The idea of duck hunting etiquette may seem like the gloved version of a gloves-off sport. But, really, it’s as simple as being safe and sporting. The so-called unwritten code is nothing secret, and is basically a way of enhancing enjoyment for all involved.
Invitation only, means only you
Being invited duck hunting is no small feat. The privilege of shooting from another’s blind, scouted area or special haunt is a gift. It’s best to show up early, and take your cues from the person who extended the invitation. If it’s not discussed, the invitation does not include anyone else or even your dog. Allow the host to indicate when to take the shots, and only use your call when you have learned the particular manner in which your host prefers to hunt his or her area.
It’s never a bad idea to bring extra food, and offer to help with expenses, setting up decoys and cleaning birds. Because it’s not your hunting spot, it’s critical not to share the location, including providing details of the location socially. By no means can you bring someone else back to the same place. An invitation to go duck hunting is like being invited into a member’s only club: it’s hard enough to get the invite, even harder to become the kind of member who can invite others.
Good dress makes good company
Showing up in appropriate attire ensures those in your party that you will stay as warm and dry, therefore, as pleasant as possible. Clothing and gear are dependent on the hunt details. You’ll need to know if the hunt will be conducted while sitting on a bench, lying in a blind, shooting from a boat or slugging through tidal flats or flooded forests. Well-fitting clothes and good baselayers are always important, but learning hunt details will help determine whether the additional weight and warmth of chest waders or wetlands camo are necessary.
A friend recently teased me for suggesting that the women participating in a hunt bring an extra set of clothes for our after-the-hunt meal (I may have used the tease-worthy phrase “lodge clothes”). It’s fine and sometimes fun to walk into a public place wearing the badge of your bedraggled field clothes. But, it’s nothing but polite to keep the field where it belongs (in the field) and spare the car upholstery and fair-weather furniture the blood, sweat and plant life still clinging to your chest waders.
Firearms safety rules are the bare minimum
If a hunt isn’t safe, it’s less enjoyable for all involved. Firearms safety rules are often written and rewritten, but the unwritten rules are a logical extension of the 4 basic firearms safety rules. One of the worst sounds in a duck blind for many duck hunters is to hear a safety click off early. The worst sight is to look down another person’s barrel. Both of these things, and many others, are a result of poor gun handling. If you are a first-time shot – someone who has never shot a clay, never shot a bird or never shot in company – a shooting course, lesson or guided/supervised hunting venture is the best place to start. Once in the field, shotgun safety is everyone’s responsibility. The gun should always be unloaded and the action open, if the gun is being handed off, such as when climbing over a fence or tree or boarding a boat. Special care should be taken to be aware of the dog at all times.
Don’t criticize the duck dog
Duck dogs have a hallowed place in the hearts of duck hunters. It doesn’t matter if they ever win a field trial or even retrieve a duck without stopping to urinate or running off with it first. If they eat your bird, they’re just having a bad day. If they relieve themselves in the back of your vehicle, they are just being rather humorous. If they jump up on your lodge clothes with their muddy paws, don’t lose your cool. It’s ill-advised to criticize or command another person’s hunting dog. If you don’t like duck dogs, if you don’t love the way a good dog watches the sky with its muscles trembling and eyes fixed or runs the direct line of sight to a marked bird, just don’t say so to the person who does. Praising the dog, on the other hand, can make up for many of your personal character flaws.
Be sporting and don’t bust the sky
Every hunter has his or her own rules for voluntary restraint. Many only shoot drakes, even when the law doesn’t require it. Some target a particular species, and avoid others. No matter what a hunter’s personal value judgments are, it’s important to keep things sporting. It’s considered un-sporting to shoot a bird on the water (ground swatting) or to shoot at ducks out of range (sky busting). Often, hunters will work out beforehand what airspace belongs to which hunter. If new to duck hunting, placing the furthest decoy at the outside edge of a 40- to 45-yard shooting range can help mark the maximum shooting distance.
Wounded birds must be dealt with quickly, and it’s considered bad form to leave birds on the ground. A dropped bird should be retrieved as quickly as possible. It’s best to show respect for other hunting parties, especially on public land. A hunting party should not set up too close or in a manner in which they’ll be shooting toward another party. Skilled shooters, who are generous and allow a few birds to pass into another’s airspace, are to be thanked. We all have bad days in the field, but complaining or making excuses can ruin another’s enjoyment. The best response to an off-day afield is to credit the ducks for being especially wary.
Do your homework
The best way to show respect for the quarry, and add enjoyment to time spent afield, is to learn as much as possible about it beforehand. Learning how to identify waterfowl, their habits and the vocalizations of each species is fundamental for duck calling and decoy setting.
Understanding the regulations pertaining to migratory birds, including duck stamps, harvest limits, shooting times, steel/non-toxic shot, magazine capacity and conservation is a bare minimum. Bringing a timepiece and a light into the field also shows you’ve done your homework.
Duck hunters get dirty, no doubt. It’s a good kind of dirt, though. What’s really dirty is money, the remote control, cell phones, keyboards and the buttons on a vending machine. The duck hunting environment includes every type of “clean” dirt and dirt-carrier imaginable – swamp, marsh muck, insects, rodents, snakes, sweat and blood. It’s considered bad form to be squeamish. A duck hunter should not hesitate to pick up a bird, wring its neck, pick it and cook it up for dinner. The more you can be at peace with the dirty aspect of duck hunting, the more enjoyable it becomes for all involved.
There’s nothing like getting to a duck blind before dawn, with the sounds of the marsh waking up all around you. The serenity quickly becomes replaced with an incomparable rush of excitement when ducks cup into your decoys. Oh, and don’t shoot the decoys.
Duck Hunting “Etiquette” Quiz
1. A large flock of mallards flies 100 yards above you, you:
A. Put another wad of tobacco in your maw
B. Gaze at the sky
C. Pull out your duck call
D. Fire three rounds into the air and yell, “I think I winged one!”
2. You are invited duck hunting and are told to be in the parking lot at 4, you:
A. Wake up in your duck clothes and get to the parking lot at 3 a.m. just to listen for a while
B. Show up 15 minutes early with your gear in the trunk and say, “I just need to finish this bagel and then I’ll be ready in like 2 minutes.”
C. Show up ready to go at 4 a.m.
D. Ask, “Do you mean in the morning?”
3. The duck dog hikes his leg and urinates on your waders, you:
A. Say, “Gotta love a quirky dog!”
B. Gaze at the sky and hope no one notices
C. Pet him on the head and say, “Thank goodness for waterproof.”
D. Yell, “OMG, did that just really happen? This dog hates me. I think this dog totally hates me.”
4. A large flock circles and is coming into the decoys, the leader says, “Take ‘em,” you:
A. Shoot the farthest 2 and grab your standby gun
B. Realize there isn’t enough time to get out of your mittens so sit this one out
C. Take the shot
D. Ask, “Where, where are the ducks that you are referring to?”
5. At the end of the day, you are the only one who has not killed a duck, you:
A. Pick up the birds and philosophize about the meaning of it all
B. Shrug and say, “I just didn’t have any good shots.”
C. Tell about the one time you shot your limit and casually mention the name of each person who was there who saw it
D. Ask if you can still be in the group photo
6. There’s a mid-morning lull and a blue sky, you:
A. Enjoy the coffee
B. Gaze at the sky
C. Volunteer to go stir up some ducks around the bend
D. Take a selfie and caption it with #girlduckhunterproblems
7. The dog brings back a winged duck that is still alive, you:
A. Wring it’s neck while petting the dog
B. Hope the dog’s owner will take care of it
C. Ask for a lesson in duck-neck-wringing
D. Freak out
Mostly A’s: You are worthy of duck hunting tradition. Duck hunting is in your blood and it’s your blind.
Mostly B’s: You may need to read “The Old Man and the Boy” a few more times and see about corrective lenses.
Mostly C’s: Your instincts are good, but you might not be proven yet.
Mostly D’s: You should take up golf.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham