The home of Shooting Times and Sporting Gun

How planning ahead can lead to a better duck flight

A plan made well in advance and a bit of reconnaissance helps to ensure an excellent duck flight for Jamie Tusting and some friends

The wigeon arrive over the pond in ever-increasing numbers, and all the Guns get shots away

Last Sunday evening, I had a call from my old friend Freddie. I could hear the excitement in his voice and knew almost instantly what the call was going to be about. “Can you be in Yorkshire on Friday morning?” he asked. Without really thinking, I replied with a definitive ‘yes’.  It’s always the case with Freddie, things are left to the last minute and yet, remarkably, the plans seem to come together, almost inevitably resulting in a cracking day out. Planning for my sporting outings, however, is at the other end of the spectrum. I like to get things in the diary well in advance, carefully thinking through all aspects of the outing. This was certainly the case for an evening duck flight on the little pond not far from my house. 

I have shot the pond numerous times now, and while it has often been hugely productive, I have regularly come away wondering what I could have done differently to make it a better evening. Frequently I’ll get the moon cycles wrong or arrive on the pond too late, not feed it enough or position the Guns badly for the wind.

The pond has always been at its best when there is no moon. The ducks, mostly wigeon, teal and mallard, seem to be consistent in their arrival times and their pace of entry. When I have shot the pond with a bright moon, it’s resulted in sporadic shooting and unpredictable timings. So the first part of the plan was to find the right new moon, which happened to coincide with Thanksgiving. 

With no American heritage whatsoever, I have never celebrated Thanksgiving, and so the coincidence of a new moon and an American festival served no purpose other than to use it as a placeholder to invite a few friends across for an evening duck flight.


Duck flight preparations

The plan for an evening duck flight was afoot, and the next steps needed to fall into line. I spent a few hours the following weekend down at the pond, tidying up the hides and clearing out the elder bush that had completely taken over one of them. Having a comfortable hide makes such a difference, as do clear sight lines on to the pond to ensure good views of the flightpaths.

As the evening approached, I ventured down to the pond with my Pulsar thermal binoculars; a transformational piece of kit that has allowed me to study wildlife in a whole new way (Click here for our list of the best binoculars for hunting or here for our list of best budget binoculars). Sitting against a tree 100m from the pond as the light faded, I was able to watch the ducks arriving as though it was a clear summer’s day. 

It was certainly a useful exercise, despite the rain coming in and my feet going numb with cold. Understanding the behaviour of the ducks was not only interesting but would inform the plan for the Thanksgiving duck flight. 

My findings were generally in line with my expectations, but I was now much clearer on the patterns of the birds. The mallard were the first to arrive, coming in casually across the open parkland adjacent to the pond, mostly on a direct line from Burghley Lake a mile away. 

Next to arrive were the wigeon, which turned up in big groups, sometimes up to 30 at a time. They seemed more wary than the mallard, circling the pond at a distance, gradually getting closer and lower until they dropped in vertically from 50ft up. 

The last to arrive were the teal and, if you blinked, you’d probably miss them. On our pond, they cut low across the parkland almost 500m away, before scooting over a block of fir trees and dropping on to the pond in a flash. You have two glimpses of them before they’re tucked up in the reeds and out of sight again.

With a few weeks of barley feeding on the pond, all of the puzzle pieces were slotting into place. 

The incoming teal offer tremendously tough but exciting sport for the Guns


Duck flight briefing

Meeting up with the team in good time, I briefed everyone on my findings of the previous evening and we stationed ourselves out around the pond. Alex Hardy went at the ‘front’ of the pond, the side where the mallard had been arriving from. Patrick Galbraith and Constance Meath Baker were in a double hide at the ‘back’ of the pond, a sociable spot that gives a good line of fire on the spot the teal come in from and is under the most likely exit route for all of the ducks. Ben Smith and I were on a third side of the pond and would have the chance for both incoming and exiting ducks. 

I had been watching the Met Office rainfall radar all afternoon, with a heavy band of rain crossing the whole country. It arrived just as we settled into the hides. It was still early, but the storm must have been the catalyst for the mallard to move, and the first pair arrived shortly after it started raining. Alex shot one and the second put on the afterburners, fizzing over Patrick and Constance with all shots missing. 

The second pair was less fortunate as both Patrick and Constance corrected their mistakes and brought down a mallard apiece. Constance’s was particularly impressive as it had taken a high line and fell from pushing 100ft up. 

The storm passed quite quickly and the sky brightened again. The arrival of ducks slowed to a stop. However, as the sun started to go down, the next bunch of mallard arrived. Alex missed their entry and they settled on to the pond. But, sensing something was up, they took flight immediately and spun out over Ben and me. I was hopeless and missed with both barrels, but Ben was on the money, with two coming down in quick succession. 

It wasn’t long before the wigeon arrived in exactly the same way they had done previously; they circled and circled before committing to the pond. With their shrill whistling a warning of their arrival, we all got shots away as they dropped on to the cold, dark water.

The wigeon kept coming in ever-increasing numbers, dozens of them flying fast overhead. We managed to bring down a few, with another exceptional high shot from Constance the pick of the bunch. 

Among the business of the wigeon, we didn’t notice the teal, but a handful scarpering low over some willow saplings between Patrick and Ben gave them away. Once we had tuned into them, they offered tremendously tough but exciting sport. 


Pinpoint precision

With about 15 ducks down between us, we felt more than content and decided to call time slightly earlier than we could have done. Alex’s springer spaniels set to work in the water, picking the birds beautifully. The thermal binoculars once again came into their own, and I was able to direct Alex with pinpoint precision to the whereabouts of the ducks on the water. My spaniel Millie made short work of the birds that had landed elsewhere off the pond. 

Later in the evening, we settled down to some pheasant and ham pie, followed by an apple tart and some Californian white wine (Find our recipe archive here). It wasn’t a full Thanksgiving feast, but there was more than a nod to our American friends. At short notice, having not wanted to bank on success, we started with some duck breast; one from each of the three species, sizzled in a pan with some shallots and chorizo. While the wigeon was a bit muddy, the other two were sensationally tender. 

From pond to plate in an hour; a satisfying way to end a well-planned and well-earned duck flight.