Skip to main content

Everything You Need to Know About Duck Hunting

Hard-learned advice from a duck hunter who has seen both sides of the migration.

Everything You Need to Know About Duck Hunting

The contrast in regional differences might be why duck hunting holds such an allure. (Photo By: Mike Clingan)

As I sat on the edge of a levee, staring out into the dark silhouettes of trees, I couldn’t help but think “You betcha…we’re not in North Dakota anymore.”

Growing up in Minnesota, duck hunting consisted of marshes, bays of lakes, and dry field hunts. I was so eaten up with shooting ducks and geese, North Dakota seemed like a fantastic place to spend my college years. To say it was a good run would be an understatement. World class waterfowling with a very light sprinkling of college courses was a fantastic recipe for any young hunter. It was in the prairie pothole region where my craft was honed. Big honkers and mallards didn’t stand a chance.

Some years after graduating, I received a job offer from Primos Hunting, about as far south as you can get, in good ol’ Mississippi. It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and that’s what landed me on the edge of a flooded impoundment waiting for the morning flight. We were on a 10,000-acre property littered with duck holes, manicured for nothing more than attracting and holding a pile of green tops. Outside of the scenery of Persimmon and Tupelo Gum trees, the ducks behaved how I had always believed they would, feet down in your face. But boy was I in for a rude awakening in the coming years. I would learn a whole lot more about waterfowling by getting to experience chasing ducks south of the Mason-Dixon. Is there a difference between hunting ducks between two destinations spanning 1,000 miles? You’re fixin’ to find out.

The Ducks  

In the northern states, ducks are coming from Canada, and for the most part, haven’t seen any human pressure. This allows for good shoots with very sloppy execution, and weather be damned. By the time a mallard has flown from North Dakota to Mississippi, roughly 1,000 nautical miles away, passing through Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, and Arkansas—they’ve had the potential to be shot at by nearly 300,000 camo clad duck hunters. In order to survive that flight, they have learned a thing or two, making them some of the wariest ducks I’ve ever pursued.

mallard drake flying
By the time a mallard has flown from North Dakota to Mississippi, they’ve had the potential to be shot at by nearly 300,000 camo clad duck hunters. (Photo By: Mike Clingan)

The Weather Factor

There’s no doubt a big cold front up north would push a pile of birds down from Canada, making for some banger shoots, but otherwise there were pretty much always local ducks. From the day the season opened in late September, there were plenty of puddlers to chase. At some point in the middle of October, you’d inevitably get a nice snowstorm pushing new birds down, and this kept happening all the way until freeze up, normally sometime at the end of November.

It really didn’t matter if it was cloudy, sunny, raining or snowing. If you were in the right spot, and were hidden, the birds did their thing right in the decoys. The wind helped, but too much of it made life more difficult, as did a lack of it. Everyone talked about good duck weather being nasty, windy, and snowy, but to be honest I didn’t care as long as there was enough wind to set them up into our face. Now welcome back to the south.

“Looks like we’re deer hunting today,” said Primos Hunting’s Brad Farris as the crew sat in the camphouse getting ready for a morning duck hunt. After watching no less than 800 mallards packed into a duck hole less than an acre in size, I was disappointed to say the least. Pressing the issue, I asked why. “There’s no wind and it’s going to be cloudy. We might shoot a few but all we’ll do is blow them out of that hole and educate them,” was Farris’ response. My head was spinning. I didn’t want to sound stupid, but wouldn’t there just be more ducks coming down? How hard could it be to shoot a few limits of ducks out of what would be a slam dunk?

duck hunter with deutsch drahthaar duck hunting
The author poses with a hard-earned bag of mallards after a hunt. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

Hell-bent on shooting some ducks, I walked over the levee with a few dozen decoys and a layout blind to see if I could pick a few off from a safe distance off the duck hole. After meticulously brushing in the blind, it had disappeared into the knee-high grass. There was no wind rippling the water as the first flock of gadwall sucked in, I dropped two right into the decoys. “These southern boys don’t have anything on me,” I thought to myself as a pre-dawn mallard followed the same script backpedaling right into the blocks. Three down, only a few more to go. This is a piece of cake! Expecting the mallards to get off the roost as the sun peeked over the horizon, I patiently awaited an opportunity to finish off my limit. They came alright. Flock after flock came within 100 yards, and then proceeded to bail off, landing in another hole. I quickly got out of my blind to check the hide that was all but invisible. After an hour of waiting in vain, I grabbed my duck hunting gear, and walked back to the camp, leaving my pride at the hole. It was the first eye opening experience of my southern waterfowl career.

Duck Decoy Spreads and Equipment  

This section should essentially be labeled motion decoys! The creation of the spinning wing decoy fundamentally changed the waterfowl game for decades. For many years in the north, we’d joke that you’d have a better chance of shooting a limit of ducks over one spinning wing decoy than a whole spread of regular ones. Partially joking, but kind of true. In the five years I hunted across Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Texas, there was only one distinct memory of using a spinner. Again, going back to pressure, these ducks have been there and done that. For how well they work up in the north country, it’s the polar opposite down south. However, the one time I saw it work was pretty genius. I was on an Arkansas timber hunt, and there was a spinner hanging 40 feet in an old oak tree. Just a quick pulse of the wings would catch the attention of 75 percent of the birds passing over the treetops. Just enough to set us apart from the hundreds of other groups in the area.

dead mallard ducks hanging on a strap at duck camp
There is an abundance of ducks and opportunity for anyone willing to put in the time to find them. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

Outside of a spinner, the south is where I truly learned the importance of motion. Going back to weather, if there’s no wind, you’re going to need some motion, or you won’t shoot birds. It wasn’t uncommon to have a jerk string, a jerk spreader, two to three feeding agitator decoys, and a dabbler or two in the spread. On the calmest of days, only running a half dozen motion decoys with jerk strings was hands down the best way to fool ducks.

I wish I had learned the nuances of motion decoys while I was up north because upon returning, it significantly changed how many ducks would finish without hesitation, versus picking up their wings at 30 yards, offering a further shot. 30 yards works, but who doesn’t like a 10-yard touchdown!

mallard duck decoys floating on water
The key to a good duck decoy spread is to make it look as realistic as possible. (Photo By: Ben Brettingen)

Duck Clubs and Public Land Duck Hunting

If you look at a map of the upper-Midwest, public land polka dots much of the landscape. Minnesota alone boasts over 14,000 lakes over 10 acres, most of which are publicly accessible for hunting. Then add in the WMA’s, Walk-in Access areas, and Waterfowl Production Areas, a freelance waterfowler has ample opportunities to chase birds where they are. The key part of the sentence is “chase birds where they are.” Up north, scouting was absolutely crucial because you had to find the spot where the birds actually are present. If the birds were on private land, the odds of getting permission were in your favor. As long as you weren’t talking about deer, most farmers would care less. Before anybody gets too worked up, the same thing happens to an extent in the south, but give me a second to elaborate.

Outside of a few large notable areas in each state, the south is largely dominated by private land. If there’s a good piece of property, I’d stake my life that there’s probably somebody hunting on it. The south is where I had my first experience with clubs, or a group of people who have pooled their money to secure a tract of private land. There are clubs that range from small acreage leases to 15,000 square foot lodges on thousands of acres.

black Lab retrieving mallard drake
Understanding location-based, realistic decoy spreads will set you and your gun dog up for more action. (Photo By: Douglas Steinke)

What was interesting about a club or a lease is that people would hunt the same place over and over, even if there were no ducks. In the north, you’d just go find another spot with birds. The hope was to catch a push of ducks into the area, and time it right, but for much of the season you’d be staring at relatively empty skies.

Arkansas is a bit of a different animal as there’s significantly more public access between the White and Cache Rivers, as well as the famous Bayou Meto. I would say the approach to freelance hunting there is similar to up north but on steroids due to the fact it’s one of the most iconic duck hunting destinations in the world.


Since the advent of the popular A&E series Duck Dynasty circa 2012, waterfowling has boomed in popularity, or at least it felt like the case. After talking to friends in Mississippi and Arkansas, this was especially true. That meant for teens, public land was a fantastic option!

My experiences hunting southern public land was quite a stark contrast to the north. Showing up at 3:30 a.m. on a giant piece of federal land, I was greeted by close to 50 other hunters waiting to race to their holes on ATV’s, boats, or bikes. As shooting time rolled around, no duck was safe. It seemed like a duck couldn’t fly 200 yards without being pestered by a pleading duck call ringing over a decoy spread. We scratched out a few wood ducks, which for the most part are second class citizens in the south. The best public hunts I had were the result of logistical nightmares, trying to find areas way off the beaten path. One such hunt required a two-mile boat ride through a stump field, and a half inch of skim ice. Not another soul braved the inclement weather to navigate through enough stumps to rip off an armada of lower units.

Hunting up north is significantly different. I remember waiting at a boat landing to a 3,000-acre marsh, cursing under my breath at the three other hunters who showed up on opening day. A bit different than a Bayou Meto boat race!

Just like the boat races, the level of competition when it comes to hailing a duck from the sky, with a chunk of wood and plastic is unprecedented! The art of calling ducks varies dramatically when you head to southern reaches of the migration. I grew up calling ducks more out of tradition as it’s just what you did. Did it help? Sometimes, yeah, but really it was just a good way to occupy time, thinking you were aiding in getting a bird within gun range.

duck hunters in flooded timber
At the end of the day, successful duck hunting is about location, hide and decoys. (Photos By: Ben Brettingen)

After sharing a hole with world class callers, such as Jim Ronquest, I learned why the duck call is so important. There is a true art, and one that has been perfected in the flooded rice and timber of the south. The level of nuance to coaxing a mallard into range was way more deep than I had ever experienced in the corn fields of the north. Sitting in the large green tree reservoirs, a good caller will easily make the difference between a full stringer and an empty one.

The contrast in regional differences might be why waterfowling holds such an allure. The potential to hunt the exact same duck in the wheat fields of the Dakotas and four months later, be kicking water leaned up against an ancient oak tree in the green timber is pretty special. It’s what keeps me coming back.

I’ll give a nod to my southern friends, as they sure know how to kill them! Because if this Yankee didn’t have some good hunting buddies who showed me the ropes, I would have saved more ducks than Ducks Unlimited.

Hard and Fast Duck Hunting Truths

  • If there’s no wind, you’re going to have a tough time.
  • If it’s cloudy, that means there’s no contrast on the landscape, making you stand out like a sore thumb in all but the best situations.
  • If you haven’t had much for cold weather, there simply won’t be many, if any, ducks.
  • If you want to be successful in the south, be choosy about when you use spinners.
  • Realism is key! If you watch ducks from overhead, they are constantly moving. Now look at your decoy spread. It’s a wonder we fool any ducks!
  • Iron sharpens iron! Competition in the south has created some of the best waterfowlers in the country. If you’re not good, then you’re not shooting ducks!
  • If you are a freelance hunter in the south, it requires a tremendous amount of dedication. There are few free lunches!
To Continue Reading

Go Premium Today.

Get everything Gun Dog has to offer. What's Included

  • Receive (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers

  • Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

  • Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

  • Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

  • Ad-free experience at

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or start your online account

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Gun Dog subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now
Dog jumping out of phone with Gun Dog website in the background
Make the Jump to Gun Dog Premium

Gun Dog Premium is the go-to choice for sporting dog owners and upland hunting enthusiasts. Go Premium to recieve the follwing benefits:

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account

Go Premium

and get everything Gun Dog has to offer.

The Magazine

Recieve (6) 120-page magazines filled with the best dog training advice from expert trainers.

Training Videos

Exclusive bird dog training videos presented by Gun Dog experts.

Digital Back Issues

Complete access to a library of digital back issues spanning years of Gun Dog magazine.

Exclusive Online Editorial

Unique editorial written exclusively for premium members.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign In or Start your online account