The first Saturday that Virginia’s duck and goose seasons overlapped was warm, gray and quiet, but the lonely honks echoing through the fog changed everything.
“Geese out front,” Eric Lipp said as four Canadas emerged. “I think they’re gonna give us a look, boys!”
As the horizontal line of birds crept ever closer, Jon Draper slowly replaced the No. 2 steel shell in his 870’s chamber with a BB load. I tried to flex the “first geese of the year” tremble from my fingers as I tossed my sandwich under the seat and got my gun ready. The honkers circled twice. On the third pass they lowered altitude and swung directly into the center of the blind (just like every decoy placement article says they’re supposed to, but they never do). We stood and shot, and all four geese splashed into the Potomac River.
Hard to believe it was only the second waterfowl season for Eric and Jon. When they invited me to hunt with them and share my knowledge of ducks and geese (which I’m sure is far less extensive than they’d imagined), I jumped at the chance. Turns out I had little to offer; they’d already figured out the basic tactics and, despite their limited budget, the young professionals had acquired much of the essential gear—a boat, a few dozen decoys, waders and all the other waterfowl gear known to fill garages and to destroy weak marriages. When I joined them I’d assumed the greenhorns would still be struggling, but they impressed me.
If there’s one type of hunting with barriers to entry, it’s the pursuit of waterfowl. I’ve even suggested it’s impossible to become a duck hunter without a mentor’s assistance. Eric and Jon prove that’s just not true.
They took to duck hunting rather quickly, but it didn’t happen overnight. They made early mistakes and it took weeks before they so much as fired a shot, but they persevered until finally they killed a duck—a hen bufflehead—near the end of their first season.
“Just that first duck was enough to get us hooked,” Jon told me. They hunted the next two Saturdays, the last of the season, and killed one duck each day.
The next season they didn’t get skunked a single time, killing at least one duck in each of their many outings. That may not make them experts, but it’s a surprising level of proficiency for a pair of guys who tossed their first decoys less than two years ago. Much can be learned from their story. If you’ve ever wanted to become a duck hunter, here’s how to do it.
“Geese are just about the only thing you can hunt in February,” Eric explains, “and I’d seen some on the WMA we hunt so I decided to give it a try.”
“As Eric said, it was just another season to get into,” Jon adds. “Plus my grandfather, who unfortunately passed away before I got into hunting, was a huge duck hunter and Lab field-trialer, so I figured I had it in my blood.”
Soon they were obsessed.
“I thought my life was going to be about deer hunting,” Jon says, “My dream was always to shoot a huge buck. Then I went duck hunting, and now deer hunting is just something I do a couple times a year to fill my freezer.”
Eric laughs. “It’s completely taken over my life,” he says. “I work for a nonprofit, but I’ve spent thousands of dollars on a boat, decoys, a truck and most recently a chocolate Lab. I went from being a deer hunter who wanted to hunt waterfowl in between to a full-time duck addict.”
A Wild Goose Chase
“Now we use mesh decoy bags, but at the time we’d never even heard of them,” Jon recalls. “The trash bags would rip and the decoys would flop out and fall all over the place. Plus, we had them gang-rigged instead of individually weighted, so within a few minutes our geese looked like they were kissing.”
Anytime you’re engaged in a learning process, silly mistakes will be made. For the most part, Eric and Jon at least looked the part—they had 18 goose decoys, waders and shotguns—but they did make some rather hilarious goofs.
“We didn’t know what the heck we were doing,” Eric says. “We didn’t have a boat at first, so we had to make sure our decoys weren’t in the water too far because it got deep fast. We’re trout fishermen so we did have waders … leaky waders.”
“Since we had no boat and no dog, we carried a heavy fishing pole with a treble hook on it to retrieve our decoys and any geese we miraculously killed,” Jon adds. “We honestly thought that was a reasonable idea. Thank God no real goose hunters saw us, or they would’ve laughed all the way home.”
At times the rookie waterfowlers even considered hanging up their waders for good. “I sat there the first few times we hunted geese saying to myself, ‘I spent all my money on this?’” Eric remembers.
“I bought 18 fancy, high-priced goose floaters, and my budget was completely blown before I realized I wanted to hunt ducks as well,” Eric says. “I didn’t even have money for decoy weights and Tanglefree line. If I could go back I would start with a half-dozen cheap geese and a dozen cheap mallards.”
Eric recommends GreenHead Gear’s “Hot Buy” decoys. A dozen mallards will run you about $35. There are better decoys out there, but “Hot Buys” are excellent for the money and plenty good to get you started. Eric rigs them individually and sets them 3-4 feet apart, keeping the ducks separate from the geese.
“It can be easy to get overwhelmed with all the gear,” Eric says. “Don’t worry about acquiring everything all at once. Just buy an 870, a good pair of waders and a dozen cheap decoys and go hunting.”
Jon found that Internet sites like Craigslist and Ebay can be helpful: “We bought a lot of inexpensive gear from guys who were upgrading. I bought my first dozen decoys from a guy on Craigslist. They were dirt-cheap and good quality.”
“Maybe some people pick up a call for the first time and sound brilliant, but definitely not me,” Eric says, grinning. “Save the calling for inside your vehicle—that’s a great place to practice, especially with an instructional CD. At first, we only called when we had a duck or two in the bag and we weren’t afraid of blowing an opportunity.”
“Heck, I still call sparingly,” Jon adds.
“Problem was, we weren’t even sure it was a duck, let alone what species, until it was too late,” Eric says.
“It can be scary, because you don’t want to kill the wrong bird. I passed on a lot of ducks that I couldn’t identify,” Jon recalls. “Frankly, I thought duck ID was impossible. They all looked the same to me, but I got better with every duck I saw. And I learned that you can ID a duck by the way it flies.”
They discovered that divers’ small wing-to-body ratio and deliberate flight paths easily distinguish them from mallards, which have large wings with white undersides and tend to circle before landing.
“Badly!” Jon exclaims.
Weeks later almost everything was iced up, but they found some open water. At the time they didn’t realize the value of such a late-season find, but they were into ducks quickly.