For most waterfowl hunters, finding a place to hunt is often more challenging than the hunt itself. These days, unless you have deep pockets for a private hunting lease or duck-club membership, the cost of entry can leave the average duck hunter out in the cold.
Thankfully, Colorado offers a variety of opportunities to hunt waterfowl on public land.
Whether you’re a beginner who is planning your first hunt or a more experienced waterfowler who has been away from the duck blind for a while, these tips and strategies will help you have a more enjoyable and successful season.
1. Locating a Location
Location, location, location. It’s every real estate agent’s catch phrase for house hunters. And for duck hunters, finding a good hunting location is even more important.
Fortunately, many of Colorado’s state wildlife areas, state parks, state-trust lands and WIA properties offer good waterfowl hunting. In fact, some of these areas provide top notch shooting that rivals the best private duck-clubs. Not all locations are created equal, however, so it’s important to put in some time scouting to determine which areas hold birds and which are busts.
To avoid driving too much traffic to any specific location, I’m simply going to provide a few resources and some basic information so you can find your own hunting spot. After all, scouting should be an important part of every hunt, whether you’re chasing elk or hunting waterfowl.
In general, lakes, reservoirs and warm-water sloughs within the Central Flyway are always good bets. If you are unfamiliar with waterfowl flyways, the Central Flyway is the primary migration route or aerial “highway” for ducks and geese as they fly south and into Colorado. It includes all areas east of the Continental Divide, but primarily consists of the Front Range and Eastern Plains. Additionally, state parks, state wildlife areas and WIA areas located along the South Platte and Arkansas river corridors always attract excellent numbers of ducks. These riparian areas are especially productive late season after reservoirs and gravel pits have iced over and ducks are forced to search out open water along rivers.
Although Colorado’s Front Range and Eastern Plains tend to attract the greatest numbers of migratory birds, don’t overlook the mountain/foothills zones, San Luis Valley, North Park and the Western Slope (Pacific Flyway). Home to good populations of native ducks and geese, these areas offer good hunting for homegrown birds, especially during the early seasons. Best of all, these areas typically have fewer hunters.
Keep in mind that Colorado’s waterfowl habitat is extremely diverse. CPW Waterfowl Biologist Jim Gammonley says this is another reason why scouting is so important. “Colorado offers shallow wetlands and playas, large marshes and reservoirs, rivers and sloughs and agricultural fields—all of which can support ducks,” said Gammonley. “Depending on your preferred hunting methods and equipment, hunters have a number of different options when selecting a hunting location.”
To manage hunting pressure, some of Colorado’s public lands require advanced reservations or are set up on a first-come, first-served basis with check stations. Regulations vary, so it’s important to do some research before heading into the field.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife’s website offers a variety of resources to help waterfowl hunters find a hunting spot or to make a reservation. CPW’s Colorado State Recreation Lands brochure is also a great resource for waterfowl hunters. The brochure features a detailed, statewide summary of Colorado’s public-land hunting opportunities. Additionally, CPW’s interactive State Wildlife Area Map and Google Earth Maps are excellent virtual-scouting tools for duck hunters.
2. Fowl Weather
Once you’ve selected a location, it’s important to plan your hunt around the weather. Weather, more than any other variable, impacts hunting success. In general, the colder and nastier the conditions the better the duck hunting. Ducks are more active in cold weather, and the low visibility during storms makes them more receptive to decoys and calling. Because the vast majority of ducks that winter in Colorado are migrant birds from north central United States and southern Canada, it’s important to keep an eye on local and regional weather reports when planning your hunt. “The key variable is cold weather to the north,” said Gammonley. “Hunters need to watch for cold fronts to push birds south from southern Canada, the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming and plan their hunting trips accordingly. If you see snow and cold-weather systems north of here, plan to be in your blind as soon as possible.”
3. Dress for Success
Some of the coldest mornings I’ve spent in the outdoors have been while sitting in a duck/goose blind. Unlike upland hunting where you’re walking through fields and generating body heat, waterfowl hunting requires you to remain stationary for long hours, making it extremely difficult to stay warm. Therefore, it’s critical to dress in layers and be prepared with the appropriate, cold-weather attire.
A pair of heavy-duty, insulated chest waders is a must-have item for any waterfowl hunter. Not only will waders keep you dry while you’re setting out decoys, but the thick, insulated material (neoprene or rubber) will keep you comfortable even on the coldest days. Throw on some long underwear and fleece pants underneath the waders and you’re ready for anything Mother Nature throws at you. In addition, the attached boots in waterfowl waders are typically oversized, allowing you to wear thick socks for added warmth.
Finish off this weather-proof ensemble with a brown or camo-colored jacket/parka. The best waterfowl jackets use a two-coat system, combining an insulated layer with a protective outer shell. You can unzip the jacket and remove either layer depending on the temperature and weather conditions.
Waterfowl hunting is also the perfect activity to try out some of the new battery-powered hunting clothes. A variety of manufactures now offer electric vests, gloves, socks and jackets for duck hunters. Don’t worry, today’s electric garments have come a long way since those bulky, battery-operated socks first appeared on ski slopes decades ago, and most of the new designs are quite comfortable.
Finally, if you’re hunting in a blind with an open top, it’s imperative that you cover your hands with gloves and shield your face with a face mask or camo face-paint. Ducks have excellent vision, and their aerial vantage point gives them a perfect, bird’s-eye view of a hunter’s upturned face or hand movements. Gloves with break-away fingers provide better dexterity for shooting and reloading. A second pair of waterproof decoy-gloves will keep your hands warm and dry when setting up or retrieving decoys in icy water.
4. Using ‘Fowl’ Language
Last season, District Wildlife Manager Brian Marsh and I hunted ducks on a state wildlife area in northeast Colorado. As his last name suggests, Marsh is right at home in a duck blind and is an accomplished waterfowl hunter. Thanks to Marsh’s fine-tuned calling skills, we had a limit of mallards by noon. Marsh carries a variety of different duck calls with him in the field, but he says novices should keep it simple when buying their first call. “For a beginner, I would suggest a double-reed call,” said Marsh. “The double-reed calls are easier to blow and sound good.” Marsh encourages beginners to perfect a single “quack” first, as other calls are simply variations of this primary sound. Check out YouTube or Ducks Unlimited for a variety of calling tutorials. Keep in mind, however, that less is more when it comes to duck-speak. Calling too frequently, particularly when you’re just learning, can push birds in the opposite direction. In fact, sometimes it’s best to remain completely silent if ducks have already committed to your decoys.
Decoys are a must-have item to bring ducks within shotgun range of the blind. A dozen mallards (a mix of hens and drakes) is a good place to start and are usually enough decoys for hunting smaller sloughs, marshes or rivers. For large lakes, reservoirs or agricultural fields, usually several dozen decoys are required to get ducks to commit to your location. For the best results, mix a few “feeders” and “sleepers” with your regular floating decoys. If your budget allows, try adding a few different species like pintail or bufflehead. The bright white on a bufflehead or pintail decoy makes your spread much more visible. Additionally, scattering a few goose decoys among your mallards can be just the ticket to give ducks the confidence they need to land. Shell and full-body decoys work best when hunting fields. Finally, make sure that your decoy spread looks natural. There are a variety of online resources to help you with decoy rigging, presentation and placement.
6. Shotguns and Shells
Ask any serious waterfowl hunter why they shoot 3.5-inch shotgun shells and they’ll tell you that it’s because they don’t make 4-inch shells. In recent years, the arms race among waterfowlers has reached epic proportions, with hunters buying the biggest and most powerful shotguns on the market. Although more powerful guns do have their advantages (particularly for hunting geese), a standard 12-gauge shotgun that shoots 2 ¾-inch or 3-inch magnum loads will work just fine for ducks. I’ve hunted waterfowl for years with my Browning Citori and have bagged plenty of birds shooting standard shells. If you have one of the new super-magnum waterfowl shotguns with a 3.5-inch chamber, more power to you (literally). Keep in mind, however, that the 3.5-inch shells also come with a price of heavier recoil — something beginners may not appreciate. Size #2 or #4 shot is adequate for ducks in most situations. Remember that nontoxic shot (steel, tungsten or HEVI-shot) is mandatory for waterfowl hunting. See the Colorado Small Game & Waterfowl brochure for further information on shot size and shell selection.
7. Blind Faith
When hunting waterfowl, a blind is essential to stay hidden from the sharp, well-trained eyes of ducks and geese. Although permanent blinds and pit-blinds typically offer the best cover and concealment, they are usually not an option when hunting public land. The good news is that there are a variety of portable, light-weight hunting blinds and layout blinds available to hunters. With every passing season, these coffin-shaped contraptions continue to evolve in comfort and design. A trip to the local sporting goods store will yield a variety of options and price ranges. For a DIY duck blind on the cheap, check out this Colorado Outdoors “Quick Tip” video. The video features a simple but effective duck blind that works well for most applications. Best of all, it costs less than $40.
8. Hunting Etiquette
Let’s face it: Anyone who has spent even one season hunting public land has had at least one bad experience. By far, the most common complaint/problem on public land is people who shoot at birds that are beyond shotgun range. This egregious behavior is known as “sky busting,” and it turns everyone’s hunt into a total bust. Shotguns have an effective range of around 30 to 40 yards, which is why duck hunters use calls and decoys to bring birds in close. Unfortunately, when people sky bust, it makes it impossible for legitimate hunters to call and work ducks toward the blind. Moreover, sky busting is unethical because it leads to wounded ducks and geese. In the field, a range finder is an excellent tool for waterfowl hunters to measure shooting distance. As a visual reference, simply place a decoy 40 yards from the blind and don’t shoot at any birds that are beyond that distance. Remember, when hunting public land a little common courtesy goes a long way to ensure that everyone has a safe and enjoyable hunt.
Written by Jerry Neal. Neal is a public information specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife and is the editor for Colorado Outdoors Online.