Getting Ready for Ducks

by Chris McCotter

Waterfowling. It is a pursuit that evokes images of traditions passed from generation to generation.
There are the fathers and sons sitting in duck blinds on sub-freezing January mornings with a husky retriever at the ready. The hunting buddies waiting with great anticipation in a wood duck swamp after a pre-dawn slog in. The great tidewater clubs drawing blinds and then heading out for an afternoon of hopeful watching and later heading back to the lodge for a vigorous session of tale-telling.

Waterfowling is more of a way of life than a seasonal hobby for most true enthusiasts. Of course you can buy a license and duck stamps and hunt, but this pastime is so much better with seasoned and helpful companions.

Waterfowlers come in all sorts here in Virginia. There are the crusty old salts of the coast with rust-scarred guns but uncanny knowledge of their duck marsh. Central Virginia has the tight-lipped swamp muckers that can drop a woodie flying at 50 mph. Don’t forget the brackish water gunners with camouflaged duck boats that can pick their way through a tidal flat before the eastern sky even hints of sunrise. And of course, there are the wide-eyed, green-winged youngsters when they see their first pair of mallards drop into a decoy set.

It all starts with early duck season in the Commonwealth. While this early October season is not known for large numbers of traditional puddle ducks like mallards, it does have a reputation for wood ducks – known as the most colorful and tastiest of Virginia species.

The freshwater swamps, beaver ponds and backs of certain tidal creeks offer good habitat for these woodland dwelling birds. A freshwater swamp with the alluring name of Mystic Marsh near Gloucester is favorite destination for waterfowlers.

In your travels you might have spied a wood duck house. These man-made structures offer woodies a place to nest and hatch eggs. In the past 10 years, wood duck populations have increased as a direct result of various waterfowl hunting organizations like Ducks Unlimited building and installing such structures.

The populations have increased enough that the daily limit of two birds was increased to three several years back.

Don’t get too fired up, though, because hitting just one of these 19-inch long birds is a major feat. I know, to date I’ve missed every one I’ve shot at. Ammunition companies love wood duck hunters.

Then comes the middle session of duck season in mid-November and early December when Virginia’s waterways begin to attract ducks migrating from up north where food is starting to get scarce.
Mallards, redheads, pintails and black ducks are the most common ducks taken now, with the Canada goose another potential possession after a day’s shooting. The eastern shore and Back Bay waterfowlers enjoy the middle season greatly.

The final portion of duck season comes when the weather is often the most trying. Hunting in December and January means finding the warmest pair of socks and boots you can and hoping you stay warm huddled in a stationary or boat blind.

Many waters freeze and those that stay open attract birds like ants to a picnic. Ducks and geese must keep moving to find food sources and you will see and hear more now than any other time of the year.
Last season waterfowlers are the toughest of the bunch. When others hang up the guns and head for the wood stove at the club, those that stay out in the marsh often return with limits and great stories.

In my never ending quest for hunting knowledge I asked two infinitely better ducks hunters than myself how they approach the duck seasons.

Tim Aiken was the owner/operator of Mystic Marsh Waterfowling near Gloucester. I’ve hunted with Aiken and his place and guiding is excellent.

Robert Bowe is an avid duck hunter that lives and hunts in, of all places, northern Virginia. The Potomac River is his stompin’ “ground”. Each man has hunted ducks over 20 years and their insight into what it takes to be successful in the early season is invaluable. Here’s what they had to say.

How does early season duck hunting differ from the later seasons?

Aiken: You are hunting primarily resident ducks in fewer numbers and concentrated in creeks, ponds, bays, etc. Examples being wood ducks, mallards, teal, geese, etc.   Personally, I would prefer VDGIF would add the four days of the early season to the end of the full duck season.  The weather is better and there’s more ducks.

Bowe: Early season ducks have not been “educated” yet as they are later in the season.  This is also true for the first year birds especially, as they decoy rather well.  If you lack cold weather clothing, then the early season is good, as you won’t need any additional clothing.  

How many decoys do you use for duck seasons?

Aiken: I use fewer decoys for the early season in smaller spreads of two to three groups separated with two to four decoys in each group. Again you’re hunting resident ducks in fewer numbers and the vegetation and cover is much thicker this time of year.

Bowe: It’s hard to put a number on it, but generally not more than a dozen or two.  Later in the season as the ducks get “educated” it usually takes more decoys to attract birds.

Do you call differently during each season?

Aiken: I’m not as aggressive calling in the early season. Most of the ducks are already concentrated to a home area. Light calling and small spreads seem to do the trick.

Bowe: If I do call, I keep it short, quick and low in volume, as the birds haven’t been exposed to much calling for the last six to eight months.  So, it doesn’t take much to get them in other than a few quacks if I do any calling at all.  

What’s the most important advice you can give the beginning duck hunter?

Aiken: If you’re new to duck hunting and want to try it out, I highly recommend booking a fully guided duck hunt. Guides will supply everything you need, give you a better opportunity to take ducks and you’ll learn pointers from a pro.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, every adventure is a learning experience.

Bowe: Use decoys, use camo, and use a call (little if at all). Most hunters don’t cover their face with either some type of camo paint or a face net.  Since you’re always looking up to see where they’re coming from, having your face camo’ed is very important as well as your hands. Keep all movements to a minimum as that will get you busted faster than anything else.  They see movement.  

An added benefit of being a fishing guide is that in my daily travels on Lake Anna, I tend to bump into ducks. There’s nothing like watching 50 ducks dump into the back of a creek and know that you’re probably the only one that knows the birds are there.

Will I actually have the time to get out for the early season is the question that remains. I’ll probably slip my kayak in one evening and see what’s flying.

Remember, Virginia’s duck seasons run in splits. For complete details on bag limits and seasons, visit

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