This etiquette document emerged from personal duck and goose hunting experiences while on public lands. During our hunts on the refuges, we started to recognize situational patterns, both productive and destructive, and felt compelled to develop a resource to help other public refuge waterfowlers better understand some of the key, yet sometimes obscure issues while goose or duck hunting. Most of the challenges we directly observed, or learned about from other Refuge Rats, centered on a key issue - lack of information.
Until recently, there has not been a comprehensive etiquette resource for public land hunters to refer to while in the field. Our objectives were to bridge the information gap and provide a focused refuge hunting resource, with the end goal of helping to improve the quality of duck and goose hunting for all. For you the Refuge Rat, our hope is that the Field Etiquette RatGuide helps you to consistently shoot big bags of in your face birds while waterfowling on public lands. Enjoy!
Duck and Goose Hunting Etiquette at a Public Refuge?
Are you kidding me? Isn't a public refuge a free for all? Can't I just do what I want? Well, yes and no.
It is true that many popular refuges and public lands around the country are first-come, first-serve in many aspects, such as reservations or designated blind draws, but once public hunters enter into an unregulated field, marsh or body of water, the situation can become hazy at best. Confrontational at worst.
So given that, we are offering the following Field Etiquette RatGuide that both seasoned (sometimes even the experienced need a refresher too) and new refuge hunters might use as a reference while duck or goose hunting in the field. Though there are exceptions to every guideline, starting with a solid foundation is a great beginning.
And even though we offer these guidelines, it is not a replacement for using your common sense. So think about the type of hunting experience you want while hunting public refuges, and then make it happen.
Be Prepared at Public Lands and Federal Refuges
When arriving at a refuge or other public land for a hunt when there are other waterfowlers present, be ready to keep the process flowing. At state or federal lands that have a check-in process, keeping the line moving is important as everyone is competing against the clock to get signed-in, and set up in the field before the birds start working.
You should already understand check-in processes, applicable fees (some areas request exact payment), licensing requirements (signed Federal stamps, or other special stamps), and area specific information such as water levels, closed zones, shot shell limitations, shoot times, or field / blind conditions before stepping in line. In addition, have all other pertinent information at your disposal, including driver's, vehicle, or boat license numbers.
To make the most of your hunt, the best time to do research or ask questions is well in advance of your hunt, and most information is available online, by phone, or visiting the hunt area during non-peak hunting times. Most likely if you wait until the last minute to learn about a hunt area, especially if it is new to you, you will be disappointed with the results of your hunt. So make the most of all your hunts and be prepared prior to your hunt day.
Goals: MasterRat - always fully prepared. SeniorRat - sometimes prepared. JuniorRat - rarely or never prepared.
Cooperate, Be Polite and Respectful on State Wildlife Life Areas
A lot of experienced refuge hunters have discovered that cooperation in the field with other hunters will go miles for you or your hunting group. The cooperation can improve both parties hunting success and the overall experience. That cooperation can include a variety of areas from choosing your hunting position to calling at working birds.
These same experienced hunters have also learned that respect and being polite towards other hunters can sometimes work miracles in awkward situations while you are standing waist deep in water at 4:50 in the morning with your decoys on your back and sweat pouring down your face. Being polite and respectful will sometimes open doors for you in the field with strangers that you never dreamed possible. You have very little to lose and everything to gain.
Goals: MasterRat - easily adapts to any situation. SeniorRat - adapts to most situations. JuniorRat - adapts to some or no situations.
When arriving at your field in the pitch black hours of the morning, look for flashlights and listen for noises such as voices, rumbling decoy bags, or splashing water that will alert you to the presence of other hunters. If you are unsure if your chosen field is already occupied, shine your light and yell out repeatedly to determine if another hunting party is present. If the coast is clear, head on in, otherwise it is probably best to keep moving.
Conversely, if you are already at your chosen hunting location, keep an eye and ear out for the presence of approaching hunters while brushing your blind and setting your decoys. Stopping every so often to listen will many times tip you off to other duck or goose hunters in the area. Sometimes in the hustle of the morning, it is easy to miss the signs of other waterfowlers, especially in thick habitat, so be respectful if another hunter accidentally navigates to your hole. Politely make your presence known, and any knowledgeable hunter should realize their mistake, and move on to plan B.
Simply, by each hunter announcing their presence as early as possible, it allows everyone to make the best use of their limited pre-dawn hunt time, and move on to other unoccupied areas as efficiently as possible for a great day in the field.
Goals: MasterRat - always alert. SeniorRat - mostly alert. JuniorRat - rarely alert.
Have Multiple Hunt Plans
Anticipate that your chosen hunting spot is going to be occupied by another group, especially if you are arriving late and have at least one if not more back up plans. Sometimes the best thing to do is just move on and go to plan B, especially if you prefer to hunt working birds.
Though sometimes in larger areas, several groups can hunt in proximity to each other, if there is enough space to allow for safe shooting and ample room to let birds work. Cooperation as mentioned earlier is also important in these situations. The best rule of thumb to follow is to get as far away from any other groups as possible. Remember, all it takes is one stray pellet to cause someone to lose their eyesight. Be safe.
Ideally, there should be at least 250 yards between hunting groups to allow birds to work well. More distance is always better. Ducks, especially bigger birds, will usually make large circles when decoying. These consecutive passes, which can easily number six or more times, will often be wide, considerably wider than 250 yards. Simply, if the birds do not have enough room to work, then they cannot decoy properly.
If hunting geese, the distance between hunting parties should be increased even further to allow for their behavior of making even wider passes.
Give the birds room to work, and you will be amazed at how close you can decoy them for in your face shots.
Goals: MasterRat - has three or more hunt plans on any given day. SeniorRat - has one to two hunt plans. JuniorRat - has one or no hunt plans.
Be Patient while Hunting Public Refuges
Patience is one quality that will pay off big in the field. It is not always easy to do, especially when hunting is slow day after day, but it will improve the quality of your hunts and put more birds in your bag in the long run. If your goal is to hunt for limits of big birds, this is especially valid. Simply, waiting quietly and motionless will create more shooting opportunities during your hunt day. Being patient and disciplined go hand and hand.
Goals: MasterRat - can consistently remain patient. SeniorRat - sometimes patient. JuniorRat - rarely patient.
Arrive Early and Leave Late
Watch your arrival and departure times while hunting public refuges as it impacts waterfowl behavior. Your presence on roads, levies, waterways, and in hunt fields during the prime hunting hours of the early morning or late afternoon is not only noticed by other hunters, but also waterfowl. Waterfowl that would typically continue to work an area without your presence, will many times get spooked, and fly off as soon as they identify you. So the best strategy is arrive early and leave late, avoiding any travel during prime hunting hours.
In the event you do get caught in the open, the best thing you can do is slowly crouch down, keep your head and face low, and stay still. Two conditions will spook waterfowl quickly (there are other things too), but these are at the top of the list, your uncamouflaged face and movement. So stay still, keep your head down, and let the birds work.
Goals: MasterRat - practices excellent field entry and exit behavior. SeniorRat - mostly good field behavior. JuniorRat - rarely good field behavior.
A good, natural looking blind will do wonders to improve your hunting success, allowing the opportunity for closer working birds and shooting. The more natural looking, the better, so select blind materials that look similar to the habitat you are hunting. Well constructed blinds blend into the hunt area almost seamlessly.
(It can not be emphasized enough that proper concealment is the foundation for great hunts, so make the commitment to perfect your camouflaging skills. It is one of the key waterfowling factors you have complete control over, and makes a huge difference in success. Simply, if your concealment is poor, your duck and goose hunts will suffer.)
Feel up to a challenge? If so, then take the Blind Challenge. learn more...
Plan Carefully and Tread Lightly
Also, when hunting designated blind sites, or other well established blinds, be careful to avoid damaging blind materials. It's easy to get excited after you just dropped a plump late season duck, but busting through the blind will destroy a good hide quickly. Hunters and dogs can wreak havoc on a blind quickly if care is not taken.
One strategy is to designate a single blind entry and exit point, and only enter and exit the blind from that location. In that way, traffic is restricted to a single path, and the cover remains intact. When creating your blind path, it is generally best to establish the path on the opposite side of your decoys. As tules and other natural materials can be fragile, you may only get one opportunity to create a path, so plan carefully; factors to consider include flight patterns, levies or roads, sun direction, and field of view. Ideal blind paths are narrow, and either have one sharp "L" bend, or a curved shape such as the letter "C," which keeps low approaching birds from seeing down the path into your hide. If there are other tule patches or other clumps of natural materials, with careful planning, you can use these other materials to obscure the entrance to your blind path too.
Note - It is worth mentioning that birds are normally shy of levies or roads and will avoid them, so when creating your blind do so deep enough into the hunt area to allow birds to work closely over your hide for good kill shots.
It may also be tempting to fold over, and sit on tules or other natural cover, but crushing blind materials can make it harder to hide which will negatively effect your hunt. If you need to store gear, or feel you need to take a nap or rest your legs, do so far enough away to keep the blind's natural cover upright and in good shape. As for gear storage, one strategy is to hide gear in one tule patch or other area separate from your blind. Make sure to properly hide your gear as well, including boats, day packs, carts, or shiny plastic decoy tubs. It may make sense to place your dog and dog stand in another location too.
If tule patches are too tall overall, consider clipping the tops off some of the tules to reduce the height of part of the tule patch, but the height reduction needs to make sense. If a tule patch is ten feet in height, you can clip off part of the tule patch to eight and then six feet in height which creates a nice countoured look to the patch, and eases the transition from the shorter to taller tules.
If hides are too sparse, you can add in other similar materials to your blind to provide better concealment. When birds are wary, you can also carefully snug the tops of your hide closer to you to create a narrower diameter opening for birds to see down into. When birds work overhead, simply freeze, and allow them to pass over your position without moving. Once you freeze, keep your head down, and scan the sky just with your eyes till you pick up the birds again. Once the birds have passed, you can freely move again.
When collecting materials for your blind, gather similar looking branches, grasses, or tules far from your blind. Hacking materials in close proximity to your shooting position can create the unwanted effect of disturbed or bare spots, and an unnatural appearance which defeats the purpose of a good hide in the first place. Your blind and the natural environment around it should look, well, natural.
Also, leave a blind in better condition than what you found it. Take the time to add appropriate cover and pack out any trash. The next group of hunters will appreciate it, and who knows, it may be you and your group that may be hunting that same spot next. Take care of the blind, and the blind will take care of you.
Goals: MasterRat - constructs blinds that are undetectable from both close or afar. SeniorRat - blinds are undetectable from afar. JuniorRat - blinds are detectable from afar.
Most refuge hunters enjoy hunting decoying birds, so bring your own decoys, find ample room to let birds work your spread, and have a great time. There is not much more rewarding than having a flock of ducks or geese in your face, back pedaling into your decoys.
As to how many decoys to pack, and of what species is a loaded question. It depends on a number of factors, including species of duck or goose targeted, size of habitat such as pothole or open water, as well as how the birds are currently behaving. If you are hunting public lands by foot, there is a good chance there are puddle ducks available, including mallard. It makes good sense to start with a small spread of mallard decoys, maybe a dozen. In some hunting situations, shear numbers of decoys are important, but for most small to medium sized waters, a fewer number of decoys will work well. Most ducks will decoy to mallard decoys so they are your most versatile species if you are just starting to invest in your spread.
Motion Decoys and Devices
Motion decoys. Are they controversial? You bet. Some states have banned them, and then reintroduced them. Refuge Rats are known for their ingenuity, and as such there are all sorts of contraptions available today, but for duck hunting the most popular device by far is the spinning wing decoy.
Do they work? Sometimes yes, sometimes even really well. But for finishing birds, and decoying them into your lap for nice close kills, motion decoys can also have an unwanted effect of discouraging birds from making their final decent. If you do not regularly have the opportunity to kill birds in the 20 yard range, something is wrong. It may be your blind or other concealment, hunter movement, decoy setup, calling, or something else such as your motorized decoy. If you think it's the decoy, then turn it off, as it's doing more harm than good.
More does not always mean better too. Stacking a number of spinning wing decoys into your spread until is looks like a wind farm is often counter-productive. Though ducks may be initially attracted to the movement, after they take a look, they won't stick around. Again, if you are not consistently fooling ducks into close killing range, step back, think about what you are observing with the birds' behavior, and make an adjustment.
Goals: MasterRat - consistently decoys birds to 15-25 yards, or less. SeniorRat - decoys birds to 25-35 yards. JuniorRat - decoys birds 35 plus yards.
Though pass shooting is another option for hunting a refuge, no matter what species of waterfowl you prefer to hunt, learning to know how and when to call (and when not to call is just as important too) will help you reap huge rewards in your hunting success.
Depending on the species and your hunting environment, learning to call can be either relatively easy or challenging. The most popular type of waterfowl call is of course the mallard duck call.
Now which call sounds most like a hen mallard continues to be the subject of heated debate. In reality, ducks have different voices just like people, varying in pitch from deep to high, and everything in between. What is more important than the pitch, is the language. Similar to the human spoken word, ducks vary their language too. Just like humans adjust communication variables, such as speed, inflections, and accents to deliver their intended message, ducks do the same.
In some hunting environments, aggressive calling is needed to put ducks on the water, but for many hunts, less calling is generally more productive. If you find ducks are hanging at 50 yards, and won't break under that height, something is amiss. Again, it could be one of a number of factors, but think about your calling too, and make a correction if you suspect the ducks are not loving your tune. Trying backing off first, with more subtle calling and see if that does the trick. Sometimes during a hunt there can be a fine line between too much calling, and not enough to seal the deal. It can be tricky in these situations, but super fun too as it challenges your skills. It will definitely make you a better caller.
When hunting near others, aggressive calling at the same birds from different hunting groups can be counter-productive if not done correctly, with the end result of the birds being chased out of the area, and nobody getting a shot. Working together is extremely important in these situations.
There is really no substitute for time in the field to help you better understand duck behavior, and how to make real-time calling adjustments.
Mallard calls are primarily available in double and single reed versions, though there are some non-traditional exotics too. Double-reed calls are generally easier to blow, and there are some outstanding calls available today that approach the performance of it's bigger brother, the single-reed duck call.
The king though is the single reed. It is true, single-reed calls are generally harder to learn, but with the right instruction and practice, anyone can become proficient enough to decoy birds. The primary advantage of a single-reed call is its ability to produce a wider range of sounds, and that translates to a larger vocabulary to talk with the ducks.
There are of course the whistling ducks, including widgeon, teal, sprig, and wood duck. They too can be fun to call, and are usually more forgiving than mallard.
Goals: MasterRat - highly skilled at calling species of choice. SeniorRat - semi-skilled at calling some species. JuniorRat - struggles at calling any species.
Learn to Identify Waterfowl
Shooting at waterfowl when you don’t know the species can lead to several problems. The obvious one is breaking the law.
The other issue has to do with hunting success and the quality of your bag. Some species can resemble each other to the untrained eye, especially during poor visibility conditions. It should come as no surprise then, that at the end of a hunt, if you don’t know what you are shooting at, then you are probably not going to end up with the types of birds you want in your bag.
Simply, shoot at waterfowl when you are positive of the species, and that species is the waterfowl you desire.
Goals: MasterRat - easily identifies any waterfowl from both close or afar. SeniorRat - identifies most waterfowl when close, and some when afar. JuniorRat - identifies few or no waterfowl when close, and none when afar.
Take the time to become a good shot. Generally you will have cleaner kills the closer you are to the birds. It many times also takes more skill to hunt birds at a closer range.
Keep the Ducks Dumb
If you don't kill your birds, then you run the risk of "educating" the ducks or geese, making it more difficult later on to work the those same birds into an effective kill range. As birds become more "educated," recognizing the conditions under which they get shot at, they tend to "hang" over your spread, and won't finish into the decoys. They will also fly at higher yardages when traveling from point A to point B.
Though it can be tempting, shooting into large flocks can also have the negative impact of educating birds. Though you may kill one or two birds from the flock, the remaining birds that fly off have just learned the conditions that are dangerous to them. As such, consider targeting smaller flocks of birds to minimize bird education which benefits you, as well as other hunters.
Minimize Crippled Birds
Just as bad is crippling your birds, and losing them. Some folks hunt with dogs, and some don't. Even with a well trained dog you are not guaranteed to retrieve a crippled bird that lands in heavy cover. Bottom line, know your shooting limits and be prepared to exercise some discipline.
You a great shot? Then take the Top Gun RefugeRat™ Challenge more info...
And if you do cripple a bird, be prepared to chase it. You owe it to the sport and the game you are attempting to harvest. If safe to do so, it is generally better to take an on-the-water cripple shot earlier than later, so be aggressive. Sometimes looking for cripples can take up to a half hour or so. If you don't like chasing cripples which in reality cuts into your hunting time, then a good strategy to reduce this situation goes back to shooting your birds at a closer range for higher percentage kill shots.
Retrieve Birds Efficiently
When retrieving your birds, do so quickly and efficiently. A normal retrieve should take no more than a few minutes. During the retrieve, your actions will often shutdown the hunting for other nearby groups, especially if additional cripple shots are taken on the water. Yelling, splashing, and extra dog work can also negatively effect others that are actively hunting. In the end, be quick and courteous.
Strive for Lethal Shooting
Fewer shots can also mean better working birds because when ducks and geese hear nearby shooting, they will many times quit working your spread. So if the next hunting party a couple fields over is blazing away, but not connecting on their shots, then they are spooking most every bird in ear shot, and they are not only hurting their success rate, but also yours. And this suggestion applies both ways. If you are burning up shells with no or few connections, then both your and the other hunting group's success is negatively affected too. Simply, fewer shots translates to a quieter environment, more relaxed waterfowl, and closer working birds.
Goals: MasterRat - one to two shots per bird in hand. SeniorRat - three shots. JuniorRat - four plus shots. Note - if you are hunting divers, double these numbers, as diving ducks are generally harder to cleanly kill.
Bring Your Dog
Well trained hunting dogs are not only great companions, but also excellent conservation and efficiency tools. In the event you find yourself looking for a missing bird, dogs can often shorten the recovery time, allowing the duck or goose hunt to resume as quickly as possible and minimize field disturbances. This is especially crucial when the birds are active during a narrow time frame. When the minutes are stacked against you, efficiency is key, and you need to take advantage of every asset available to you while decoying, shooting, and collecting your birds.
Conversely, a mis-behaved dog can create a significant amount of hunting disruption in the field for working birds, and other hunters, so take the time during the off season to fine tune your pooch's skills. You will reap the rewards many times over.
Goals: MasterRat - dog is well trained. SeniorRat - dog is somewhat trained. JuniorRat - dog is poorly trained.
Garbage is garbage. If you brought it with you, then take it when you leave. And better yet, if someone leaves something behind, be the bigger person and pack it out.
Also, shiny cans, bottles or others items such as packaging wrappers can sometimes catch the sun just right, creating a reflection. How natural do you think that looks to a cautiously working mallard?
Take a one-gallon ziplock bag with you into the field. It's ideal for collecting shell casings and wads, as well as cheap and reusable. You can also toss empty water bottles into your decoy bag for easy transport out of the field.
Take the Trash Challenge. learn more...
Goals: MasterRat - always packs out any and all trash. SeniorRat - consistently packs out own trash, sometimes others. JuniorRat - rarely or never packs out any trash.
Exit the Field and Refuge Efficiently
When you have wrapped up your public land goose or duck hunt, and there are other hunters waiting to enter the refuge, exiting the field efficiently helps other hunters get out to hunt too. This is especially valid on opening or closing weekends, or other days that historically attract larger numbers of hunters. If you feel the need to eat or take a nap before the drive home, consider doing so after you have exited the property (of course only if you feel safe to do so). And who knows it may be you the one waiting to get in next time around.
Goals: MasterRat - always exits the refuge efficiently. SeniorRat - mostly exits the refuge efficiently. JuniorRat - never or infrequently exits the refuge efficiently.
Respect Public Hunting Locations
If you are invited as a guest to a public hunting spot, be respectful of your host and their graciousness, both during and after the hunt. Taking the time to learn new areas, and discover productive hunting fields or waters can involve considerable resources, so returning to hunt a location after being introduced to it without your original host is considered poor behavior by most public land hunters.
Goals: MasterRat - always respects their host. SeniorRat - mostly respects their host. JuniorRat - infrequently or never respects their host.
RatHunts - Put it all Together on Public Lands and Refuges
When all the elements come together, duck or goose hunting can be a fantastic experience. A lot of the factors that can make or break a hunt, you as a Refuge Rat can help influence. Focus on honing the hunter behaviors and skills shared here in the Field Etiquette RatGuide to stack the odds in your favor, and we guarantee the quality and overall experience of your hunts will improve. You can also share your experiences, challenges, and successes, as well as ask questions here. RatSkills...
Goals: MasterRat - effectively manages all factors for frequent quality hunts. SeniorRat - manages most factors for some semi-quality hunts. JuniorRat - manages few factors, and has lower quality or poor hunts.
Help Spread the Word
As an added way to help other waterfowlers learn about the RatGuide, we have created the following PDF document that highlights the key issues. This is the generic version, but if you are serious about helping to spread the word, drop us an email, and we will create a custom version just for you with your username already added. That is about as easy as it gets! RatGuide Handout (PDF)...
Improving the Field Etiquette RatGuide
The RatGuide is a living document and will continue to expand over time. The primary purpose of the guide is to help increase hunter success rate, and improve the quality of hunting experiences while waterfowling on public lands and refuges. As the RatGuide is based on personal waterfowling experiences, your contributions as a Rat are important. If you have suggestions for improvements or changes you would like to see, then please let us know.
As after all, we are all a pack of Rats. Thanks. firstname.lastname@example.org
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