If you’re just starting out as a duck hunter, you probably have many questions: Where do I go? What camo do I wear? What does each duck look like? Plus many, many more. This beginner’s guide will serve to answer some (but not all) of your questions.

New Duck Hunter

Get the Gear

The very first step to starting duck hunting is having the right camouflage. Many would say buying a gun is the first step, but an instrumental part of the beginning stages of duck hunting is observing what others do in the duck blind, and sometimes the best way to observe is to leave the gun in the truck.

When it comes to camouflage, it all depends on where you are going to be hunting. If you are going to be in a layout blind, camouflage doesn’t matter because you are already concealed. If you are going to be hunting a dead grass area, a lighter grassy camo would be best. If you are going to be hunting in the woods on a flooded timber hole, a leafy and somewhat bark-like print is what you’ll need.

After selecting a camouflage, you’ll definitely want some waders. The fact of the matter is, ducks like water, so you’ll need to be prepared to get wet. Even if you aren’t standing in the water, you might get wet from putting out decoys or sitting in the rain. Find an insulation that fits the temperature where you’ll be hunting. I would suggest a more breathable style, because you can always layer more clothing under your waders.

Hunt With Experience

The second step would be to find a friend or relative—anybody who hunts responsibly and legally—and get out on the water or in the field with them. The best way to gain knowledge is through others. They have already put the boat in before, blended the layout blinds in with cover, and set up a decoy spread. They know how to do things, and you will learn by watching them. By first going out with someone else and observing, your first hunt will have a much better outcome

Find the Ducks

IMG_9247 copy 2One of the keys to a good duck hunt is scouting. You can be the best duck caller and have the prettiest decoy spread around, but that won’t matter if there are no ducks around. Go for a drive with your experienced friend or relative and watch for fields and waterways where the ducks are. Most ducks will have a roost, which is a place where they sleep at night and is practically their partial home. Then they also have places where they loaf around, as well as a feeding area.

One big tip is don’t hunt the roost unless you want all of the ducks to find a different roost! You want to hunt in feeding areas, or areas where they are loafing around, or on the traffic way. The traffic way is where ducks will be flying over from place to place, which can be just as good as the feeding or loafing grounds.

If you are on the feeding area, find the “X.” The “X” concept is more for field hunting, but can apply to hunting water as well. Ducks go from their roost to places that they feed; they will feed mostly during morning and evening hours. The “X” is where the ducks have stopped feeding the day before and are likely to come back again. Set a bucket or something visual on the “X” so you can find it the next morning.

Hunt With Permission

Once you have scouted a spot, you need to get permission to hunt there. When asking people if you can hunt on their property, take your presentation seriously. Try to look nice and smile; first impressions last a lifetime. Wear street clothes instead of hunting gear, and leave your guns at home. Let them know that you will follow any rules that they may have and that you will treat their property with respect. When you do hunt on their property, be generous and take them a dressed duck or two to show appreciation.

Another way of securing a spot is by leasing or buying places to hunt. You could also look into public access areas. Many areas offer access to refuges, public lakes,and land for people to hunt on. It is easy to look up those online or talk to a wildlife officer about the process. Most of the time wildlife officers know where the ducks are, and they are almost always happy to share that information. No matter what you do, be where the ducks want to be for the best results.

the right gun

Find the Right Firearm

The most common gun for duck hunting is a 12-gauge shotgun. Some guys may use a 20-gauge for teal or for a challenge, but I suggest a beginner use a 12-gauge as long as the person’s frame can handle it. I also recommend using a semi-automatic shotgun, but a pump-action shotgun will do the trick. When duck hunting, you must use non-toxic shot—it’s the law. You want to choose your shot size to match the species and where you are hunting. When hunting teal, I advise using a smaller pellet. Choose a number four or three shot when shooting faster and smaller birds. When hunting mallards or ducks of a similar size, shoot with number two shot, as this will give you the knockdown power needed for the bigger birds.

Don’t forget about chokes. Chokes are an add-on to a gun. The choke screws into the bore at the muzzle of the shotgun. The choke can either cause the shot pattern to stay tighter for a longer shot or spread in a shorter distance for a closer shot. As far as selecting which choke to use,it all depends on where you are hunting. If the ducks are going to be finishing right in your face, a cylinder choke will work great. If they are going to be finishing thirty or forty yards out, a modified choke may be necessary. You want to try to match your choke to the area that you are hunting and where the birds will be finishing. For more specifics on chokes, check out this guide.

Select a Decoy

Decoys are a huge part of duck hunting. Never let anyone convince you that the priciest decoys are the best decoys or that they are going to guarantee that you will kill more ducks—many people have killed a lot of ducks over a painted gallon jug. For your first set of decoys, you want to get quality for the price that you pay. When you see a pack of full-body ducks priced close to $120 for six decoys, don’t give up! They aren’t all expensive. Companies like RedHead sell a dozen floaters for close to $30.

As far as the type of decoys, you will benefit from having motion in your decoy spread. What I mean by motion is something that causes a ripple in the water or movement in the decoys. The reason that motion is so important is that a group of two or three dozen real ducks does not sit still. A live duck will flap its wings and swim around everywhere, so the challenge is to imitate that with your decoys. You want the ducks to see and feel that your decoys are live ducks. A simple but very effective motion decoy is a “robo duck,” also called a “mojo.” These are decoys that are electronic and make water currents or have constant wing motion.

You could also go the DIY route by making a jerk rig (here’s an example from Ducks Unlimited). A jerk rig creates current and movement in the decoy spread, but that little bit of motion can make the difference between ducks finishing in your face or circling eight times before buzzing off.

duck call

Perfect Your Call

Duck calling is both very fun and very humbling. When your calling brings them in, it can make you feel like you are a “duck whisperer,” but when your calling scares them off—which most likely will happen if you are a beginner—you will feel like you need a new hobby.

If you are going to get into calling, practice is key. The more you practice, the better you are going to be. Duck calling is almost an art—you have to know what to do, when to do it, and how loud or how soft you should be. There are many ways to start into duck calling, but one of the easiest is to watch instructional videos. There are so many great free videos on YouTube. You can also buy tapes or even get involved in a calling class. But above all, the more practice you put in, the better you will be.

Always Hunt Legally

The biggest thing I can tell you is make sure you hunt legally. Duck hunting is highly regulated and has high fees when those regulations are broken. Make sure you complete your hunter education, have the right licenses or permits, and know all the rules and regulations, bag limits, and possession limits. Know how to identify the ducks when they are flying and when they are killed.

And remember to have fun when you are out there. If you kill up to your limit, that’s amazing, but if you only kill a few, or even none, still enjoy those times. Whether you’re hunting with your dog, your friends, or family, every hunt should be a joy. It’s also a great idea to get youth involved in waterfowl hunting: It is a pastime that needs to be carried on.

Keep the traditions alive, and remember—shoot where they’re going, not where they’ve been.

 

Duck Hunting 1About the Author: Reid Strobl is an avid outdoorsman with a passion for waterfowling. When he’s not starting QB for his high school football team, he’s out in the field honing his skills as a hunter. Reid has a passion for passing on what he’s learned to other young hunters. 

What are the blaze orange requirements for your state? Check the up-to-date regulations on your state agency website or on the International Hunter Education Association website.

Blaze orange is also known as “fluorescent” or “hunter” orange; 400 square inches is about as big as four sheets of paper. Check your state regulations to see if mesh or camouflage designs of hunter orange meet regulations.

Blaze orange is always a good idea, even if it isn’t required. Did you know that deer can’t even see it?

Blaze Orange Regulations for Every State

Do I Need Blaze Orange In My State?

Alabama — All hunters must wear an outer garment above the waist with at least 144 square inches of hunter orange above the waist or a hunter orange hat during firearm seasons for deer, elk, and bear. Check with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources for specifics.

Alaska — Hunter orange is not required in Alaska, but it is strongly encouraged.

Arizona Hunter orange is not required in Arizona, but it is strongly encouraged.

Arkansas — During big game firearm seasons, hunters must wear at least 400 square inches of hunter orange above the waist, as well as a blaze orange or hunter safety green hat. At least 144 square inches of blaze orange is also required on each visible side of ground blinds.

California — Hunter orange is not required in California, but it is strongly encouraged.

Colorado — Colorado hunters of deer, elk, or antelope must wear at least 500 square inches of solid daylight fluorescent orange above the waist, including a head covering, during firearm seasons. Bowhunters are not required to wear blaze orange during archery-only seasons.

Connecticut — Anyone hunting from Sept. 1 through the end of February in Connecticut must wear at least 400 square inches of blaze orange above the waist and visible from all sides, except archery deer hunters during archery-only seasons. Other exemptions exist. Check state requirements.

Delaware — During firearm season, hunters in Delaware must wear at least 400 square inches of blaze orange on the head, chest, and back.

Florida — All Florida deer hunters, and their companions, on public lands must wear at least 500 square inches of fluorescent orange above the waist. Bowhunters are not required to wear blaze orange during archery-only seasons.

Georgia — Georgia law requires deer, bear, and feral hog hunters, as well as their companions, to wear at least 500 square inches of hunter orange above the waist during firearm deer seasons.

Hawaii — All those hunting or accompanying hunters in public areas in Hawaii must wear a solid blaze orange shirt, vest, coat, or jacket. The blaze orange must be visible from both the front and back while carrying game or wearing a backpack. Check state requirements to learn about certain exceptions..

Idaho — Blaze orange is not required in Idaho, but it is recommended.

Illinois — Illinois hunters of all game must wear 400 square inches of blaze inches as well as a hat during firearm deer season. Upland game hunters must wear a blaze orange hat.

Indiana  — When hunting deer, small mammals, pheasants, and quail in Indiana, hunters and bowhunters must wear a blaze orange jacket, vest, hat, or coveralls. Bowhunters are not required to wear blaze orange during archery-only season.

Iowa When hunting upland game birds, you must wear a hat or cap that is 50% blaze orange. When hunting deer with a firearm, you must wear at least one item—other than a hat—that is blaze orange. When hunting deer while using a blind, you must also place at least 144 total square inches of blaze orange material on your blind.

Kansas — Big game hunters in Kansas and their companions must wear a hat that is at least 50% blaze orange and visible from all directions as well as a minimum of 100 square inches each on the front and back of their torso.

Kentucky — During deer or elk season, all hunters in Kentucky must wear solid blaze orange as an outer garment on the head, chest, and back. Waterfowl and turkey hunters are exempt.

Louisiana — Louisiana hunters must wear at least 400 square inches of hunter orange on their head, chest, and back during open deer firearm season. When hunting on private land, hunters may instead wear a blaze orange hat; requirements don’t apply to hunters in deer stands on private lands that are legally posted or archery hunters. More requirements apply for wildlife management areas and dog seasons for rabbits/squirrels. Check state requirements.

Maine — Maine hunters during open deer firearm season are required to wear two articles of solid blaze orange clothing visible from all sides: a hat and a jacket, vest, coat, or poncho. Moose hunters in the moose district must wear one piece of clothing that is solid blaze orange.

Maryland — All Maryland hunters and their companions must wear a solid blaze orange hat and a vest or jacket with at least 250 square inches of blaze orange on front and back. An outer garment that is at least 50% hunter orange can substitute for the vest or jacket. Exceptions apply; check state requirements for details.

Massachusetts — During firearm seasons in Massachusetts, hunters must wear at least 500 square inches of fluorescent orange on the chest, back, and head. During pheasant and quail season, hunters on WMA land must wear a hunter orange hat. Exceptions apply; check state requirements for details.

Michigan — Between August 15 and April 30, Michigan hunters must wear a hat, jacket, vest, or raingear that is blaze orange. Blaze orange should be visible from all sides and worn as an outer garment. See state for exemptions.

Minnesota — Hunters and trappers in Minnesota during open firearm deer season must wear blaze orange on a cap and jacket, vest, shirt or similar. Exceptions apply; check state requirements for details.

Mississippi — Mississippi deer hunters in firearm season must wear at least 500 square inches of hunter orange visible from all sides.

Missouri Missouri law requires the hunter orange color to be plainly visible from all directions during firearms deer hunting seasons. The most important clothing choices are a hunter orange hat and hunter orange outerwear—shirt, vest, or jacket. Exceptions apply; check state requirements for details.

Montana Montana law requires that all big game hunters and anyone accompanying a hunter must have at least 400 square inches of hunter orange material above the waist visible at all times. A hunter orange hat or cap alone does not meet state requirements.

Nebraska — All big game hunters and bowhunters in Nebraska must wear at least 400 square inches of blaze orange on the head, back and chest during firearm deer season; upland game hunters are strongly encouraged to wear blaze orange.

Nevada — Blaze orange is not required in Nevada, but it is recommended.

New Hampshire — Blaze orange is not required in New Hampshire, but it is recommended.

New Jersey — All deer, game bird, and small mammal hunters using firearms in New Jersey must wear a blaze orange hat or another item with at least 200 square inches of blaze orange visible from all sides. Exceptions apply to hunters of waterfowl and wild turkey as well as bowhunters.

New Mexico — Hunters on White Sands Missile Range must wear at least 244 square inches of blaze orange; hunters on Fort Bliss or McGregor military reservations must wear a blaze orange hat and vest.

New York — Blaze orange is not required in New York, but it is recommended.

North Carolina — North Carolina hunters after prey other than foxes, bobcats, raccoons, opossums, or turkeys with a firearm must wear a fluorescent orange hat or garment visible from all sides.

North Dakota — Big game hunters, and those hunting during firearm seasons, in North Dakota must wear at least 400 square inches of blaze orange with a hat and garment above the waist.

Ohio — During deer season or primitive season in Ohio, hunters must wear a vest, coat, jacket or overalls that are blaze orange. Waterfowl hunters are an exception.

Oklahoma — Oklahoma deer, elk, or antelope hunters who use firearms must wear at least 400 square inches of blaze orange as an outer garment above the waist and a hat. During open firearm deer season, all hunters must follow these requirements. See state for exceptions.

Oregon — In Oregon, hunters under 17 years old must wear fluorescent orange visible from all directions as a shirt, jacket, coat, vest, sweater or head covering when hunting game mammals or upland birds with a firearm. All hunters are encouraged to wear hunter orange.

Pennsylvania — During the regular firearm deer season in Pennsylvania, hunters must wear at least 250 square inches of hunter orange on their heads, chests, and backs. This rule also applies to special archery deer season hunters when the archery season coincides with the general season for turkey or small game. Other requirements apply to groundhog and spring turkey hunters. See the state for details.

Rhode Island — All hunters in Rhode Island must wear at least 200 square inches of fluorescent orange above the waist and visible from all sides; additional requirements vary by season and type of game.

South Carolina When hunting deer, bear, and hogs on WMA land in South Carolina, hunters must wear a hat, coat, or vest of solid international (or “blaze”) orange when hunting during any gun and muzzleloader season. Exemptions apply; see state for details.

South Dakota — All big game firearm hunters in South Dakota must wear more than one hunter orange garment above the waist; turkey hunters are given an exception.

Tennessee Tennessee hunters must wear at least 500 square inches of blaze orange on their head or upper portion of their body, visible from front and back. Hunters on their own properties or participants in firearm turkey hunts proclaimed by the commission are exempt.

Texas — On National Forests and Grasslands in Texas, hunters and their companions must wear at least 144 square inches of blaze orange on the chest and back as well as a blaze orange hat.

Utah — During centerfire rifle hunting in Utah, hunters must wear at least 400 square inches of hunter orange on the head, chest, and back. Some exceptions apply; see Utah officials for details.

Vermont — Blaze orange is not required in Vermont, but it is recommended.

 Virginia — Virginia hunters during firearm deer season must wear hunter orange on the upper body or a hunter orange hat visible from all sides. Alternatively, they may display 100 square inches of hunter orange within body reach, at or above shoulder level, and visible from all sides.

Washington A minimum of 400 square inches of blaze or “hunter” orange worn above the waist and visible from all sides is required in Washington. A hat alone does not meet this requirement. Firearm hunters and those hunting deer/elk during firearm seasons are required to use hunter orange. Exceptions and additional requirements apply. Check with the state for more details.

West Virginia — During deer gun season, all West Virginia deer hunters must wear an outer garment with at least 400 square inches of blaze orange.

Wisconsin  — During firearm deer season in Wisconsin, hunters must wear at least 50% hunter orange as outer garments above the waist, including head covering. Waterfowl hunters are given an exception.

Wyoming Wyoming big game hunters must wear at least one fluorescent orange piece, such as a vest, jacket, or coat. Only licensed archery hunters at certain times of year are exempt. Small game and bird hunters are required to wear blaze orange when pheasant hunting in a WMA or on lands bordering Glendo State Park; all are strongly recommended to wear hunter orange.

 

Darkness was falling when first-time hunter Seth Basler realized he was in serious trouble. He was lost in unfamiliar woods, surrounded on all four sides by water at least hip-deep, and it was getting cold.

But Seth had recently completed his hunter education. Standing there in the gathering dark, he recalled the lessons on emergency survival. He had left his flashlight behind, and the encroaching night was making it hard to read the printed hunter education manual he’d brought with him, but he’d read and reread it during his lunch breaks and remembered what to do.

Because of his hunter education, Seth was able to keep himself safe until help arrived.

Lost Hunter Gets Out Safely

Seth, a 23-year-old Indiana student, completed his hunter education online in September. He has a passion for the outdoors and was eager to begin hunting. He bought his license and prepared for his hunt, packing a light backpack with a copy of the Indiana hunter education manual, “Today’s Hunter: Indiana’s Guide to Hunting Responsibly and Safely” as a backup resource, and readying his longbow. He decided to start with the nearby LaSalle Fish and Wildlife Area, which he’d visited previously.

The hunt started out well, but quickly led Seth away from the main trail. “I was following tracks for the longest time. I finally spotted the deer quite a way aways from me; it was too far because I was hunting with a longbow, so I had to go further and further and further, until I was in unfamiliar territory,” Seth said. “Because it was my first time hunting, I was more focused on getting the deer than on where I was.”

He ultimately lost the deer in the brambles of a marsh, and then he realized how lost he was. He found the Kankakee River and tried to use that to navigate back toward the park entrance, but kept being turned aside by dangerous barriers such as swampland and thick briar.

“I knew my cardinal directions and which way I had to go, but a lot of the marshes were blocking my direct path,” Seth explained.

He wandered for so long that he found his own footprints. He tried again to trace them back, but lost even his own tracks in the sandy soil. He stumbled upon a tree stand, but the hunter was not nearby. The tracks near it indicated the hunter had come in from the river, likely on a boat.

“I was completely confused,” Seth said. He had a map, but it didn’t clearly depict topographical changes, and he couldn’t tell if the marshy areas nearby were shallow enough to cross—or deep enough to pull him under.

He’d been out for hours, and it was beginning to get dark. He was drenched from his travels, and the air was taking on a chill. And that’s when he remembered what he’d learned in his Hunter Ed course.

“I calmed down and thought about what to do, like it said in the hunter’s ed guide,” he said. He was on a marshy island with water on all sides, and in the dark, he couldn’t find the path he’d used to safely cross.

He first called his girlfriend, asking her to look up the number for the game warden or manager, but the office had already closed. With his cell phone battery dying, Seth called 911. He was able to tell police his general location, and they began the search to find him.

Meanwhile, he was still cold and wet. So he again used what he’d learned in his Hunter Ed course and began to build a survival shelter. He used a light tarp he had in his backpack and branches to build a lean-to, and collected branches to start a small fire for warmth. But the wood was damp and wasn’t catching, so he used the only paper he had available: He burned a few pages of his hunter education manual, as well as a temporary hunting tag, using a small Bic lighter to start the flames.

“Eventually, after an hour, I had a decent bed of coals so the fire could sustain itself, big enough to keep me warm and dry my socks out,” he said.

It was now full dark. Seth couldn’t see farther out than his little campfire, but then he heard a boat on the river—the police and conservation officers coming to find him. He called out, and the officers zeroed in on his location. But they were still stymied by the thick marshes surrounding him on all sides.

“I could see their lights, but I couldn’t see anything around me,” Seth said.

Police had to use satellite images to find the best way to navigate to reach Seth, but he kept in contact the whole time. “I was joking with the officers that this was the worst game of hide-and-seek I’d ever been in,” Seth said.

Officers finally saw Seth’s small fire and were able to reach him, though it meant slogging through waist-high marsh water in pitch blackness.

It turned out Seth wasn’t far from his goal all along: He was found only 200 yards from the parking lot, but the marsh was a difficult obstacle. “If I were to have crossed the marsh in front of me, I would have been able to walk a straight line north to the main trail and take that back to my car,” Seth said.

Despite his ordeal, Seth is still enthusiastic about the outdoors, and he’s already been back out hunting, though he’s more cautious about wandering in LaSalle. And when he’s hunting, he’s a little more careful: “I won’t be as zoned in on a game animal as I was last time,” he said. “I’ll at least be aware enough to mark a trail.”

All in all, though he is embarrassed that police and conservation officers had to come rescue him, Seth is grateful for having gotten lost. “When I was sitting in front of the fire, I realized this is actually something I had wanted to do: just me, the things I have with me, nature, and figuring out how to get through the night. It’s one of my dreams to be in a survival situation, and it’s funny—that’s what it was! Because of hunting, I got to live one of my dreams and go out and basically be in the environment for quite some time.”

When hunting with companions, you want to bring home game and keep everyone safe. That’s why it’s important that you know your safe zone-of-fire.

Your safe zone-of-fire spans about 45 degrees directly in front of you. If a flushed bird flies into your zone, it’s time to shoot—but as soon as the bird crosses into another hunter’s zone, hold your fire!

You can identify your safe zone-of-fire by staring straight at something in the distance, extending your arms straight out to either side of your body, making fists with your thumbs held up, and gradually bringing your arms inward until both of your thumbs are in focus without moving your eyes. That span represents the outer edges of your safe zone-of-fire. Easy!