Waterfowl and Migratory Bird hunting

By Brian Baxter


Waterfowl hunters in northwest Montana are an underestimated group, generally speaking. It takes more than a fair share of both fortitude and skill to hunt ducks, coots, mergansers, and geese. Just imagine getting up before light, on a cold, rainy fall morning, and slithering into your wetland camouflage chest waders. Then rigging up the duck boat, grabbing your shotgun and jumping into your rig with your favorite canine companion. Then launching your vessel into the reeds to set out a spread of duck decoys. Not to mention sitting in the rain in your boat, trying to perfect your duck call, which is an art in itself. My old forester buddy Jim Bush used to go out with his dog in a boat for ducks quite often. Jim lived along the river, and would duck hunt the Kootenai, local lakes, and wetland areas. He always told me the trick to accurately shooting ducks was to lead them properly, and to study how different ducks move in the air. Jim and his duck hunting partner JJ, who really knows his ducks well, did pretty good at that game. Those guys, like many waterfowl hunters used German wirehairs, Labradors, Springer Spaniels, and Retrievers as their sporting dogs.

Other duck and waterfowl hunters utilize blinds and decoys, and some flush and jump shoot waterbirds as they hike along the banks of waterways or wetland marshes. Others kind of still hunt waterfowl, called pass-shooting. This will take some stealth and timing on a cold, windy, rainy or snowy day also. These hunters dress in camouflage and hide out along mini-flyways at dawn or dusk and shoot the birds as they fly by. Identification of Mergansers, Pintails, Redheads, Canvasbacks, Scaup, Coots and Mallards gets tougher in the fall when males are not in their mating plumage, and most females are even more inconspicuous. Here is where an Audubon or Sibley’s bird guide for western birds comes in handy before the hunt as a study guide. Ducks are peculiar as they moult (molt) all of their flight feathers at one time after the breeding season. They are more or less grounded for a while during that time, and are vulnerable to predators at this period.

The eclipse plumage is defined as the dull or colorless plumage that certain birds, such as male ducks acquire at the end of breeding season, and before the winter feathers grow in. Some of these waterfowl species will enter another molt in the fall to replace worn plumage and flight feathers. In the spring, the males moult into their most alluring color schemes. So, it is said that the more camouflage feathers of summer and fall eclipse the bright plumage of spring. To deal with the complexities of moulting and phases of appearance of waterfowl, one can carry pocket guides such as Ducks at a Distance, by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which breaks it down to identifying ducks by flock patterns, silhouette, color areas, and sound. It further breaks it down into groups of puddle, diving, dabbling, and whistling ducks. There are also Ducks Unlimited pocket guides, and the Waterfowl Identification in the Pacific Flyway guide books.

The most popular shotguns for duck hunting are 12 gage, with number three shot, and must be incapable of holding more than three shells, which is solved with duck plugs for your shotgun. General season for waterfowl in the Pacific Flyway started October 3, and runs to January 10, but please see the regulations at fwp.mt.gov for specifics, including Wilson’s Snipe, Mourning Dove, and Sandhill Crane seasons and special drawings. These regulations will also cover Falconry licenses and specifics. Dillon Tabish, Regional Information and Education Program Manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Region One, told The Montanian, “With last years lighter than normal winter and the warm spring temperatures and dry summer months, we expect good results from duck breeding areas and the carry over water gave a good boost to duck production for much of Montana.”

4-Point Whitetail Buck in the bag

Beanka Scott has been hunting with her dad, Mike Scott, for four years. Every year, she has bagged a buck, but this one, she said, “is the biggest I’ve ever seen.” She shot it just south of Noneya Creek (LOL). Photo courtesy of the Scott Family.