This is the time of the year that with each passing week another hunting season is opening. The next season to commence is waterfowl. In Northern Utah opening day is October 6 while it is the 6th or 13th of October in Southwestern Idaho, depending on the county you hunt. Pursuing waterfowl is a unique activity as most hunters actively attempt to attract these gregarious birds to where the hunter is located rather than hiking and jump shooting or shooting these birds as they pass by.
Overall this year’s estimate of slightly more than 41 million ducks nationally is a bit down from the last couple years. This estimate is 13 percent below last year’s count but 17 percent above the long term average. Populations of mallards, green-winged teal and gadwalls remain more than 20 percent above their long-term average. The number of geese and swan also continue to increase. In contrast, pintail numbers continue to decline. As most the wetland areas north of Pacific Flyway were in good conditions last summer, it is likely the slightly lower waterfowl numbers will go undetected by most hunters in this region.
The best way to think about waterfowl season is to divide it into three different periods. The first period occurs on opening weekend. On this weekend there are lots of people in the field and ducks have yet to figure out safe places to land. Hunting on these two days can be successful if you can find a secluded location near areas that are heavily hunted. The next time period starts towards the end of October and can run through late November. Hunting is consistently good at this time of year because migrating birds are showing up. If you scout and find areas birds are using during this time of year, hunts can be very successful. The last time period runs from December to the end of the season. At this time of the year finding unfrozen water that is not hunted is the key to success.
Until the weather changes the primary places to hunt will be where water levels are controlled by levees. Unless it rains, there will be little early season opportunity to hunt mud or salt flats. There is plenty of water in Cutler Reservoir but during the youth hunt there were few birds on this reservoir.
One aspect of duck hunting that has been morphing quickly over the last decade has been the realism of decoys. This trend started with field Canada geese decoys but has expanded to ducks decoys. While I am not suggesting changing out all your decoys, adding a dozen can add attractiveness to an old spread. By placing these realistic looking decoys on the downwind side of you spread, they will be the first decoys ducks see as they approach your set up.
Now that nearly every hunter owns a motion decoy, there successful use will change with the time, location, species of ducks and the distance ducks are from your spread.
Mallards, Northern shovelers and green-winged teal are all attracted to these decoys. Gadwalls and widgeons can be lured closer even if they aren’t convinced to land. Pintails are rarely suckered by a spinning wing decoy unless they are in a group of other species. The advantage of motion decoys, regardless of the species of duck that is in the air, is they focus attention away from hunter.
The next couple weeks is the time of year to improve your duck and goose calling. I can’t tell you how often in the frenzy of opening day I hear hunters that have no business calling. With the large numbers of on-line videos and time to practice there is no excuse to be a bad caller. Although poor calling may not scare off all the ducks when lots are flying, at times when few birds are moving the ability to call can be the difference between success and failure.
It is important to remember duck hunting comes with a number of additional requirements. Hunters need a HIP (Harvest Information Program) validation, a duck stamp, non-toxic shot and a shotgun that can hold no more than three shells. For people who also hunt upland species, I have found the best approach is to have different vests for these two pursuits. In my waterfowl vest, I not only carry steel shot, but all have an extra plug for my shotgun, a face mask and my calls.