I spend a lot of time hunting. Most years, In fact I hunt more days than I don’t. But duck hunting has a special place in my heart. My sponsor says the first step is admitting I have a problem. So here goes: duck hunting is my crack cocaine. I will embarrass my family, ruin jobs, and spend all my money for a chance to tag a Teal or Wallop a Widgeon.
But I’m hardly alone in my addiction. People tend to get pretty passionate about duck hunting, in a way that few hunters will for deer or doves. The addiction will drive people to extremes. I recently hunted with a county prosecutor who admitted to taking a plea deal on a case solely so he could be done with the case and get out of town in time for a hunt before dusk. When you’re willing to cut a criminal a break because that spot always limits out on Wood Ducks and Redheads, you’ve got a problem. And murdering ducks is the solution.
The first reason to hunt ducks is simple; they’re tasty. As with all things, this is a matter of opinion. For me though, smoked duck cut into medallions and served with goat cheese is a treat I would fight a bear for. Shredded duck from confit is an incredible treat with almost any meal. Simple and delicious, rare Teal breast wrapped in bacon is an appetizer that takes only a couple of minutes and leaves everyone wanting more.
There are a few tricks to cooking wild duck. The first is that when it comes to heat, less is more. That same delicious, mouth watering duck can turn to inedible rubber when cooked even to medium. The second is that brining is big plus. With the exception of Mergansers, there’s no duck that can’t be turned into delicious meat with the right amount of salt, dextrose, herbs and some time.
Another reason: duck hunting is wildly varied. I got hooked by pond-jumping ducks, a method generally considered low-class by many duck hunters. But it’s a lot of fun. Best coordinated with a partner, you slowly walk up to a pond with ducks on it, hopefully sneaking close enough to get a shot or two off when they spook off the water. I’ve hunted many locations like this, including one where the ducks were so skittish that I hunted with a turkey choke and BB’s, because I knew that my shots were going to be at least 60 yards.
So duck hunting can be a spot and stalk adventure, as long as you’re OK striking out a lot, getting one or two birds per outing. You can also hide out in blinds over decoys on land, calling in hundreds of Mallards in what’s known as a “Ducknado.” You can even get your feet wet, out on blinds in boats just off shore — fresh water or salt — hitting waterfowl as they come in to land on the water alongside you. All of these hunts require different tactics, different calls, different camouflage, different shot choices and chokes.
Then there are the calls. Much like turkey calling, it’s a special kind of experience to have a conversation with the ducks. And the truly great callers do exactly that. It’s not just an attention grabber, but a coxing of the ducks to change their plans and get them to come on down for a bite.
I’ve been pretty good at using a feeding Mallard call to get ducks from one part of the water to swim on over to my part of the water, but this last weekend was the first time I could ever positively say I was able to turn flying ducks around and talk them down. That was a great experience, and for me it was more fun than the actual shooting. As an added bonus, you can embarrass and psychologically damage your children by only speaking to them through a call when you pick them up from school.
Ducks have personality. Even dead ducks. I have a few mounts on the wall, including some impressive rams. Then there’s that full live-mounted alligator. But my favorite mount by far is my first duck, a Hooded Merganser drake. Even people who hate “dead art” love that guy. This year I’ve taken to calling him “The Donald Duck,” for obvious reasons. You can have ducks mounted seated, swimming, flying, feeding, any number of poses to bring out the behavior, and beauty of the animal. The colors and patterns of their feathers never cease to amaze.
If you get really serious, or hire a great guide, you’ll be able to retrieve with dogs. Once that happens, the hunt is as much about he dogs as it is the ducks, and it forms a great working relationship between you and the animal. People get really serious — as in a nice car price serious — about their dogs, and for good reason. A good retriever will sit still and quiet even as the birds are fanning in…then absolutely explode with joy and purpose the second you release it to bring in those ducks. Using voice and whistle commands, they can be trained to go in whatever direction you tell them with military precision. If you hunt over water, you’ll need either a dog or a boat. And the dog is a lot easier on you.
Finally, duck hunting is a fun activity you do with other people. It’s true, some locations, and some ducks, require absolute stealth, quiet, and stillness. But a whole lot of places allow you to be a lot more social. I do a hunt every year down in Eagle Lake where four people will be in one blind, smoking cigars, playing with the dogs, and generally giving each other hell. We all limit out every year and we have a great time.
This hunt is part of a club, which I would highly recommend joining. Unless you are truly of spectacular means, it’s unlikely — at least in Texas — that you’ll own multiple bodies of water as well as have the time to scout them throughout the year. Clubs provide a way to pool resources to build facilities, lease multiple locations for different parts of the season, as well as to hire scouts to check those locations out prior to and throughout the season. Plus, the comradery is just great, and you can learn a lot from each other while having access to land, equipment, and knowledge you wouldn’t on your own. If you want to hunt more than a couple of times a year, joining a good hunting club is the way to go.
There’s not much time left in this season. Go pond-jump, or call a guide, or friends and have at it. Expect to strike out the first few times, but expect to have a lot of fun anyway. Duck hunting is my addiction…but I can quit anytime I want.