When it comes to hunting early-season ducks, especially those local birds, Chad Belding says there are a lot of things you can do to consistently succeed, yet only one thing you can do to fail. “The Fowl Life” television show host says some hunters dismiss local ducks as dumb, especially in early season, so they ignore details that help maximize success.
“You might have a great opening day,” Belding says. “The ducks aren’t used to seeing decoys and they have no idea someone is lurking in the weeds with a 12 gauge. But what happens on the second day or third, fourth or fifth as the season starts to mature?”
Belding knows how to stay on those ducks that have been hunted, and he provides these tips to help ensure extended early-season success.
“After they get shot at opening weekend, ducks are going to seek cover. They’re going to try to find gun-free zones and it’s going to become slim pickings, especially if you don’t have a huge local population.” So, Belding encourages hunters to use scouting to find where ducks go when the leave those safety zones, including feeding, loafing and roosting spots. “That’s going to become key in making sure you have a successful second day, third day, fourth day.”
Local ducks are not used to seeing huge concentrations of birds. Sure, they do once migrating ducks start coming down the flyway, but local birds might only see a couple dozen in any given spot. So Belding advised hunters to use decoy spreads that mimic those smaller groups of birds.
“Don’t think that any decoy spread is going to work just because the ducks haven’t seen them all year. I think a guy who puts out a ton of decoys is doing himself an injustice,” he says.
Emphasize motion in water-set decoys with jerk strings and spinning wings, but be careful.
“Spinning wings are good on opening-day ducks, and the young ducks are going to really respond to them,” Belding says. “But these days we have to keep in mind that everybody and their mom is using a spinning wing.”
To avoid having your spread look like everyone else’s, simply try placing your spinner in a different place.
“Rather than put it right in the kill hole, try it in some weeds so the ducks are seeing slight flashes, like there’s a bunch of live ducks in those weeds. Ducks aren’t always out in the open.”
Once you get their attention with that flash and they come over to investigate, use your calling and jerk string.
“Live ducks don’t sit on still water. Live ducks create ripples. A jerk string creates motion not only on the decoys with the string attached but to the decoys around them.”
Another way to pull birds into your decoy spread is incorporating a subtle detail Belding calls the “chocolate milk effect. Ducks are disruptive to the water around them, stirring the bottom by feeding on weeds and invertebrates, and by simply moving about in the water. The result is a ring of muddy or stained water around the resting birds that circling ducks expect to see.
The lesson is to keep area around your dekes stirred up by occasionally wading through them or sending your dog through.
Highly realistic decoys that look like fully plumed birds look beautiful in a catalog, but Belding says they’re not always the best choice for early season ducks.
“I don’t have as much color in my decoy spread because in early season there’s not a lot of color on ducks.”
That said, you’ll fool more birds with decoys that have more browns, blacks, white and earth tones.
You’ve done all the work, you’ve practiced calling and ducks are coming in, so make sure you are hidden. Check every detail of your blind to ensure you are well camouflaged. And don’t let birds see shining patches of skin or your dog moving around.
“I’m a huge fan of Black Cloud, which patterns awesome. Also, in the early season you are fine with 3s and 4s,” Belding says. “I really enjoy shooting a 20 gauge and so I like a little smaller shot and tricking ducks into that 25-yard range or closer.”
No matter what load you shoot or how many times you’ve shot it, start every new season by patterning your ammunition/shotgun on paper to give you the confidence that once a shot is presented, you’re going to make it. Shoot a few clays with it too.
“You owe it to the ducks and yourself to make sure it is patterning out of the gun and choke tube you’ve chosen so you’re dead-on every time you pull the trigger.”