11 Rules For Public-Land Duck Hunting

Public waterfowl hunting is a grand tradition of fist fighting, blind burnings and tire slashings. But it wouldn’t have to be if folks simply minded their manners.
11 Rules For Public-Land Duck Hunting

Our decoys were set, and we were arranging our seats behind some buckbrush on the bank when the other boat idled into the bay. He panned his spotlight across our spread, pulled up onto the bank 50 yards away and began rummaging through his own decoys. This situation wasn’t going to end well, and we all knew it. Before long, the guy spoke up.

“For future reference,” he said, “I hunt here, so you all will need to go somewhere else. But I’ll let it slide today.”

By here, he meant the public shoreline where we stood, and where my boat arrived first. So I suggested that, rather than pull in late and attempt to set up 50 yards from where our decoys were already bobbing, he could choose any number of other hunting spots from the 170 miles of available taxpayer-owned shoreline. (I may not have used those exact words, but you get the idea.)

The situation quickly devolved into a shouting cuss match, complete with threats of ass whippings from both parties. For a bit, it seemed we’d surely be going to blows over a mud hole, but the other guy finally jumped in his boat and roared out of the pocket. I’d like to say it was my clever wit that ran him off, but truth be told, it was probably my 6-foot, 3-inch hunting buddy standing in silence and knurling his fists next to me. Regardless, I sat there fretting for the remainder of the morning that the tires on my truck at the boat ramp would be slashed. Fortunately, they weren’t.

Waterfowling is classically portrayed as a gentleman’s sport complete with glorious sunrises, shared coffee and moments of reverent silence in the blind. Friends take turns picking out the drakes (only) and shooting them feet-down with over/under shotguns. If that describes your days afield, fantastic. Cherish them.

But day in and day out, most hunters grind through their season on public water, competing with scores of other hunters. Tolerance shouldn’t be confused with friendship. On occasion, someone beats someone else to a favored spot. Someone moves in too close. Someone skybusts or calls on the swings or even snatches up someone else’s dead bird. And in a pursuit dominated largely by competitive men, these situations can turn ugly real fast.

Throughout Duck Country, there are true tales of blind burnings, decoy sinkings and tire slashing, and yes, indeed, good old-fashioned ass whippings. We can pretend they don’t happen, or we can all observe a few etiquette rules that, while maybe not guaranteeing we all join hands and sing Kumbaya, at least keep us from fist fighting in front of the children.

He Who Gets There First, Hunts There First

This should be a no-brainer, but like the story above illustrates, it’s one of the most frequent causes of serious conflict on public land. Remember it’s just that: public. Everyone has the same right to hunt there you do, regardless of whether they’re a seasoned local or an out-of-state beginner.

If you want to make sure you get the spot you’ve scouted, and be absolutely in the right by setting up there, get up earliest and get there first. Proper etiquette says if someone gets there after you, it’s their obligation to hunt elsewhere. If they set up too close, be polite but prompt in telling them. In many areas, there are laws regarding how close hunters can legally set up to one another. It’s not only a courtesy issue, but a safety issue. If a conflict arises, simply walk away and contact law enforcement.

Know The Blind Laws

Many of the most popular public waterfowling areas have strict permanent blind laws. In some areas, parties of hunters put in for a lottery each season in hopes of drawing a blind location all to themselves. In many cases, though, there are still obligations: hunters with a “pinned” blind must arrive at least a half hour before shooting light, or the blind becomes open to the public. In addition, there is often a minimum distance freelancing hunters must maintain from a permanent blind. Know the regulations for the area you’re hunting. Infringements of those no longer become etiquette issues, but game law issues. And violating game laws is never acceptable.

Keep Your Distance And Avoid Cutting Off

Some public places “hunt bigger” than others. Although the standard minimum courtesy (and at times, legal) distance from another group of hunters is 200 yards, I’ve had good shoots with other hunters set up as close as 75 yards away. Often, that’s a case of knowing the other group and actually coordinating the setup with them ahead of time.

How far to set up from another group all depends on the area and conditions. If one group of hunters sets up at the back of a tiny pocket and you set up at the mouth where all the ducks enter, you’re effectively cutting the other guys off. By the same token, if there’s a strong wind blowing and a group sets up 100 yards downwind of you, they’re cutting you off. Potential conflicts in this situation usually can be avoided with a friendly chat at the beginning of the morning and an adherence to the next two rules.

Don’t Call Or Shoot Someone Else’s Swings

A flock of ducks in the distance is anyone’s game. You’re set up on the X, so they’re probably coming to you. And if not, you’ve got lungs. Call those suckers in. But when birds are interested in someone else’s spread — and you can tell when they are — leave them alone. If you call, or, heaven forbid, shoot, on birds swinging around for another party’s final approach, do not expect back-slapping and congrats at the boat ramp.

If You’re Late, Don’t Mess Everyone Else Up Setting Up

Say what? The ice in all that whiskey gave you a headache and you slept in? That’s fine. You might miss the morning flight, but many a duck has been downed from midmorning on.

But here’s the thing. Those guys who beat you out there may have been shivering in the dark for hours, holding their spot and preparing for that first flight. They didn’t drink too much last night, and they didn’t miss their alarm. Don’t motor up on them five minutes after legal light, scrambling for a spot to set up. Get there on time like everyone else. If you miss out, sit back, watch the birds, see where everyone else is hunting, and then go sit in another spot to nurse your hangover. Nothing helps a booze headache like 3 ½-inch magnum 12-gauge blasts.

And Speaking of Calling …

Much as you believe you can, you probably cannot blow a call as good as Antonio Jones. After 19 flocks of ducks ignore your piercing high-balls, it’s time to stop. You probably won’t hear the collective sighs of relief from all the other hunters around you, but rest assured they are being made.

Observe Boat Ramp Courtesy

See that whole big parking lot? It’s exponentially larger than the ramp itself. And it’s a great place to park and don your waders. And transfer your blind bag and shotgun from the truck to the boat. And wait for the dog and your buddy to crap in the woods. And plug in your spotlight and ensure the boat plug is secure. While you’re doing this, others who have done the same as you’re doing now can go ahead and launch their own boats on the ramp, unencumbered by you being parked directly in the way. See how that works?  

After launching, and after loading your boat, allow a few minutes for the water to drain back into the river before driving up the ramp. Though it’s less of an adventure, boat ramps are more enjoyable to use when they’re not caked in a sheet of ice.

Keep Your Dog In Check

I’m sure your dog comes from an impeccable bloodline, but that doesn’t mean I want him breaking loose, barging up into my blind and siring a litter with my dog at this very moment. Or fetching dead ducks from my decoys to add to your limit.

Please, if you can’t control your dog, keep him tethered. That old sympathy line of, “Don’t mind him; he’s just a pup,” doesn’t go far if said pup is ruining someone else’s hunt.

Don’t Sky Bust

You know that point in the season where it seems like none of the ducks and geese want to work? It’s because they’re terrified to sit down. Anywhere. And that’s because every time they swing lower than about 120 yards, steel pellets whiz by them, followed by cacophonies of tiny explosions.

Waterfowl aren’t really capable of problem-solving, level thinking. But they are capable of associating decoys with gunfire and gunfire with danger — if they survive it. I can all but guarantee if you’re shooting at a duck from 75 yards, he will survive it and remember it. Regardless of your killer shell and custom choke, your effective range is about 40 yards, give or take. Keep it there, and everyone around you will be better off because of it.

Don’t Brag On The Internet

Want to ensure the sweet new spot you’ve found will be overrun with hoodlums the next time you’re out? Post a bunch of pictures of your strap of birds online and tell everyone where you shot them. “Greenheads were thick at Gar Hole WMA this mornin’.”

There are people in this world scanning the Internet in their parents’ basement, wearing their Max-4 boxers and eating Cheetos, just waiting to glean a hot hunting tip from a waterfowl chat forum. This, you see, saves them the trouble of doing the scouting themselves.

If Someone Shows You, Keep it Quiet …

This one is a tightrope. Yes, technically it is public land, and technically you have a right to be there. But if a buddy takes you to his favorite hunting spot, showing up there the next day with a carload of your other friends ain’t cool.

Always ask before sharing.


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