Wood Duck Hunting – The Complete Guide
I can feel Tim and Amos side-eying me as I stare down at my wristwatch. I shake my head slightly. Too early.
I can barely see our decoy spread, but about half of them are leaving ripples on the water. A few are bobbing their heads and twitching their tails in confusion. “What’s up with the cold shoulder?” I can hear them asking their wooden neighbors.
The first shot of the season sounds off in the distance. I glance back at my watch, then over at Tim. He’s already staring down the barrel. Amos, despite his double coat, is shivering like a chihuahua under a chair at a Weight Watchers meeting with anticipation. I give them both the nod.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!
“Fetch’em up, Amos!”
Another wood duck season is underway in the Alabama river swamp.
Wood ducks are a southeastern duck hunter’s saving grace. Beautiful, tasty, and blessedly prevalent in backwaters usually bereft of other species, they are duck season to thousands of hunters. If you’re new to wood duck hunting, this article will help you cut your teeth on the Deep South’s most abundant fowl. If you’re an old hand, you still may learn a thing or two that will serve you well this year.
Understanding Wood Ducks
Wood ducks, scientifically known as Aix sponsa, are captivating waterfowl renowned for their distinctive traits and behaviors. These birds display sexual dimorphism, with males (drakes) sporting vibrant plumage characterized by iridescent green and purple heads, white throat patches, and chestnut-brown chests, while females (hens) exhibit more subdued, mottled brown plumage for camouflage. They have crests on their heads, adding to their unique appearance. Wood ducks typically measure between 17 to 20 inches in length, with a wingspan ranging from 26 to 29 inches, and they weigh around 1 to 1.5 pounds.
These ducks prefer wooded wetlands and swamps as their breeding grounds but can adapt to various environments, including freshwater ponds, lakes, and rivers in forested regions. Wood ducks exhibit territorial instincts and communicate through a repertoire of whistles and calls. They are dabbling ducks, feeding on aquatic vegetation, insects, and small invertebrates by tipping forward in the water to reach their food.
Regarding reproduction, wood ducks are known for their remarkable parenting behavior. Breeding season typically starts in late winter or early spring, with hens laying an average of 9-14 creamy-white eggs in cavity nests or nest boxes. The mother incubates the eggs for about 30 days, and once hatched, she leaps from the nest tree, leading her ducklings to water and ensuring their safety.
Wood ducks exhibit partial migration, with some northern populations migrating south for the winter, while others remain year-round if they have access to suitable wintering habitats. In terms of conservation, they faced population declines due to habitat loss and overhunting in the past but have made a remarkable recovery thanks to conservation efforts like nest box placement and wetland restoration. Currently, they are categorized as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List, highlighting the success of these efforts in preserving this unique waterfowl species.
Essential Gear And Equipment For Wood Ducks
Due to the unique terrain they inhabit, and their reclusive nature, wood duck hunting can look very different from what you may have seen on TV. It really is closer to turkey hunting in a sense. Becoming an expert wood duck hunter requires long legs and good ears, and you won’t need (or want to carry) dozens of decoys and layout blinds to the backwaters they hide in. Keeping gear at a minimum is the secret to fun and productive hunting. With that said, there are a few essentials that you’ll need
Best Choke And Load For Wood Ducks
The most important thing you’ll carry will be your shotgun. There’s no need to buy a designated “wood duck gun.” Whatever you have in the back of the closet will do the job. Some hunters prefer sub gauges since they sometimes swing a little faster. I’ve hunted them with 20 and 16 gauges myself, but have come to prefer a lightweight, nimble 12 gauge. The more shot I can throw at a bird, the better, in my mind.
Wood duck hunting is generally a close quarters affair. I’ve had birds too close as often as I’ve had them too far. If you haven’t already, check out our article on choosing the best choke for duck hunting. Jim Muller’s recommended general purpose choke and shotgun load is very close to the combination I’ve come to prefer, a heavy payload of #4 steel shot through an improved cylinder choke. Wide, even patterns are the name of the game when woodies are crashing down into a small beaver pond or secluded creek.
Duck Commander Wood Duck Calls
While almost any gun will work in my opinion, I am very particular about my calls. I’m not a huge fan of most Duck Commander calls, but Phil Robertson has to be part wood duck hen, because his call is probably the most uncannily realistic one I have ever heard. We’ll talk more about calling in a minute, but for now just trust me. The DC Wood Duck Call is as close to a perfect imitation of a hen wood duck as you can buy, and it’s widely available and inexpensive.
I like to pair my DC call with a Haydel’s WW-90. This strange, unassuming little call does an excellent job imitating a drake wood duck, and is great for sealing the deal on birds who are on the water already, but missed the landing zone by a few yards.
Wood Duck Decoys
Decoys are optional, provided that you’re highly confident in your scouting. But they can help. Some hunters insist that wood ducks won’t decoy. I think this belief stems from the environments that wood ducks usually inhabit, and the fact that down south woodies are year-round residents.
Wood ducks do generally know exactly where they’re headed in the morning. They’re locals, not tourists. If you’re not already very close to where they want to be, they’ll ignore you. But since shotgunning is a very close-quarters game, being able to coax birds a few yards right into your lap is useful.
Just remember when setting your spread that woodies have to spot it while flying 50 miles per hour above the canopy at gray light. Many hunters just throw out a half or full dozen decoys, since oftentimes that is a realistic spread in the small waters wood ducks inhabit. But ask yourself how many of those birds can you realistically expect flying birds to spot. I firmly believe that many birds who “ignore” decoys never even see them in the first place.
To combat this, use motion. This is the biggest “secret” in wood duck hunting next to the supreme importance of scouting. I am a big fan of Mojo Flock-a-flicka decoys in areas with lots of brush and vegetation. Their random flickering perfectly imitates the occasional splashing or preening of a bird in a happy, contented little flock. They’re cheap and easy to carry, and the Gen 2 version has been pretty trouble-free for me and my hunting buddies.
In creeks, tupelo swamps, beaver ponds, flooded timber, and areas that generally have better visibility; I prefer one or two spinning wing decoys and a jerk rig or motion decoys. Aside from Flock-a-flickas, I won’t hunt with spinning wing-style decoys that don’t have a remote. Often I’ll turn them on a few minutes before legal shooting light to hopefully pull early birds into my spread, and turn them off after the first 10 minutes of legal light.
Another good option for motion is a jerk rig. Sometimes, usually later in the season, spinning-wing decoys can become a risky proposition. Birds have seen them all season, and if they get too good a look at them they can hurt you rather than help you. But the splashing of a jerk rig is a little more understated. I’ve killed oodles of woodies with nothing more than a Drake and Hen decoy combo and a jerk rig. Jerk rigs never run out of batteries, and are super-easy to pack into remote honey-holes. Their only downside is that you have to keep pulling the string. Trying to jerk, call, and shoot all at the same time sometimes starts to smell a bit too much like work.
I hesitate to mention my third motion decoy trick, but here goes. Years ago a Cajun friend of mine who was a duck hunting guide in a past life turned me onto the Wonderduck decoy. This odd looking contraption runs on 2 D-cell batteries, and provides both hands-free splash and (if you want it) the flash of a spinning wing decoy. 3 or 4 of these is a reasonable load for 2 hunters to pack in, and once you turn them on they just do their thing pulling ducks while you’re free to call and shoot. I’m going on my 4th season with mine, and to date it hasn’t given me a lick of trouble, which is more than can be said for most mechanical decoys I’ve hunted over.
Finding Good Wood Duck Habitat
Far more important than gear is finding wood ducks. Scouting is important with all hunting, but it will absolutely make or break a wood duck hunt. Wood ducks do not tolerate hunting pressure, and can be very “here today, gone tomorrow.” Winter flooding often exacerbates this behavior, since it provides ducks with thousands of acres of suitable habitat to feed and hide in.
It helps to start with the basics. Wood ducks, much like deer, live by hiding and eating. In most areas I’ve hunted, they exhibit a strong fondness for acorns. This is fortunate because it means that if you either hunt deer yourself or know a few deer hunters, you probably can get a general idea of where wood ducks will be. If oak woods are near water, or if they seasonally flood, there’s a strong chance that they’ll hold wood ducks.
Another basic fact to keep in mind is that wood ducks are dabblers. As such, they are only able to feed in a foot or two of water. You may find them in a much deeper creek or pond, but you can bet your paycheck that if you poke around after flushing a group, you’ll find shallow water nearby. This can help you hone in on areas to scout.
Once you’ve identified a general area that holds wood ducks, the best thing you can do is to scout it the day before your hunt. But do it right! If you flush wood ducks out of a spot, you just may have ruined it for tomorrow. Treat them like turkeys, and use your ears. Get within a hundred yards of where you think they will be, and listen. Wood ducks are extremely noisy, and within a few minutes should give themselves away with a squeal. I like to use a compass or GPS and triangulate their position. To do this, shoot a bearing on the location of the sound from two different positions. I like to do this from two positions about a hundred yards apart, well out of sight of the flock. Drop a pin on where the two bearings converge, and be there bright and early the next morning. With practice, you’ll be surprised how close to the “x” you can get without seeing and potentially spooking birds.
If you’re not confident triangulating their position, use binoculars to scan ahead and move forward slowly. As soon as you see birds, stop! Drop a pin, go home, pack your stuff, and be ready for an early alarm.
Wood Duck Hunting Strategy
Assuming you did a good job scouting, hunting is easy. The first rule of wood duck hunting is “be there early.” Wood ducks often start trickling into an area well before legal light. Toss out a small spread with plenty of motion, pick a tree to hide behind, and get ready. Once you start to hear birds flying overhead, you can start to do a little calling if you’re confident in it.
Calling Wood Ducks
You may have heard that you can’t call wood ducks. Maybe you can’t, but (not to brag) I definitely can. The important thing to keep in mind is that the closer you are to where he wants to be, the easier it is to call a wood duck. Calling is meant to help you coax birds a few yards, not make them land wherever is most convenient to you. If a bird is heading to a tupelo swamp and you’re 200 yards away on a creek, you’re probably not stopping him. But if you’re in that swamp, but 50 yards off of the “x,” some good calling and some ripples on the water may save your butt.
Wood Duck Flying Sounds
The biggest mistake I hear hunters make in the swamp is making flying noises when calling. You know the sound: Da WHEEP! Da WHEEP! Think about it. Why would a wood duck come to that sound? He’s flying to where he wants to go, and all he’s hearing are other birds flying; probably to the same place he’s going, or so he thinks! Nothing about that sound says, “I’m a happy duck on the water, and I’ve found a safe space to hang out and eat acorns with my friends. Come on down!” Even though you may hear that sound a lot in the woods, don’t replicate it. It isn’t quite as silly as trying to call in a deer by blowing at it, but it’s close.
Hen Wood Duck Sounds
Sitting hen sounds are where it’s at. The next time you’re sitting on a creek deer hunting and see wood ducks swim by, listen closely. You’ll hear the hens making a wide variety of happy little noises. Phil and Jase Robertson are masters at emulating these sounds. I first learned to replicate these sounds by listening to an old DVD called “The Art of Commanding Ducks: Volume II” and have refined my calling since then by listening to lots of birds in real life. Combined with a little motion on the water and a good location, replicating hen sounds can lead to some awesome shooting. And, it’s a lot of fun. If I’m hunting by myself, I often forgo calling because I’m usually confident in my spread. But if I’m hunting with a new hunter, I always put on a show for them. Calling is, for many people, a big part of the appeal of duck hunting.
Drake Wood Duck Sounds
While the hen makes the most noise, I’ve had the best luck calling in birds with a Drake call. Much like the males of other species, the male has a fairly limited vocabulary. All he can really do is whistle, “ziiiiiiip” when he’s on the water. I’m no ornithologist, but I think a lot of times drakes make this noise when they know they’re close to other birds but can’t see them.
This is a soft call, and it doesn’t do much good for flying birds. But it is absolutely devastating on birds that you heard land somewhere near you but can’t see or shoot at. I have called in many unlucky drakes by mixing this call in with a few sparing, quiet hen clucks. The furthest I’ve called one in was about 100 yards away, and it’s a real hoot to watch a lonely little drake perk up when he hears the sound and start swimming toward what he thinks are new friends.
It’s almost like working a turkey, and it makes a big impression on new hunters. Just be careful not to overdo it. The closer a bird gets, the more likely he is to pick up on the fact that something is “off” about the situation. Once you get their attention, shut up and get ready to shoot! They can hear much better than you, and if they’re coming your way they know exactly where that sound came from.
Final Thoughts On Wood Duck Hunting
I’ll give you one final piece of advice before closing. If you find a good wood duck spot, treat it like a deer hunting spot. Resist the urge to call all of your buddies and pound it for several days, especially if it’s the only spot you have to hunt. Wood ducks respond very poorly to pressure. A lot of the birds are year-round locals, and the ones that aren’t are usually wintering here instead of passing through. As a result, they know the surrounding area pretty well and will relocate if you hit them too hard. Get in with a buddy or two, shoot your birds, and leave. The less pressure you put on a spot, the more likely you’ll be able to sneak in a subsequent hunt before they wise up. And remember, if they do move, all you have to do is walk the woods or idle through the river swamp and listen. They can’t keep quiet even if it’s literally to save their lives!
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