Duck Hunting Basics

By Rich Davenport, published November 13, 2021

Waterfowl decoy spread on Chautauqua Lake

Waterfowl hunters look forward to fall each year, as flocks of southbound waterfowl litter the skies in every major flyway.  Drawing birds into shooting range requires scouting an area, understanding the winds, and, most importantly, spreading a convincing decoy string that beckons birds together before they make their big move south.

Preliminary Scouting

Many public hunting areas are found on the larger bodies of water within your home state.  After all, law deems most lakes and rivers as public areas, so chances are you will find these places offer the best access to hunting opportunities.  Before you make your first trip to a lake or river, check the directional orientation of the waterway on a map, and also understand the direction of the prevailing winds in that area.  Although it is true that the winds will change direction on a day-to-day basis, the prevailing winds and the related orientation of the waterway provide the hunter a great starting point.  This knowledge also helps a hunter effectively reduce the area to scout to specific section of a lake or river, and even can help identify public lands that appear to offer good locations for migrating waterfowl to gather in advance of their move south.  Hunters should look for points, bays and creeks where the prevailing winds are blowing “off-shore”, or away from land, as likely target areas to scout.

 As the wind blows

A critical aspect of waterfowl hunting is wind direction.  The wind is the ally of all waterfowl, as, like an airplane, birds use the wind to provide lift during takeoff, and as a brake for landing.  Understanding this when setting up can be the difference between getting quality shots and flyby shooting.  After all, the objective when hunting over decoys is to get birds to attempt to “join the crowd.”  Puddle ducks, such as mallards, and diver ducks, such as scaup, use the wind in similar fashions, although the puddle ducks do not rely on wind as much as divers do.  Both classes of waterfowl will tend to take off and land into the wind, so being certain the wind is at your back delivers a more effective set up than if the wind is in your face, or if you are dealing with a cross wind.  If you are hunting a point, for instance, try to set up with the wind at your back.  This may mean moving from one side of the point to the other when winds change, but this move is well worth it.  Hunting bays is a bit trickier, but if you have the ability to move to a more wind-friendly position, do so.

Wind is most critical for diver ducks, as they require some “runway” distance to become airborne, with more wind giving the birds less runway distance required for successfully taking flight.  Puddle ducks take off more like a helicopter, jumping straight into the air and catching wind current.  Again, with landings, both puddle and diver ducks will tend to land into the wind, as this helps slow their descent, while providing emergency lift power in case danger presents itself.

What’s on the menu

Waterfowl migrate south for one primary reason: access to food.  All ducks require open water to feed, as their diets mainly consist of aquatic vegetation.  Geese and mallard ducks can be an exception, as these birds will also feed on land, in corn fields or in oak stands, but all birds need to bathe regularly to keep their feathers in top-flying condition.  When winter weather starts to freeze open waterways, waterfowl head south to find open water, thus access to their primary diets.  It is therefore important to factor in food availability when choosing your hunting grounds.  You do not need to be a marine botanist to do this.  Simply observe whether seaweed is present in your chosen spot.  If it is, you have some food available.  If not, then you can reasonably determine birds will come into your area for shelter alone, decreasing the potential number of birds drawn to a decoy string.

Decoy lines versus clusters

Once you have accounted for wind direction and food sources as best as possible, your next task is setting the decoy strings in your chosen hunting spot.  Again, the object is to present the most natural, inviting flock of birds possible.  How to arrange your decoys will depend on the primary species you are hunting.  Early season duck hunting generally means puddle ducks (mallards and wood ducks.)  It is recommended that before you start using decoys that you do a little investigative homework into the behavior of your quarry.  Pre-season observations of feeding mallards will show you that these birds tend to group in bunches.  Spreading your decoys to mimic this behavior is paramount to fooling flying mallards.  Be mindful, however, that the ultimate goal is to bring birds into range with an inviting, room-for-more, decoy spread.

For puddle ducks, start by placing a few mallard hen decoys about 10 yards offshore, directly in front of your intended hunting position.  Work your way out further, to no more than 25 yards from your intended shooting position, placing decoys, hens and drakes, in a “cluster” array.  Be sure to leave plenty of “landing holes” near the center of the decoy cluster, and in effective shooting range of your position.  Place a couple hens and a lead drake out the far end of the decoys, to act as attention-getters.

Later in the season, mallards and wood ducks move south, and diving ducks, like bluebills, goldeneye and buffleheads will take their place.  These birds tend to follow a formation in the water that much resembles single file lines.  Again, diver ducks will orient facing into the wind, as this positioning allows them to gain altitude more quickly on takeoff.  The line formation is actually another wind strategy, as lines of birds provide added draft to birds in the rear.  In order to capitalize on this behavioral characteristic of most diver ducks, hunters should employ what are known as “gang lines.”  To make a gang line, simply string several decoys together, allowing at least three feet between each decoy.  A gang line can contain as few as a half dozen decoys, all the way up to two dozen, or more, depending on the number of decoys you have in your collection, and also dependent upon the number of birds you observe in your hunting area.  If you notice only a “few” divers frequenting the waters, you can reasonably judge that small gang lines will be effective.  If you observe large flocks, then you had better spread large gang lines to garner any attention at all; at least 20 decoys per line.

Confidence decoy use

Many waterfowl hunters will also have in their bags a confidence decoy or two, such as a Great Blue Heron decoy, to help convince wary ducks that the decoys being surveyed do not have a hunter or two hiding behind a bush.  Blue Herons tend to be very shy in nature, taking flight when danger is perceived at some distance from them.  Setting up a Blue Heron decoy within 50 yards or so of your decoy spread is always a good idea, especially during early season.  Use of a confidence decoy will certainly help as birds feel increased hunting pressure, as their wariness of gunfire will make uncertain ducks circle your decoys a few times before deciding to land.  Having that heron near your decoys can be the factor that brings ducks into shooting range.

Understanding these basics to waterfowl hunting can increase your success rate under most conditions.  With practice and observation, your enjoyment of this rewarding sport will grow.