By Cam MacKugler

When you think about it, waterfowl hunting is pretty simple, perhaps the most simplistic type of hunting you can do. Really, you just need to hide from the ducks, throw out some decoys and sound like a duck, and chances are you will come home with at least one bird. Overall duck hunting is a heck of a lot easier than deer, elk or turkey hunting; you don't need to spend the entire off season scouting for a territorial mallard, you don't need to scour the ground for droppings, and you don't need to worry about scent blocker, fluorescent orange, and a sore derriere from an uncomfortable treestand. However simple waterfowling is, we hunters still tend to forget the fundamentals, or even worse THE fundamental, as I call it the "Rule 1"- ALWAYS have your gun! How many times have you left the blind to pick up the decoys and while out in the middle of your Flambeau armada been bombarded by a flock of descending birds? There is an inverse correlation between the amount of birds that will come in to the relative proximity of your firearm. The further it is from you, the more ducks will come in, it's just nature's cruel way of taunting the waterfowler.

Vermont Duck Hunting

Now that the Vermont migratory bird season is well underway I have spent the last several weekends peering down the barrel of my shotgun, and can happily say that so far the hunting has been tremendously successful. Yet on multiple occasions when I left the blind to pick up the dekes, large flocks of greenheads locked their wings and came water bound, and honestly, my camouflage isn't that amazing. I would let out a heavy sigh and yell back to my companions in the blind "RULE 1!! darn!", with various expletives in the place of "darn"... So as the saying goes, "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me", and since my early season unarmed sojourn in the decoys, I now incessantly carry my shotgun at all times (a shoulder strap for your gun is priceless by the way). This past weekend while duck hunting on the open expanse of Lake Champlain the tables turned and this time the shame was not on me, but on my webbed footed adversaries. A flock of mallards and black ducks flew over the decoys and a drake black duck fell to my Mossberg, only to land in the water and just as quickly as he had flown, began to swim to New York. I hurriedly waded out with my 2 year-old lab Scotia, but already the quarry was 300 yards out and had a full head of steam. Scotia retreated to the shore and laid in wait, a look of desperation on her face, while the black duck doubled his distance from me. While I stood waist deep in the frigid Champlain waters I called to my friend Jake to uncover the boat and chase down the cripple. While he struggled to get the engine going I watched the tiny dot of delicious goodness grow smaller on the horizon, when the honk of a Canada Goose broke my concentration and turned my eyes skyward. I blew on my goose call and the massive Canadian honker turned on a dime and started right for me, in the heat of the moment I didn't realize that I still had my cripple 2 3/4" load in the chamber and the tiny #4 shell did nothing to slow the goose's southbound journey. I laughed and shrugged it off and looked back to the horizon to find my minuscule dot of a black duck, and pointed Jake in its general direction. While he sped out, in whatever way that a tiny 9-horse Evinrude can speed, I felt like a dog trainer, holding out my hands to give him a mark, and wondering if the stale ham sandwich I had stuffed in my waders would suffice as his post-retrieve treat.

As I watched him close the distance to the speck, I again heard the confused honk from the goose that I had just shot at. It had retreated far away after the shot and now was returning, flying low over the decoys. I was still 200 yards away from the spread, standing in the middle of the relatively shallow bay with absolutely no cover whatsoever. I bent at the waist as far as I dared (about a year ago that day my waders had been filled by the cold November water, and I had no intention of repeating that incident, you can only fool me once Champlain...) and returned to blowing on my goose call. As I looked out of the corner of my eye at the nearing honker, I quickly threw in my 3 1/2" black cloud "make ducks fall like raaaaaiiin" shell, and watched dumbfounded as the goose made a b-line right for me. The shame was entirely on the goose as he fell down to the water, more like hail than rain, but I was not about to lodge a complaint with Federal Ammunition's advertising department, and released a loud "whoop" instead. Rule 1!!!

While Scotia swam out to the fallen Canada, I waded back to the shore, watching Jake as he spun the boat around the diving crippled black duck. I saw a splash next to the boat, and laughed at the distant blur when I realized he was attempting to capture the elusive duck by walloping it with the wooden oar. The duck dove again, the boat spun again, and another splash indicated another attempt with the oar. I was laughing pretty uncontrollably at this time, for Jake has only been duck hunting for 3 weeks now, and this was his first time chasing down a cripple. Jake, an intelligent college graduate and business founder, reached into his education arsenal and modified his capturing technique, opting for a more literary approach. Obviously he had taken "Maritime Literature", one of the classes offered at Middlebury College, for he stood up on the bow of the boat, oar held over his shoulder, and like Captain Ahab chasing after the evasive whale, threw the oar into the water like a harpoon! I fell to the ground laughing, rolling around on the bank, and unfortunately for Jake, further depreciating the condition of his ham sandwich reward.

I wondered why he had not simply stopped the boat and shot the crippled duck to ease his retrieve, and looked over to the blind to see his Beretta over-under leaning against the reeds. RULE 1!!!!!. I decided to lend a hand and waded back out as far as my waders allowed, holding up my gun so he would know to come back and get it. The boat turned around and Jake glided in, jovially laughing over his ill-fated attempts, "I think I need a gun" he said through his toothy grin, "rule 1" was all that I
replied. So I handed him my Mossberg and began the journey back to the blind, realizing too late that although I had cripple loads in the magazine, there was still a 3 1/2" Blackcloud in the chamber... Jake motored back out to the downed bird, and I saw a small splash as it dove to hide. He eased the boat to a halt where the black duck had just submerged and turned off the engine. What followed next was one of the most hilarious, and for Jake, most informative, hunting moments of all time. I saw Jake shoulder the 12-gauge and aim it not 10 yards in front of the boat, 'this is going to be good', I thought. The sound of the shot did not reach me until seconds after I saw a gigantic splash in the water and the expulsion of a drake black duck 4 feet into the air before falling dead to the surface. Back onto the ground I rolled, Scotia rolled next to me, obviously enjoying the moment as much as I. When Jake returned to the blind with the battered duck, he had only two things to say: "I think I was a little close", and "should be 'make ducks sink like rock'". Fortunately Jake's close-quarter shooting did not ruin either breasts and conveniently enough gutted the duck for us.

So in summation, there are probably a million rules that will better your duck hunting chances, however Rule 1 is the one that should be the most meticulously followed. Chances are that ducks will lower their landing gear not only while you remain hidden in your blind, but also while you are waist deep in the open water stowing your decoys. Remember that waterfowl hunting is pretty easy, but don't forget the fundamentals. Rule 1 is guaranteed to add more ducks to your stringer. And if it doesn't, I'll give you a consolation ham sandwich.