Seven Secrets to Hunting Sheetwater

The whistle of wings announced their approach: a pair of mallards, black against the overcast sky, banking toward the puddle in a low, tight circle. With wings cupped but feet hidden, the tandem buzzed the decoys and swept behind the layout blind in a rush of wind, disappearing from view. The hen could be heard chuckling eagerly from behind, but there was no need to call. These birds were coming in.

It was the final day of Washington State’s marathon waterfowl season. Since mid-October, the string of Saturdays had dissolved into a blur of shotshells and feathers and alarm clocks and gas-station burritos.

After four months of bird hunting blitzkrieg, the last day of January had finally arrived, and with six greenheads cooling on the mud behind the blind, it was simply a matter of moments before the pair would reappear and the final limit completed. It was shaping up to be the perfect ending to a memorable season—one last point-blank shot to be savored, like a first kiss.

The mallards circled twice more before backpedaling over the gap in the decoys with outstretched necks. The drake was so focused on his landing he didn’t notice anything out of place, not even a hunter 25 yards away sitting up to level a bead on his beak.

The blast of a shotgun ripping through the mist caught his attention, though, and he rocketed skyward. His wings found the wind, and even though two more volleys were lobbed toward his tailfeathers, the bird managed to escape unscathed.

Frustration likely would have set in, but there wasn’t time. Already another black dot was growing larger against the grey horizon, and it was time to regroup and reload. The season ended 40 seconds later with a single shot and a mallard drake down face-first in the ankle-deep water: The decisive punctuation mark to signify the end of another fall.

That’s the beauty of wet-field hunting. When you do it right, you can shoot a clean and efficient limit. No lost birds, no leaky waders, no hassling with a boat or trailer, just a puddle of water and a pile of ducks.

It took this duck hunter awhile to figure out how to hunt sheetwater. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity or trying though. Western Washington is famous for its precipitation, and after several months of Pacific drizzle, pretty much every low spot of every field around the Puget Sound is transformed into a dabbling duck’s playground: six to 10 inches of water, safety from predators and usually some sort of crop to munch on.

Of course, the soggy lowland of the Pacific Northwest is the not the only region where sheetwater habitat can be found. California rice operations, Atlantic tidal flats, short-cropped pastureland near swollen Midwest rivers—even the arid fields of the Southwest can be transformed into temporary sheetwater sanctuaries for migrating mallards. And when you find these conditions, you’ll need to be able to take advantage of them.


I first gained permission to hunt a sheetwater field in high school: 40 acres of puddler paradise that comprised part of a dill and cucumber farm. By mid-December, the crops had been harvested and the field plowed into bare dirt, but a foot-deep puddle the size of a basketball court had gathered near the southeast end. That’s all the ducks needed. I remember glassing this field slack-jawed from the front seat of my Toyota one afternoon after school, gaping at the sight of dozens of mallards, pintails, and wigeon cavorting in the shallow water.

I returned the next morning with a sack full of decoys and a heart full of hope, but trudged back to my car empty handed and deflated. Here are some lessons learned since that first failed enterprise.

Get HiddenThis one is important for any manner of waterfowling, but downright essential for wet field hunts. On that first morning at the cucumber farm, I squatted behind a wire-frame blind draped in camouflage netting. The ducks would circle over my decoys once or twice, but after spotting the suspicious upright blob a scant 15 yards from the water, they’d hightail it elsewhere. No shots were fired.

A more experienced hunter would have known the value of covering up and moving the blind further from the water. When you’re hunting a bare-dirt field, you can’t get low enough. Digging in a layout is a great tactic, of course, but in the soupy soil of the Pacific Northwest, that usually isn’t an option. To make up for this, it’s a good idea to set up a minimum of 25 yards from the nearest decoy and refrain from shooting until the birds are backpedaling.

Get VisibleGo ahead and test this one yourself. Next time you’re scanning a wet field with your binoculars, try counting the ducks, and then re-count them. What you’ll discover is that even though you’ll be able to number the gaudily-plumed drakes with relative ease, you’ll have a hard time picking out the hens against the muddy background, even with the aid of high-quality optics. Female feathers are designed to fool the eyes of predators, and in a shallow puddle with plenty of lumps and clutter, this natural camouflage is remarkably effective.


Savvy sheetwater hunters will employ drake decoys exclusively in their sheetwater spreads. This saves valuable time during set-up and pick-up and has proven remarkably effective. I believe even sharp-eyed mallards have difficulty spotting the mud-colored hens on the ground, so they will drop in readily to a bachelor spread assuming hidden females are relaxing nearby.

Cut the CallingOn that first busted hunt, my mallard call was worked harder than a referee’s whistle at a Oakland Raider’s game. The ducks weren’t buying it.

Since then, shutting up has been proven valuable time and again. Sheetwater hunting is usually done late season in the Pacific Northwest, and January mallards are notoriously call shy. Furthermore, since maintaining concealment is almost always a concern in wet-field hunting, trumpeting your presence with a hail call is not the best way to keep prying eyes off your hide. Holding down the quacks and holding still will result in fewer ducks flaring and more ducks falling.

Make a SplashIn lieu of an abundance of calling, you’ll find that an abundance of water movement is a sure-fire way to make mallards curl their wings at the sight of a sheetwater setup.

If the water’s deep enough, a good old-fashioned jerk rig should do the trick. In most sheetwater fields, though, the water is so shallow that most of your decoys will be plowing furrows in the mud with their keels if you try to attach them to a jerk line. This is a time to get a bit more creative.

Battery-powered water-agitators by Lucky Duck, WonderDuck and Mojo (where legal) make a great option. But in Washington and Oregon, where string-powered decoys are as high-tech as the law allows, the Kick Splash decoy by Decoy Dancer can be an effective alternative.

It’s basically a butt-up feeder decoy with a bright orange paddlewheel for legs. By pulling the cord, you create an eye-catching splash that gets the attention of the ducks away from your blind and onto your spread. You’ll discover most mallards will finish right over the spray of this decoy, making blind placement much easier.

Sleep InWith some exceptions, sheetwater hunting is a mid-morning game. By December, the majority of flooded fields in the Northwest have been harvested, and the ducks that use these puddles are looking for rest and companionship more than a meal.

Because of this, sheetwater hunters will typically see the most waterfowl traffic after the sun’s been up for a while. For example, on that last hunt of the season in late January, I didn’t slide into my layout until more than an hour after shooting light, but still finished my limit by 11 a.m. Good things come to those who sleep.

Go SmallWhen planning a set-up on a sheetwater field, it’s tempting to just pick the largest pool on the property. While that may work, in most cases the biggest puddle is not always the best. More important than water depth are factors such as cover for your blind and visibility for your decoys.

For example, if the biggest water in the field is completely surrounded by a moonscape of smooth mud, it may be more effective to throw your dekes out on a smaller puddle that butts up to a ditchrow to conceal your layout.


On the other hand, if that smaller puddle provides good cover for your blind but is so cluttered with vegetation that your decoys couldn’t be spotted by a low-flying hawk, then it’s a better idea to set up on cleaner water that allows your decoys to pop in the vision of stratospheric flocks.

You’ll never find the perfect puddle, of course, but don’t shy away from one simply because it’s small. If there’s a little soggy spot that provides the best combination of both cover for you and visibility for your spread, toss out your decoys and get ready to shoot (even if the puddle’s no larger than a Volkswagen van). As long as you can get hidden and your decoys can be seen, you can shoot ducks over water of any size.

Watch the WindNothing is more frustrating than working a flock of mallards for five minutes only to have them splash down 60 yards away on the far side of the puddle. Ducks will almost always land with the wind in their face, even if the wind is a breath that would barely flicker a candle. Determine the wind direction and set up so it’s blowing over your back. If the wind shifts halfway through the hunt, pick up your layout and shift with it. You may lose 10 minutes of hunting, but you’ll gain more birds at the end of the day.

By the time I’d picked up on that final January morning, a flock of wigeon were already splashing down in the small pool where seven greenheads had just gone on the strap.

The whistle of wings overhead indicated that more ducks were not far behind. In a few months, the winter rains would taper off, the ducks would point their beaks northward and my puddle would evaporate. But come fall, the rain will return, and with it the ducks. We’ll be waiting for them.

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The Dos and Don’ts of Duck Calling

DO buy from a reputable call maker, one who stands behind every call he sends out, especially if you’re new to the art. Your best bet is to shop at a hands-on venue so you can play a call and ask questions before opening your wallet. Get the best you can afford. Don’t expect Mozart out of an $8 duck call. 

DON’T immediately take the call apart when you get home. Resist the urge. Here’s why: If you do take it apart, something will change, you’ll be dissatisfied, and you’ll blame it on the call and/or its maker. Hands off.

DO clean the call if it’s been on the lanyard awhile, but only if you’re familiar with its construction. Dust, dirt, and other debris can get into a call over the years, even if you don’t use it very often. Separate the insert with the reeds from the barrel, and give it a thorough cleaning with cold water only. Polish up the outside. A good call should look good.

DON’T run hot water on a Mylar duck-call reed thinking it’s going to get the reed spotlessly clean. It might, but it can also warp or otherwise disfigure the Mylar.

DO practice with the call. There are plenty of great makers who post links to YouTube videos detailing the proper way to play their products. You can learn a lot from these sessions, and even experienced duck callers can learn something new.

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Simple and Easy DIY Boat Blind

Jim Orth needed a simple blind for hunting Lake St. Clair. A staffing recruiter and outfitter from Michigan, he runs clients on the 430-square mile lake mostly during weekends.

When the weather turns, it can pose some extraordinarily harsh conditions, but Orth hunts a shoreline that blocks the wind and public boating access is close by, so it’s not as risky as making long runs on open water.

His boat blind frame is made of 2” PVC pipe, making it lightweight, inexpensive, rustproof and easy to build with simple tools. Orth, who took third in the 2015 B&B contest, lives near Detroit and has been hunting waterfowl since he was 14 years old. Now 36, he continues to hunt an area of Lake St. Clair just 20 minutes outside the city.

“We have a lot of deep water, so we get plenty of diving ducks,” Orth said. “But, we also get lots of mallards, especially early. We shoot cans, bluebills, redheads, buffleheads and others. Right now, I have two boat blinds, but I am going to build a third one because they have been so successful.”

Orth sets out around 100 to 150 Avian-X mallard, bufflehead, and pintail decoys, plus a Mojo Mallard spinner for each boat. He uses 1-pound strap weights to hold the floaters in place. If the hunters desire, he stakes the boats close together so friends can talk boat-to-boat and hunt over the same spread.

Orth shoots a Beretta A390-ST with a full choke, Federal Black Cloud BBs and uses a DuckBuster sight by Dead Ringer. His favorite calls are the Big Lake T-Rex and The Force mallard calls and D2T2 diving duck call.

“I started out duck hunting with my grandfather, Jim Paulin,” Orth said. “When he passed away a few years ago, I inherited all of his hunting gear and didn’t have anyone to hunt with, so I decided to try guiding. Then, I began hunting with the pastor of our church, Matt Trombley. Now he guides with me out of the second boat.”

A Blind is BornWhen Orth was young, he hunted at Harsen’s Island, a public area operated under a draw-permit system. It was a long drive from the family home.

“We hunted from a canoe that had a 2-hp engine,” he said. “But now that I’m older and working, I had to figure out a way to be home by 10 a.m., and could not afford a commercial collapsible boat blind.

So, he bought a used 14-foot MirroCraft and found some good spots on St. Clair. It is an aluminum boat with a deep-V hull and has a 9.9-hp Evinrude outboard. Orth turned the boat bottom side up and painted the entire hull with tan, green, yellow and brown acrylic latex paints to cover it with a grass-like camouflage pattern. Then he bought some 2” PVC, 90-degree bends and tees and PVC glue.

He assembled the blind frame inside the boat, measuring each section of pipe and cutting it with a table saw. The framework is essentially a rectangular box. It has four upright sections on the port and starboard sides that are attached to bottom and top rails with tee fittings for the two central uprights with 90-degree bends on the ends.

“The blind is so easy to set up every hunt from it is nothing but fun.”

On the bow, stern, and rear upright sections, inline tees are located near the tops and face the interior of the boat. Once he had assembled both the port and starboard side frames, he glued everything together with the exception of the lateral braces that fit into the inward-facing tees.

“When I fold the blind down, the two sides rest on the seats,” he said. “I slip the three lateral support braces out of the tees and put them in the boat. When I am setting up the blind at the ramp, I fit the lateral support braces back into the tees.”

Using aerosol paints specifically formulated for use on plastics, he painted the framework. Then he attached the bottoms of the side frames to the aluminum boat seats using metal conduit clamps and self-tapping screws. The clamps allow the PVC pipe frames to rotate freely so he can quickly collapse or erect the blind.

“I also made a top that fits about half-way across the boat to help hide the hunters,” he said.

Orth attached the top to the frame with zip ties and braces that extend down and rest on the seats. By changing the angle of the braces, he can adjust the height of the top.“I glued tees to the ends of the braces and looped zip ties through them and around the top frame so the braces can rotate,” he said. “I usually just put the braces on and off whenever I need to use the top by removing the zip ties.”

Deep CoverOrth attached green-coated wire garden fencing to the two side frames and top using zip ties. To the garden fencing, he attached Speed Grass mats, also with zip ties. The Speed Grass extends beyond the bottoms of the side frames to the waterline.

Speed Grass also overhangs the top like a fringe to help hide the hunters’ faces. The top of the blind is about 2½ feet above the seats. He hides the engine with a factory-made, camouflage cover.

“I leave the front open when I am going between the boat ramp and the hunting area,” he said. “That keeps down the wind and helps visibility. Once I arrive, I put in the front brace and attach a Speed Grass mat to it using some big rubber twist ties I got at Tractor Supply. It is a little tricky trying to tell someone else how to do it in the dark, so I usually do it myself.

“When I move from the back of the boat to the front, I just push the sides outward and take out the lateral braces. Then I put them back in when I move back to the stern.”Orth keeps the boat stationary by tying it off between four green garden stakes poked into the lake bottom.


He usually leaves them in place and puts a white bleach jug over them so he can find them in the dark. The great thing about using PVC pipe was Orth was able to fit all parts of the frame together and then take them apart before gluing everything together to make the final assembly.

The entire blind is so light two hunters have no trouble putting it on or taking it off the boat. To remove the blind after the hunting season, Orth simply uses a power drill to remove the screws holding the conduit clamps to the seats.

You might think PVC is not sturdy enough to make a durable blind frame, but Orth said he has only experienced two problems. Once, he hit the dock with the blind and it broke one of the top sections and he used some camouflaged duct tape to make a temporarily repair. Another time, a hunter lost his balance and grabbed the frame, cracking it near one of the tees, an easy thing to fix. Orth usually sets up close to the shoreline in order to blend in. He said it is extremely effective.

“On opening day last season I had a great hunt with two active duty Marines,” he said. “The ducks didn’t even know we were there until it was too late. We got one canvasback, two drake mallards and one hen mallard, plus one coot. Another day, I had two hunters along and we shot nine buffleheads. The blind is so easy to set up and works so well that every hunt from it is nothing but fun.”

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How to Cook Lemonade Doves

This unusual recipe from Wild Chef reader 2bigabear was a winner in a contest we held way back in 2011. Since then, it’s become my go-to way to cook up dove breasts—even beating out that worn-out classic preparation of bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers. It’s so good, I thought it was worth sharing again. 

I’ve also found it works great for duck breasts, particularly those from divers as the citrus and vinegar does a good job dealing with off flavors of those sometimes-fishy ducks. I know the use of lemonade sounds unusual, but it really does work. This is a pretty simple dish, but you can make it even easier by pouring everything together in a slow-cooker set to low and letting it simmer all day.

Lemonade Doves

Ingredients:15 dove breasts1 12-oz. can lemonade concentrate6 Tbsp. brown sugar2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegarSalt and pepper

1 Tbsp. cornstarch1 Tbsp. water

Directions:1. Preheat the oven to 225 degrees.2. Place the dove breasts in the bottom of a Dutch oven and season liberally with salt and pepper. In a bowl, whisk together the lemonade, brown sugar, and vinegar until the sugar is dissolved. Pour the lemonade mix over dove breasts, then pour everything into the Dutch over and cover with a lid.3. Place in the oven, and cook for 3 to 4 hours. Transfer the doves to plate, and debone if necessary.4. Mix 1 Tbsp. cornstarch and 1 Tbsp. water. Add them to the pan sauce to thicken. Return the meat to the Dutch oven, and stir to coat. Serve over rice or noodles.

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The Four Basics of Hunting Mallards

Ask duck hunters from Washington state to Maryland what species is their favorite to chase, and chances are 95 percent of them will immediately say “mallards.” And with good reason: Mallards are big, sturdy birds, with the males, also called greenheads, tipping the scales at up to 3 pounds. With those iridescent green heads and black rumps adorned with a pair of sharply curled feathers, the drakes are unmistakable. The smaller hens, like many females in the waterfowl world, are a drab brown, a rather blank canvas broken by a shimmering blue speculum bordered top and bottom by white—an identifying mark shared by both sexes. 

The most widely distributed of our North American wildfowl species, mallards can be found in good to excellent numbers in all four flyways, which is another reason they’re favored by duck hunters nationwide. Mallards are hardy rogues, too, often remaining far north for as long as they can find feed and open water.


Opening-day mallards are typically locally raised birds—ducks that know the area and have a regular day-to-day routine. With but few exceptions, opening day across the U.S. comes with relatively mild weather, meaning there’s no great need for mallards, or any other species for that matter, to feed heavily. 

That said, early-season hotspots are often mallard loafing areas. This translates into farm ponds, slow-water creek sections, or quiet corners of a larger marsh complex. Once the gunfire begins, look for small flocks of these local birds hiding out on unfamiliar waters: pasture ponds, secluded beaver pools, or tiny backwater bays on the edges of major impoundments. Gunners on the coasts should look to the salt marshes.

The Spread 

Fooling early-season mallards doesn’t compare to stumping Einstein on the subject of relativity. More important to success than decoys is scouting and, ultimately, location. Still, the plastic ducks do play a role in a successful hunt. 

Spinning-wing decoys, electronic or ­muscle-​powered, can be very effective with these young-of-the-year birds. As for the decoys themselves, a dozen mallard fakes, with an emphasis on drab hens, will typically suffice, especially when you’re hunting small waters. Add two or three Canada goose floaters for both confidence and long-range visibility—and in the event a parcel of September honkers invades your airspace. Use a jerk cord to add movement to the fakes.

The Calling

Mallard sounds attract mallards. But to give unresponsive birds something different to hear and possibly respond to, try throwing a series of contented quacks at a passing flock with a new call, such as Sure-Shot Game Calls’ Classic Triple Reed, or Zink’s killer drake mallard whistle. Savvy callers save the volume and aggressiveness for later in the season, opting instead for comebacks, quacks, and feeding chuckles combined with simply being in the right place at the right time.

The Gear

Gunners can go light during the early season, even when you’re spotlighting mallards specifically. A 23⁄4-inch 12-gauge hull packing 11⁄8 ounce of Hevi-Metal No. 4s at 1500 fps is plenty for lightly feathered birds. If you expect geese, 3-inch loads throwing 11⁄4 ounces of Hevi-Metal No. 2s will pull double duty, whether the target is greenheads or ganders.

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Public Invited to the 2016 Federal Duck Stamp Selection Event

Waterfowlers have the opportunity to view some amazing artwork at the 2016 Federal Duck Stamp Contest event that will be held at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, September 9th and 10th. The event is fully open to the public, including free general admission to the Natural Sciences museum, and will culminate on the 10th in a panel of five judges selecting the artwork that will be featured on this year’s Duck Stamp. The stamp has generated more than $900 million to help protect and conserve over six million acres of wetland, bottomland, and grassland habitat for waterfowl and other birds and wildlife. You can learn much more about the stamp and related activities by connecting with the Friends of the Migratory Bird Duck Stamp, an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion, preservation, sales, and better understanding of the Duck Stamp.

Visit the Friends of the Migratory Bird Duck Stamp website.

Learn more about the contest event.

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Ducks Unlimited welcomes Dominic Lawrence to conservation staff

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota – Aug. 29, 2016 – Ducks Unlimited welcomes Dominic Lawrence to its team as director of development for Minnesota and Iowa.

Lawrence joins Senior Director of Development Adam Dehaan in the same region, increasing Ducks Unlimited’s conservation and fundraising support in the two states.

Lawrence is responsible for engaging donors in Ducks Unlimited’s conservation mission through the $2 billion Rescue Our Wetlands campaign and the Living Lakes and Big Rivers Initiatives.

Lawrence brings more than 10 years of philanthropy and major gift fundraising experience to Ducks Unlimited.

“As a lifelong waterfowler, I’m excited to blend my passion for the outdoors and conservation with the ability to develop support for an organization as influential as Ducks Unlimited,” Lawrence said.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in public relations and his master’s degree in philanthropy and development from Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

“Dominic is a strong addition to our development team, and he’ll have an immediate impact on Ducks Unlimited’s mission to conserve wetlands in Minnesota, Iowa and beyond,” said Todd Bishop, managing director of development for DU’s Great Lakes/Atlantic Region.

Lawrence, his wife, Sara, and daughters Harper, 3, and Nora, 2 reside in Farmington, Minnesota. Contact Lawrence at or (651) 728-1116.

Ducks Unlimited Inc. is the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America’s continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 13.8 million acres thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever. For more information on our work, visit

Media Contact:
Chris Sebastian

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Ducks Unlimited announces directors of the year

Memphis, Tenn. – Aug. 29, 2016 – Ducks Unlimited (DU) recently announced the 2015-16 Regional Director (RD) and Director of Development (DOD) of the Year award recipients. Scott James and Adam DeHaan were recognized for their outstanding leadership during the 2016 fiscal year.  

Regional Director of the Year

James was named Regional Director of the Year for his efforts as a staff member of Region 7, an area that encompasses the Southeastern United States. James, a resident of Braselton, Ga., covers north Georgia working with volunteer committees hosting fundraisers for the 79-year-old conservation organization. The events in his region raised more than $1 million for DU’s conservation mission in the recent fiscal year ending June 30.

Director of Development of the Year

For the second year in a row, DeHaan was named the Director of Development of the Year. DeHaan secured more than $2 million in pledges and cash during the fiscal year, mirroring his great performance from the year before. Adam is a 15-year member of DU and has been on staff in various capacities for 11 years.  

“It is the teamwork and commitment of Ducks Unlimited’s volunteers, donors and staff that make DU the world leader in wetlands and waterfowl conservation,” said Amy Batson, DU’s chief fundraising officer. “Scott and Adam have been, and continue to be, critical members of Team DU and we are proud to recognize them for their extraordinary leadership and accomplishments.”

Ducks Unlimited Inc. is the world’s largest nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving North America’s continually disappearing waterfowl habitats. Established in 1937, Ducks Unlimited has conserved more than 13.8 million acres thanks to contributions from more than a million supporters across the continent. Guided by science and dedicated to program efficiency, DU works toward the vision of wetlands sufficient to fill the skies with waterfowl today, tomorrow and forever. For more information on our work, visit

Media Contact:
Ashley Ward

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Six Secrets to Hunting Crowded Dove Fields

The dove opener is the most popular hunting day of the year, which means you probably won’t celebrate it alone. On some public land, dove openers qualify as combat hunting: not always shoulder to shoulder, but often a little too close for comfort. On private land, there’s “social” dove hunting, which is sometimes social, sometimes just a more genteel form of combat hunting. Either way, you will contend with people as well as doves. And for that, you need a plan. 

Step 1: Bring Protection

Most hunters know that safety comes first. That’s why even crowded dove openers routinely come off without a hitch. But in a situation like this, it’s just common sense to take a little extra care. Mistakes can happen. The last time I hunted a big public field, someone took a pellet to the cheek. The victim wasn’t seriously hurt, but lesson learned just the same: Wear shooting glasses. 

Even cheap glasses can stop a load of 71⁄2s at close range; I know because I have shot them to find out. Glasses can help you see birds better, too, if you choose the right hue. Avoid dark green or gray lenses, even if it’s bright out. You need just enough tint to keep from squinting. Light bronze or rose is the way to go. Earplugs should be part of your combat hunting armor as well.

Step 2: Beat ’Em or Join ’Em

If your scouting reveals the proverbial hot corner, wake up very early, get there first, and be prepared to defend the spot with flashlight beams. Or you can be devious. A friend of mine once identified a sunflower field as the best spot on a public area, then recruited several buddies and told us all to drive separately. The half dozen trucks parked around the small field deterred latecomers, and we had the field to ourselves. 

Being neither strident nor sneaky, I tend to let the crowds limit out and leave. Then I show up around midmorning to hunt between the early and late shifts. There are usually plenty of hungry doves that couldn’t get into the field earlier coming back for another try. 

When you can’t beat the crowd, join them. Try being friendly. Speak up in a tone of cooperation. Odds are the people next to you are reasonable folks and safe hunters just like you. I did this the last time I hunted a big public field, and the party next door was as nice as they could be. We didn’t poach one another’s shots, and we all helped find downed birds. 

Step 3: Think Different

Opening day, lots of competition, skittish birds. You’ll have to make some longer shots to get your limit, right? And that means using a slightly tighter choke and maybe bigger pellets, right? Wrong. That’s what the other guys are thinking—and you need to do just the opposite. Use an open choke and small pellets, and wait for close shots. In a recent Texas study, experienced hunters whiffed a whopping 68 percent of shots at doves beyond 30 yards—and of the birds they did hit at that distance, as many were wounded as recovered. Do you want to spend your time shooting or searching? Besides, spooked doves often just fly faster (not higher), and more pellets from an open choke will help you hit those speedsters. 

Step 4: Look Ahead

Speaking of which, at times in public fields you secretly root for a dove to get past everyone else so you can drop it. But by the time the third or fourth hunter has emptied his gun, that bird is on alert and crossing full tilt. It’s one of the toughest shots you’ll encounter all year, especially if you’re a swing-through shooter, like most hunters. This is the perfect time to try sustained lead instead (see “Get Ahead,” June–July 2016, p. 36), which will help you get in front of the bird without rushing. Focus hard on your target, start the gun ahead of the dove, and train your eye on the bird’s head to keep your hands swinging at the right pace as you pull the trigger.

Step 5: Bust the Beak

Spinning-wing decoys are fairly common on the public fields where I hunt. For safety’s sake, everyone lines up on one side of the field, with their spinners out front and no one beyond. It is a fact that the more spinners in a field, the less effective each becomes, but a lone dove will sometimes decide that your decoy marks the eye of the storm and will pitch in, making for a deceptively difficult shot. A decoying dove floats down, making little dips along the way. You will miss if you try to track the dips or be too fine in your aim. Instead, keep the muzzle below the bird so you can see it, look at the beak, and shoot. If you don’t tend to handle that shot well, put your spinner to one side so it draws birds past you for short, easy crossing shots.

Step 6: Play It Cool

Doves will also frequently come straight at you, high overhead. This is a tricky shot under any circumstances, but on opening day, there will be any number of people watching—and rooting for you to miss (see Step 4). The natural temptation is to mount the gun early and track the bird. Don’t do that. The dove will see you, and you will start aiming. Instead, wait for the bird to get into range. Then mount the gun and swing the barrel through from behind it. Shoot as you blot the bird out with the barrel. Time it right, and the bird will land at your feet. With all of your opening-day competition watching, you get to take a bow.

GEAR TIP: A Flying Flock

Doves love spinning-wing decoys. So do teal, for that matter, and the new Mojo Flock a Flicker ($100) looks like the perfect decoy for both. The “flock” consists of half a dozen small spinners that turn on and off intermittently. Scattered throughout a duck spread or on the ground, they give the impression of a bunch of birds feeding, landing, and stretching their wings. —P.B.

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Hunter Activity and Harvest Report for 2013-14 and 2014-15 Seasons Released

The latest Migratory Bird Hunting Activity and Harvest Report has been released, reporting that over 13.7 million ducks were harvested in the United States in 2013, with a decrease to just less than 13.3 million ducks harvested in 2014. The number of harvested geese was nearly 3.4 million nationally in 2013, decreasing somewhat to just over 3.3 million geese in 2014.

In addition to downloading the full report, you can also generate custom harvest trends reports to quickly and easily view the information that is important to you. With these custom reports, you can view harvest trends for a specific species in a specific state; or you can view results for all ducks or all geese on a national level or within a selected flyway; or you can see the total of all ducks and geese at the national level. Results from these custom reports are presented in line graph format to easily illustrate harvest trends from 1961 through 2013. To view harvest activity reports for previous years, visit the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Management website.

Download Harvest Report

Run a Custom Harvest Trends Report

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