Counting down the days

  • 19/04/2024

Counting down the days

Written by - Paul Stenning

For some hunters the countdown to the 2024 game bird season started the day the 2023 season finished, busily spending the off season on various projects.

Whether it’s improving hunting spots with such things as new plantings, predator control or even creating a new wetland or restoring an old overgrown one, building a new maimai with a few more luxuries, toiling away in the shed at home on an ambitious project, not to mention the work that has gone into that new pup or driving the neighbours crazy while practicing duck calling… One thing is for sure, some of us never stop thinking about duck hunting!

I’ve certainly noticed – especially as I have got older – how quickly the new game bird season rolls around.

It only seems like yesterday I was packing away my decoys and giving the shotgun a thorough end-of-season clean, and next thing you know the latest game bird edition of Fish & Game NZ magazine has arrived in your letterbox. Life seems to be getting busier with work and family commitments, throw in a trout fishing season and some of the best deer hunting we have seen in 50-plus years and the year just flies by.

By the time this 2024 edition of the magazine arrives there will only be a few weeks till Opening Day; by the time you get around to reading this article there may be even less, and you won’t be alone if your duck season prep is not where it should be.

With the countdown on and getting into the little numbers, what can we do in preparation to give ourselves an enjoyable and successful Opening Day in the time remaining?


If you haven't already you need to get out to your hunting spot soon to see what work has to be done!

The very first and most important thing we should do (if you haven't done so already) is go and check out your hunting spot. It sounds like I am stating the obvious here, but every year there are horror stories of hunters taking it for granted that everything will be the same as it was previous seasons and finding out too late it is not. It could be the property changing ownership or management if you hunt private land, or with the weather events that are becoming more severe and frequent blowing out a dam or changing the flow of a river, your maimai might be damaged or not even there. Even simple things like a tree falling into your pond are better dealt with now. Take nothing for granted, get out and check your spot and do it as soon as possible.

Any major work or changes to your hunting possie should be done over the summer so as not to disturb any resident ducks.

What is most important is that you shouldn’t disturb or change your Opening Day hunting spot more than is absolutely necessary while we’re only a few days out from the season. This is especially important if you already have a good population of ducks in residence – they are obviously happy there so why change anything or repeatedly disturb them and risk the birds finding somewhere more peaceful to spend their days? Visits should be kept to a minimum, well planned and only to do essential tasks like freshening up the cover on your maimai. Preferably make those visits as late as possible in the day or evening when the ducks are due to be leaving to go on their nightly feeding missions. Now is definitely not the time to get the digger in for some earthworks or do a major maimai renovation.

If you are feeding pre-season, make sure you keep disturbance to a minimum by using an automatic feeder or feeding early in the morning, preferably before the morning flight.

If you are in a region that allows the feeding of ducks, you should also try to do the feeding with minimal disturbance to your resident birds. Ideally you should have an automatic feeder or some system of feeding that does not require repetitive visits to your possie. If you must visit to manually spread grain or to top up your feeders, try and do that before first light and the morning flight. Getting out of bed in the dark to go feed ducks might not be as easy as a daytime mission but we do have alarm clocks and headlamps, the last thing you want is to turn your possie into a night feeding spot! There are always exceptions but generally after a day of being shot at Opening, the evening feeding flight will never be the same as what you might observe flying into feed before the season starts, so get those ducks into a morning feeding pattern.

Visits to your hunting spot are not such an issue if you’re hunting on a good flight path and you are not reliant on resident ducks, or it is a place that generally hunts best in the evening. If you do not fit in those categories and are lacking resident birds along with hunting opportunities (and that has been a trend over recent seasons) then you need to change something. In a perfect world you would have done it before now, but the reality is, if you haven't what have you got to lose?

It might be your possie has slowly become overgrown. Once hunting starts on Opening morning, mallards quickly become cautious and are reluctant to go into waterways that are overgrown, congested, could hide danger or are difficult to fly into or escape out off. Maybe your dam outlet has slowly eroded away reducing your water area or invasive weeds have taken over. The more open water you have and the easier it is for ducks to get into and out of the more chance they will use it. So, in some cases you might have to organise a working bee with your hunting mates, crank up the chainsaw, fill some sandbags and lose some sweat. Just get onto it pronto.


Now that we have our Opening Day spot all sorted or a definite plan locked in to get it done soon, we can plan the rest of our preparation while counting down the days.

Shotgun ammo is always a hot topic in the build-up to duck season, especially if you frequent duck hunting groups on social media. We duck hunters love to talk about ammo, with all sorts of contradicting opinions on what is good or bad ammo. Frankly, shotgun ammo cops the blame for a lot of the other shortcomings in how hunters prepare for the season. There is no bad ammo for sale in New Zealand, just hunters who choose the wrong shot size/choke combination for their hunting situation or can’t put their shot in the right place. There are a few things we can do so we no longer have to blame our ammo and can be on target come Opening morning.

Firstly, don’t leave it till the last minute to buy your ammo for this season. Get down to your local sport shop soon, grab your game bird licence while you’re there and get your preferred brand in the shot size and load you want. While there is no ammo shortage there are all sorts of issues around supply and shipping going on in the world. Leave it ‘til the Friday before Opening and you might be using what everyone else doesn’t want to.

If you do not yet have a favoured ammo which you have confidence in using while hunting, you need to set aside some time to pattern your shotgun with various shot size and choke combinations. There is a wealth of online information on how to pattern your shotgun which you should take advantage of. Essentially you are aiming to have approximately 100 pellets in a 30-inch circle at the ranges you will be shooting ducks at on Opening morning. Less than 100 pellets and you will not have the density to consistently hit the vitals of the duck and ensure a clean kill, so you will need a tighter choke or smaller shot size or heavier load of shot. Too many more than 100 pellets and you are sacrificing spread and making it harder to hit your duck, also possibly damaging meat unnecessarily so you will need a more open choke or go up a shot size larger.


Now for the thing we often fall short on – hitting our ducks. We all know the importance of getting in some pre-season shooting practice. I got reminded of this last season. I normally hunt Canada geese in the months building up to the duck season so get plenty of shotgunning practise and never worry about busting some claybirds. Last year after a few goose hunts in early February I decided to put all my efforts into the pursuit of a big stag or two during March and April and subsequently never picked up my shotgun again till Opening morning. My shooting was terrible. It was well into Sunday morning before it was back where it should be, and the ribbing from my hunting mates finally ceased.

The best practice for duck hunting is sporting clays type shooting where birds are shot in ways that are similar to field situations. If you have your own trap (claybird thrower), set it up to have birds coming or going on angles or at speeds and ranges that reflect the type of shots you will get throughout the season. Even a hand thrower is great for duck season practise as there is a certain amount of randomness about where it will go and at what speed, just like you can expect from a real bird.

Ideally, when you are practising on clay birds you should be using the same ammo as you will during the season, maybe in a smaller shot size if available. There is considerable difference between how a target load of lead 7s travelling at 1200fps shoots compared to your typical duck load of steel shot. Using your steel duck ammo might not be an option at some clay target clubs, if not just try and get a lead load travelling at a similar velocity.


A new basic dull paintjob will make a massive difference to how well ducks decoy compared to using old faded or dirty decoys.

Decoys will almost be as important as our shotgun and ammo come Opening morning yet they are quite often neglected in our preparation, normally only re-appearing from the decoy bag when you put them out the following season or are grabbed from a pile at the back of the maimai where they were unceremoniously thrown 12 months before.

Even worse, some will still be on the water where the sun has slowly been turning them various shades of blue/grey. There are many duck hunters who could benefit from giving their decoys some pre-season love.

This could be as simple as giving them a good wash to remove that silt build-up that sticks to the decoy and gives them an unnatural grey glare. In most cases, however, the performance of older decoys will be greatly improved with even a very basic new paintjob.

Back in 2009 I wrote an article on how to give old decoys a re-paint, it is still available online (search ‘Decoy Painting for Dummies’). Every season I still get feedback from hunters who are amazed at how much difference a fresh, dull, basic re-paint has made to how ducks have decoyed into their spread.

It certainly won’t hurt while you have a paintbrush in your hand to give the wings on your spinning wing decoys a fresh coat of matt white paint on the underside and matt dark brown paint on the top side. Spinning wing decoys work because of the strobe effect of the flashing white side of the wings. There is no need for a blue speculum or feather detailing of the upper side – that is to impress duck hunters not ducks.

Now is the time to make sure the batteries on your motion decoys will still hold a charge.

While on the subject of motion decoys, hopefully over the off-season you have given the batteries for your spinning wing or motion decoys a charge up. Batteries do not like being stored empty or partially charged. Spinning wing decoys require a good, fully-charged battery to maintain a constant speed of around 500 rpm to give that critical strobe effect to imitate the flapping of a duck’s wing. Slower rotation will not work as effectively and might even spook your birds. It is not ideal to find out your batteries won’t hold a charge on Opening morning so check these well in advance.

While you have your decoys out for a clean or repaint it is a good opportunity to check over the rigging. Chasing decoys down a river or decoys drifting in the wind or tide while wearing neoprene waders is never a fun way to spend Opening morning. There are many options to rig decoys so they will not unwind and tangle while being transported, which can save a lot of time and frustration.

If you hunt somewhere with a stable water depth it is good to have your decoy line length just a little longer than the depth of the water – just long enough to give them a bit of natural movement in the wind or current. If your lines are too long you will have decoys banging together and tangling into a mess. Your dog is also less likely to get wrapped up in a decoy line that goes pretty much straight down. Lines that are too long also encourages you to spread your decoys out over a bigger area to avoid decoys banging and tangling which gives a very unnatural spread-out look like checkers on a checkerboard.

With shorter lines you can have pairs and groups of decoys closer together like they naturally would appear. It also makes it much easier to add movement to your spread rather than having to have ripples over most of the water you are hunting.

On the topic of movement, ripples in our decoy spreads are another area that many hunters come up short. This needs some consideration in our duck season preparation as often we have a fine calm Opening morning. This can be done inexpensively with some pulleys or bungy cord rigged to decoys, or you can go the lengths of some electrical mastery to convert a car wiper motor to automatically move some decoys; bilge pumps can be utilised; some hunters even go as far to use their dive bottles and some ingenious pipework to have air bubbles create ripples.

If you are time-constrained or, like me, want to keep it as simple as possible, you can go purchase a commercially produced motion decoy. They are simple to set-up and use and pose no risk of getting your dog tangled. They can be expensive but if you do have some discretionary spending available this season, getting movement into your decoy spread is a good place to spend it. Once again, I can’t stress enough how important having ripples or movement in your decoy spread is.

Hopefully by the time the countdown gets down to zero days your hunting possie has been ready for a while and has a good number of unsuspecting birds in residence, your decoys look so good you just want to stand there and admire them, the dog is fit and eager to go, you have confidence you can put your shots in the right place and the neighbours are starting to think your calling sounds like a real duck.

Time now to get out and enjoy one of the best days of the year knowing you are ready and properly prepared.

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