#1- Pre-Hunt Scouting
Scouting is a must for all waterfowl, but for wood ducks it is especially imperative. Over the years we have found that these birds are very location specific. By that I’m not talking about a certain marsh, pond or pothole, I mean the exact location of that specific body of water. If you find wood ducks favoring one side of a small marsh or pond, then that is exactly where you need to be. On small bodies of water, most other puddlers will circle your rig and even decoy if you are slightly off the X. Wood ducks on the other hand seem to know exactly where they are going before they even get there. Be in that spot! Another detail to focus on, is figuring out which direction the majority of the birds are coming from. This can be difficult or even irrelevant on small ponds and open marshes, but when hunting rivers it is crucial. Figuring out the direction of their approach will put more birds in effective shooting range, and I will elaborate more in tip #4 of this article.
The decoys are usually the easiest part for wood ducks. If you are in the right spot, you may not even need them! I have found that smaller is better for these birds. On average I usually will run 6 wood duck decoys placed right where I expect the birds to land and may include 2-3 teal decoys to give it a nice early season mood. Unlike most other waterfowl, I usually do not focus on or even pay any attention to the wind direction when setting decoys for wood ducks. The only exception being a strong heavy wind. Most hunters look at me as if I’m crazy when I say this, but countless times I have watched a wood duck fly into the decoys with the wind at its back, and in the blink of an eye perform a complete 360 degree stunt less than 12 inches over the water that put him directly into the wind with his landing gears down. It doesn’t take long to realize that if the wood duck wants to be there, he’s not going to let the wind direction stop him. These birds are notorious for making last minute direction changes to land where they want, yet still into the wind. When hunting wood ducks we are usually gunning for mallards as well, so I will run mallard decoys usually positioned more for the wind in relation to where the hunters are located. I make sure to keep the mallard and wood duck decoys separate, and my mallard rig is again on the small side. In our area, these are early season mallards many of which are resident birds. They are flying and feeding in smaller groups so a large rig is not only unnecessary, it’s unrealistic! Adding motion to your rig is a must! Mojo’s and other spinning wing decoys work, but birds quickly learn to avoid these machines. I will usually only run a spinning wing decoy when there is low visibility such as rain or fog. Jerk rigs however, are often overlooked by hunters and are wood duck magnets! Invest in a jerk rig and it will be money well spent!
The wood duck is a very vocal bird, and it is a call that is easily replicated and mastered. Although vocal, you won’t typically find wood ducks responding to calls like other dabblers. Calling wood ducks from a distance is not as effective as hailing on a call to a flock of mallards. As stated previously, they usually know where they are going long before they get there. But don’t rule out the calling! It is still both important and effective in putting these birds over the decoys. Using a wood duck call adds life to your decoys. When combined with motion, it can make wary birds that have seen hunting pressure feel much more comfortable about landing next to the plastic decoy that would otherwise seem lifeless. Adding a little sound to your motion sets the mood for a relaxed group of birds swimming and feeding in the water.
#4- Position yourself accordingly
The location of the shooter or shooters in critical when gunning for wood ducks. Many a drake have flown into the decoys only to leave unscathed because I was on the wrong side of the decoys. Keep in mind with wood ducks, the location of the gunner is not so much in relation to average wind conditions as it is to the direction of the birds approach, contrary to popular belief. Once I have determined the flight path and direction of bird travel or approach for the location I am hunting, I like to position myself and the shooters between the direction of the birds approach and the decoys. I do this for two reasons. One being that the birds have to fly directly over the shooters to get to the decoys, and this will present an effective, clean kill. Another reason is the exit strategy of the bird after it has been shot at. When a bird, whether it be a wood duck, mallard, or goose, is approaching directly in front of the shooter, they usually see the hunters before the first shot is fired as the hunters raise their guns to their shoulders. The bird will instinctively try to turn and fly away from the shooter, and wood ducks are capable of doing this in a very quick manner. If the birds are allowed to slightly pass overhead from behind and approach the decoys, they will not only be in front of the shooters, but will also be turned facing away from the shooters devoting their attention to the decoys in front of them. If after the first shot, the bird has not been hit, they will panic not knowing where the noise came from and many times will turn to exit via the same route they entered. This causes them to fly a second time, directly at and over the hunter. This is a strategy that we learned to use in heavy wind for snow geese, and over the years I have noticed that it works on virtually any type of migratory bird. For birds such as the wood duck, that are able to gain altitude and speed quickly, this will keep birds in effective shooting range longer and can double your effective shooting time on each volley resulting in cleaner kills, and more kills per volley. If you are hunting a high traffic area for wood ducks, you may find birds passing over along with birds decoying to your rig. Do not overlook pass shooting opportunities, especially when hunting a river. Wood ducks usually follow a river at or just below the treeline, which puts them well within effective shooting range. Being in the right location is half the battle with these birds. Getting them over the decoys is a bonus. If you have a nice drake that presents an ethical shot as it passes over, take it!
Although one of the most popular migratory birds to hunt in America, I have found from talking to other hunters that the wood duck seems to be one of the most challenging birds they pursue each season. Remember to have an open mind when hunting these birds and think outside the box. As you have read, some of the strategies we like to use for these birds somewhat contradicts what most waterfowlers know and have been taught for hunting dabblers. As unorthodox as some of these strategies may seem, the four points discussed in this article have been tested, and proven by the BRVO staff and myself. Our wood duck hunts are one of our “pride and joys”, and our success speaks for itself. Use these tips the next time you decide to target wood ducks, and remember to get creative and think outside the box!
- Capt. Ben Roggie
BOTTOM LEFT- BRVO staff Justin Zehr with two hunters from fall 2016 and an early season mixed bag.
BOTTOM RIGHT- Miss Cabela posing with an early season mixed bag from a large hunting party during the 2016 fall season.