Introduction to Duck Hunting: A Beginner’s Guide


hunting dog retrieving duck
No question a good duck hunting dog is a necessity for most water fowl hunters.

In this article, you’ll find a brief introduction to duck hunting with everything you might need to master that skill.

Since the dawn of history, humans have been hunting ducks and all kinds of waterfowls for food and feathers. However, the advancement of technology didn’t stop people from hunting ducks to this day.

Since the majority of duck hunters don’t need to hunt for survival, the skill isn’t as widely possessed as it used to be. Yet, there’s something about hunting that always brings us back to our ancestral roots.

For that reason, even if you might be interested in duck hunting, it’s highly unlikely that you have an idea about where or how to start.

But worry no more! Because today, I’ll walk you through everything you need to know about duck hunting. Let’s dive in!

What Are the Best Duck Species to Hunt?

Before heading into the juicy stuff, you need to know more about the ducks you’re going to hunt. Let’s have a quick look at some of the North American ducks that you can try hunting.

There are four main categories of ducks that you may find in that region. The two popular ones are puddling and diving ducks. The less common ones are the sea and whistling ducks.

Puddling Ducks

They’re also known as “dabbling ducks”. These waterfowls live in marshes, shallow bays, river backwaters, and other freshwater wetlands.

Different species of puddling ducks have various sizes. However, they’re characterized by having a relatively large body.  They usually feed by tipping their head and torso underwater while leaving their feet in the air.

Additionally, they’re much better in walking on land when compared to other aquatic ducks. Puddling ducks are omnivorous, which means that they eat both plants and aquatic invertebrates. For that reason, they have a great taste profile for cooking.

Among the species that lie under the dabbling ducks are the infamous mallards or greenheads. Moreover, there are other types of puddling ducks, such as:

  • American Black Duck
  • Wood Duck
  • Gadwall
  • Northern Pintail
  • Cinnamon Teal
  • Green-Winged Teal
  • Blue-Winged Teal
  • American Wigeon
  • Northern Shoveler

Diving Ducks

As you might’ve expected, diving ducks’ main point of difference from dabblers is that they dive fully to feed. In fact, they can dive into some great depths for food.

They’re mostly found in larger freshwater bodies that allow diving, such as larger lakes and deep rivers. Similar to puddling ducks, they’re also omnivorous that feed on both submerged vegetation and aquatic vertebrates like mollusks.

Diving ducks have smaller bodies and wings that dabblers. Unlike puddling ducks, these ducks can’t fly immediately, so they have to run across the water first.

They have relatively larger feet when compared to puddling ducks. These feet help them to dive into the water. However, it can also remarkably hinder their motion inland.

Here are some of the notable diving ducks living in North America:

  • Canvasback
  • Redhead
  • Ring-Necked Duck
  • Greater Scaup
  • Lesser Scaup
  • Mergansers
  • Goldeneye
  • Ruddy Duck

Whistling Ducks

They’re also known as “tree ducks”. The most popular example of whistling ducks in North America is the Black-bellied whistling ducks and the West Indian whistling duck.

They’re much less common in North America, as they’re originally endemic to Central America and the Caribbean region. 

However, they can also be found in Southern Texas and California all the way to the Louisiana Gulf Coast and Florida. Although they’re called whistling ducks, they aren’t real ducks. They’re characterized by their long necks and legs.

Sea Ducks

Another uncommonly found ducks in the region are the marine-oriented sea ducks. They’re rarely found inland.

While they mainly inhabit the sea areas, you might come across some of them in fresh water, especially in winter.

Tips to Find the Best Ducks to Hunt

Now that you know more about the species of the ducks, it’s time to know where to find the best spots for ducks hunting.

Avoid Hotspots

duck hunting target for target shooting

As you already know, different types of ducks have distinct physical features that allow them to inhabit various areas. For that reason, locating ducks might sound a bit confusing and overwhelming in the beginning.

One way that many beginner hunters try is by asking more experienced ones about the top spots for finding ducks. Of course, this method is one of the quickest and easiest ways to find ducks.

However, it also comes with its drawbacks, especially if you got the answer from an online forum. Just as you were able to find out about these spots, other duck hunters do. Additionally, these hunters aren’t necessarily beginners.

In other words, when a lot of hunters are attracted to a spot, the hunting process would sometimes be your least concern. The hunting pressure will make it extremely difficult to hunt on your own.

For that reason, I prefer that you avoid these hotspots and look for ducks in ideal spots yourself. Not only will you find much less competition while hunting, but it’ll also sharpen your tracking and observational skills.

If you have the will to work for it, you’ll be able to learn the spots that attract different game birds including waterfowls and ducks. You’ll also learn about the impact of weather conditions and seasons on their presence in different areas.

With time, your hunting game will get significantly more solid, and you’ll be able to pinpoint the best locations for hunting in much less time.

Finding Puddle Ducks

As you already know, puddle ducks can only tip their head and torso into the water for feeding. So, they’re better suited for inhabiting areas with relatively shallow water to facilitate finding food.

That’s why they’re commonly found in wetlands like swamps, marshes, and any form of a puddle, hence the name. Additionally, you can also find them in river backwaters and lake shorelines.

For example, wood ducks and mallards to an extent can spend some time in small rivers or creeks to feed.  Moreover, it’s common for many species of ducks to feed on harvested agricultural fields. This includes black ducks, mallards, and pintails.

The more suitable the food, the more likely you’ll find them there. This includes agricultural fields of corn, oat, wheat, and others.

To put it in the simplest way possible, ducks would also go to a place where the weather is favorable and food is abundant.

Unfortunately, spotting puddling ducks becomes more challenging as you dwell in shallow water environments. It gets more difficult to spot them from a vantage point. That’s why you’ll have to gear up and get closer to the swamps or marshes.

Finding Diving Ducks

Diving ducks prefer submerged vegetation, fish, and invertebrates like mollusks. As you might’ve expected, it’s more likely that you’ll find diving ducks in larger water bodies that suit that feeding style.

In fact, it’s fairly easier to find diving ducks when compared to puddling ones. Divers migrate in large flocks on large lakes, rivers, and large sloughs.

Moreover, they can be found across coastal shorelines. That’s why some people tend to call them according to where they find them, such as “lake ducks” or “bay ducks”.

From afar, diver flocks look like a spill of oil that moves in harmony with a bunch of dark spots around it.

If you aren’t able to spot them from the shoreline, using a boat for deeper investigation is your best bet. However, once you find a flock, you need to keep your distance to avoid scaring the ducks away.

Go as Early as You Can

Ducks are usually active during the early morning. Also, you should know that they’re extra active when the weather is cold than when it’s hot outside.

What Are the Gear That You’re Going to Need for Duck Hunting?

three duck hunters in camo
Good luck all!

Now that you know more about the species you’re going to hunt in addition to when and where to find them, it’s time to fire up your gear and get ready for your hunting trip.

In the following section, I’ll show you everything you might need in your journey. Also, you’ll learn to differentiate between necessity and accessories, so you can make the most out of your gear.

Gun

It goes without saying that you’re going to need a gun for your duck hunting trip. But which type of gun is best for duck hunting? Let’s find out!

There’s a wide variety of guns that can get the job done in case of duck hunting. Ideally, you need a gun that has a decent level of accuracy and range all the while staying functional in the harsh conditions where you’ll find ducks.

As a rule of thumb, shotguns are the guns of choice for most duck hunters. They provide the highest level of functionality while marching down a swap or even moving through a dense coat of marshes.

A 12-gauge shotgun has the most power. However, if you’re heavy on gear, you can opt for the lighter 20-gauge model, and it’ll work just fine.

The recoil method of the shotgun is a matter of preference between hunters. For instance, double-barreled shotguns have proven their worth in duck hunting for decades. That’s why you might come across some people who still rely on their good old side-by-side.

Some people (me included) prefer to go with the classic pump-action shotguns. While ejecting and loading your shotgun might take a bit longer, they rarely jam even in the nastiest conditions.

However, you might want to go for a modern semi-automatic with rust protection camouflaged coats, easy recoil.

However, you should expect them to suffer a bit in these conditions, so you need to know how to use it properly. If you don’t mind heavy gear, you can also take a spare gun along with you.

Ammunition

You need to load your weapon with the right ammo to get the job done. Since you’re going for a potential dinner, you need to make sure that you don’t use toxic lead shots.

Ideally, most waterfowl hunters use steel shots for their bullet shells. However, some hunters might go for the fancier, and more expensive, tungsten shots, as they’re even heavier than lead. They all do a great job if you’re going for ducks, so you don’t have to worry about that.

To find the best type for you that gives the ideal spread pattern, you should give them a try at a gun range before heading into nature. There are many variables that you should try out there.

First, you need to try different ammo types and see which one is ideal for you. Also, you should test out different muzzle ends. These are the tapered constrictions at the tip of the gun, known as gun chokes.

While some prefer muzzles with higher velocities, others go with heavier than 1⅜ ounce loads for more pellets.

Both steel and tungsten shots make a better pattern with an open choke than the regular ones that come with the shotgun. You can even look for optimized chokes that are specifically designed for nontoxic shots.

As for the pellet sizes, most duck hunters go with steel pellets no. 4 and 5. Yet, no. 2 and 3 can also work because they have a similar performance to lead pellets no. 4 and 5.

As you can see, a lot of variables can work in terms of shooting a duck. As long as it gets the job done, you’re golden. However, all these variables are better experimented with at a gun range first.

Clothing Items

It might be surprising to you, but what you’re wearing to duck hunting can make it or break it in many situations. That’s why you always need to watch your apparel and how you layer them while hunting.

Multiple specialized duck hunting clothing items just make it a much easier task. Since you’re most likely going to go through marshes, sloughs, streams of water, a pair of chest waders will help you greatly.

Also, hip level boots might come in handy to keep your clothes dry while marching deep into the wetness. If you’re looking for a better range of motion and freedom while hunting, hip boots are a better choice than waders.

Waders are made of a number of different materials that have various properties. Choosing the ideal materials depends mainly on the area you’re going to hunt at as well as the weather condition there.

For example, if you’re going to hunt in the early season or during the hunting season, you’ll need to find waders that are made of relatively breathable materials to prevent the sweat from building up.

However, if you’re hunting in the late season, it might be a bit cold for you to go through water. Luckily, modern brands are making new waders from heavily insulated materials like neoprene and synthetic thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU).

Headgear

No matter the season, there’s always a reason to keep your head covered while hunting. The headgear varies from simple baseball caps for shade all the way to heavy insulated beanies and stocking caps in winter.

Some hunters might even wear facemasks for further protection against the cold while hunting. It’s ok to grab one along as long as it won’t hinder your vision.

If you’re more of an acoustic hunter, you should avoid wearing ear warmers while hunting. However, if you bring a hunting dog along, ear muffs might come in handy.

Gloves

While you might not need them for the hunting season, as the weather cools down, you’ll need a pair of gloves.

Ideally, any pair of cold, wind and waterproof gloves will do as long as they don’t bulk up your hand. You need to make sure that you can swing your shotgun and pull the trigger comfortably while using them.

Transportation

Before shooting a duck, you first need to get to where it is. As you already know, waterfowls, in general, are more likely to be found in water than on land. That’s why you’ll need some kind of watercraft to traverse through large bodies of water.

A hunting watercraft can be anything: a small wooden canoe all the way to a tugboat or even larger. Ideally, you need to use one that’s more suitable to the area you’re hunting in.

Manual boats are great for low noise. However, they require a lot of effort to maneuver and they’re difficult to handle. In my opinion, the wasted elbow grease for steering the boat is better saved for hunting the ducks.

Ideally, you need a suitable boat with a mud motor to be able to go through marshes and other shallow water areas that waterfowls prefer.

Gear for Your Duck Hunting Dog

Wetlands with three ducks in water
Good duck hunting landscape

It’s always recommended that you bring your dog along on the hunt, especially for waterfowl hunting.

Therefore, you need to make sure that your companion is also properly geared up for the job before you head out.

Here are some of the items that you should prepare for your dog.

  • Dog Leash
  • Dog Blind
  • Dog Vest
  • Dog Food and Bowls
  • Dog First-Aid Kit
  • Water Carrier
  • Dog Whistle
  • Travel Kennel

Additional Items

Now that you’re geared up with all the necessary items, there are additional items that you might need to pack along. Here’s a list of these items, so you can choose the one you might need along:

  • Freezer Tape and Paper
  • Sunscreen for summer hunting
  • Sunglasses
  • Duct Tape or Electrical Tape
  • First-Aid Kit
  • Food, Water, and Beverages
  • Camera
  • GPS Device or a Compass
  • Emergency Flares
  • Ice Cooler to Store the Hunt
  • Zip Ties, Rope, Plastic Bags, etc.
  • Knife
  • Lighter
  • Flashlight for Night Hunting

How to Layer the Clothes in Different Seasons?

As you can see, It’s great that you wear as light and breathable as possible during spring and summer to hunt comfortably. You should also avoid wearing multiple middle layers of clothing to avoid limiting your motion.

On the flip side, in winter, layering your clothes appreciably is crucial for the success of the hunting trip.

Your underwear shouldn’t be cotton, as you need a material that wicks the moisture rather than absorbing it. Also, it should be relatively long and have some thermal properties.

The next layer of clothing should be fleece pants to provide you with warms followed by an outer sock where you tuck in your pants.

You can wear a fleece or a wool shirt depending on what’s more comfortable for you. During extreme cold, you need to wear more middle layers to fend off the cold. On top of that, finish it with a waterproof and windproof shell or garb to keep you protected.

Your underwear shouldn’t be cotton, as you need a material that wicks the moisture rather than absorbing it. Also, it should be relatively long and have some thermal properties.

The next layer of clothing should be fleece pants to provide you with warms followed by an outer sock where you tuck in your pants.

You can wear a fleece or a wool shirt depending on what’s more comfortable for you. During extreme cold, you need to wear more middle layers to fend off the cold. On top of that, finish it with a waterproof and windproof shell or garb to keep you protected.

Taking a Dog Along for Duck Hunting

You might do your homework right, and even shoot a duck in the field. However, you might fail to turn this successful hunt into dinner because you couldn’t find the bird.

One of the best ways to minimize the amount of lost waterfowl is having a companion hunting dog. Not only will it make it quicker to track down the duck, but they even make the entire hunting process a whole lot easier.

For example, a good retriever will be able to flush the birds. This means that it’ll be able to spot them in their cover, draw them out in the open, so you can take a shot on them.

Even if you’re shot wasn’t enough to take them down, your dog will gladly chase down the crippled ducks and even deliver them to your hand.

There are many dog breeds that are worthy of being excellent waterfowl hunters. These breeds are able to swim through dense murky water and even high waves. Also, they’re known for their outstanding sense of smell, so they can mark down and hunt the ducks with ease.

Among the best breeds for waterfowl hunting are:

  • Labrador Retrievers
  • American Water Spaniel
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Chesapeake Bay Retrievers
  • Boykin Spaniels
  • Irish Water Spaniels
  • Curly-Coated and Flat-Coated Retrievers
  • Nova Scotia Duck-Tolling Retrievers
  • Standard Poodles

Many hunters buy starting dogs. These ones are usually older dogs that are born and raised in kennels.

There, these started dogs are trained to swim, flush, retrieve, and obey the hunters. Opting for ones with titled parents is the costliest but the most guaranteed method for results.

However, you can always find excellent hunting dogs coming from shelters and local breeders as well.

Additionally, you can take some time to invest in raising and training a puppy to your standards. The important thing is to spend some time with your duck dog, so you can develop a bond together.

How to Train Your Dog for Duck Hunting

If you want to train your dog to become a duck hunter, you’re choosing the long road that does pay off in the end.

However, you need to make sure that you do it the right way to get good results. Here’s how you can train a puppy to hunt ducks with you.

Start with Obedience Training

Before attempting any form of duck hunting training, you need to lay the foundations of basic commands and teach your dog to follow them all the time.

Introduce the Puppy to Water from an Early Age

While Labradors and retrievers have no problem swimming, they can get hydrophilic if they’re grown up without going into the water.

As a rule of thumb, you should start with wetting their paws with water and work your way up to swimming independently in lakes. You should also take them on boat rides, so they can get used to that as well.

Get the Puppy Used to Gunshots

Like water, a puppy should be introduced to gunshots from an early age. Allow them to see guns and link them with gunshots. As they get more used to gunshots, you can even take them along to gun ranges.

Teach It the Scent and Feel of Ducks

Lastly, you need to get your dog to understand the feel of a waterfowl. You can use dummy toys to emulate a real duck. These dummies have a similar scent and feel to a real one.

Always reward your dog with positive reinforcement whenever they retrieve the dummy to your hand.

How to Decoy and Shoot Ducks Efficiently?

No matter how good your gear is, it can’t make a good shot on its own. Also, you need a good decoy to lure out the ducks, so you can hunt them down.

There are three popular methods to hunt down a duck. These ones are jump shooting, decoy hunting, and the less common pass shooting.

Jump Shooting

As the name suggests, in jump shooting, either you or your dog sneak up on ducks to flush them and shoot them as they run away.

This method is applicable on foot or in water. It’s ideal for hunting dabbling ducks in the broad day while having a good vision. Also, it requires no special tools.

Decoy Hunting

Hunting with a decoy is one of the oldest methods that are proven to work efficiently. You only need a number of decoys to attract your target ducks, so you can take your shot.

These decoys are available in different shapes and styles. Also, modern decoys are inexpensive and easy to carry and spread.

You can also enhance the realism of your decoy by using callers that mimic the vocalization of ducks. Remember to always stay in the shadows and lay low to keep your setup appealing for ducks.

Pass Shooting

The final method relies on patience and learning the migration patterns of ducks. Pass shooting is when you simply hunt down birds while they’re migrating. Sky busting sometimes counts as unethical, especially if you’re shooting from a far distance.

Ideally, you should limit your shooting range to about 40 yards or less. Since you’ll be that close, you need to hide within that shooting range.

How to Cook Ducks?

With your prize in hand, it’s time to enjoy your hard-earned dinner like a champ. Luckily, most ducks taste great and make great table fare.

As you remember, ducks are omnivorous, this makes their meat taste special and for some people, the best they’ve ever had.

Of course, different species have distinct taste profiles. For example, many duck eaters believe that the green-winged teal and the wood duck are the most delicious ones.

Also, canvasbacks and mallards are popular for providing a lot of meat while requiring minimum preparation.

Each is different in terms of preparation. However, they all share a similar outline for preparation after hunting. Here’s how you do it.

First, you’ll need to clean the carcass by washing it from the blood. Also, remember to press down on its abdomen to force out any remaining elements in the gut canal.

Once cleaning is finished, it’s time to either pluck or skin the duck before disemboweling it. Some of these steps might require some experience, so you can leave it to an experienced butcher.

While cooking the duck, remember that it’s a wild bird, so it has much less fat percentage when compared to chicken. Don’t cook them for a long time or they’ll dry out easily. Try to keep them at the medium-rare level when roasting them.

Wrap Up

There you have it. From gearing up to cooking your hunts, this complete and detailed introduction to duck hunting has all the answers to your questions.

As you can see, duck hunting is quite an adventure. However, it’s tons of fun while staying fairly flexible.

Finally, always remember to respect private properties and boundaries while hunting. Additionally, you need to check the rules and regulations of hunting in that area before proceeding to hunt.

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Big Alaska Dayton

I've always loved the outdoors and have heard the call of the wild, so to speak, since a young age. Big-time camping, hiking, backpacking, and traveling enthusiast, I'm always up for another adventure or another activity that gets me away from the desk and out to enjoy the world. An Eagle Scout with an incurable case of outdoor wanderlust, this blog was a natural labor of love and personal expertise.

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