Target acquired: Everything you need to know about hunting wood ducks
By M.D. Johnson
For reasons perhaps known only to science or the imagination, wood ducks appear to fly somewhere between 150 MPH and MACH 3 … or roughly 2,300 MPH.
They don’t, of course, but watching a trio of woodies weave their way through the pin oaks in the dim light of legal shooting time is akin to the speeds achieved in every flight scene of Top Gun: Maverick. Maybe it’s their size. Or their fighter jet silhouette. Or the lighting.
Regardless, there’s no denying woodies are quick. Real quick. Knowing that it’s likely you’ll miss a few shots — don’t dwell on those misses, by the way — here are a few tips for hunting wood ducks, and a bit more background information besides.
So handsome is the wood duck, ornithologists saw fit to label it scientifically Aix sponsa, which translates as “betrothed,” or, to some, it’s a reference to wedding dresses.
Visually, the wood duck is beyond compare. With his blood-red eye, multicolor bill and broken kaleidoscope of blues, purples, golds, reds, blacks, whites and a thousand muted hues sure to make Mister Crayola green with envy, the drake woodie is impossible to confuse with any other. Save, perhaps, the Mandarin — a rarely-seen-in-the-wild Asian import, whose primary identifier is his upswept, brilliant gold rump feathers — a gaudy element lacking in the wood duck.
Hens, like many of the girl ducks, are drab, although not without their subtle beauty. Female wood ducks sport a most interesting white-rimmed eye, speckled chest and overall, a wonderful light olive coloration.
In my now 40 years of duck hunting, only the drake harlequin comes close to the drake wood duck in appearance — and the harlequin still, to me, rings in a distant second.
Though most abundant in the Mississippi Flyway, wood ducks can be found in varying numbers throughout all four migration corridors.
Wooded wetlands with ample overhead cover are the chosen habitat for this secretive breed; however, good populations can be found in cattail marshes, flooded cornfields, slow meandering streams and hidden backwaters.
Some days, 6–12 good-looking wood duck decoys loosely arranged on a hidden pothole among the cattails, or in a pocket in the buckbrush, can turn a head. That’s because woodies work almost like mallards (minus the suspenseful circling — wood ducks, once committed, do so in high gear and without hesitation).
Other days, live ducks couldn’t stop a passing flock. What does work, says popular consensus, are spinning wing decoys like MOJO’s Screamin’ Woodie. Love ’em or hate ’em, spinners, where allowed, are deadly on wood ducks. They grab wood ducks’ attention at a distance and help focus them visually on your small spread of decoys.
Calling wood ducks is like decoying wood ducks; sometimes it works, moreso it doesn’t.
Multitudinous wood duck calls are available. However, the problem lies in the sounds being made with those calls.
Woodies make a variety of calls: peeps, whistles and an odd rising whine that phonetically might look like “peet-ooooo-OOOOOO.”
Most of these vocalizations are by birds sitting on the water; hence, a flying wood duck has no idea where the sitting wood ducks are. It’s easier (and more effective, I’ve learned) to peep, whistle or whine to birds already landed. Then call them to your blind and practice the art of jump shooting.
The gear for hunting wood ducks
While a 12 gauge certainly isn’t out of place in a wood duck swamp, these medium-sized ’fowl lend themselves well to those shooting anything BUT a 12 gauge — including the now wildly popular 28, the tried-and-true 20 and my personal favorite, the 16 gauge.
High pellet count and a dense pattern can both help when it comes to bringing down these fast fliers. Light loads of steel from sizes #4 to #6 perform well; so, too, do any of the new bismuth offerings from manufacturers like Hevi-Shot. These are, without question, the best choices for anyone shooting an older shotgun, like my 1952 Winchester Model 24 … 16 gauge, of course.