Target acquired: Everything you need to know to hunt widgeon
By M.D. Johnson
Eager to decoy and a sucker for the right calling, widgeon are the bread-’n-butter bird for many duck hunters across the country. Here are some tips to help you hunt widgeon effectively.
Nicknamed “baldpate” for the creamy white patch atop the drake’s head, the American widgeon is a medium-sized bird — similar in scale to a wood duck — weighing in at slightly less than two pounds on average. The drake sports a salt-and-pepper head and neck, with an iridescent green eyepatch extending to the back of the head, a pale blue bill edged in black, and a white belly.
In flight, the drake’s trademark white shoulder patch provides identification assistance. The hen, like most ducks, is drab brown overall.
Interestingly, widgeon are often called robbers, for their habit of stealing scraps of aquatic vegetation brought to the surface by diving ducks (e.g., redheads and canvasbacks) feeding in deep water.
Although present in all four flyways, widgeon are most commonly encountered in the Pacific and Central corridors, as well as the southern United States.
Another species, the Eurasian widgeon, is uncommon in the Pacific Flyway, though thought to be increasing in number and distribution, with some ’fowl biologists believing there to be a breeding population now in the lower 48. While it’s incredibly unlikely you’ll come across one, given their scarcity in the states, ’fowlers should know that when it comes to regulations, Eurasian widgeon are still considered widgeon. Period. In the Pacific flyway, you can take seven birds daily, all seven of which can be widgeon, including any and all Eurasian widgeon a hunter might luck into.
Baldpate aren’t particularly critical of the species with which they spend time; thus, a mixed spread of dabblers — mallard, pintails, shovelers and teal — along with widgeon will often work just fine. However, all-widgeon spreads aren’t out of the question, with some gunners preferring a mix of widgeon and pintails due to the high-visibility white on those particular blocks.
Where available, flooded pastures or other green grass fields can be a hotspot for these avian grazers. Tidal marshes, too, are productive. Widgeon, like pintails, seem to gravitate toward larger, more open bodies of water. Here, spreads numbering from four to six dozen grab the attention of passing groups.
Tip: Referring back to the widgeon’s alias — robber — baldpate are often found rubbing wingtips with common coots, as the small black ducks’ messy feeding habits provide plenty of collateral bits and pieces for any nearby widgeon. Knowing this, experienced ’fowlers will sometimes set an all-coot rig off to one side, hoping to cash in on this culinary characteristic. The Coot Confidence Pack from MOJO OutdoorsTM, with its four static decoys and two MOJO Rippler™decoys, can be a great addition.
Traditional mallard quacks can turn a baldpate or two, but it’s the birds’ breathy rising/falling who-WHEET-whooo that more often than not proves the auditory ticket. Once heard, the sound can be reproduced by some using just their natural voice. For others, an inexpensive widgeon whistle offers ease-of-use, as well as the oft-needed open water volume.
Widgeon are typically taken as part of a mixed bag, rather than specifically targeted, thus falling to everything from light 20s to big bore 10-gauge autoloaders. Heavy loads aren’t necessary, though; an ounce to 1 1/4 ounces of #4 steel should be more than enough when the birds work as they should.
I had great success during the 2021 season shooting a Mossberg Silver Reserve O/U, loaded with Kent Cartridge’s #5 bismuth. However, I’ve gone as small as #6 steel when targeting widgeon and had no problems at all.
Widgeon are vocal birds, especially on the water, making multiple callers more effective than one soloist. One or two ’fowlers using mallard calls, while a duo mimics the widgeon’s unique whistle, can be a very effective technique — especially if the birds are flying with late-season and oft-skittish pintails.
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.
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