Hunting gadwall ducks: Everything you need to know
by M.D. Johnson, outdoor writer & photographer
This week, Slayer Calls brings to the ’fowling public the first in a continuing series of blogs designed to introduce you, both formally and informally, to the duck and goose species hunters will encounter as they throw spreads and sit blinds from Chesapeake Bay to the Columbia River — and everywhere in between.
Today, we’ve got a meeting with a duck deserving every bit of respect as any greenhead or long-tailed drake pintail; however, a lot of ’fowlers look at the gadwall as just another bonus duck. Trust us — nothing could be further from the truth.
The gadwall duck
Ducks Unlimited (DU) describes the gadwall as a “medium-sized duck characterized by a general lack of bright coloration.” Sounds a bit dreary, and nondescript, eh?
The truth is that at the peak of breeding plumage, a drake gadwall is, to me, one of the most handsome ducks in North America. No, he’s no drake wood duck or harlequin, but he’s a dandy nonetheless.
Generally speaking, DU isn’t wrong. Both the drake and hen gadwall (or grey duck as they are often called) are pretty plain characters. Their claim to fame is the fact they’re the only North American puddle duck that shows a wing speculum in flight. Good identifier, it is.
The hen is, indeed, a drab little thing, weighing between 1.5 and 1.75 pounds, give or take. She’s a mottled brown overall, with a dark spotted bill and a smaller speculum than her mate.
The drake gray duck is quite the dapper fellow, with his all-black bill, scalloped black and white chest feathers, gray back and sides, snow-white belly and yellow legs. In flight, you’ll see not just his give-away white speculum, but his attractive chestnut-and-black wing coverts as well. He’s a touch heavier than his lady friend, tipping the scales at 2 pounds, if not a little more.
Vague though it may be, gadwall are where you find them. In years past, I’ve killed gray ducks on sheet water, saline and brackish tidal marshes, big river systems, equally large lakes, pasture ponds, warm-water sloughs, beaver swamps, intentionally flooded corn and in green timber.
Geographically, gadwall are found in all four major migration corridors, though they’re most common in the southernmost portions of the Central and Mississippi flyways.
To be brutally honest, few ’fowlers purposely target gadwall, instead taking them as the aforementioned bonus ducks or incidentals, along with other puddlers; thus, they’re often seen on duck straps in all of the above habitats, along with any number of others.
On a positive note, while other puddle duck species (perhaps most notably the northern pintail) have shown a downward trend in population over the last decade, gadwall numbers have continued to increase steadily since roughly 2005. Good news for ’fowlers all ’round, eh?
Yes, it’s possible to kill gadwall over an all-mallard or mixed mallard spread; however, if one’s looking specifically to target gray ducks, then gray duck decoys are in order.
How many? That depends, I reckon, on the setting. Little water = little spread. Big water = bigger spread. Additionally, if you’re packing them into the hole on foot, you’ll also be thinking about how many you want to strap to your back, right?
As an estimate, I’d venture to say 24 to 48 individually rigged decoys ought to do the trick in most situations. Which decoys? Several excellent companies currently offer great-looking gadwall decoys; however, the best I’ve used have been Greenhead Gear’s Pro-Grade FFD fully-flocked gadwall. The realism, to me, is second to none.
Two decoy tips for targeting gray ducks: One, grays are — for whatever reason — fond of rubbing elbows with coots, so tossing six to eight coot blocks in a tight knot slightly off to one side of the main spread can make the rig more attractive.
Two, gadwall are fidgety birds — always moving, moving, moving. An old-school jerk cord can do the trick, imparting natural motion to the entire spread. So, too, can the Coot Confidence pack from MOJO OutdoorsTM, a new introduction consisting of four traditional stand-alone coot decoys, plus a pair of Rippler motion decoys. Battery-powered or no, motion is almost a must when it comes to fooling gray ducks.
When it comes to calling gadwall, a single-reed mallard can serve well. If, that is, the caller is proficient.
On a hunt years ago in Arkansas, I listened to a friend of mine — a four-time Tennessee state calling champion — use an ordinary single-reed to duplicate both the hen gray’s subdued quacks, as well as the drake’s nasally dink … dink-dink, while blowing a 6-in-1 style whistle and speaking, as it were, to the handful of sprig in the flock. Bill got ’em close, and three of us did the rest. It was impressive, to say the least.
That said, ’fowlers have a couple options when it comes to calling gadwall. One is to learn the subtleties of using a traditional, single-reed mallard call in a gray duck manner. It’s raspier and has a quicker cadence for the hen gray’s quacks, and there’s a burst of air with a high tongue to create the drake’s unique dink … dink-dink sound.
Or, short of that, several folks offer up a specific gadwall call — an instrument that might be worth the investment.
But what about the calling style? One school is low and mild; another is loud and aggressive, especially on the corners and should the birds decide it’s time to pick up and head for other waters. My advice? Experiment with both, and let the birds tell you what you’re doing right … and wrong.
The strategies behind hunting gadwall ducks
Pardon the cliché, but hunting gadwall ducks isn’t rocket science; however, they do have a couple … well, irritating tendencies.
Landing well outside the decoy spread, and then convincing every passing bird to join them is one. Circling multitudinous times — high, low, higher, lower, high — is another.
It’s frustrating, yes. But while you can’t really do anything about the first problem, for the second I would strongly suggest calling the shot on gray ducks when the birds are in range. Unlike mallards, which may make that infamous second pass, gadwall often don’t. Take ’em when you can, then consider yourself fortunate you did.
Meet M.D. Johnson
Originally from Ohio, M.D. Johnson, and his wife/business partner, Julia, spent 18 years in Iowa before relocating to her native Washington state in 2015. A full-time freelance outdoor writer since 1992, Johnson, with the photographic assistance of his wife, has authored and illustrated six full-length books, including three on waterfowl hunting. Today, The Johnsons reside in Wahkiakum County, where they both enjoy a 107-day duck season, salmon fishing, and everything the wonderful Pacific Northwest has to offer. Oh, and if you ask, M.D. will tell you he prefers 16 gauge doubles to anything else.
Read more from M.D. on Slayer’s Blog:
– 9 things every new duck hunter REALLY needs: Resources and gear
– Why these waterfowlers love the cutdown call for duck hunting
– Beyond the quack: Learn the different duck sounds of common species
– Top 5 duck and goose decoy spreads you have to try