A beginner’s guide to duck hunting

by Leon Wright

(This article was originally published on the SSAA’s old website. It has been adapted for 2018.)
The hunting of wild ducks in this country is highly regulated so it’s only proper that we start with all of the paperwork associated with duck hunting.

Obviously you will need a firearm licence, next comes the sitting of the WIT (Wildlife Identification Test). This is to ensure that you can correctly identify legal and, more importantly, protected species of ducks and other birdlife encountered on the wetlands while pursuing ducks. If you are unsure of how to go about sitting this test, approach your local branch of the SSAA for advice. Finally, you will need a game licence if required under state regulations, which can be obtained from your state’s wildlife department. Only South Australia, Victoria, Northern Territory, Western Australia and Tasmania have duck open seasons. New South Wales has a Game Bird Management Program that allows ducks to be hunted for crop protection.

Choosing the right clothing is quite important. We are hunting ducks during the hotter part of the year and diseases like encephalitis and Ross River fever, to name a couple of the nastier ones, usually dictate the wearing of long-sleeved shirts and long trousers. Dark coloured clothing is essential – camouflage clothing is a good choice. A wide-brimmed hat is excellent for protection from the sun and will hide that shiny white face from any passing ducks if you happen to look skywards at the wrong time.

Waders are also common practice and can make a hunt much more comfortable on cold days. You should always be careful in regards to the depth of the water and texture of the surface of the ground though. If you are lucky enough to have a well trained canine companion then you may avoid getting wet altogether. 

Firearm selection 
The under and over shotgun is top dog, but the old side-by-side still has a strong following with traditionalists. The choice of chokes however has always been a bone of contention among shooters and many wrongly choose full-choke guns. While excellent for taking passing ducks out to 50 metres, there are not many duck hunters who can continually down ducks at that range. With more and more hunters turning to hunting over decoys, along with the use of steel shot, more open chokes are commonly used.

If you are starting out from scratch, approach a reputable firearm dealer and explain that you will be duck hunting – as the firearm needs to be suitable for steel shot. Luckily most shotguns come with a multiple choice of chokes. It would be a good idea to take your gun to the local gun range and test pattern it to see which chokes best suit the use of steel shot, and how dense a pattern it throws. You will probably be surprised at the results.

Cartridge selection 
Since duck shooting requires hunters use steel shot it is quite rare to find anyone who reloads. When changing from the lead shot which you typically use for clay targets to steel shot for ducks, it is recommended that you go up two sizes in steel to roughly equal lead. A No 2 and No 4 shot in steel is quite common among hunters, as is the use of more open chokes.  

The best way to find out what size steel shot suits your shotgun is to acquire different brands and shot size and take them to your gun club to have them checked on a pattern board.

Constructing a blind 
The construction of a blind is an important part of hunting ducks. They are very alert birds and can quickly spot a trap, so a blind is really a necessity. When building a blind, it needs to blend in as closely as possible to the surrounding cover to make it as natural as possible. It is not advisable to start chopping branches off nearby trees. In some states it is a condition of the hunting permit to not, for the purpose of hunting, cut down, lop branches from or otherwise destroy or damage any tree (whether living or dead). During the last couple of seasons I have been using a military camouflage net. Mine is ten metres by three metres and can be draped over downed timber or propped up with tent poles. These nets are just about perfect and not too expensive to buy.

If you are a bit strapped for cash, and who isn’t from time to time, a suitable blind can be made from ground cover and dead branches. Just remember to make it large enough to be comfortable. Always disassemble it when you have finished, taking with you empty shells and pieces of loose rope or string as these tend to become lodged or tangled in animals when they come to drink.

The number of decoys you will need depends mainly on where you are shooting. If you are hunting over a small backwater, you will not need many at all. You can probably get away with six decoys. You will need more if you plan to hunt on a big expanse of water. We use about 50, but I am not suggesting that you race out and buy a great heap of decoys. The accumulation of decoys takes a number of years; buy half a dozen or so each year. There are a variety of well made decoys on the market and you can get many years of service out of them.

When setting out your decoys don’t have them too far away from your blind and have it look as realistic as possible. Mix them up a little and have them facing in different directions. You are trying to get across that your decoy spread is a safe haven for any passing ducks. Leave plenty of room among your decoys for incoming ducks, otherwise they will pass over and pitch in further down.

Most of my decoying is done on calm water and I prefer to use the ‘V’ pattern. As ducks land into the wind I have the ‘V’ leading into my blind. Other patterns are the dotted ‘I’ and the fish hook pattern, but they take a bit of setting up.

It is often bandied about that if you can’t blow a duck call properly then don’t blow it at all, for nothing alerts incoming ducks more than a poor rendition. There are a number of calls that the budding duck hunter needs to know and when used correctly will greatly enhance your chances of a full bag. Different calls will work different ways in certain areas.

If your long-distance call worked and the ducks have turned and are coming your way, use the chatter call when they are about 100 metres away. The chatter call is a series of low, quick-sounding quacks. If this call works, the ducks will cup their wings and begin descending. If they look as though they are hell-bent on landing among your decoys, make yourself ready to take a shot.

Quite often, and especially on opening morning, your spread of decoys may not be the first lot a mob of ducks have dropped into – they may be nervous. Usually if this is the case the ducks will pass overhead, just out of range, to suss things out. When they look as though they aren’t interested, they will often turn and come back over your spread again, this time they will be a bit lower. If you choose to do any calling at this time, it is advisable not to look up at the ducks as they will spot you every time.

Old hands will tell you there is no need to look up at this crucial moment, just listen to the whistle of the wing beats. A mob of ducks may do this a few times, each time getting lower and lower, then if they are satisfied that all is well, they will cup their wings, lower their landing gear and come cruising in. If, however, they smell a rat and start flying off, you can try the ‘come back’ call which is a series of high, slow-blown quacks.

Some of the better brands of duck calls come with instructions or YouTube tutorials on how to blow the different types of calls associated with successful duck calling. It is advisable to study the method of calling. It is then a case of practise, practise and more practise until you have it right.

Tricks for improving your bag 
Here are some of the more popular tricks:

  • Ducks are very sharp-eyed and very greedy, so put a bit of movement in your decoy spread to arrest the attention of passing ducks. A teaser board (or bottle) is well worth the trouble of setting up. The floating board is stationed above a stake or peg which has an eyelet attached to it. This allows a piece of cord to pass from the bottom of the teaser, through the peg and back to the blind. When you see the ducks coming towards your decoys, pull on the cord, this in turn will make the teaser board bob about, putting heaps of ripples among your decoys. There is nothing a passing duck likes to see more than a mob of ducks happily feeding away.
  • If you have a mob of ducks dropping into your decoys from in front of your blind, wait till the very last moment, then stand up with your gun coming to your shoulder. Your sudden movement will be undoubtedly spotted by the incoming ducks and they will bank sharply, with wings flared, thus presenting you with the decoyer’s preferred shot.
  • When shooting at passing ducks, always remember to give them a lot of lead and shoot at the back of the mob. This will allow you to follow through onto another duck if the first one has folded.

Ethics is conducting yourself in a sportsman-like manner and treating other hunters with respect. Such as:

  • Don’t squabble over ducks. Sometimes, especially when shooting on big swamps, more than one hunter will fire at a duck. There is nothing more childish than two grown men fighting over a dead duck. The simple solution is to walk away and go back to hunting.
  • Always give other hunters enough room to hunt, especially if they are using decoys.
  • If it seems another person is hunting successfully and you are not firing a shot, break your gun and ask if you can join him/her. Most duck hunters enjoy the company of other like-minded hunters.
  • The only time a duck should be shot on the water is when a wounded duck has to be humanely dispatched. The shot should only be taken when it is safe to do so.

Duck hunting is a challenging pastime and once you have experienced it, it will get in your blood and you will never tire of it. The beautiful smell of the wetlands, the sound of the whistling wings of passing ducks – to a duck hunter, that is the elixir of life.

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