The Wood Duck’s Return, Part 1
Bob McNally 11.14.16
Yesterday’s nearly extinct wood duck is among today’s most abundant, best-managed waterfowl species. The small, colorful woody is found in places now where just 50 years ago it was nonexistent. Thanks to years of closed-harvest seasons, wood duck nest-box building projects, and better preservation of bottomland hardwoods, wood ducks are thriving from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and along both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.
Conservation groups like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Wildlife also have made great strives in preserving waterfowl habitat, which has significantly improved wood duck numbers.
The birds successfully nest almost everywhere there are wooded wetlands. In parts of the South they’re one of only a few native nesting waterfowl species. Many states have large resident populations of wood ducks and receive healthy numbers of migrant birds during hunting seasons. In Minnesota, for example, woodies are the third most common duck harvested, behind mallards and teal. And like teal, wood ducks migrate early in the season, regardless of the weather.
While wood ducks have webbed feet and bills, they’re very different from mallards, pintails, and gadwalls. Woodies don’t quack, they whistle. They nest in trees, not marsh grass, and favor acorns over sedge and grass. They don’t fly, flock, decoy, or migrate like other waterfowl, either. For these reasons, sportsmen trying to bag wood ducks are wise to follow specific tactics in locating and hunting these swift-flying “squealers.”
“Pre-hunt scouting is important for consistently getting wood ducks, especially early-migrating birds,” explains Eddie Stevenson, former press relations manager for Remington and a North Carolina native. “A float trip on a wooded river is a good way to scout because you can cover so much water.
“It’s easy to combine a float-fishing trip with wood duck scouting. The same rivers that provide quality waterfowl habitat usually hold their fair share of fish. Bass and panfish are abundant on most rivers in the late summer, and wood ducks are commonly seen. I take careful note of where I flush woodies during a float. Sometimes there will be a feeder creek or slough off a main river, and that’s a good place to check for ducks.”
Stevenson will occasionally locate remote beaver ponds during river floats, and these are among his favorite wood-duck hunting locations. A beaver pond on a feeder creek off a river can be a choice wood duck haven. Ducks roost and feed in the pond and fly along a river edge as they trade at dawn and dusk.
“Building a blind in a beaver slough and tossing out a dozen decoys is a good way to get wood ducks in a place you’ve scouted,” he adds. “Sometimes, though, pass-shooting birds as they fly over a pond is the best chance you’ll get. Wood ducks will be very cautious when they have to fly over open water. It doesn’t help that they are one of the fastest-flying duck species. But if you can stand within shotgun range of a riverbank, you could be in a great spot.
“Woodies love to fly along a river timberline, and if you also hunt near a beaver pond tributary, you can get shots at birds using both waterways,” says Stevenson.
Wood ducks are often found in pairs and in small, tight flocks. They fly low and fast, buzzing decoy spreads. Frequently they rocket into range and are gone before the average hunter can react. For this reason, light, fast-handling shotguns with improved-cylinder chokes work best. Stevenson favors 2 3/4-inch loads of No. 6 shot. Others prefer No. 4 shot. While wood ducks have a reputation for not decoying particularly well, veteran waterfowlers say it’s still worthwhile to use life-size wood-duck dekes when targeting the species, but they caution against using more than a dozen.