Hunting and Fishing News & Blog Articles
How to Hunt Ducks and Geese
An afternoon Alberta puddle duck shoot. (Andrew Klatt/)
Waterfowl is one of the smallest, most niche communities you can find in hunting. There’s only about 1 million of us waterfowl hunters, but we see more of each other than those who pursue whitetails, mule deer, elk, and other big-game species, namely because our quarry inhabits condensed areas for short periods on their annual fall migration. In many places, you will have to share wetlands with your fellow hunters and compete for birds. Sometimes you’re going to be hunting next to veteran waterfowlers who know what they’re doing—or think they do—and aren’t afraid to tell newbies to scram.
Don’t let those folks, or the unknown, stop you from chasing ducks and geese. Some of the best days of my life have been spent waist-deep in a marsh holding a shotgun and blowing a duck call. Those days are waiting for you as well—if you stick with it. This sport, like so many others, rewards patience and hard work. The more you go, the more you learn. So, let’s get started.
Learn the Basic Game Laws
Following game laws is an essential part of ethical waterfowl hunting. (Toe Tags, Inc./)
If you haven’t already, the first thing you will need to do is take a hunter’s safety course. Some states don’t require hunter education to buy a hunting license if you’re of a certain age, but it’s smart to take the class and get certified regardless. Because 1) you’re eventually going to travel to another state to hunt where hunters of every age are required to possess a hunter’s safety card, and 2) you’ll learn how to handle a gun properly and hunt in a safe manner.
You must also purchase a hunting license, state duck stamp, and federal duck stamp prior to hunting. Ninety-eight percent of all federal duck stamp money goes directly to help acquire and protect wetland habitat, and to purchase conservation easements for the National Wildlife Refuge system. It’s one of the most successful conservation programs in North America, so you can be proud that your dollars are helping to protect waterfowl habitat.
The 2019-2020 federal duck stamp. (USFWS/)
There are four waterfowl flyways in North America—Pacific, Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic—and each has different daily limits for the number of ducks you can kill by species. Dark and white goose limits vary state to state (and in some cases, different zones within the same state have different goose limits), but they all comply with guidelines set forth by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Each province in Canada also has a different set of daily limits for ducks and geese, which is set by the Canadian Wildlife Service. So, if you go to British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and so on, check the provincial game laws before hunting. In the Central, Mississippi, and Atlantic flyways in the U.S., you can shoot six ducks per day. In the Pacific Flyway, the daily bag limit is seven ducks. Within those daily limits, you can only take a certain number of each species. For instance, the mallard limit in Atlantic Flyway states is two (only one hen allowed); in Pacific flyway states the mallard limit is seven (two hens allowed). Check the waterfowl digest of the state you’re hunting in to make sure you know what ducks you can kill before you pull the trigger.
In addition to daily bag limits, there are possession limits, which are typically three times the daily bag limit. So, if the daily limit is six ducks, you can never have more than 18 ducks in your possession. Realize that the definition of “possession” means waterfowl in any form, from whole birds to jerky sticks. Technically, even after you butcher your ducks, grind them into burger, stuff them in sausage casings, and put them into the freezer, they still count towards your possession limit. Until you have eaten or gifted them, ducks and geese count toward your possession limit.
Tagging waterfowl is also an important rule that some hunters overlook. My suggestion is to always keep the birds that you’ve shot with you at all times. Bring a game strap, and put your dead ducks and/or geese on it. This helps you keep track of your limit during the excitement of a hunt. When the hunt is over, tag the birds so you are compliant with regulations. Toe Tags are the best way to ensure you are legal. The tags have all the information you’re required to fill out in order to be legal. There are some stiff penalties for breaking migratory bird laws, so do your homework before getting started.
Many U.S. hunters head north to Canada to take advantage of early duck and goose seasons. (Joe Genzel/)
Early Canada Goose: The unofficial start to waterfowl season is Sept. 1. This is when U.S. residents start to hunt Canada, and it also kicks off many early resident Canada goose seasons in the States. Many early goose seasons run for 15 days, but some can last more than a month. The idea behind these seasons is to thin the population of local honkers, so typically bag limits are set between 5 and 15 geese per day, depending on the health of the resident population.
Teal: Teal season also begins in September. Currently, the bag limit is six per day, though the limit can go to four depending on population status. Typically, blue-wing teal are the species you will be targeting, though green-wings or cinnamon teal (if you’re lucky) can be in the mix. Ducks will not have their plumage yet, so the best way to identify blue-wings is by the blue and white speculum feathers on their wings. They often buzz around in large packs, unlike wood ducks, which are most likely to be mistaken for a teal by new hunters. Some states do run early wood duck seasons alongside teal season, which cuts down on misidentification, where well-intentioned hunters shoot a duck that’s out of season. It can be difficult for new hunters to distinguish teal from other duck species, which will be around this time of year. Use your best judgement, and remember: If you can’t positively identify the species, don’t shoot.
The Regular Season: Big duck (puddlers, divers, and sea ducks) and goose seasons span September to March. Many states use “splits,” which shuts down hunting for several days to rest birds and allow seasons to reopen later in the fall and winter for late migrations. Many states set their season frameworks around decades of documented migration patterns. As weather patterns change, sometimes season dates do to in order to time the migrations better.
Mallards typically arrive in large numbers later in the season after weather systems push them south, though you can shoot them starting on opening day. (Joe Genzel/)
Early on, you will be hunting teal, wood ducks, local mallards, pintails, ringnecks, wigeon, redheads, and northern shovelers. As cold snaps arrive, those early birds will move on and more migrating mallards, black ducks, and gadwall will show up, along with divers like scaup and canvasback, and dark geese, too. The species you see will also depend on where you hunt. The Ducks Unlimited Waterfowl Identification chart is a great resource to discover more about the appearance and habits of all waterfowl.
Snow Geese: One of the fastest growing hunting pursuits in North America is the spring snow goose season. The conservation season began in the early 1990s because snow goose numbers were growing at a rapid, uncontrollable pace. The birds were destroying the Canadian tundra during the breeding season, which continues today. There are tens of millions of mid-continent lesser snows, and they are expanding their range east. It used to be Arkansas, Missouri, and the Dakotas were the real hot beds for hunting these birds, and they still are. But the birds can be found in states east of the Mississippi River now, too: Illinois, Indiana, and West Tennessee have all seen increased populations in the last decade. There is also a greater snow goose population of around 1 million birds in the Atlantic Flyway.
A pair of yellow Labs retrieve snow geese in a southern Illinois cornfield. (Joe Genzel/)
Starting in February, hunters are allowed to attach extended magazine tubes to their shotguns and shoot an unlimited amount of birds in the U.S., though all the same possession and tagging regulations apply as they do during the regular season (with the exception of possession limits). Electronic callers are also allowed, and hunters deploy massive rigs of decoys (up to thousands of dekes) in harvested agriculture fields and over water. They do this because snow geese fly in equally large flocks and also feed, loaf, and roost this way. It takes a lot of experience and gear to successfully hunt snows, so I recommend going with an outfitter or seasoned white goose hunter to start.
Meet Other Waterfowl Hunters
Many state and federal refuges have excellent access to waterfowl hunting. (Joe Genzel/)
It’s extremely difficult learn how to hunt waterfowl all by yourself. You’ll want the help of more experienced hunters who can show you the ropes. The easiest way to do this is by joining a local Delta Waterfowl or Ducks Unlimited chapter. West Coast hunters should consider joining California Waterfowl Association as well. By becoming a member of one (or all) of these conservation organizations, you will be introduced to other duck hunters, who can help answer any questions you have, and likely take you hunting. Delta actually has a mentorship program, as does DU, called Greenwing, that you should consider taking advantage of.
If you live within driving distance of a large Waterfowl Management Area or a National Wildlife Refuge, contact the site manager and ask if they know anyone who can help you get started. Hopefully, they will give you loads of information about the site and connect you with other hunters. If they don’t, ask if there is a private organization dedicated to conserving the site. Many WMAs and NWRs have legions of volunteers that assist with managing the refuges, and those folks are great resources. Ask if you can volunteer as well, including the youth hunt if they host one, which will help you understand where to hunt as you help out young hunters. Also, most every state has an R3 coordinator and many states run learn-to-waterfowl-hunt programs.
If you have the means, joining a duck club or buying into a lease is a great way to experience success quickly, because it’s much easier to navigate private land. When you pay to play, it guarantees you a spot to hunt and it also puts you in contact with other hunters who are often more willing to help because you’re part of the group (you’re not competing against one another). Most clubs and leases that have good hunting are expensive, but sometimes you can work out a deal to pay less to hunt during the week or just a few times per season. I recommend starting at a discounted price if you can, because it allows you to find out if the club or lease is worth the investment.
Attending waterfowl weekends at a regional or national retailer will give you the chance to talk with manufacturers, who should be more than happy to chat with you about their products. There’s a wide variety of hunters with varying skill levels that come to these events, and it’s a great chance to meet folks with similar passions. Cabela’s, Bass Pro, and Scheels all typically have waterfowl weekends sometime in July or August. Regional shops like Presley’s Outdoors, Mack’s Prairie Wings, Final Flight Outfitters, and Roger’s Sporting Goods do, too. Game Fair in Minnesota is also a great resource.
Don’t worry if you miss waterfowl weekend. You can always just go to the duck call counter at any of these retailers and chat up the salesperson. Tell them you’re looking at getting into duck hunting and, if you really want to pique their interest, ask them which is the best call for new callers. Nothing will motivate the person on the other side of the counter like a sale, and you’ll need a call anyway.
Join a skeet, trap, five-stand, or sporting clays league, and I guarantee you will find a few duck hunters in the mix. Call over to the nearest shooting range and ask if they have room for any singles to join a team. My guess is they will, but if not, ask to talk with an instructor to schedule shooting lessons. You should do this anyway if you haven’t shot a shotgun before or have minimal experience. It will help you immensely, and if you develop a good relationship with the instructor, he or she will likely introduce you to other shooters and hunters.
Learn to Identify Ducks
In places like North Dakota, ducks haven’t hit full plumage by the time season rolls around and it can be tough to identify them, particularly at shooting time. (Joe Genzel/)
Since daily limits are directly tied to species and sex (for mallards), you need to be able to identify ducks. Spend time on Google, looking at images of different species of ducks and geese. This will prepare you for hunts, though it’s much more difficult to ID birds in flight than on a computer screen. Once you’ve done your research online, head to a local marsh that has birds whipping around it early in the morning or later in the evening. Bring a pair of binoculars with you. Try to identify ducks on the wing as they fly by you, and then check them with your binoculars to see if you guessed correctly.
Nothing replicates the time you will spend hunting, and as you do it more, it will become easier to ID the different species. In time, if you hunt enough, you will be able to determine species by the way the bird’s fly.
Identifying sex to stay legal only pertains to mallards (you can shoot two hens in the Pacific, Central, and Mississippi flyways but only one in the Atlantic). It’s easier on pristine days to tell the difference between males and females, because the sun lights up the plumage of drakes. On overcast days and in low light (30 minutes before sunrise and late afternoon) it’s more difficult. If you can’t properly ID a bird on the wing, don’t shoot. You don’t want to risk shooting over your limit or killing a bird that’s not in season.
The Five Ways to Hunt Waterfowl
Traditional hunts over decoys can put birds right in your face. (Joe Genzel/)
The traditional method to hunt ducks and geese is over decoys with a call, but you can also pass shoot and jump shoot birds. Traditional hunts take place in a blind—to conceal hunters—over water or in cut agriculture fields where hunters deploy spreads of decoys to mimic ducks and geese that are feeding and/or loafing. These places are either spots where birds have historically visited or were found by the hunters on scouting missions. Scouting is done by hopping in the truck and finding feeds or loafs or getting under birds that are transitioning from their roost water (where they spend the night) to a feeding location.
Pass shooting involves targeting waterfowl flight lines and shooting birds as they pass by within shotgun range. It’s a fairly simple strategy: Find out where birds are flying, plant yourself on that line, stay hidden, and wait till they come by. In jump shooting, you sneak up on ducks or geese that are sitting on water or in a field and “jump” them, which means you fire as they take flight. It’s most commonly done near shorelines, on creeks, ditches, and field edges. Wood ducks are particularly susceptible to this form of hunt, because they loaf in streams and marshes surrounded by timber, which allows for a better sneak.
Float hunts and skull boat shoots are two other forms of jump shooting. You can float a river in a canoe or kayak and try to shoot unsuspecting birds. It sounds easy, but is actually tough to master, because you have to learn to use the features of the river to sneak up on waterfowl, plus you are shooting from a moving boat at birds in flight. For scull boat hunts, you will use a low-profile skiff and paddle within shooting range of rafts of ducks. This is also a tough hunt and most folks who do this brush up their boat (i.e cover it in brush and grass) to make it look like they are just a floating tree headed down the river.
Read Next: Gas vs. Inertia: Which Semi-Auto Shotgun is Best?
Find a Place to Hunt
Just after sunrise at Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. (Joe Genzel/)
The most vital resource to waterfowl is water, so that’s where you will find them most of the time. All ducks and geese have to have open water of some kind to roost and loaf on. Water is where they’re most susceptible to being killed, because eventually they have to come to water. Moist soil units (shallow wetlands made of natural, seed-producing plants) are ideal places to find early-season ducks feeding on invertebrates and seeds. River systems (and the backwaters connected to them), marshes, flooded agriculture fields (corn, soybeans, and rice are common), sloughs, creeks, flooded timber, bays, open water (the Great Lakes and oceans for sea ducks), and harvested ag fields are all places to find ducks and geese.
Public hunting varies depending on where you live. Every state has walk-ins. You aren’t allowed to drive into these places and thus must “walk-in” all your gear. There are also yearly blind draws in which a hunter or group of hunters is allocated a stake or blind—which you typically must build—for a set amount of time (a season or two). Other sites have daily draws for stakes, which means you have to be at the site office by a certain time to put your name in a hat. There are also many public places where hunters can just go hunt. These are some of the best areas to target because you’re not bound to one spot. If you see birds moving to a different location, you can pick up and move (so long as no other hunters are there first).
Private land is the other option, and there are a few ways of getting access. You can buy your own place if you have the funds and resources. Just know that it’s a lot of work—and expensive—to maintain waterfowl habitat. Many duck hunters will buy into a hunt club or lease. Before you buy into one of these places, make sure the hunting is good. Ask if you can pay to hunt a few times during the season before signing up, or do your research and ask around about the place.
It’s also possible to get private access by asking landowners and/or developing relationships with them. In some cases, farmers still grant permission to hunters. You’re more likely to get access to dry fields this way, but you can find water as well. onX Hunt is a great tool as it shows land boundaries and property ownership, so you know who to contact. As the seasons go by, watch the patterns that birds fly and the places where they feed, roost, and loaf. Seek out these landowners and see if you can trade labor or even cash for access. You might be surprised at how open an old guy or gal is to letting you hunt if you offer to work (or pay) first.
Learn When to Hunt
Weather is the primary element that moves ducks and geese. (Joe Genzel/)
Opening day is when the most hunters are going to be out, and typically that’s one of the best mornings of the season (at least until new birds migrate in). This is because many birds haven’t been hunted in months, so they haven’t been pressured. Plus, some of the birds just hatched in the spring, and will be making their first migration, so they are easier to fool.
As the season progresses, more birds will (hopefully) move through your area. There are years where you may only get one big push of birds and others in which there will be multiple flights of new birds arriving from the north. A few different factors move birds south. The first is a phenomenon in which birds instinctually fly south on a given day each year. These are called “calendar ducks,” and they move in a small window of days at the same time every year.
Weather is the second, and more influential, factor that moves birds. A stiff north wind pushes ducks and geese south, as do cold-weather systems. If there’s a massive cold front coming out of Canada, you can bet it’s going to send birds south. Snow and rain are ideal conditions to hunt, but sunshine and wind is also good, particularly for mallards. Some waterfowl species are more hardy than others and will stay put until too much snow piles on top of their food source or the cold freezes all the roost water. Canada geese are notorious for tolerating harsh conditions, and mallards will also tough it out in the cold.
In some cases, ducks will return north during the season. This “reverse migration” occurs when there is a hard freeze and then, a few days later, a thaw. Birds that were pushed out by cold often return to the same areas they just left. These birds become “fresh birds” (i.e. less wary) when they migrate from one area to another. That’s particularly true later in the year, when they start to return north and seasons are still open. Birds heading back to the breeding grounds are feeding hard and moving north fast. That’s why dark geese can be so much fun to hunt in February. They are all racing home so they can mate, and in their hurry, they forget we are still hunting them.
Get the Right Shotgun and Ammo
It takes time and practice to become an accurate wing shot. (Joe Genzel/)
Becoming a crack shot on waterfowl takes time. For some it will come faster than others, but no matter how good or bad you are to start, you have to practice, and the simplest way to do that is to shoot skeet, sporting clays, and five-stand. Any of these three shooting sports will help you immensely. Avoid shooting trap, unless it’s just for fun or that’s all you have access to. Because targets are always flying away from you in trap, it doesn’t replicate shots on waterfowl the way the other three do.
Before you can start practicing, you have to pick a shotgun. A pump or semi-automatic are the best two options for duck hunting, but you can also select an over/under or side-by-side if you’re ok with only two shots instead of three.
Pump guns are the most reliable because you physically cycle the gun by sliding the pump along the fore-end. Semi-autos rely on gas or inertia-driven systems to cycle shotshells, and operate faster than pumps. A word of caution here: Choose carefully when it comes to buying an autoloader. Cheap semi-autos typically don’t operate properly or they break. I recommend you choose a gas-operated model for your first semi-auto. This is because the operating system is complex enough that no manufacturer mass produces gas guns unless they’re fairly reliable. Which means you will get a reliable gun.
Inertia guns are easier to make since they don’t operate on as complex of a system. So it’s more likely you will buy a dud if you go with a cheap one. There are great recoil-driven guns out there—Franchi, Benelli, and Browning to name a few—but they are a little pricier. For gas guns, checkout any of Beretta’s 300 series guns, Browning’s Maxus, Tri-Star’s Viper G2, Winchester’s SX line, or the Remington VersaMax.
Beretta’s A390 Silver Mallard is one of the best 3-inch gas guns the company ever produced. (Joe Genzel/)
Side-by-sides used to be the waterfowl gun of choice a generation ago, and they still make fine duck guns. The problem with side-by-sides and over/unders is they are break-action shotguns, so if you are hunting in a blind or pit (which you often will be) they are difficult to load and unload. Other than that, they are great guns, and will serve you well—especially if you plan to upland hunt, too.
You have several gauges to choose from: 10, 12, 16, 20, 28 and .410. I recommend picking a 12- or 20-gauge. Shotgun shells and chokes have advanced far enough that you can hunt just about any waterfowl in any situation with these two gauges. The 12-gauge has the advantage when it comes to shooting big Canada geese, divers, seas ducks, and snow geese at longer distances. Canada geese are bigger and hard to bring down later in the season due to a thick layer of down feathers and fat. Divers and seas ducks are hardy birds as well. During snow goose season, you’ll be shooting birds beyond 50 yards. In each scenario, it’s nice to have more payload from a 12-gauge shotshell.
The 16 isn’t widely used anymore (though it’s damn fine gauge), but there are options for shotshells, which you can find at almost any outdoor retailer. The 28 has undergone a renaissance as of late, and is a more than serviceable shotgun on early season puddle ducks and mallards inside 40 yards. The .410 isn’t a great starter gun for duck hunters. You have to be a very accurate shot to connect on birds with it and kill them ethically, so I wouldn’t recommend it. It is, however, a fine firearm for kids to shoot at pop cans with because it has such light recoil.
Chokes are a threaded piece of metal that screw into the muzzle of your barrel and affect how shot is distributed as it exits the gun. There are all kinds of factory and aftermarket chokes. To find out how your gun shoots, you can pattern it, which is a simple process of screwing in the choke (make sure the gun is not loaded when you do this), loading it, and shooting at a paper target from 20, 30, and 40 yards. Common chokes are skeet, improved cylinder, modified, and full. Improved cylinder and modified are both good chokes for killing duck over the decoys.
Shotshells have progressed rapidly in the last few years. You have to hunt waterfowl with non-toxic shot (lead shot was banned in 1991). Steel was the first product used in place of lead and is still the most common offering. But more manufacturers are using premium metals that are better than steel to load shotshells. Bismuth and tungsten are the primary metals being loaded, and they penetrate better than steel, though you will pay more for that performance. These “custom shells” are killer loads, but you also can shoot ducks just fine with a $15 box of steel ammunition. And if you buy the right choke, that can make a straight steel load damn effective. I’ve been using Rob Roberts and Briley chokes for many years and shooting Kent Faststeel and Federal’s Speed-Shok through them and the combinations kill ducks and geese just fine.
Get the Basic Gear
There’s always more gear to buy when you’re a duck or goose hunter. (Joe Genzel/)
This is a gear-intensive sport, so it does take a fair amount of money if you are going to hunt ducks and geese in the traditional manner—over decoys with calls. You will always need a shotgun and shells. In general, you need to dress warmly most of the time, so you’ll need a stocking cap, regular hat, waterproof gloves, bibs (Carhartt coveralls are an affordable option), knee-high insulated rubber boots, waders for when you hunt water, a warm/waterproof jacket, and a rain jacket. You will also need a blind bag or backpack to haul your gear around in, game strap (zip ties work), and a headlamp. Duck and goose calls are also a necessity, plus a lanyard to hang them on. From here, the type of gear you need depends on the type of hunting you’re planning to do.
To hunt puddle ducks and geese on small water, you will need at least a dozen floating decoys attached to decoy lines and weights. Decoys come in a variety of species and you should try and match them to the birds in your region. You also need waders, a duck or goose call, spinning-wing decoy (for ducks), and some way to conceal yourself. Wooden box-style blinds are common to hide in, but sometimes you will just be standing in the trees or brush, and so a facemask and marsh stool are good ideas, too.
Diving ducks and sea ducks are exclusively targeted on big water (you can also kill geese and puddle ducks here, too). That means bays, rivers, tidal marshes, and the open ocean. Many hunters run “long lines” for divers and sea ducks, a system in which you clip decoys onto a line with a heavy weight attached to one end so the decoys stay put. It’s also possible to cut long lengths of decoy line for individual decoys in accordance with the water depth. I recommend three- to-four-dozen decoys (at minimum) to hunt any species on big water.
Read Next: How to Make Your Own Duck Hunting Decoys
You can hunt from a boat/blind or layout boat, which is a small one- or two-man craft that resembles a flying saucer that floats. Hunters lie down in the boat and spring up when ducks come within shooting range. You can also hunt from shore, or motor to islands and rocky outcroppings.
A dry field lesser Canada hunt in Kansas with a few adults snows in the mix, and Quill Lake honker, known for the patches of white on their bodies and wings. (Mile North Outdoors/)
Field hunting ducks and geese requires full-body decoys on stakes, ground blinds (layouts or A-Frames) or a pit, and spinning-wing decoys (for ducks). You can also purchase silhouettes, which are flat decoys that have photo prints of ducks or geese on them to supplement the full-body decoys. If you are going to hunt Canada geese too, buy honker field full-bodies, and hunt ducks with those. As long as you have a few spinners, mallards will decoy to them. This saves you from having to buy both duck and goose decoys right away. If you can afford it, start with two-dozen full-bodies or load up on goose silhouettes, which are more affordable.
Learn to Call
Learning to run a short-reed goose call takes practice, but when it clicks, there’s nothing more satisfying than tricking wary honkers into the decoys. (Joe Genzel/)
One of the most fun—and challenging—aspects of waterfowl is learning to call ducks and geese. Duck calls come in many forms, but most are single- or double-reed (there are a few triple-reeds out there too) or cut-down calls. These calls are set up to sound like mallards, namely hens, in order to entice birds into your decoy spread. Double-reeds are typically easier to blow than singles, and best used by beginners. To operate the single- and double-reeds, you draw air from your diaphragm, not simply blow into them like you are whistling, and force that air through the call. With cut-down calls, you blow into them with the same force your kid blows out his or her birthday candles. There are some great learning resources out there, and one of the best is Scott Threinen’s Bad Grammar Academy, which is a digital platform that takes you through all the steps of duck and goose calling. There are species-specific calls for wood ducks, teal, and others, plus whistles, which can attract wigeon, mallards, pintails, teal, and more.
Goose calls include short-reeds and flutes, and some older hunters still run tube calls. Most new hunters will use short-reeds. The key to blowing a short-reed Canada or specklebelly call is moving a continuous amount of air through the call. It’s a tough concept for some to master, but as soon as you do, it will all click. Snow goose calls are fairly simple to run in comparison and, once you get good enough, you can actually make a Canada or speck call sound similar to snows.
Get a Dog
A good retriever will become your best running mate. (Joe Genzel/)
You don’t need a retriever to start waterfowl hunting, but they are an invaluable resource for recovering downed birds, especially over water. Plus, they become your running mate, and you can always rely on them to show up for a hunt even if your buddies decide to sleep in. The most common duck dog breeds are Labradors, goldens, and Chesapeake Bay retrievers, but there are plenty of dogs that can get the job done, from German shorthairs to setters and tollers.
Labs are the most prevalent, and for good reason. They are loyal, hard-working, and love to pick up ducks and bring them to you—if you buy a pup from the right bloodlines. This is the part about purchasing any gun dog that’s tricky. You want to buy your dog from a reputable breeder, and the best way to do that is to find a hunter with an exceptional dog and ask him or her what kennel it’s out of. Then contact the breeder, find out if there are dogs available. The gun dog world is very small, so you should not have an issue buying from a breeder if you’ve done your homework. Ask for references, and find other handlers or hunters who have successful dogs.
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A lot of breeders will tell you their dogs are American Kennel Club or AKC-registered, and that doesn’t really mean much other than the dog is pure bred. You want to make sure the pup comes from hunting lines, which often means champion field trial parents (NFC, AFC, or NAFC) or hunt test (MH, SH) designations. But remember, this dog will spend more time in the house and with your family that it will hunting. So ask the breeder about temperament and family friendliness.
Good breeders also test for health and genetics. At minimum, the dogs should be Orthopedic Foundation Association or OFA-tested for hips and elbows, which are the first joint breakdowns retrievers typically suffer. Some breeders also test for exercise-induced collapse, progressive retinal atrophy, and skeletal dysplasia (dwarfism in dogs)—these are all good signs you are buying from the right person. Before you make a selection, visit the litter multiple times (if possible) and find the dog that fits best with your personality.
The most important part of this entire equation is training. You have two options to train your dog: send him to a pro trainer (very expensive) or do it yourself with some help from a pro (I recommend this route). If you have the money to send the dog away to a pro, go for it. Just realize that it’s a huge investment. You will be without your dog for months, and won’t develop the bond you would by training him on your own. If you choose to train your dog yourself, ask your breeder where you can get training lessons. Or, join a retriever club or a puppy obedience class. Watch YouTube videos on how to get your pup started well in advance of bringing him home, and sign up for an online training course, like Cornerstone Gundog Academy, which gives you all the tools to train your dog from a pup to a finished retriever.
Observe Basic Safety Rules
Be mindful of the weather, especially high winds and fog, when you’re hunting big water. (Joe Genzel/)
The most important aspect of staying safe while hunting is handling your shotgun properly. Your muzzle should always be pointed in a safe direction, and you should always handle your gun like it’s loaded. When hunting with others, shoot your lane. Don’t shoot across others or behind you when hunting in groups. Wear hearing protection. The more times you fire a shotgun without ear buds in, the more damage it does to your hearing. Be especially cautious when hunting in tight quarters and when there’s a dog present. Sometimes an excited dog can knock guns over in a blind, and that could mean an accidental discharge.
Whenever you are hunting water, make sure to wear a life jacket while boating to and from the location. If you’re hunting big water, keep track of the weather patterns. Waterfowlers pride themselves on hunting in the worst conditions, but you should never risk your life for a duck. And it’s not just wind and waves that can be a problem. It’s easy or get disoriented on a foggy day. Keeping a GPS device on in the boat could save your life.
Hypothermia can also set in quickly if you get wet in frigid conditions, particularly if you fall into the water from a boat. If you fall in the water in freezing temperatures, do not try to “gut it out” and keep hunting. Get back to the boat ramp or parking lot, strip down, get in your truck, and turn the heater on. Dress warmly in the extreme cold. If you start to feel any numbness, or begin to shake involuntarily, it’s time to head back to the truck.
Dogs can become hypothermic as well, particularly ones that are not used to cold weather. Even dogs conditioned to this kind of weather can succumb to the cold. If your dog shows any signs of hypothermia (disorientation, excessive/uncontrollable wining or shaking) get him back to the truck and turn the heat on. It’s also a good idea to keep some blankets in the truck, too.
Waterfowl hunting is tough (and sometimes frustrating), but the challenges are what make it fun. It takes a lifetime to master, but as long as you stay safe in the field, you’ll have a great time, and make memories from your first season to your last.