Get Real When Hunting Ducks

While doing some afternoon fall fishing on a lake near my home in Minnesota, I noticed some duck hunters who were set up on a long cattail point. They were quite a distance away, so my presence didn’t affect their hunting one bit.

As I fished, the hunters called and called every time a single or small bunch of ducks flew by on the horizon. When I say they called, I mean THEY CALLED! They blew long 10- to 15-quack highballs, feeding chuckles, you name it. Every time they did, they never got the ducks to respond or come in.

In addition to their enthusiastic calling, the waterfowlers had also worked hard to put out somewhere between 90 and 100 decoys. They had mallards set up downwind in a donut pattern on the inside turn of the point they hunted. Out off the tip of the point, a classic J-hook pattern of bluebill decoys bobbed in the waves. And downwind of the diver dekes, a dozen Canada goose decoys swam in lazy zig-zags.

Babe Winkelman

I fished and shook my head, feeling somewhat sorry for those two gunners who had put so much effort into their hunt, but had yet to fire a shell. It got me to thinking about the efforts us hunters take to attract our prey. And how we sometimes go too far.

Why “too far” you ask? Because what those hunters were depicting to every duck flying by was not authentic. It wasn’t real. The first reason it was unreal was in the number of decoys they had in their spread. You could drive around this area of Minnesota all day and not see ONE large flock of feathered friends concentrated in one area like that. Instead, what you’ll find here is singles, pairs or small bunches of ducks scattered here and there on a wetland. So as ducks fly by and see a huge decoy spread, they must think to themselves “hmmm, that seems strange … I think I’ll go over here instead.”

Those same ducks might also think “so odd that those mallards down there are mixing with divers and geese.” When there are ducks loafing on a particular lake or pothole, they’re almost always hanging around with their own species. They don’t mix much. Mallards stick with mallards. Teal with teal. Bluebills with bluebills. Geese with geese. You get my meaning.

And let’s think about calling. In reality, when distant ducks fly by, the ducks on the water don’t scream their bills off. I have never, ever heard a mallard issue a 15-quack highball like you hear in duck calling competitions. They highball in 5- or 6-quack sequences. Live ducks don’t call at the top of their lungs either. They are very soft. And feeding chuckles are softer still, occurring mostly in those early sunrise moments when ducks seem groggy and happy to have that first bite of the day. Midday feeding chuckles aren’t nearly as common.

So for these hunters, what the ducks saw and heard was very unnatural. Who could blame them for flying along on their merry way? Especially when it’s later in the season and those ducks have seen countless spreads and have heard their fair share of fake quacks.

If you’re gearing up for an upcoming duck hunt, think about the realities of a duck’s world and try to duplicate it. That might mean putting out six decoys instead of 60. It might mean keeping your lips off your call and only speak when spoken to. The best calling scenario is when a live duck calls to your decoys and you answer back with that exact same call. This establishes an authentic conversation between two ducks. It’s believable to the duck, because it’s real.

I guess what I’m saying here is that sometimes less is definitely more when it comes to duck hunting. This is particularly true when you’re dealing primarily with singles or small groups of cruising birds. To them, a dozen colleagues is just as calming and inviting as 100. Maybe more inviting.

Babe Winkelman is a nationally-known outdoorsman who has taught people to fish and hunt for more than 25 years. Watch the award-winning “Good Fishing” and “Outdoor Secrets” television shows on NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports, Texas Channel and many local networks. Visit for air times where you live and be sure to check us out on Facebook.

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