Here are answers to some basic questions about duck hunting:
Are there any special regulations involving duck hunting?
Yes. Ducks are migratory game birds. Hunting them is regulated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in addition to state game agencies. The most important rule is the federal mandate that all waterfowl hunters must use nontoxic shot material. No lead shot may be in a hunter's possession while hunting waterfowl.
What's the logic behind that law?
Ducks are often hunted from traditional blinds that have been situated on the same ponds or marshes for dozens of years. In the course of a season, millions of pellets are fired across the water. Ducks and geese mistake spent shotgun pellets as natural grit and ingest it as a digestive aid. A duck gizzard grinds down lead pellets, and the birds become sick and sometimes die of lead poisoning. Eagles and other predators that feed on lead-poisoned waterfowl also can become sick or die from poisoning.
Nontoxic shotshells are more expensive than lead. Are they more effective at killing birds?
When the nontoxic program started 25 years ago, steel shot, in particular, got a bad reputation for its inability to kill birds cleanly. Today's nontoxic shot is much better than early versions. Steel shot is the least expensive nontoxic shot material, and it's also the least effective. That's because of specific gravity - the weight of the material. The most efficient nontoxic loads are those made of the heaviest material - tungsten alloys or bismuth. These loads are also most expensive, costing as much as $2 a shot. Steel shot, though less effective, costs 75 percent less.
Any advice on shooting steel shot at ducks?
Steel shot tends to pattern tighter than lead. Shoot an improved cylinder choke and don't shoot at ducks farther than 30 yards away. If your shotgun handles 3-inch shells, use them. Shoot No. 4 or even No. 2 pellets.
What other specialized gear will I need?
Neoprene chest waders are mandatory for most duck hunting. You'll at least have to wade in water to put out your decoys and retrieve them. If you don't have a trained dog, you'll have to retrieve your own ducks - and that will require wading.
What about calling ducks?
More ducks are scared away by calling than are attracted to shotgun range. On the other hand, duck calling is a great tradition and one of the fun things about the sport. For most duck hunting situations, call sparingly.
Where can I hunt?
If you can afford it, hunt with a professional guide until you learn the ropes. Otherwise, most public lakes outside the urban area will attract ducks and offer free public hunting for those who learn their way around.
How can I learn to identify ducks on the wing?
Again, the best way to learn duck identification is to hunt with an old pro who can point out the subtle differences in shape, size, calls, coloration and flight patterns of various species. Duck identification videos are available, but nothing beats sitting on the water and watching ducks fly when you're not hunting. Use binoculars for a close-up view of the birds and carry a bird book to help in the identification.