Duck Hunting: The Beginner's Guide to Get Started
Duck hunting was a natural transition for me. I grew up with access to family land that allowed me to hunt and process whitetail deer every year. Once I moved out, I moved away for work and no longer had land access so close - so I started looking for options available to the general public.
Fishing is done on public "land", so naturally my spring and summers were spent fishing on the gulf coast. A friend of mine first took me duck hunting near one of my favorite fishing holes in Rockport, Texas and we limited out within an hour. I was hooked.
The waterfowl addiction ignited like gas on a flame, but my ability to fuel the fire with spending on gear started slow. I eventually worked my way up to buying a duck boat, but I could have done things differently and my journey may have been easier.
I'll share the in's and out's that I learned in getting started duck hunting to help the next beginner duck hunter in line.
The Bare Necessities
There are 4 bare necessities to getting started duck hunting: shotgun (& ammo); warm, comfortable and camouflaged clothing; decoys; and transportation.
1. Waterfowl Shotgun and Ammo
In my experience, you want to avoid the fancy and expensive shotguns. Go straight for a trusty pump-action, and keep it well oiled after every use. I spend most of my time on saltwater and it will cover a gun in surface rust the next day if you don't keep it oiled well.
Semi-automatic shotguns are nice as well, but they are much more expensive. If you're a beginner and hunting in saltwater I would stay away from the more expensive semi-autos. If you are hunting in freshwater, then it might be worth entertaining the thought. The photo below is a semi-auto by Stoeger Industries, one of the more popular waterfowl shotguns.
In terms of shotgun size, 12 gauge is ideal and loads of this size are readily available at most ammo stores. Anything smaller you have to make up for in patience and camouflage to let the ducks come closer into your target zone.
As far as ammo goes, make sure you choose a non-tox plated steel load. Most boxes specify waterfowl shot indicating the BBs feature this type of load.
3 inch, 1-1/8 oz is a standard waterfowl shotgun shell size that boasts 1,550 feet per second for a 12 gauge shotgun. Anything smaller (2-3/4 or less) will struggle more taking a duck down and anything more (3-1/2 inch or more) is going to kick your shoulder pretty hard if you're planning on getting a limit of ducks. The choice is yours, but I find 3 inch shells to be a good balance.
2. Warm, Comfortable and Camouflaged Clothing
Duck hunting is a waiting game done in the coldest hours of the day during the winter. The top priority here is good camouflage so you aren't spotted, but staying warm and comfortable is a close second if you plan on enjoying it.
Regardless of price, waders with boots attached and several layers of clothing underneath are an absolute must-have. If you spend the money on quality waders up front, you might save yourself from a few less patches down the road. Keep in mind - even the high end waders might need patches over time.
Wear Points, Patches, and Leaks
There are two main weak spots on waders which are most prone to leaking: the crotch and where the boot attaches to the pants leg. These two points typically have a lot of reinforced stitching to minimize the chance of a leak, but be prepared to learn how to patch your waders if you're going to keep them for the long haul. Some waders will even come with extra patches in the event you poke a hole in them or have a leaky stitch.
The joint where the boot attaches to the wader has a lot of reinforced stitching, which can chafe and rub your leg raw. Due to this, I would wear long, knee-high socks and/or sweatpants to prevent chaffing.
Stick with dry waders, don't entertain wet waders. Even if they claim to be for winter or cold water - trust me, it's more enjoyable to have several layers of dry clothes on underneath.
As I've already alluded to, your outer layer should be a camouflage pattern and your inner layer should be well insulated clothing. I personally wear thick wool socks and a couple layers of pants, shirts, and jackets to stay warm.
3. Duck Decoys
Decoys are a touchy subject. You can spend every last dollar you have on an enormous flock of decoys and still feel like you don't have enough. Truthfully, I feel you can get away with anywhere between 12 and 36 decoys and have great success duck hunting. If you're on a budget, 12 is honestly fine.
Attracting the ducks is important, but it's equally important to give them a place to land. Remember, they travel as a flock and also land as a flock. If you go with 12 decoys for your beginner setup - I would recommend splitting your flock 6 to the left of you and 6 to the right of you. You want to give the incoming ducks a place to land, preferably right in the middle of these two flock and directly in-front of you.
Here's an illustration to give you a general idea of how to spread your decoys.
As you duck hunt more, you will find yourself hunting some areas that have highly pressured ducks and others that have lightly pressured ducks. This primarily depends on accessibility, but you can adjust your spread accordingly to prevent a wary duck from going astray from your decoy formation. Here's a deep dive into The Best Decoy Spreads to Land More Ducks.
Second Hand Decoys
You can save money buying decoys second hand but just be conscientious to make sure the duck decoys aren't super faded, have chipped paint, cracks, or have messed up foam or uneven bottoms so they don't sit properly in the water. These things can all look very unnatural and be more hindering to a waterfowl hunt than inviting. The more realistic your decoy looks, the better the opportunity you have to bring ducks in close for a shot.
Decoys ultimately have one goal: to get attention and convince ducks to come to you. It's important to understand how ducks socialize, and which types of ducks are more inviting.
As a beginner starting out, not knowing where exactly you are going to be duck hunting, I would stick with an even mix of mallard drakes and hens. These are the most universally used decoys for all of duck hunting.
- Most abundant, social, and "universal" for duck hunting
- Drake's are males; have iridescent green heads that help them stick out on the horizon.
- Hen's are females; have brown bodies that tend to blend in with the flock.
- A natural flock of mallards will have more hens than drakes; roughly 1 drake to 4 hens. However, most decoy sets include more drakes than hens because they are more eye catching and full of color.
- If you're going to buy ~12 decoys to start out, I would start with a mix of mallard drakes and hens.
Decoy Selection Based on Area
If you want to get "a little deeper into the reeds" and be more advanced with your setup, you should focus on what species inhibit the area you will be duck hunting.
- Green-winged teal
- Wood duck
Marshes, Rice Fields and Ponds
- Focus on Diving Duck Species: canvasback, bluebill, redhead, goldeneye or bufflehead ducks.
- Canvasback drake's have an eye catching white body to pull ducks in from a distance.
- Bluebill and redhead decoys are great for filling the remainder of the spread.
- Mallards can be mixed in as well.
As you can tell, mallards can be used in every situation and are typically the most abundant. You can mix in the other species mentioned above depending on what type of terrain you are going to be hunting the most.
- Great at getting attention, simulate ducks landing.
- Not a bad idea for the beginner duck hunter, but definitely not a must-have.
- Higher maintenance since they are battery operated.
All in all, motorized decoys aren't an entirely bad idea but if you're just getting started I wouldn't be too worried about jumping into them.
My method of transportation started with a 14 ft Jon boat that had a way-to-big 90 hp motor strapped to the back of it. The inside and out of the boat, and motor cowling, were rattle canned with camouflage spray paint as if I was turning my boat into a giant piece of brush. The lights on the front of my duck boat shined bright, flooding the nearby terrain and reaching out over 1,000 yards.
Truth be told, you can get away with much less (or way more, if you can afford it).
One of my good friends started with a kayak he spray painted camouflage and then dressed up with some grass and reeds for even more camouflage. He was able to paddle and get his limit of ducks just like I could. He hitched his ducks onto the back of his kayak and dragged them to his spot.
If you do opt to get a boat for your duck hunts, I strongly suggest you consider quality navigational lights for illuminating the path ahead. One stray piece of unnoticed flooded timber can make or break a duck hunting trip.
Lights such as the DURANAV® Duck Boat Light broadcast a long range spot beam combined with a near-sided flood for seeing far ahead but also what is next to you in slim passage ways.