Advanced Duck Hunting Techniques by TR Michels
Normal duck hunting techniques work well during the first part of the season on the “locals” and early season migrants. However, the local ducks usually learn that the season is open in a very short time. They know where they’ll get shot at, what decoys spreads to avoid, and which calls to stay away from. Shiny gun barrels, thermos bottles, shell casings, glasses, or white shiny faces are enough to send even the youngsters downwind in a hurry. This is when it’s time to try something different.
Once the birds get call shy, and decoy sour, I usually change calls, call less and change my decoy spread. I start using only drakes in my setup because the brighter colors and contrast are seen farther away. I may use more teal, pintails and gadwalls than mallards. Whichever species I see most often I put out in my decoys spread. Sometimes I use only one or two decoys, and choose small sloughs to hunt. When every other hunter is using more decoys, hard hunted birds are more willing to come to a smaller spread, especially in more secluded waters.
One of the things many decoy spreads lack is movement, and movement attracts ducks. Ducks are constantly swimming, bobbing for food and stretching their wings. When there is no wind and no decoy movement I flag the ducks. When I first see them I wave a square of dark cloth on a broom handle to get their attention. Once they come my way I lower the flag and use it less frequently. If they veer off I start flagging again. Once I can see their colors I quit flagging and rely mostly on the call.
For more movement I attach a string to an eyehook on the bill of one of my decoys, run it through an eyehook on a heavy anchor below the decoy and back to the blind. I pull on the string whenever I need movement. This works well on duck butt decoys too. If you want continuous movement you can use one of the motorized decoys in the Herter’s or Cabela’s catalog. To add the realism of landing ducks I use 3 or 4 flying decoys attached to a conduit or PVC pipe painted dull gray or tan. Incoming ducks seeing other ducks landing feel more secure coming to your decoys.
I have to wonder how many of you are not going to believe me, and how many of you are going to think I’m nuts when I go against traditional calling techniques. But, that’s part of what I do as a wildlife researcher and guide, try to understand animal behavior, in this case what duck calls really mean and how they are used. So here goes.
There is no feeding call in ducks! Now stay with me. I didn’t say you couldn’t use the mallard feeding “chuckle” to call ducks, all I am saying is that ducks don’t use it to call other ducks to come and feed. It does however occur in a feeding situation. I’ve heard hen mallards use the “chuckle” many times when there are lots of ducks feeding. I’ve also heard it used in the spring, while a pair of mallards was being pursued by one or more drakes. I’ve heard it in North Dakota as huge flocks swarmed over a cornfield while I lay there waiting. In neither of the last two cases were the ducks feeding. So what was the call used for?
The first time I really began to understand what the “chuckle” meant was while I was sitting at the small lake near my home feeding geese with my kids a few years ago. I heard the call and saw a hen mallard feeding with the geese. But, she wasn’t feeding; she was chasing away a drake mallard. I had just been reading a book entitled Handbook Of Waterfowl Behavior by Dr. Paul Johnsgard. My good friend and world famous goose researcher Dr. Jim Cooper recommended it to me. Johnsgard is an animal behaviorist. He studies animal behavior and interprets it for a better understanding of the behavior.
While reading the book to learn more about geese I checked up on mallards, teal, and bluebills. I learned that the “chuckle” is termed an inciting call. It is used by mallard, black duck; gadwall hens to get their mate to drive another duck away. In this case it is actually inciting a riot. It is almost a threat call, with the hen telling the other duck that if it doesn’t leave her alone her mate will attack, and he usually does. But, this call often occurs in feeding situations where there are lots of ducks; and lone drakes are near hens. In order for the hen to keep from being harassed she performs the “chuckle” to keep drakes away so she can feed or swim in peace. The “chuckle” is not used to call other ducks to come and feed, but it does occur in feeding situations, and therefore it works to attract‚ ducks. You can use it to bring in ducks, but you should blow it like it is meant, not like a welcome or pleading call. It should sound like a threat; aggressive and insistent.
The “hail call” is referred to as the Decrescendo Call. It starts loud and gets quieter. This call is used to announce an intent to mate or as general conversation. It usually consists of six notes, with the second note being the loudest, and each successive note being softer. I have heard a hen do seventeen quacks in a row. This is the call I use when I first spot ducks. On windy days, when the ducks are far away or when I am hunting flooded river bottoms where sound doesn’t carry I blow it as loud as I can. The closer the ducks get, the softer I blow. Too much volume can easily spook the ducks. Remember mallards are not very big and they have small lungs, they can’t possibly call as loud as I hear some hunters blow their calls.
Try to sound like a contented duck when the birds get close. I use slow, loud quacks. Most hunters have heard the early morning quacks of a hen across the slough. That’s the sound you should imitate. Don’t blow loud and fast, that’s the sound of an alarmed duck that often jumps into the air.
The other call I use so I don’t sound like every hunter on the marsh is the drake mallard call. It sounds like a deep pitched, reedy “raeb.” Herter’s offers a couple of different brands of calls that make this sound. One of the best drake mallard calls I’ve used is Eli and Rod Haydel’s DR-85 Double Reed mallard call. To get the proper sound I blow softly while cupping my hand around the barrel of the call, and opening my fingers slowly while I blow.
I always carry more than one duck call, in case one gets wet or won’t blow. I also carry a goose call, a teal call, a wood duck call and pintail whistle. I include decoys of these species in my decoy spread just in case some of them show up. When the mallards get call shy I use the sounds of the other species. Sometimes sounding like a wood duck, wigeon or pintail is all it takes to get the ducks in close. For divers; scaup, ringbills, redheads and canvasbacks I use the soft “errr” inciting call. Divers also coo, mew, whew and whine. Next time the ducks won’t come to your calls don’t be afraid to try something new. What have you got to lose?