by Chris Larsen
About ten years ago I considered opening day a dress rehearsal for the "real" duck season. Opening day was for working the kinks out so that you were a well oiled hunting machine by the time the red legged northern mallards arrived. With family and work commitments encroaching on the hunting schedule these days, opening day is often my best chance for a quality shoot until the snow begins fly. Being unprepared for opening day is no longer an option. Here's my ten tips for opening day success.
Scouting is important all season, but it may be more important during opening day. It's been my experience that 10% of the hunters shoot 90% of the opening day ducks. There are far more hunters coming back empty handed than guys with loaded up game straps. Scouting is almost always the difference. Five years ago, we headed out to a lake that I had hunted every year for opening day. As I pulled up to the boat launch I was horrified to see the water was down about 3 feet. The lake was unnavigable and completely duckless. My slam dunk lake had been drawn down and was a complete bust. If I would have spent an hour to stop by and check it out, my opening day would not have been wasted that year.
2. Check The Dekes
About 15% of my decoy spread is made up of decoys that were purchased by someone else. I always mark them with the words "ON LOAN". Most of the time I find them floating down a river with no string attached. They were once proud members of someone else's flock but migrated to mine because that someone else never checked his knots. Check the knots on all your decoys before opening day. It's a good job for August when you're chomping at the bit to hunt but still a month away. As long as the faux flock is out, touch up any paint that's needed too.
Here's another opening day story from a few years back for you. After expertly placing my decoy spread, I reached under my spinning wing decoy and flipped on the switch. Nothing. I jiggled it. Nothing. The battery simply died over the off season and there was no replacing the battery in rural Nowheresville. I was banished to hunting the old fashioned way that day.
3. Inspect The Boat
If a boat is necessary to get to your hunting hole, don't wait until opening morning to take a good look at your boat. Inspect the hull and make sure the plug is in. If it's been a while since you've changed the oil in the lower unit, do that too. If you've never done it before, it's far easier than you think. Check the lights and take a look at the prop pin. If it's starting to look wore out, replace that as well. As waterfowlers, we put our equipment through torture. Last season, I sheared the cotter pin right off. I salvaged a piece of it to get a little further down the river. It didn't last long and eventually I had to paddle the rest of the way.
4. Test Your Waders
Most hunting waders are hung up or folded into a tote at the end of the season never to be seen again until the following year. Dry rot, insect or rodent infestation, and just simple wear and tear can destroy waders. Pull them out and take a good look before packing them for opening day. If there is water in the area, put your waders on and go test them out. Better to find out in August than opening day.
5. Prepare The Dog
Waterfowling isn't as physically straining as upland hunting. Unfortunately, if dogs aren't conditioned for duck hunting, the risk of drowning is high. Keep your dog in shape by regularly running them. Dogs love water retrieves and any opportunity you have to throw them bumpers in the water will pay off. The dog gets the same conditioning of running but without the pressure on his joints and the risk of overheating.
A trip to the vet is also a good idea. The veterinarian can spot injuries or illness. If you hunt in an area with Lyme's Disease, vaccinate your dog. It's not 100% effective but it's extra protection. Flea and tick repellant is also a necessity. I always pack an antihistamine as well. Insects and noxious weeds are plentiful early in the season. An antihistamine like Benadryl can help revive your dog from an allergic reaction.
6. Take A Look At Your Gun
If it's been a while since your shotgun has been out of the safe, take it out and clean it thoroughly. It's a good idea to head out to the local range and shoot some skeet or trap. Another piece of advice is to buy a sling. Not just the cheapest sling you can find. Buy one with neoprene backing. This will make the sling literally stick to your shoulder. They are far more comfortable and hands free than traditional slings.
7. Pack For The Day
Opening day is best known for heat and bugs. Be sure to pack plenty of cold water. I like to bring along a soft side cooler. They don't take up as much room as the hard coolers and at the end of the day, they fit right into your pocket. Don't forget to wear camo layers. If you wear a white t-shirt under your camo, you'll be wearing your top layer all day. That could be pretty warm. I like to bring along some camo make up to dirty my arms while wearing the t-shirt. Don't forget to bring insect repellent. The skeeters can get pretty thick on opening day.
8. Get There Early
In my state and many others opening day legal shooting time starts later than normal. This leads a lot of hunters to leave the house late. I've always used this to my advantage. There is no doubt some places are just better than others. Opening day is also the busiest day of the season. So in my opinion, getting to a choice point or island is more important on opening day than at any other point in the season. I like to arrive at the same time I normally would and sit back, relax, and watch the sun come up. Remember, in many states you can't set decoys until an hour before the opening bell. Check your regulations.
Duck hunting probably has the most ever changing regulation set of all hunting. Seasons are constantly revised to facilitate an ever changing waterfowl population. So much is dependent upon spring habitat quality. There is almost always something different from the season before. Knowing the current regulations before a visit with the warden can save you a lot of money.
10. Waterfowl ID
Pick up an ID book and study it before the season starts. Even veteran waterfowlers misidentify birds sometimes. Knowing what you are shooting at is not only important in avoiding a potential citation, it's one of the many things that makes waterfowling so rewarding.
Enjoy your opener and stay safe.