The secrets of successful duck flighting
Shooting a flightpond can be a hit-and-miss affair, but Mike Swan has some tips to boost your chances
There is hardly a more exciting sound in the world of shooting than the rush of air through duck wings as they drop in at evening flight.
Every time I hear that tearing sound, my hackles rise and while waiting by a flightpond does not quite have the magic of a foreshore splash on a winter dusk, it’s still a thrilling experience. These are wild birds, so you never know what you are going to see and a blank is always a possibility, but there is much that you can do to maximise your chances when duck flighting.
Look after your pond
Ponds are an ephemeral habitat and, in the natural course of things, they are virtually always trying to turn into swamp. Over time, silt builds up, water gets shallower, emergent vegetation colonises and eventually willows take over and turn the pond into a patch of wet woodland.
Keeping your pond open is crucial to attracting ducks, so always be ready to cut back invasive vegetation. If needs be, cut back tree cover alongside, too. Little saplings quickly turn into big trees, shading out the water and potentially making access hard for ducks. They will also deter wigeon, which like wide-open pools.
While the natural food in a small pond may feed a few birds, in most cases it runs out early in the season and you need to offer something extra to attract birds. Many things can be used and the old books talk of chucking rabbit guts into a pond. In my early days at GWCT, I was regaled with tales of ducks being fed rotting bananas requisitioned after a dock strike in Southampton. While these may work, they are not very eco-friendly, with a serious risk of polluting the pond and reducing its wildlife value.
Rotting potatoes fall into the same category for me, so I stick with good old barley, scattered thinly in the shallows where the ducks can get to it easily, but rats and other scavengers cannot. If the ducks stop coming for a day or two, barley does not seem to sour quite as fast as other foods, remaining attractive for a week or two. If you cannot get to your pond to feed it frequently, it can be worthwhile to buy an automatic feeder that will scatter a little grub in the shallows each day. I have also found that teal particularly like grain; millet could be an option or rape.
Duck flighting expectations
Dealing with real wild birds, you cannot expect to overdo the flighting. Anything more frequent than once every three weeks is likely to drive the birds away and once a month is probably more realistic. Going every four weeks offers half-a-dozen flights between September and January and means that you can avoid trying to shoot around full moon.
Ducks are notorious for becoming irregular about flight times when the moon is bright, choosing to move at any time of night, or not at all.
On the other hand, for a week either side of new moon, they will normally come at dusk with reasonable reliability.
How many ducks you see depends on where your pond is. Mine in the Dorset downs is rather remote and we rarely see more than 20 or 25 mallard at a flight. However, given some reasonably straight shooting, that can easily lead to a brace each for a couple of chums and therefore a couple of dozen ducks for the season.
We hardly see anything other than mallard, but friends in the Avon Valley or nearer the coast often see more and a greater diversity, too, including teal, gadwall and wigeon. Lucky them.
If you get visited by teal in numbers, do not be too shy about putting in an extra flight. I was once involved in a pond where they were often the mainstay and well remember a year when some friends and I could not get ourselves synchronised for our first go until late October. We missed the boat — a near-blank flight was a salutary lesson as three weeks earlier I had counted more than 100. Teal are nomads, here today and gone tomorrow. While greed is wrong, taking the chance when offered is perfectly reasonable.
The right night
If you can possibly avoid it, try not to fix your dates too far in advance.
Flexibility with the weather can make a big difference to your success. A dull and breezy night is likely to be best.
So often, on a still, clear night, the first ducks stay high up, as if not quite sure of themselves. Before long, a few more arrive and you can end up with the whole lot circling out of range, as if waiting for air traffic control to tell them who can come in first. The longer they are up there, the more chance you will be rumbled, with the whole lot leaving and not a shot fired. What’s more, they seem as scared as if they had been shot at, so hoping for better tomorrow is pretty forlorn.
On a windy night, they will likely come with much more confidence and in dribs and drabs, giving you chances at each successive lot. The wind also blows away the sound of shooting, making it much less likely that you will alarm the next party on their way in. In deciding when to flight, it can be helpful to count them in a day or two earlier, hiding nearby, but not at the pond. That way you can fade away without disturbing them, having made sure that there are enough to warrant duck flighting.
To hide or not
Early season ducks often come in quite good light and you need to keep very still to avoid being spotted. Later season, they usually wait until it is nearly dark and you could probably stand in the open and still not be seen. That said, hides do have a second function. They can be rigged like a grouse butt with safety sticks to prevent people from shooting at one another as the ducks descend.
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An evening duck flighting is a glorious end to any day and eagerly anticipated. What’s more, the birds won’t wait, so for the keeper wanting to leave his coverts quiet at roosting time, the promise of duck flighting after tea is the perfect way to drive the Guns indoors well before sunset.
When your pond will be best can vary. Full plumage birds on a wild winter night are surely the cream of the sport but such flights may not be reliable. Many is the year that my pond has been pretty much a write-off from mid November, once the floods are out down in the valley. So, my advice is to start feeding in late July and enjoy the September evenings at home-bred mallard. The first migrants, especially teal, will also be with us, too, bringing the prospect of mixed bags. If you then get great midwinter flights, too, it will be the season of a lifetime.