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Fall in Love with Duck Hunting

I've often wondered what it is that makes people passionate about their hobbies.

I have a friend who loves horseback riding. Although she doesn't own a horse, she lives for those weekends when friends invite her along to ride. When I visited her a few months ago she had just broken her hand by falling off a horse. That didn't bother her in the least. She was too busy trying to convince her husband that she needed her very own horse.

My mother is a fanatic about gardening. Her backyard is like Noah's Ark — she has at least two of every kind of flower. My father doesn't have to mow the lawn anymore, because there's no room for grass. And within a hundred-mile radius of her home, garden center employees know her by name.

So what does that say? That my friends and family are crazy because they're willing to spend tons of time and money and even suffer for their hobby? Well, yes! In their defense, though, finding your perfect pastime is like falling in love — there's a point that it ceases to be a hobby and instead becomes a way of life.

If you're afraid of that kind of exhilaration or fear the commitment of a lifetime of pleasure, then I would NOT try duck hunting. Once you try it, you'll spend the rest of your days hopelessly hooked . . . for many reasons. First, duck hunting is easy enough that anyone can learn. Yet it's complex enough where there's always something new to discover. It combines the satisfaction of bird watching with the thrill of improving your calling and wing shooting skills. And it's a healthy, exciting way to enjoy the outdoors.

The clothes make the woman . . . warm!
The right clothes can mean the difference between happiness and hypothermia. Ducks are very fond of water so if you're going to see them, you need to get aquatic, too. A few years back, I bought a pair of neoprene waders, and they do a fabulous job of keeping me warm and dry, and they're much easier to walk in than the rubber ones.

A specialized waterfowler parka will make you very happy, too. Look for parkas with an outer fabric of Gortex or a similar windproof/waterproof material. It should also have a lightweight insulating material such as Thinsulate. A detachable lining and hood allows you to add or subtract layers as needed.

Hats and gloves are must have items in a duck marsh. Depending on the weather, a knitted cap or a baseball hat will help you stay warm and keep the sun out of your eyes.

I feel like I've finally found the right gloves. They're mitten style but the top can be pulled back to expose your fingers when you're shooting or handling calls and decoys. It's a good idea to carry an extra pair in case the first pair gets wet.

Do your homework
One of the most important aspects of duck hunting is being able to identify species and gender in flight. It's an important skill that will keep you from harvesting more ducks than the law allows. There's also something heady about being able to distinguish a mallard from a black duck. It's really not that hard either. All it takes is a few field trips armed with binoculars and a good bird book. Things to look for on your duck ID mission are size, shape, plumage, patterns and colors, flocking behavior, wing beat speed, and the calls they make. In addition, by understanding when and where they like to feed, loaf and fly will give you the edge when hunting.

Annie, get your gun
The "by the book" definition of the ultimate waterfowl gun is probably a 12-gauge semi-automatic. A 12-gauge chamber holds shells that will definitely get the job done. And the semi-automatic action allows the hunter to quickly get off a second and third shot, and it absorbs some of the recoil. However, the first time I went, I didn't have that flavor. I had a 20-gauge pump. A pump action is thought to be more cumbersome to handle. But that was my first shotgun, and I was comfortable with it. Also, some hunters consider a 20-gauge too light for large or long-range waterfowl. My hunting companion assured me it was okay, since we weren't going for anything bigger than a mallard (versus a giant Canada goose), and they'd have to be well within gun range for me to identify the species and gender. And darn if he wasn't right. I harvested my first mallard that day with a 20-gauge.

On the flip side, there are plenty of waterfowlers that swear by pump shotguns because they're inexpensive and the action is less likely to jam than with a semi-auto.

Chokes and actions are a matter of discussion, too. The choke, which is a narrowing at the muzzle, controls the size and density of the pellet pattern. Hunters expecting close-decoying ducks will use an improved cylinder, which produces a wide pattern and a full choke and tight patterns for longer range shots. Modified chokes hit the middle when it comes to patterning. Screw-in choke tubes allow hunters to get maximum use out of one gun because by changing the choke, they're able to go from hunting dove to turkey.

There's loads to learn
Selecting the right shotshell load for waterfowling is every bit as important as the right shotgun. At one time, everyone used lead. Today, however, hunters must comply with nontoxic shot regulations. These regulations were adopted to prevent lead poisoning of waterfowl caused by lead shot. Most hunters today are shooting steel although there are other nontoxic alternatives on the market including Bismuth and Tungsten. While many people believe that Bismuth and Tungsten loads perform better, steel is common for waterfowling because it's far less expensive.

Regardless of what nontoxic shot you choose to use, make sure you pattern your shotgun and load. It's critical to your success afield. By test firing at a paper target, you can tell if your gun shoots where you point it and if your pattern is sufficient for a clean kill and at what range. You may have to experiment with different loads and chokes before you get the best combination.

Next, you'll also want to put in some time at your local gun range sharpening your wingshooting skills by shooting trap, skeet, 5-stand or sporting clays.

Calling all ducks
Part of duck hunting's mystique is knowing the right type and amount of calling to bring a bird to the gun. There is definitely an art to calling. First, it differs from region to region, and ducks use a variety of vocalizations. What this means is when you go to the store, there will be more kinds of calls than there are shades of lipstick. It's a good idea to talk to your friends that duck hunt or someone at a store that specializes in hunting equipment to see what they recommend.

While you're choosing calls, you should also consider buying a CD or video to help you master the hail, greeting and comeback calls, as well as the trickier feeding chuckle.

If you're new to calling, you may want to limit yourself to some initial "attention getting" calling when you're in the field. Ducks have a pretty good ear, and a few sour notes may mean the only thing you see are tail feathers as they head for the horizon. With practice, though, you'll be working birds to your decoy set in no time.

Dogs are a woman's best friend, too
One thing you'll almost always hear duck hunters talk about is their dog. Retrievers are as much a part of duck hunting as fly rods are to trout fishing. Sure, you can duck hunt without a retriever and trout fish without a fly rod, but it pushes the fun factor to near zero.

Retrievers, whether they're labs, goldens or Chesapeake Bays, serve two important purposes. First, they are delightful to watch as they're splashing out past the decoys to retrieve a bird or proudly returning to the blind with a mallard. And, most importantly, they're essential in recovering ducks that may be hard to find or those that were dropped in deep water.

A well-trained dog is a big responsibility and may not be something a new duck hunter is ready to handle. The next best thing you can do is make friends with duck hunters who have good dogs so you can go with them. Or, you can use a boat to retrieve birds from deeper water. However, a boat won't help you with ducks that are hard to find without the benefit of a good nose.

Hide and seek
Concealment is the name of the game when it comes to duck hunting. Biologists believe that ducks see colors better than we do. To keep from blowing their cover, duck hunters use a variety of blinds. The simplest way to hide from the flock's keen eyesight is by wearing head to toe camouflage . . . in a pattern that's appropriate for the type of habitat you're hunting. By using camouflaged clothes and equipment, remaining motionless and hiding amongst branches, shoreline vegetation and other naturally occurring camo, you can become almost invisible to waterfowl.

There are also several types of temporary blinds you can buy that will give you the freedom to move according to changes in flight or feeding patterns. A portable blind may consist of a big piece of camouflaged cloth and a few stakes.

The next step up is a boat blind. A small, camouflaged johnboat can seem like a luxury in comparison to a ground blind. Boat blinds offer several advantages, too. First, throwing your decoys from a boat is a breeze, and it's easy to change locations. You can always get more elaborate with your boat by adding a motor or rigging it with a fancy box blind.

Whatever method of camouflage you decide on, it is always a good idea to set up with the sun at your back. That way you won't have the sun in your eyes. Plus, it makes it harder for the birds to see you.

Decoys and deceit
A good decoy spread works with your calling to lure ducks to a setup. While calling can appeal to the musician in you, decoying waterfowl will bring out your artistic flair. There are several kinds of decoys that differ according to size, detail, color, shape, price and material. There is also a variety of ways to set them up depending on what species you're hunting. Probably the most common duck decoys are solid and hollow floating ones. They're usually made of cork, molded plastic or polyurethane foam. They have a weight that's attached to the underside of the decoy that keeps them floating upright. For best results, decoys should match the species you're hunting.

Although duck hunting varies greatly from region to region, the maxim that unites all waterfowlers is the more decoys, the better. Ducks have gotten wiser to hunters, and it just takes more decoys to reassure the flock that it's safe to land.

Whether you're setting small bunches of decoys to attract puddle ducks or bolder rigs in J-shaped strings to bring in diving ducks, there are some basic guidelines. Always try to keep the sun, wind and some cover at your back. Also make sure flocks can see your spread, and that it's close enough to bring them within gun range.

Go with a guru
Probably the best advice I can give is hunt with someone who is wise to the ways of waterfowl. Your hunting mentor can help you find a place to hunt, locate where ducks are feeding and pattern their flyways. They can also help you understand duck hunting regulations and make sure that you have the proper license and stamps, including the mandatory federal duck stamp. There is no end to the things you can learn about calling, decoy placement and wingshooting from an experienced hunter. Plus, you'll have a great time, build your skills and give your confidence a huge boost.

Another place where you can learn about duck hunting is at one of the NWTF's Women in the Outdoors events. With this advice, try duck hunting at your own risk, knowing it could very well be love at first flight.

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