The finer points of waterfowl hunting were covered by wildlife officers who not only know the rules and regulations they're charged with enforcing, but have spent hours in duck blinds waiting for the perfect shot. Colorado Parks and Wildlife employees Mark Richman, Garett Watson and Kyle Banks conducted a seminar titled Waterfowl Hunting 101 last Saturday with the help of Adam Oberheu from the Delta chapter of Ducks Unlimited.
The setting was ideal — at the Escalante State Wildlife Area west of Delta, the experts demonstrated setting up decoys in a field, in a still water setting (a pond) and on the Gunnison River — all within walking distance of the parks shop where the seminar opened with a lesson in bird identification.
Knowing what you've shot is important because of daily bag limits that restrict hunters to seven birds. Of these, no more than two can be female mallards, two pintails, two canvasback, two redheads and three scaup. A young man in attendance with his dad and two brothers correctly explained the difference between a bag limit and a possession limit (three daily bag limits).
"So when duck hunting is good you'd better be eating," said Kyle Banks, the wildlife officer in the Hotchkiss area.
Richman pointed out the coloring on a bird's head, bill, wings and feet that differentiates mallards from redheads, American wigeons from gadwalls. There's love in the air this time of year, so birds are in full plumage. They court for a couple of months before breeding, Richman explained.
A discussion of shotguns, chokes and ammo ended in a demonstration that showed how distance creates a fuller shot pattern, reducing a hunter'schance of success. Optimum shot placement occurs when the bird is 20 to 35 yards out.
The class — comprised of a mix of men, women and youth, most of whom have never hunted waterfowl — then moved outside to a field where decoys and blinds had been placed earlier in the morning. But to everyone's dismay, class instructors found much of the gear — hundreds of dollars worth of personal equipment — had been stolen. A lesson in sportsmen's ethics (or lack of) could not have been presented more dramatically.
"As hunters, this reflects on all of us," said Watson. Gone were decoys, a dog blind and a pop-up goose blind. But there was a lead — some men were spotted running to their truck that morning. They pulled out of the parkingarea so quickly their dog fell out the back end. The pickup's occupants jumped out, threw the dog back in the bed of the pickup, and sped away — but not before a witness saw a company name on the pickup door. "Hopefully we can track them down," Banks said.
"We'll do the best to show you the field set with what we've got left here," he said, pointing out the remaining decoys, which had been arranged in the shape of a J, leaving a pocket or "kill zone" in the center.
"Don't clutter up the middle of it — ducks and geese don't like to land in tight pockets," the wildlife officers instructed.
The setup would be spread across a broader area in a cornfield, which is prime hunting territory for geese. "What's great in this valley is we've got a lot of grain crop, especially corn," Watson said. "You'll notice that when farmers start cutting their corn, the geese really start to hit the fields. That's what we're trying to illustrate here.
"That brings up the importance of scouting," he continued. "People think you just scout for deer and elk, but it's just as good to scout for waterfowl."
Once you've identified a greathunting area, the key is getting an early start. "One of the biggest things people mess up is sleeping too long," Watson said. "It can take a while to get the field set up. It needs to be set up no less than 15 minutes before it's getting light, so you can be settled in your blind, waiting quietly for shooting light."
The setup should look as natural as possible, the instructors emphasized. "If it doesn't look 'birdy' to you, it won't fool the geese, especially at the end of the season when they've been hunted 30 to 45 days," Watson said. "Geese have great eyesight, and by January they're really intelligent.
"The best shot you'll have is when they make their final approach. They'll start to flutter their wings and almost pause in mid air."
The alternative, he said, is "skybusting" as the birds are floating overhead. "They'll turn and the chances of them circling again is next to none. They'll leave and go to another field."
The use of calls and motion to attract the birds was covered before the group trouped through new-fallen snow to a still water setup.
Pointing to the overcast sky, Watson said, "Cloudy days like today are actually ideal for hunting waterfowl. When it's hot and sunny out the flight patterns are a lot shorter in duration. On a cloudy or snowy day you could be shooting birds into mid-morning.
In the Pacific Flyway west of the Continental Divide, waterfowl hunting is broken into two seasons, with the second taking place this year from Nov. 2 to Jan. 26. Winter mornings are likely to be cold, especially if you're sitting motionless in a blind. "Plan for cold weather," Watson said. "If you're cold and miserable, you're going to want to pack up and go home. You want to stay dry and you want to stay warm."
At the pond, Watson pointed out how different types of duck decoys were used to create a natural-looking setting. "We've got teals mixed in with mallards, you could have gadwalls — it's typical in a pond to have six or seven different species of ducks all landing in the same spot." A little motion, some "chatter" from the water (created by a call) will convince ducks they want to land in the middle of your decoy set.
"A lot of times you'll want to hunt ducks on the water in the morning and in the field at night, because ducks tend to go from the water to the field at nighttime to feed," Watson shared.
Kyle Banks showed how dogs can be used for hunting birds in the water, as well as in fields. His two dogs live outside year-round so they've got thick winter coats. On hunting expeditions they wear neoprene vests that keep them warm and provide some buoyance in the water. "In the water, a wounded duck will dive when they see a dog coming. You don't want your dog diving under ice and getting trapped."
Camouflage clothing, blinds and decoys — there can be a hefty price tag to waterfowl hunting but if you're new to the sport, consider jump shooting.
"Jump shooting ducks is one of the first things you do when you're getting into duck hunting," Watson said. "You sneak up on a pond, the ducks take flight and you're shooting them as they come up off the water."
This approach works on creeks, canals, ponds, ditches and even low-flowing rivers where you can wade out or have a dog to retrieve your bird.
Once you do get into decoys, you can create a river setup with just a couple of pairs of ducks.
"Don't overlook small water," Oberheu agreed. "There's an abundance of ditches between Montrose and Grand Junction, and they're fantastic places to get ducks. I've never had a farmer tell me no, you can't walk my ditch. Walk up to the edge, take a look and back out. Don't let yourself be exposed the length of the ditch. You can use a fishing net to haul the ducks out. You don't have to spend money on camo — drab colors like green or grey will work. We're not fancy duck hunters."
He encouraged the novice hunters to check out the Ducks Unlimited website, where there's a wealth of resources for people looking for hunting techniques, setups for fields, ponds and rivers, recipes, dog training tips and calling videos.
Ducks Unlimited is a non-profit organization dedicated to conserving wetland habitat for waterfowl and other wildlife. While DU has spearheaded four conservation projects in Delta County, a major focus is the "prairie potholes" in the northern Great Plains, where 90 percent of ducks breed.
DU also conducts surveys to track population trends. Overall, Oberheu said, DU has seen an 8% increase in duck numbers. A growing number of ducks means increased opportunity for everybody, he said.
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