Hunter Ed

Duck Hunting: The Beginner's Guide

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

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One 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.

Find the Right Firearm

the right gun

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.

Perfect Your Call

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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.

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About 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. 

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