There’s no doubt that duck hunting has always been a gear-intensive endeavor — enough that the thought of procuring, paying for and packing everything that seems to be required can scare many would-be waterfowlers away from one of autumn’s finest pastimes.
Buying into any popular duck hunting TV show or browsing a popular waterfowling magazine’s annual gear round-up issues can confirm those fearful feelings of gear overload:
* Expensive boats of every description.
* Costly mud motors.
* Bank-breaking hunting kayaks, canoes and float tubes.
* Decoys mimicking every duck species, plus various rigging systems — and don’t forget spinning-wing models and full-bodied field decoys.
* Duck calls of all descriptions, again focusing on multiple species.
* Waders and hip boots.
* Specialized waterfowl shotguns and loads.
* A litany of accessories too numerous to begin to mention.
The maze is confounding and scary, to be sure. Let’s be clear: There’s nothing wrong with gear. But you don’t need a complete, full-fledged, professional-grade setup to get your feet wet (so to speak) and shoot some ducks.
First, let’s outline a few simple ideas regarding becoming a duck hunter.
We’re going to start you as a potholer, meaning a mobile, self-contained hunting unit that walks to and works small water such as sloughs, potholes, ponds, creeks and maybe even some mid-sized streams in cold weather.
Being a potholer means you’ll primarily hunt puddle ducks, such as teal, wood ducks, mallards, gadwall, wigeon, pintails and spoonbills. Diving ducks are the stuff of duck hunting legend, but they are graduate school, not grade school, and the endeavor is inherently more gear intensive.
So what do you really need? Let’s take it from the top.
Maybe this is too obvious. But maybe not. Here are some insights for the beginning waterfowler.
Don’t fall into the trap that says you need you need a specialized waterfowl shotgun. Any model and action will do, but semiautomatics and pumps get a bit of a nod over double-barrels. That third shot will come in handy (and that’s what you’re limited to by federal law — three shells). A 12-gauge is ideal for broad duck hunting use, but you could get by with a 20 on close-range teal and wood duck hunting.
Bottom line, if you can hit fast-flying stuff with a shotgun you already own, just use it. More important than the shotgun is the choke. Considering the shells we’ll recommend, an improved-cylinder choke is best.
Tip: Put a sling on your shotgun to free up your hands for the tasks a duck hunter does and to help keep your balance in iffy spots and situations.
The beginning duck hunter needs to know that, by federal law, you can only hunt ducks with nontoxic (non-lead) shot. Don’t be misguided into thinking you need expensive heavy loads of bismuth, tungsten or other composite metals — which can run up to $3 or $4 per shell — to kill ducks.
Today’s modern steel loads will do the job just fine, especially for close-range pothole shooting. Load up with Nos. 4 to 6 steel loads for early-season teal and wood duck hunts. If mallards will be around, trend toward to No. 4s. As the season wears on and teal and woodies are gone, move to Nos. 3 and 2 steel.
Simple but fast and effective loads such as Kent Fasteel and Federal Premium’s Speed-Shok Waterfowl Loads will do the job just fine and affordably. Steel shot shoots very tight, so you’ll want that open choke tube mentioned before.
One Dozen Decoys
You could probably shoot a few ducks without decoys, but where’s the fun in that? Decoys can get expensive, but here’s the good news: You don’t need oodles of them, nor do you need multiple species.
Get a dozen mallard decoys. That’s that. Every species of duck (including tiny teal, brightly colored wood ducks, all the other big puddlers besides mallards and even majestic divers, if you’re lucky enough to encounter some) will decoy into what they think are wary, happy mallards.
Probably half of your spread will be green-headed drakes, the other half drab hens. You can buy premium-quality new decoys because you’re only getting a dozen, but begging, borrowing or buying a sack of old ones and then refurbishing them is a fun project, and they will do the job just fine.
Rig the decoys with lead decoy weights (the strip kind are nice) and 10 feet of decoy cord. Oh, and get a mesh potholer’s bag in which to carry them.
Two Duck Calls
A high blue sky is the limit as to how many duck calls you hang from the lanyard around your neck. But all you really need are two: a mallard call and a whistle call.
All ducks know and trust mallards. Plus, a mallard call blows easily and loudly to get birds’ attention. You really can’t make a mistake buying one. Try a few, and go with one you like.
Wood ducks are bread-and-butter birds for potholers nationwide, so it’s also smart to have a whistle call to toot at wood ducks and teal.
Unless you’re field hunting (another ballgame versus hunting the abundant public places available to today’s waterfowler), you’ll need waders to wear while slogging through water and muck, setting out decoys, picking up birds and collecting decoys.
You do get what you pay for with hunting waders. Nothing makes a hunt more miserable than a leak. Don’t skimp. Get a boot-foot model with excellent and deep tread for grip and stability. Neoprene is best, preferably with puncture resistance and reinforced knees. Go for more insulation rather than less. It’s better to sweat a little bit early on (waders will dry out nicely if you turn them inside out in the sun or in front of a fan) and be warm when the weather and cold get serious.
Watch for off-season sales, and procure waders at great prices online or at retail stores.
If you are hiding well at your hunting setup (and you should be), or lurking behind or under a blind, clothing becomes almost secondary to the duck hunting equation. Almost.
Those camouflaged waders will cover most of you. Still, especially if you’re freelancing in cattails or grass, or hiding in the puckerbrush or timber, you can never be too cautious about camouflaging yourself. That means a jacket.
Almost any camouflage jacket suitable to the conditions will work, as long as its general color pattern matches the surroundings (for example, greens in early season, browns and tans later).
Your best bet is to invest in a multi-layer jacket/parka system that will serve you from the early season until the bitter end. Realtree Max-5 is an excellent all-around waterfowling camo pattern.
A hat and gloves suitable to the conditions also deserve mention.
Five Critical Accessories
There you have it: a shotgun and shells with which to shoot ducks. A dozen rigged decoys and a duck call or two to attract birds. A pair of waders and a waterfowling jacket over basic clothes geared to the conditions. You can hunt and kill ducks — lots of them, if you work a bit.
But let’s cover five small accessories that will add to your hunting effectiveness, comfort and convenience.
Headlamp: Duck hunters do a lot in the dark. Get an affordable headlamp that frees your hands for hiking in, putting out decoys and getting your gear just so before first shooting light.
Neoprene gloves: As the season wears on and the water gets colder, include a pair of waterproof neoprene gloves for performing decoy work.
Headnet: Why camouflage everything but your face? Get a headnet, and use it. Everybody wants to glance up and see ducks work. A headnet lets you.
Game strap: You’re out there to shoot some ducks. A duck strap helps you haul them back.
Marsh pole: The pothole hunter traverses a lot of iffy places. Balance can get precarious. A marsh pole of any type (an old cross-country ski pole with its basket at the bottom is a perfect and cheap alternative) helps you lean on something, keep your balance and save your day.
Duck hunting can be an every-man’s, every-woman’s and every-child’s outdoor pastime. If you want to try it, don’t let gear requirements hold you back. Put together this starter kit, find some small water and get after it. Becoming a potholer is easy and affordable, and you can grow your passion from there. Or, like me, you might embrace the potholing lifestyle and call it good.
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