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Lessons from a Beginner Waterfowler

Anytime you take up a new hobby, there is always a lot to learn. 2017 was my first official waterfowl season and was also my first hunting season after moving to Idaho, and I definitely tried to soak it all in and learn everything I could.

Well, I actually learned a lot. I can shoot skeet pretty good, and going into season, I thought that waterfowl hunting was basically wearing full camo, sitting near water, hiding in the grass and shooting birds instead of clays. I guess it’s still pretty much just like that, but there is so much more to it: finding birds, understanding decoys, calling, shooting at the right time, and on and on!

2017 duck season opener

Below are just some of the things I’ve learned so far:

1) If you buy a new shotgun, pattern it before going hunting.

I bought a new Browning A5 shotgun and got it August 30; early Canadian goose season started September 1. I had one day to target shoot before season started, and couldn’t get to the range. On the first day, there were tons of geese flying and I couldn’t hit anything! That afternoon, I stopped at the range and found that it was patterning high and to the left.

2) Try different shells to see what works best in your gun.

When I patterned my shotgun, I was using Winchester 3-1/2” BB shells. On a recommendation of a die-hard waterfowler, I tried the Winchester Blindside shells and they hit perfectly centered. In fact, there were 180 pellets in a 30” circle. I switched shells, started knocking down birds, and bought 2 cases of Blind Sides.

3) Hunting while wearing a cast is difficult.

Two weeks prior to duck season, I tripped in the woods and fractured my wrist, resulting in a cast from my elbow to my fingers. I couldn’t actually hold my gun, so if I wanted to hunt, I had to rest it on my cast. The light weight of the A5 was helpful for this. A couple of times, I was able to turn my arm and hold on to the gun, and realized that didn’t feel very good on my wrist.

4) Practice shooting from your layout blind prior to season.

My layout blind was brand new, and pretty stiff…and I had never hunted laying down. I practiced in the backyard, popping up out of it with my gun (unloaded, of course!) and aiming in different directions; this was also helpful in determining how to hunt in a cast. I figured out how I needed to have the flaps positioned to open the easiest and how I needed to be situated not only for successful shooting, but for comfort during the hunt.

Hunting from a layout blind

5) Just because ducks are everywhere in the summer, doesn’t mean they’ll be there in the fall.

During summer scouting, it seemed like hunting season would be a piece of cake. Ducks and geese everywhere! It seemed like every pond, lake, stream and river had birds swimming in it. Opening day came, and they seemed to disappear. On day 3 of early goose season, we floated the river that runs through our area and we found the geese. Literally hundreds of geese on the banks, but getting them was a whole different story. I’m considering painting geese on the side of our canoe and wearing a goose shell as a hat.

Geese on Bear River

6) When the water is extremely clear, you need to rethink your decoy lines and clips.

In Idaho, the water is very clear, and because of that, dark colored lines and shiny clips are easily spotted by ducks flying over. On the first day of season, we had ducks start to come in multiple times, but then they did a 180 and left. We finally figured out they could see the clips below water shining. Went home and painted them with matte green paint.

7) Ducks fly faster than you think.

Even if you’re good at shooting skeet, they are no comparison to actual ducks. When a flock of teals fly over, it sounds like a little pack of fighter jets—their wings just whistle as they go over. When ducks are flying, you have to aim well ahead of them to knock them down. Best shots: coming straight in toward you.

8) Ducks, especially mallards, are easily spooked.

I’m not sure if ducks are actually easily spooked, or if they recognized our truck. But it seemed like every time we were scouting and approached water with birds on it, they would immediately fly off—even if other vehicles had just been there. I think we need to repaint our truck the color of sagebrush so it’s camouflaged.

9) Using a duck or goose call isn’t as easy as it looks on TV.

As with most things, what you see on TV isn’t what it’s like in real life. I purchased a goose call along with the Molten Gear “Bad Grammar” DVD to try to learn how to call. It’s extremely hard to even get a halfway decent sound if you aren’t used to using a call. (And how do you even pick a call? There are so many options!) Note to self: start practicing now for next season, make it a habit of practicing 15-20 minutes per day.

10) There are a lot of different ducks—and many of them look similar!

Having something in the field to help identify ducks, such as the Ducks Unlimited app, is extremely helpful. It includes detailed information, photos and videos of a variety of ducks that you can easily pull up during the hunt to confirm what you see or shoot. Another good option is “text a friend”! During our hunts, we would text pictures of the birds to our die-hard waterfowler friend and he would confirm what it was.

Variety of ducks

11) Heated insoles only work when you turn them on.

On a cool 4 degree January morning, I decided to try out my new heated insoles that Santa brought. Got them in my waders, got to my spot and all set up (sitting on a tripod seat on ice, tucked in high grass), took out the remote control…and realized I forgot to turn them on. Nice.

12) Putting on waders is difficult.

And more difficult in the field when you have to take them off and put them back on. Waders are much heavier than I ever expected them to be. And putting them on is quite the chore. My first time putting them on was in the house to try them on. My second time: 6am and 4 degrees. I folded them down, put each foot in, then tried rolling them up my body. Broke every fingernail in the process, but I got them on. Finally. Then after I realized my heated insoles weren’t “on”, I had to take the waders off in the field. Rolled them down, left leg out, remove insole, turned insole on, insert insole, left leg in (repeat on right side). All while trying to balance on one leg and not step on the ice and get my socks wet. And be still enough not to be seen.

To say I learned a lot during the 2017 season is an understatement. And while all of this sounds a little on the frustrating side (and was at the time), it’s all part of learning something new. I never got a daily limit of ducks or geese, but I ended up with 20 birds for the season—including 2 Canadian geese and 10 different types of ducks. To some, that's a days work. But to me, that was a successful season. It wasn’t about the number of birds, but the knowledge and experience that I gained. And I know that going into the 2018 season, although I learned a lot in 2017, there is still so much to learn.

Sarah Honadel is an avid outdoorswoman from Kentucky, now living in Idaho, who enjoys hunting turkey, deer and elk. She is a Team Member at Huntress View and Brand Champion for ReelCamo Girl, two organizations that work to support, encourage and empower women in the outdoors. Follow her on Instagram @waddysarah and @arrowridgecreations.

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