Etiquette of The Duck Hunt: 10 Things Your Daddy Shoulda’ Told Ya
If you live in the south, especially Arkansas, then duck hunting is something you will more than likely be invited, enticed or otherwise harangued into taking part in at some point. Like golf, a day afield in the duck woods can be as social as a long walk on a manicured golf course; an opportunity to dig past the superficial layers of the person you have chosen to spend time with.
Likewise, where there are specific etiquette practices in golf, like not stepping on a putting line or the honor system on the tee box, there are similar principles involved in a muddy slog through the duck woods. These are the rules a grizzled old duck hunter might intimate when he says, “Yo’ Daddy shoulda taught you betta.”
Duck hunting is so much more than shooting. For a lot of folks the thrill of pulling the trigger and having a gun go “boom” is an attraction that sometimes overrides common sense. Shooting is the most serious side of any hunt, but even more so in a social setting of a duck blind. In that regards, shooting should be viewed like good conversation.
Basically, you keep your mouth shut until it’s time to speak, or in hunting jargon, keep the safety on and the muzzle pointed in a safe direction. Further, one should never speak first, or in hunting jargon, you never shoot before the host unless they give you the go ahead.
And lastly, just like in any conversation, you listen and learn, or at least fawn learning. You wouldn’t tell your host or friend he was full of it, so don’t criticize his shooting, even though he might not be able to hit the ground with a bass fiddle.
There’s an old adage: No man has ever made an enemy by complimenting a man’s shooting or his dog.
That brings us to dogs.
Dogs are an intrinsic part of duck hunting. Everyone who owns a “duck dog” believes their dog could qualify for Mensa. It might be a flea-bitten mutt, but for that day, it’s a mutt that is a direct descendent of Lassie and a candidate for Harvard Law School.
You may feel like you have the world’s greatest retriever. But if you are invited on a hunt, that invitation extends only to you. If your dog wasn’t invited, he’s about as welcome as an uninvited mother-in-law.
Somewhere long ago, the duck call became an important part of the hunting ritual. Calling to ducks, bringing them to a set of decoys, is magical. But there is a skill set that is required to do it properly, never mind that every duck hunter, skilled and unskilled, wears one around his neck like the Crown Jewels.
Calling ducks varies widely, as do opinions on when and how to do it. Just realize you may be the best in your woods, but get used to the opinion of others that you are not. Use a duck call only when asked. Or ask before you assume it’s OK to start playing your music.
Old-timers are the best at handling these situations. The art of putting a “pitch” to the call is practiced regularly in the duck woods. That’s when a grizzled duck hunter will look at you flatly and say “I need to put a pitch to that call.”
As a novice you are glad to receive any and all help you can get, especially in regards to someone tuning your call. You hand it over, and the veteran “pitches” it into deep water. The message should be clear.
Take off your shoes. Duck hunting is a messy sport. Crawling around the mud and crud creates muddy, cruddy tracks. Whether in a host’s truck or cabin, take your waders off before you bounce across the floor, whether it’s clean or dirty.
Take that advice one step further: Duck hunting also melds a lot of lifestyles together. Lawyers and doctors share blinds with welders and truckers. Leave your vocational shoes at the door and be a duck hunter regardless of income bracket.
There is no gross in duck hunting. Whether it be wringing the neck of a duck, falling in the mud, laying down in the slime, having a duck dog shake his hide on you or eating wet biscuits (courtesy of a dog shake) in the woods, none of that is remotely seen as gross by any duck hunter.
It will come clean. This sounds similar to Rule 5, but spending a day in the duck woods is vastly different than walking down a manicured fairway. There is mud, crud and blood. It can be wet and nasty. Everything you own from the expensive hunting jacket to the pores in your face will absorb some of it.
For some duck hunters those things are a simple rite of passage. For others, it’s a concern. Regardless, all of it will come clean.
Misery is never defined. Robert Ruark once wrote about hunting, “You’ve got to hurt to be happy.” In a duck hunter’s mind, no truer words have ever been spoken.
Things like a thigh-high hole in your waders while in waist-deep, icy water are not deterrents to hunting, they are just fodder for great hunting stories in the future. That goes for stumbles and falls, lost guns, missed shots, nasty weather; they are all part of a duck hunt. They say misery loves company, and when it comes to duck hunting in miserable conditions, you will never, ever be in better company.
A quarter is a quarter of something, but probably not a mile.
Hunters are the worst at judging distances. So when you get out into the woods and you ask “how far are we going?” And the response is “not too far, just about a quarter and we will be there,” you should know it might be about a quarter of a mile. It could be a quarter of 100 yards or a quarter of anything.
Keep that in mind when receiving directions of any kind.
Duck hunting is a gadget sport. There is everything known to man to buy and have. But for the real duck hunter: New is not better, nostalgia is.
Duck hunting is filled with grandfather’s ways and daddy’s equipment. Show up to a room full of duck hunters and there are two guys standing there. The guy who looks like he just stepped out of the catalog is second choice to the guy who looks like he’s been dug up from the grave and is wearing clothes that look like they should still be at the thrift shop.
In business, clothes may make the man. In duck hunting, the man knows that his clothes will likely be covered in mud, crud and blood by the end of the day. Besides, he’s all about the ducks, not the fashion.
Hunters have been drawn to telling stories since the first spear-toting hunter painted on cave walls. Stories are special in the duck woods. They should be regarded as such, never to be one-upped, as in saying, “that’s nothing, listen to this.”
That would be like bringing a can of Krylon into the cave and could get your demise painted on the wall.
Steve Bowman is a lifelong Arkansan who has hunted and fished all over the state. He’s authored two duck hunting books “The Arkansas Duck Hunter’s Almanac” and “The Season.” He served as the Outdoor Editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for 13 years, the Executive Editor of ESPN Outdoors for 10 years and is currently the Editor for OutdoorChannel.com and Bassmaster.com.
*Photography by Steve Bowman