Published By: Engel & Völkers Big Sky Country
Duck and Goose hunting has developed a reputation that isn’t always a welcoming one. A gear and money-heavy sport is an understatement when $60,000 boats, hundreds of decoys, trailers, hunting leases, and fine shotguns have become the ‘rule’. Yet in actuality, all you need for Montana hunting is a minimum of gear and a map to find the immense amount of public hunting areas in our state. A hunter with a dozen decoys and the knowledge of how to find, decoy, and hide from birds, will find success over and over.
My first waterfowl spread was a bag of rubber, collapsible duck decoys, and two goose silhouettes. We hunted walk-in access sites all over Southwest Montana, and we struggled. One or two birds a trip would be unlucky targets, but most would fly wide of our decoys and laugh. My buddies and I thought it was our six-dollar garage sale decoys hurting our effectiveness, but I’ve learned a lot since then as a professional waterfowl guide. It was our lack of knowledge, not lack of equipment that kept us from shooting limits of birds. Waterfowling can be incredibly simple if you want it to be, and spending time learning as much as you can skills-wise will help more than the fanciest gear money can buy.
Starting with basic gear, get yourself a shotgun. I recommend a simple pump like a Remington 870 in 12 gauge. They are cheap, durable, and have killed millions of birds. If recoil is an issue, instead of dropping to a 20 gauge for smaller framed folks, look at a shorter Stoeger auto, one with a 24-inch barrel and shortened stock. Since these simple semi-autos work off the recoil of the shot, shooting 2 ¾ in 12 gauge shells out of them helps with kickback. Waterfowl guns don’t need to be pretty. My personal gun looks like a war relic but fits me well always cycles, and is easy to clean. Spend your money on shells and clays and learn how to shoot. It doesn’t matter how much effort you go through to decoy birds if you can’t hit them when given the opportunity.
One of the best parts of waterfowling is the joy of watching a well-trained retrieving dog work. While not essential to killing birds, it is essential for not losing downed birds. I would never be caught hunting without one over water. A well-trained dog is invaluable for recovering birds, making lost birds a rarity instead of a daily event. A Labrador’s sad eyes when you wake up late in the fall, will inspire you to hunt harder than any other human hunting partner. While a perfectly trained retriever is impressive, remember what makes a good hunting dog is a good sit, stay, retrieve, and recall. Focus on these basics while training and you will have a dog that is lightyears ahead of most. Get a portable dog blind and start place training your dog as a pup in order to develop quite blind behavior. It is easy to become frustrated with young dogs if they move and spook birds, but remember training dogs is a journey, and a few flared birds as a pup will be forgotten with all the birds they will find as they grow and learn.
Most beginner waterfowlers are going to gravitate towards water instead of fields, as hunting over water gives you access to immense amounts of public land in Montana. Waterfowl hunting is allowed below the high-water mark in Montana, but this does not mean it is free-for-all. You or your dog are not allowed to leave the high-water mark onto private ground (that you do not have permission on) to retrieve a downed bird. For this reason, when we hunt below the high water mark we are careful to only take one shot apiece into a group of birds so we can finish cripples with our last two shots. Passing on high groups or going away shots when near private grounds is a good idea so you aren’t risking wounded birds getting away. Remember, this access to all of our public water should be cherished. So always respect other hunters and landowners as you explore.
To access all this amazing public ground, you need waders or a boat. For waders, stick with breathable, not neoprene. Buy the best you can afford, but everyone's first waders tend to leak a bit. It’s a right of passage and will make you enjoy your first quality pair even more! Montana isn’t like Arkansas where we stand thigh-deep in water, waders are a tool for a handful of water crossings and retrieving decoys. Lightweight layers under your waders, as it gets colder, is much more comfortable and the layers keep you warmer than sweaty neoprenes.
Your other option is a boat. I’ve sunk enough canoes in cold water to swear them off, a better option is today's vast array of inflatable kayaks and rafts. While a boat isn’t needed, it will open up more and more public hunting options for you.
Next is a good set of decoys. Most hunters go overboard on decoys at first to try and make up for skill. However, it is important to remember just a couple of decoys placed where birds are already heading will outperform 500 decoys in spots birds don’t naturally use. My guide spread when floating or walking in usually consists of about 6-24 duck decoys, plus a bag of goose silhouettes if geese are using the area. I do believe in flocked heads on my ducks but is certainly not a necessity as they are more expensive. These small spreads are placed exactly where I have seen birds previously using, and the bag of goose silhouettes adds realism and numbers in a very small package. Incorporate a simple jerk rig, a rope with an anchor and bungee, to add movement to duck floaters. A goose flag or a dark hat waved over your head is all the movement you need for geese. Finding where the birds want to be before you decide where to hunt is probably the single most important part of waterfowling. Before each hunt, spend time scouting the days before and learning birds' patterns. Timing is everything in scouting, try and be where you think there will be birds early and note times you see them flying. Right at daybreak is not always the best for all areas, but we do try not to hunt water spots past noon in order to not chase birds out of the area. Try and have a backup plan for each hunt in case you find another hunter heading to the birds you found. Remember public land is everyone's land, so respecting other hunters and having a backup spot can remedy conflicts and help everyone enjoy the resource.
Your hunting blind is the next factor that is overlooked by beginners. Part of the reason I run smaller spreads is so I can spend more time each morning ensuring my hunters and I are perfectly hidden. Spending an extra 20 minutes brushing in your blind can turn a dud hunt into an incredible shoot. Remember if you can see out easily, they can see in easily, bury yourself in the cover. f I'm not wearing camo, I wear drab natural colored clothing. Regardless of what you wear, you shouldn’t be in view behind the blind you create. An iconic piece of waterfowling gear is the call. Calls are invaluable if used properly, but are the least important piece of gear for Montana waterfowl. When calling ducks and geese, less is more in our wide open state. Most areas we hunt have long sightlines and the birds cue visually more so than sound. While learning to call can be a huge asset later on it is not needed to find success in our state.
Lastly, enjoy the process! We live in one of the lowest pressure areas in the country for
waterfowl, which means we still have room to spread out and explore our public lands. You
will spend a good chunk of time scratching your head looking for birds but when you find
them it can all be worth it. Ducks and geese can be incredibly frustrating at times, but when you get it all right, there is no greater thrill. Focus on accumulating knowledge, and
spending money on gas, not gear in order to find the birds. Montana is chock full of public
places to hunt, load up your friends and a good dog and go find them.
Austin Reyher | MT Outfitter #49479 | Owner of Diamond R Kennels
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