Hunting skinny-water wood ducks in Pennsylvania
Cool water flows. Yellowing maple leaves tumble downward, as decoys bob and sway in the current. A camo-clad hunter nestles into a creek-side blowdown, soaking in the dwindling rays of evening sunlight. As shadows lengthen and rolling riffles sing their tune, a squealing whistle emanates downstream – just around the rocky bend.
Seconds later, the wisps of sunlight penetrating the forest floor are fractured by moving shadows – half a dozen of them, rapidly approaching – and the hunter’s eyes track upward toward their source.
Like teetering darts, the birds pitch their wings for descent, and the hunter takes aim with instinctive poise. He fires and drops two from the flock. The rest are gone as quickly as they came. This is skinny water wood duck hunting at its finest.
Here in Pennsylvania, waterfowl hunters have their best opportunity to harvest a prized wood duck in the early October season (Oct. 17-24 in the South Zone; Oct. 10-24 in the North Zone; with later, extended opportunities in the Northwest and Lake Erie Zones). There’s certainly a chance of some hanging around for the late-season hunt if the weather stays mild, but the majority of woodies migrate south with the onset of November’s chillier temperatures.
However, those willing to forego their deer hunting or other small game hunting opportunities during the October season overlap have a good chance of getting a crack at some fine wood duck encounters. Not only are these birds among the most beautiful ducks to inhabit the state, they are fun to hunt and really good eating too.
Perhaps the best thing about wood duck hunting is that it only requires a simplistic approach to be successful. Two or three decoys, a pair of chest waders, a shotgun and handful of steel shot shells, as well as camouflage clothing and the proper licenses are all that’s needed to pursue these fast flying ducks. Then it’s just a matter of finding a place they frequent and gaining access to hunt that property.
While wood ducks are sometimes seen hanging with mallards, they tend to be a bit more reclusive, often opting for secluded haunts tucked back away from heavy traffic. They enjoy meandering streams flowing through timber, which simultaneously offer shade, security and food availability.
These streams need not be overly large, but they should have plenty of structure. Wood ducks love undercut banks and sunken structures, on which they will often roost throughout the mid-day.
Wood ducks forage for a variety of foods, primarily vegetative in nature, but will also eat insects and snails. They really love acorns and wild fruits. If a stand of nut- or fruit-bearing trees is found adjacent to a moving body of water, that’s a good place to seek out woodies.
As far as water layout, wood ducks tend to loaf in open pockets of water, where they have decent room to land and flush but also still feel secure by wooded surroundings. Turn holes and side shoots at a depth of less than 3-feet provide a bit softer water for birds to rest without having to fight the current, making them good locations to plan a stakeout. However, nothing beats personal boots-on-the-ground knowledge of places wood ducks already want to be, making scouting an invaluable asset to the hunt.
When a prime location is discovered, arrive early before daylight and place either a pair or trio of wood duck decoys in a visible area of the soft water. Drop one or two drakes a few feet behind a lone hen, and be sure to leave room for other birds to land.
Wood ducks tend to fly early in the morning and late in the evening, so this strategy can be employed for both morning and evening sits. Wood duck whistles are available on the outdoor market but calling is unnecessary in a good location. Simply put out the decoys and wait for the birds to fly.
Stay ready at all times, as woodies can arrive without warning, and they can top out at speeds of 30 mph. On the swing, be sure to pick out one bird at a time. Give it plenty of lead and follow through at the shot. If you drop the first bird, pick out a second and repeat. Trying to scatter-shoot at the flock as a whole will often result in a miss.
Be sure to mark the location of any downed birds and get on them as quickly as possible, especially if a current is swift. Safely assess the water conditions before wading and use common sense in placing decoys or retrieving birds. Safety should always be a priority.
For those looking to bag a few wood ducks for the table, the October season is by far the best opportunity. It’s a time when birds are here in abundance, and the scenery is tough to beat.
Find a secluded stream running through timber and take post over decoys for an early morning or late evening shot opportunity. It’s one of the best approaches to intercept an unsuspecting flock of skinny-water woodies.