.
Although it is legal to use a bow to take migratory waterfowl in many areas, most hunters prefer taking migratory birds with a shotgun because of the great difficulty of striking a moving bird with an arrow. Taking migratory birds with a rifle is illegal due to the great distances rifle bullets travel, making them unsafe.
Since the 16th century, lead shot has been used in waterfowl hunting. Lead shot was originally poured down the barrel. Later, shells were made of paper and brass in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, manufacturers began making shotshells of plastic. In the late 1960s, it was determined that lead shot poisoned waterfowl eating in shallow water areas where there was heavy hunting. In 1974, steel shot shells were offered for sale to hunters at the Brigantine Waterfowl Refuge in southern New Jersey, and at Union County State Fish & Wildlife area in Union County, Illinois, by Winchester at five dollars a box. These shells were marked “Experimental” and were orange in color.
Waterfowl hunting with lead shot, along with the use of lead sinkers in angling, has been identified as a major cause of lead poisoning in waterfowl, which often feed off the bottom of lakes and wetlands where lead shot collects. In the United States, UK, Canada, and many western European countries (France as of 2006), all shot used for waterfowl must now be non-toxic, and therefore may not contain any lead. Steel is the cheapest alternative to lead. However, some hunters do not like its shooting properties, as steel is significantly less dense than lead. Therefore, its effective range is decreased due to rapidly decreasing velocity of the shot: thirty to forty yards is considered its maximum effective range for duck hunting. Many companies have improved steel shot by increasing muzzle-velocity, by using fast burning powder such as rifle powder thus making more consistent ‘shot’ or pellet patterns. Steel shot now travels at 1400 to 1500 feet per second. Within recent years, several companies have created “heavier than lead” non-toxic shot out of tungsten, bismuth, or other elements with a density similar to or greater than lead. These shells have more consistent patterns and greater range than steel shot. The increase in performance comes at a higher cost. Shell boxes can cost up to thirty dollars a box for twenty five shells.
Hunters use pellet sizes 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, or BB for ducks, and 2, BB, BBB or T shot for geese. Buckshot is legal.
Decoys are one of the most important pieces of equipment for the waterfowler. Using a good spread of decoys and calling, an experienced waterfowl hunter can successfully bag ducks or geese if waterfowl are flying that day. The first waterfowl decoys were made from vegetation such as cattails by Native Americans. In the 18th century, duck decoys were carved from soft wood such as pine. Many decoys were not painted. Live birds were also used as decoys. They were placed in the water and had a rope and a weight at the end of the rope so the duck could not swim or fly away. This method of hunting became illegal in the 1930s. By end of the 20th century, collectors started to search for high quality wooden duck decoys that were used by market hunters in the late 19th century or early 20th century. Decoys used in Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, Barnegat Bay, and North Carolina’s Core Sound, and the famous Outerbanks (OBX) are highly sought after. Most decoys were carved from various types of wood that would withstand the rigors of many seasons of hunting. Highly detailed paint and decoy carvings that even included the outlines of tail or wing feathers turned the duck decoy into a work of art. Today, many collectors search estate sales, auctions, trade shows, or other venues for vintage duck decoys. In the historic Atlantic Flyway, North Carolina’s “Core Sound Decoy Festival” draws in excess of 40,000 visitors to the little community of Harker’s Island, NC the first weekend in December each year, and Easton, MD with their Wildfowl Festival in the month of November draws a great many people to that old goose hunting community on the Eastern Shore.
Modern decoys are typically made from molded plastic; that began in the 1960s. Making decoys of plastic, decoys can be made many times faster than carving from wood. The plastic allows a high level of detail, a resilient product and reasonable cost. Most are still hand painted. Most modern decoys are fitted with a “water keel” which fills with water once the decoy is immersed in water or a “weighted keel” filled with lead. Both types of keel help the decoy stay upright in wind or high waves. Weighted keel decoys look more realistic by sitting lower in the water. This also allows for decoys to be thrown into the water and the decoy to float upright. The obvious drawback to weighted keels are the added weight when carrying decoys for long distances. Decoys are held in place by some type of sinker or weight and attached via line to the decoy. Various weight designs allow the line to be wrapped around the decoy when not in use and secured by folding or attaching the lead weight to the decoy.
Decoys are placed in the water about 30 to 35 yards from the hunters. Usually a gap is in the decoy spread to allow ducks to land in the gap.
Recently, decoys have been introduced that provide lifelike movement that adds to the attraction for waterfowl. Shakers are decoys with a small electric motor and an offset weighted wheel. As the wheel turns it causes the decoy to “shake” in the water and create realistic wave rings throughout the decoy spread. Spinning wing decoys are also fitted with an electric motor and have wings made of various materials. As the wings spin an optical illusion is created simulating the wing beats for landing birds. These decoys can be quite effective when hunting waterfowl and have been banned in some states. Other types of movement decoys include swimming decoys and even kites formed like geese or ducks. Texas Rags were first invented by Houston, Texas waterfowling guide Chuck Berry for snow goose hunting the rice fields of Texas.
Duck season takes place in the fall and winter where the weather can be harsh. Waterproof clothing is critical to duck hunting. Most duck hunters hunt over water, and they stand in water or in a boat. In order to stand in the water and stay dry the hunter must wear waders. Waders are waterproof pants (usually made of a neoprene-like material) that have attached boots and are completely waterproof. Typical waders are chest-high, but waist-high and knee-high waders are sometimes used in shallow water. Duck hunting is a cold sport and the hunter must be well insulated from the cold. Ducks also have great vision and can see color, so this is why hunters must wear clothing that is well camouflaged. Camouflage clothing is various shades of brown or green or brown and green combined. Therefore, hunters wear camouflage similar to the area they are hunting so the ducks do not see the hunters. Face masks are often worn so the ducks do not see the hunters’ faces, and camouflage gloves are also worn.
Many clothing manufacturers, such as Drake Waterfowl, Mossy Oak Brand Camo, Cabela’s, Mad Dog, Under Armour and Whitewater Outdoors, have incorporated use of modern apparel technologies to provide added comfort and protection from the diverse weather elements to which waterfowl hunters can be subjected.
Duck hunters quite often employ a dog to retrieve downed birds. Most often hunters use a Labrador Retriever, Golden Retriever or Chesapeake Bay Retriever to retrieve waterfowl. The use of a dog provides a number of advantages. As duck hunting often takes place in cold wet locations, the use of a dog frees the hunter from potentially dangerous forays into cold water to retrieve the bird. Such efforts can be dangerous for the hunter, but are managed by a dog quite easily. It also allows for the recovery of wounded birds that might otherwise escape. A dog’s acute sense of smell allows them to find the wounded birds in swamps or marshes where weeds can allow a duck to hide. The use of a dog ensures that a higher percentage of the birds shot end up on the table. A disadvantage of having dogs in the duck blind, is that some dogs are not well-trained to sit still and can potentially ruin a good hunt. Dogs that run into the water looking for birds when guns are fired, rather than waiting until sent or released create a hazard to the dog and hunters. Nevertheless, dogs are considered the greatest conservation tool known to waterfowlers.
In the United States, professional hunting guides are used by water fowlers who do not know an local area. They are paid to take clients to hunt on leased, or private property, or hunting in local areas in which these professional guides know where to hunt in large public waterfowl hunting areas. If they use an outboard engine on their boat, they must be registered by the USCG as an OUPV operator in all fifty states, and have that license in their boat during the time of operation, and many states require all waterfowl guides to be registered via the state DNR hunting license. Waterfowlers normally employ a guide for a half day or a whole day of hunting. The cost of hiring a guide varies from one hundred fifty dollars for a half day to four hundred dollars for a day. Guides have boats, blinds, decoys, and dogs for retrieving ducks or geese. They know flight patterns of game and know how to call ducks or geese in. They know how to set up decoys. Some guides specialize in certain types of waterfowl while others will be more generalists. Some guides specialize in sea hunting while others will specialize in bay hunting, river hunting, lake hunting or swamp hunting. Guides may have houses for hunters to sleep for the night. They may provide the service of cleaning the game and keeping it on ice in coolers or refrigerators. Guides may have coffin blinds or more fancy house blinds, that provide seats and heating. Guides are usually are registered with the state that they guide in.