Waterfowl-Hunting Basics

This section will give the hunter some general information about all waterfowl. Waterfowl hunters may be hunting for one species on a given day, but they do not normally hunt for a single species all season long. However, it does happen that only one species is in season, such as late season snow geese.


Water is the common denominator in habitat for these birds. As water is a primary factor in food, shelter and space for waterfowl, the biological need for water is easily satisfied. As with any other group of animals, habitat requirements vary for different waterfowl. While you may find large numbers of ducks on small creeks, geese typically will look for larger bodies of water. Whatever the size of the waterbody, being on the water allows ducks and geese to leisurely escape most predators, find food, and rest.

The diet of geese includes a high proportion of grass and leftover grain in cultivated fields. They will eat aquatic plants, but tend to feed more on dry land. Ducks fall into two categories: divers and dabblers. Divers will dive underwater to find food in fairly deep water while dabblers simply turn their tails up and feed a few inches underwater. Both divers and dabblers eat vegetation in the water along with snails and insects that are on the plants. Ducks will also feed on leftover grain in croplands as it offers high energy food for their migration needs.

Hunters can take advantage of these feeding habits by establishing blinds in multiple locations. Goose blinds should be located on larger bodies of water. Duck blinds could be established on smaller bodies or near small wetlands. Pit blinds for ducks or geese could be dug into cornfields or near winter wheat. When grain fields are snow-covered, some hunters simply lay down under white sheets amidst their decoys.

Most waterfowl are considered migratory; however, in Kentucky, there are resident birds, particularly Canada geese. Those that migrate use large sections of the continent for various life requirements. Hunters can use this knowledge by watching the advance of major winter storms in the northern parts of the Mississippi Flyway. There will normally be large flocks of waterfowl arriving in Kentucky within a few days when the storms and cold weather grip the northern wetlands.

Resident geese in Kentucky and farther north are adapted to urban areas. Many cities offer sanctuary from hunters, food on golf courses, and water sources in parks. These birds only migrate in extreme weather conditions, and then only temporarily. In some areas, they have been noted to move several hundred miles east/west rather than south. They move just far enough to survive, then return to the protected area of residence when milder weather returns.


Know the Basics

The best way to learn to hunt waterfowl is to find a trusted friend and learn from him or her. However, each hunter should prepare to be the best hunter he or she can be. There are a host of waterfowl hunting gadgets and advertised advancements, but beginners need to start with basics. First, study the waterfowl guide so you know state and federal rules. Recommended hunting equipment will include a 12 guage shotgun, modified choke, calls (with lots of practice) and good working decoys that are properly strung and weighted.

Clothing should be dull colored, and waterproof, and your footwear should also be waterproof. Your hat or cap should have a bill to shade your eyes. Finally, always include a life jacket if you will spend any time on open water.

Know Waterfowl Species

Each hunter should be able to identify various species and distinguish males from females (mallards) as the birds fly toward the blind. Identifying features include color, size, silhouette, and call. The flight or resting pattern can also help you identify species at a distance. Certain species may be protected in a given year or have greatly reduced harvest. By early identification, the hunter can pass up a shot on a given bird and help conserve that species for the future.

Practice your Calling and Shooting Before Hunting

As with most hunting, preparation will result in higher success rates. A new waterfowl hunter should consult tapes and videos for appropriate calls at different stages of the flock’s approach. The shooting practice is difficult to simulate. Waterfowl are approaching from out of range and high, while target shooting is usually practiced on targets going away. However, through practice, shooters will be not only become better at moving targets, they will also be more aware of appropriate range for an effective shot.

Early Season versus Late Season Ducks

In the early part of the fall, wood ducks and teal are available in Kentucky. As the season progresses, these smaller birds may leave with any given cold front. The smaller ducks are fast flyers, turn quickly and take advantage of nearby cover. The birds that arrive from the north early in the season will primarily be hens with their broods. The young of the year birds are smaller and are more drab colored.

Mallards and other large ducks that arrive from the northern nesting areas later in the season will consist mainly of drakes and hens that did not nest successfully. These late season birds will usually be the most colorful. The larger ducks tend to be slower and steadier. Every group of waterfowl offers the hunter unique challenges in wing shooting.

Land Based Blinds

All blinds have a few things in common. They are intended to allow the hunter to hide near appropriate habitat to be in range of incoming birds. They will normally have seats and shooting windows. It is best to have an experienced hunter that can “call the shots” for the entire blind.

Land based blinds can be permanent sites that are dug into locations that provide hunting year after year or they can be quickly assembled temporary blinds. In both cases, using the available vegetation from the location, willows, oaks, high grass, or reeds, will help make the blind blend into the natural setting.

Boat Blinds

Having a blind mounted on a boat allows the hunter to move easily. Boat blinds can be advantageous to move away from wind swept flats to more secluded areas. As they are floating, the hunters must be very patient and still to avoid boat movement and noise. Hunters in boat blinds should include face covers in their hunting cloths. Always wear a personal floatation device, as it is easy to lose your balance if you stand up to shoot.

Sun at Your Back

Plan your blind with the birds looking into the sun as they approach. This will require different locations for morning and afternoon hunts. Using sun direction gives you, the hunter several advantages. First, you will have much better vision and be able to pick out the drakes. Second, the birds will not be able to pick up details as well looking into direct and reflected sunlight. Finally, glints of light from your gun barrel or face will be reduced with the sun shining on the back of your blind.

Setting up the Decoys

The setting of your spread depends on wind, sun, cover and water conditions. Leave space for the birds to alight that is within shooting range of the blind. If hunting in flooded timber or on overflow water, leave an opening in the woods or light brush. To Call or Not to Call

When hunting waterfowl, it is important to know when to call loudly or softly. To attract a flock of birds to your spread, you need to call loudly. As they are turning toward you, a softer call is in order. As they circle the blind, a slower soft call will keep them interested. If they circle initially but appear to be leaving, return to louder calls. Don’t call at all if the birds are directly over the blind. Once the birds are established on flight to the decoys, stop calling. Now is the time to pick your targets and ready yourself for the shots.


Alter Your Spread of Decoys

Altering your spread is usually accomplished on small spreads when birds are shying from your decoys on the swing. It may be required for the day’s conditions and can change hour to hour. If you are shooting over a large spread with an experienced hunter, there is normally less need to alter your spread on a day to day basis. Large decoy spreads usually take into account various weather and wind conditions.

Size and Speed are Deceiving

If you have been hunting ducks, the first flock of geese will cause distance perception. As the birds are much larger, you will think they are in range when they are not. A good rule of thumb is if the end of the gun barrel covers half the bird, it is probably out of range. Another visual effect is rate of wing beat. While a goose wing beat is only about half that of mallards, the flight speed is approximately the same. By using the same “swing and follow through” techniques for all wing shooting, this perception is eliminated. When shooting birds that you are calling into the blind, remember to shoot them as they come in, not going away.


Field dressing waterfowl is reasonably easy. With a sharp pocket knife, split the skin below the tip of the breast, reach inside the body cavity, and remove the internal organs. The membranes holding the intestinal tract in place at the tail can be cut afield to completely remove the intestines. Removing the insides allows the meat to cool, and wiping the body cavity to remove intestinal fluids will prevent the meat from being tainted.

If the hunter wants a roosted duck or goose, most birds can be plucked. They can be dry picked or scalded. By dipping the bird in water, heated to around 180 degrees, the feathers can be saturated and removed by rubbing. Some people who pick the feathers also cover the bird with a layer of melted wax, then remove the dried wax to remove fine feathers. Wing feathers may be pulled or the wing can be discarded. If you plan on serving only the breast, it can either be skinned or plucked.

There is a substantial layer of fat under the skin of waterfowl, and cooking with this fat attached will keep the meat moist. However, you may want to cook in a manner that allows the fat to drain away from the bird. As with other game, cover all parts of each bird in water and freeze them. If you plan to freeze plucked ducks or geese, plan on using the birds earlier than you would other game. The fat under the skin can become foul quicker than the meat, and can spoil the taste of the birds.


Duck Breasts in Gravy

Vernon Anderson, Retired, Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

  • 4–6 Breasts Rice
  • 2 Cans of cream of mushroom soup Flour
  • 2 Cans of milk Oil

Cut breasts into 1/8 inch strips. Roll in flour and brown in large skillet of oil. Remove breasts from skillet and break them into small pieces. Drain the oil and add mushroom soup to skillet with milk. After mixing soup, place breast meat into mixture and simmer for one hour. Serve over rice.

Bubba’s Gourmet Goose

Mrs. Kevin L. Chaffi ns, Mt. Sterling, KY
  • 1 Large Canada goose
  • 1⁄4 Cup Cognac
  • 2 Tbsp dry mustard
  • 1⁄4 Pound butter
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Dash thyme
  • 6 Medium apples with peel, coarsely cut
  • Bay leaves
  • Fruit juice of your choice

In a large bowl, mix by hand the apples, salt, pepper, and half the Cognac. Stuff the bird with 1⁄2 of this mixture. Place the bird in a pan and surround it with the remainder of the stuffing. Make a paste with butter and mustard and coat the goose. Add bay leaves, salt, pepper, and thyme. Roast in a 350 degree oven for 3 1⁄2 hours. Check the goose frequently. If the goose becomes dry, turn it over and add fruit juice of any type. Baste regularly with remaining Cognac and equal parts water until goose is done to taste.